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Shame Withers in Sunlight: An Open Letter to the Stanford Rape Survivor

This article originally appeared in the Social Justice column of Wear Your Voice Magazine.

Woman standing by a waterfall with sun shining down on her.

Photo by Kalen Emsley. Creative Commons license.

[content warning: rape]

Dear Stanford Survivor,

I don’t know your name, but I know you. I’ve walked in my version of your shoes.

I read your Victim Impact Statement with a growing lump in my throat, the same lump that grows every time I don’t talk about what happened to me. The lump that stopped me from calling the police after I was raped. The same lump that has guaranteed my silence and protected the males who abused me. And the only reason I’m talking around this horrible creature in my gullet now is because of your bravery.

I never had the opportunity to prosecute the males who raped me — I refuse to call them men; real men respect women — so I never had a chance to make a victim impact statement. I’m making one now.

The first time an actual act of sexual aggression happened against me — I’m not including street harassment, those instances are a separate story — was my sophomore year at Occidental College in 1998, one of many American universities that’s under investigation for the mishandling of hundreds of rape cases detailed in Catherine Hardwicke’s film The Hunting Ground. I went to a party at my friend’s sorority house and met tequila for the first time. At some point I blacked out and made my way to my friend’s room to lie down. Somewhere on my drunken journey a male intercepted me or saw me enter alone. He proceeded to undress me but couldn’t undo the knot in my halter top so he pushed it over my breasts. He pulled my pants and underwear down to my knees. I threw up on myself. But it didn’t stop him. Two things saved me from losing my virginity to a rapist whose name I didn’t know that night: my girlfriends looking out for me, and the fact that my friend’s door didn’t lock. He was taking his pants off when they burst in, screaming at him. He didn’t even care I was covered in my own sick.

Later I identified him from a photo on the wall in someone’s dorm. He was an alumnus, a member of SAE fraternity and had been accused of raping several other women on campus. He hadn’t gone to Oxy in years, but was still attending fraternity and sorority parties, looking for easy prey like me. I may not have been penetrated, but I was raped. And that lump of silence in my throat started coming in: I didn’t report him to campus security or the police. His name was Chad.

The next time I was raped was in 1999 by my first long-term boyfriend, and the sexual abuse went on for the majority of that year. Again, I should have gone to the police, I should have gone to someone, anyone, but I didn’t. This time I had lots of reasons why I let that silencing lump win — the main one being boyfriends can’t rape girlfriends, right? Even though I was blacking out the assaults, there was plenty of physical evidence I was being sexually abused: bruises on the insides of my thighs, a vulva swollen so many times past its normal size that walking was excruciating, a horrible ache inside me, extra-menstrual bleeding, and of course his semen dripping out of me in mornings after I woke and wondered what the hell happened the night before.

My wrists and arms were sore from where he held me down. There was no alcohol involved, but I did smoke pot. I convinced myself that the pot was making me black out even though pot doesn’t do that. Trauma does.

He isolated me from my new friends, and my old friends were all far away — India and the UK, and international calls were expensive. Talking to my family was out of the question because I knew, like the police, they would think it was all my fault. I kept blacking out the assaults until one night he raped me while I was on my period. I remember fighting him until my memory once again faded into blackness. The next morning I woke up with blood everywhere and my first thought was that he’d stabbed me; he often told me he’d kill me if I tried to leave him. The relief was terrifying when I washed myself to see it was only the “normal” genital bruising and swelling I’d been learning to live with. The water poured blood stains from my body, swirling into the drain like Psycho, and I convinced myself to report him. But that lump took over my throat, and I couldn’t speak. The next serious time I picked up the phone and almost called the police was after he sodomized me. But that damn lump got so big I couldn’t breathe. I hung up the phone.

I was alone, lost, humiliated, degraded and began going mad from the abuse. I started self-harming, suicidal ideation and having phenomenal bouts of rage. Eventually he broke up with me because I had become, quote, “Too crazy.” The lump softened briefly to let me tell a classmate about what had been happening. She ran a survivor’s support group. I joined. I finally started to get some help.

But I still never reported him. Even when he decided he wanted me back and said he’d shoot me if I didn’t. Even when he destroyed all my things and dumped them on the lawn in front of my dorm. Even when he would call and leave me graphic messages about how he was going to fuck me and murder me with his bare hands. His name was Frank.

By then the lump of silence had also become a lump of shame, and as it grew, so did my bevy of gynecological problems — I was eventually diagnosed with vulvodynia, vaginismus, vaginitis, vaginosis and chronic candida from the physical and psychological stress. I still have bouts of these problems now, 18 years later.

The third male who raped me was also my boyfriend — and one of the people who had been my friend and confidante, so supportive while all the nastiness with my rapist ex had been going on. It was 2001 and I had witnessed my friend Wendy’s murder only a few months before; I’d begun the process of testifying against the murderers. I was in acute post-traumatic stress and decided I couldn’t live in Los Angeles after what happened. I had also reconnected with a soulmate who I’d quietly been in love with for years and I wanted to be with him. Wendy would have wanted that happiness for me; for once I wanted happiness for myself, too. My boyfriend raped me just days before I was leaving Los Angeles for San Francisco, and when he was done he said it was to sabotage my next relationship with that soulmate. Sabotage it he did. His name was Michael.

And I still didn’t call the cops. By now, I’d heard too many stories about how women were treated when they reported. How the narrative turned around onto what they did to deserve the treatment, not where is the male so they can lock him away. I’d also had my own experience testifying in court against the people who murdered Wendy, and even though the evidence against them was incontrovertible, the defense attorney still asked why we were out so late, how often did we go to bars and whether we were drinking — implying that it was our fault Wendy got killed, not the fault of the woman who pulled the trigger. Basically, what happened to you. I wasn’t as strong as you back then.

And so that lump of silence grew and grew into a poison tree of shame, roots deep into all that scar tissue, both emotional and physical, thriving for 15 years. That is, until I watched Jessica Jones and decided to come out as a simple domestic violence survivor, tucking my confession into my review of the show. I’d never been so scared to hit that submit button in my entire life; I didn’t sleep until the piece went live.

Afterward, a dear friend said to me: “Shame withers in sunlight.” She’s right. Once I took the first steps to speak about my first rapist boyfriend, I did feel lighter. And empowered. The fear and the shame that thrived on my silence diminished, and that lump in my throat began disintegrating.

I hope this is the last of the lump in my throat typed up in these words here. I’m terrified, but also hopeful about what life will be like without this thing that has shaped what I will and won’t say for almost two decades. Sexual violence is a singular experience, and the only way to smash the taboo around it is by ending our collective silence. Sometimes justice is as simple as saying a thing out loud.

Thank you, badass Stanford Survivor you, for putting yourself out there in such a raw and beautiful way when all you wanted to do was disappear. Thank you for detailing the breadth of your experience so eloquently that nobody who reads your letter will ever again misunderstand what it feels like to survive rape. Thank you for inspiring me to break down my esophageal lump of silence and shame once and for all.

I don’t know your name, but I know you. And if you ever need to talk, I’m here; I’ll be waiting for your call. In the meantime, I send you the biggest and warmest hug I can muster.

Love and solidarity from your sister in survival,