Don’t Tell Me to Speak Up When I Can’t Even Say His Name
It takes a lot for women to recount their stories of assault and harassment. But as this author reminds us, lingering trauma can make coming forward all but impossible.
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I am still terrified to name him.
I’ve been speaking out about my assaults for six years now, and I have only once publicly named the person who raped me when I was fourteen.
He does not hold any actual power over me. I do not interact with him, ever, in any capacity. I almost never see his face, his name, or the names and faces of people complicit in the assault.
I am still terrified to name him.
I have written extensively about the assault, I have a memoir coming out in which the assault features prominently. I have changed the names of both my assailants, because— still— I am terrified to name them.
Their names still have so much power over me, even in the safety of therapy, I cannot cannot cannot speak their names. It’s as though my tongue swells and stretches and fills my mouth, blocking out any screams or vomit or anything else that might come through it. I get chills. I get goosebumps. I become nauseous and my hands shake and my vision swims and my heart pounds.
From THINKING about saying their names out loud.
I have confronted sexual harassment when it’s happened to me in the years since my assaults. After my first rehearsal for Listen To Your Mother, a national staged storytelling series about motherhood, my cast went out to dinner. We were mostly middle-aged housewives, clearly uninterested in male attention or in anything other than cheese-filled appetizers and the wine menu. On the way out of the restaurant, a man on his way in with two friends put his nose in my cleavage. I called him out, immediately, loudly, and accused his friends of enabling his predatory behavior. He laughed at me. I told the hostess I had just been sexually harassed by their party, and she looked mortified, as though she was terrified at the thought of being in the position of having to do something, talk to her boss, talk to her customers, say something to somebody that could seriously impact her job. I felt for her, but I also felt I had to do something, because that behavior is not okay.
And STILL, I am terrified of naming them.
Like every single person who has experienced sexual harassment, the instances are burned into my mind, and when I’m forced to recall them conjure such humiliation and rage it’s as though they are happening in real time, as I remember them. This isn’t a matter of “not letting go,” it’s a matter of fact and physiology. Trauma changes your brain, both in its function and structure. It isn’t only hard for people to forget traumatic incidents, they can’t forget. While most of your memories eventually shift into long-term, into a part of your brain that stores information you might want but don’t need every second of every day, trauma gets stored in your short-term memory. The way you can remember the thread of a conversation you’re having right now, that’s the way you remember trauma. When I think about what has happened to me, I’m not digging deep through long-forgotten histories. I’m merely recounting what is already, always, at my memory’s fingertips. Gabrielle Union wrote about this, the immediacy of her trauma; “…it’s been 25 years since I’ve been raped, I still get nauseous. I still want to puke. My arm still goes numb. I still have massive anxiety attacks. It’s never gotten easier.”
I could pick out in a lineup the man who exposed his penis to me on a dark street when I was sixteen. I could pick out in a lineup the man who pushed me out of art school. He was a stranger, although from who he’d been talking to I knew he was either an artist or gallery owner, and at the very first gallery opening I attended in Chicago he walked up to me, aggressively stared me down, his face practically pressed into my breasts, and told me, “I wasn’t any bottle baby.” I could pick out in a lineup the man who leered at me after my first LTYM rehearsal. I can see them vividly, and can describe the impact they had on my life. And these were not men who had direct authority over me, who could determine the success or failure of my career, my education, or the stability of a roof over my head. Despite this, they still held power over me.
No two traumas are exactly the same, but the implications are. There’s a myth that if you have certain kinds of power, sexual aggression can’t hurt you. Status, wealth, titles, degrees, these all become weapons against us, proofs that if we hadn’t somehow wanted to be violated, it couldn’t have happened. And the more cloaked we are in respectability, in the trappings of safety, the more traumatic a smaller and smaller thing can be. While a college student who has to walk to work through a dark campus at dawn might brace herself against the risk of a man exposing himself to her, there is no way to remain that on-guard when you go to the doctor, to get a massage, or to work.
And while being raped is not the same as your boss undressing in front of you, these less overt forms of sexual aggression are still traumatic.
I say this because I don’t think most men understand exactly how difficult it is to do what these women have done. They want to know why women haven’t spoken up sooner, why they could accept these behaviors for so long, if they aren’t simply inventing them now.
The thing is, we have been speaking up, only nobody believed us. Women have been accusing Bill Cosby of rape for nearly 30 years. The abuses of Harvey Weinstein were so well known in the industry, Seth MacFarlane joked about them when he hosted the Oscars in 2013. Politicians say things like, “Some girls rape easy,” and that victims of rape should, “Relax and enjoy it.” When only 6 out of every 1000 rapists ever spend a day in prison, and only for 3 months, why would any woman expect to be believed? If the person you’re accusing is your boss, or is powerful and beloved, there is so much to lose. Retaliation against those who come forward is very real, and can ruin your life.
This is why women wait to come forward, or don’t say anything at all. Speaking up endangers you, staying silent endangers you. There is no winning in surviving sexual crimes. There is only what kind of pain you are opening yourself up to, and whether you can find purpose in it.
“It’s only jerking off in front of somebody,” a man I care for very much said of Louis CK.
It’s not “only.” It’s cementing in somebody’s mind that they are not fully human, that they do not deserve a place in their field, in society, in the world, and that creates trauma. May as well tell somebody who had their hand chopped off, “It’s not like it was your head.” This minimizing of trauma happens all the time, everywhere. Alice Sebold’s bestselling memoir about her brutal rape and its aftermath is named for the comments of a police officer, who called her, “lucky,” for having not been murdered.
Yes, it could be worse. Aside from family, coworkers, friends, and police officers saying it, people who suffer sexual crimes tell this to themselves constantly. “People are usually willing to believe me; not like women of color, who are treated with so much more suspicion. My rapes are proof of my privilege.” “I’ve only been raped twice, but I’m not trans, I wasn’t murdered, I wasn’t mutilated. It could have been worse.” “I was only raped by one guy each time. They didn’t beat me up, they didn’t kill me. I should be grateful.”
These are thoughts I have actually, genuinely had. About being raped. At the age of 14.
I was raped eleven years ago this month, and I’m still untangling that damage of my ability to enjoy and appreciate so many little pieces of the world. I was sexually harassed 16 years ago at a gallery, and it pushed me out of art school. I was raped nearly 20 years ago, on New Year’s Eve, and I still can’t go to New Year’s Eve parties if there will be strangers. Despite the passage of decades and growing up, being somewhere I can’t leave still gives me the kind of panic attacks that lead to retching and screaming and disassociation.
Those threats of being assaulted as a child are writ large in the subtext of the TIME Person of the Year, and the #MeToo movement. On the same grocery store shelves you see the faces of women who have come forward, but they are displayed alongside tabloids featuring Roy Moore, who ran for office despite overwhelming testimonies from his own 14-year-old victims. And that childhood trauma is endemic in our society. Like me, more than a quarter of women in America experienced childhood sexual trauma, and the effect that has on rapidly growing brains? That’s permanent.
When I called out the man who leered at me that night at dinner, I was angry, and knew how inappropriate my anger was. Now everyone who has suffered through these experiences is angry. We are effervescent with rage. We are dangerously close to a mob, itching for revenge, for righteous retribution against the halls of power still protecting the conspicuous abusers in our world.
I believe the women who have come forward. Even those I disagree with politically; even those accusing men I admire. I believe them, and I believe even now they are likely minimizing their pain. I am still minimizing my own pain.
I hope there is a reckoning coming. It isn’t here, yet. If it was, Trump wouldn’t be in office, Moore wouldn’t have led in the polls after the news broke of his past assaults, Johnny Depp wouldn’t be making movies, R. Kelly wouldn’t be selling records, Bill O’Reilly wouldn’t conduct interviews about how victimized he is, Matt Lauer wouldn’t ever have been able to install a button to lock victims into his office with him. It’s not here, and it will probably never come the way survivors need it to, with hellfire and anger, the incarceration, humiliation, and degradation of the millions of men we know are “asking for it.”
My anger is so raw, my hurt still so fresh, I want to stand in front of men I am still terrified to name, stare them in the eye, point and scream, “ATTACK!” Only there are no attack dogs. There is no mob. There is no retribution. Not yet.
But I’m ready for it. And when we’re all finally angry enough, and I hope we are ready soon, I want to feed those attack dogs. I want to nurture them, the way I have always been taught by our society that it is my place to nurture, not to fight. Not to stand up and name names.
There need to be consequences, and I am ready for the reckoning
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