No, I’m Not Sure: Why I Can’t Tell You My Assault Story

My feelings about #metoo have been mixed and impassioned. There is much I could say – and perhaps will say – before it disappears from our feeds and we all return to “normal.” About the exhaustion of being a woman in a sexually violent society. About the re-traumatizing uselessness of having to bear our pain to a world that has proven time and again that it doesn’t care. But there’s something in particular that I think needs to be heard right now. (Let me be clear: trigger warning for blatant – though undetailed – discussion of sexual violence to a young person.

My friend Shannon posted a brilliant piece about claiming her certainty regarding her experiences of assault and harassment in a world that constantly questions her. It was called, “Raise Your Hand if You’re Sure.” It’s important reading, and I’m grateful for it. And also – when I read the title, my first thought was: I’m not.

Like many women, I have been violated and harassed many times throughout my life. But my most egregious experiences of assault happened when I was very young. My process of coming to recognize them occurred 20 years later – slowly, painfully, and devastatingly. I went from a place of recognizing that I did (and always had) perceived sex with men as violence, to piecing together shadowy memories that had no timestamp and no clear faces, to finally – one night as I laid in bed at age 26 – an onslaught of crystal clear memory with every horrific “who, where, what, when, how” you can dare to imagine. Many people speak about their repressed memories of childhood assault as a broken mirror. I have often said that mine was more like a box I shoved into the darkest corner of the attic of my mind, and then one day tripped over and rediscovered in its entirety.

So, according to my memories, I could tell you where it happened. I could tell you who it was and exactly how old I was. I could tell you what color the bedspread was, what the texture felt like on my too briefly innocent skin. I could tell you what was said and done and how the air smelled and the closest I ever came to being warned about it by another girl who’d been there before. I could attempt to explain to you how – at that young age – I managed to be alone long enough for it to happen, more than once. I could tell you how long and how often and how far reaching its impact has been on my attempts to reclaim my right to love, to sex, to autonomy. I could tell you about every later experience of danger and trauma I waltzed right into because I had been groomed for it. But I won’t.

In the 2 years I’ve been speaking and writing openly about my experience of sexual violence I have never once named a single detail. And I could tell you it’s because I know such details can be triggering for other victims and survivors (which is part of it). I could tell you that I don’t name the details because the man who assaulted me is a thousand light years beyond my reach now and so such details will do nothing (also true). I could tell you I’m disinterested in the pain that revealing those details would inflict on the people I love most in this world (also true). But the main reason — the main reason — is because even though I have an entirely dusty box of whole, detailed memories, I am still not sure. Some days – most days – I wake up and fear that I’m wrong. That I’ve somehow made it up. I question my own deepest reality because I spent two decades denying its existence for my own survival, and because the world around me still denies its existence every day.

I’m not wrong. And in the sick, twisted way of things — the sense-memory trauma that gets triggered with each new personal experience of sexual harassment and our sexually violent culture reassures me that something deeper and older and — yes, for me — much worse, did happen. But still, the gaslighting I (and so many others) breathe like air makes me doubt my own pain, my own life. ��And so I cannot tell you my trauma story. I cannot raise my hand and tell you I am sure. Because I’m not. And part of the staggering pain that my violator left me with is a lifetime of never ever getting to be certain. Forget justice.

So I see my sisters and siblings sharing their stories and I like them without reading and I scroll past. Because I can’t bear the weight of my own relentless doubt. And I see the posts of my sisters and siblings voicing their own doubt about whether their experiences of harassment and violence are enough to warrant a “me too” — a sharing — and I feel a wave of empathy and of frustration. Even after everything, I feel that same impulse to dismiss and diminish the harassment I experience – to question my reality even when I remember every solid detail. But I want to say: claim what happened to you. Claim it. Name it. Call it out as evil. If not aloud then in your own heart. Because this gaslighting world be damned, what has happened to us across the entire spectrum of sexual violence is real and it is all wrong.

I do not think, at this point, I believe in a better world. Not when it comes to sexual violence. If that hope ever lived in me, it died the day we elected a president who only weeks earlier was revealed bragging about sexual assault openly on tape. But what I need as victim and survivor is just to hear every woman/person (according only to their own want and sense of safety/readiness) who has stood in shoes sweaty and trembling with the fear of just existing in a world that wants to devour us with violence disguised as desire— say this is real. You are real. I am real. What happened to us is real. And it matters. Sure as anything, it matters.

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