How violation matters

July 2, 2012 § 3 Comments

Warning, strong language, explicit and painful imagery about sexual abuse

I think fairly frequently about this. There are many kinds of violation. There’s a violation of trust, where someone takes advantage of another, their willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt. There’s the simple violation of personal sovereignty, of forcing or coercing another into actions they would not have chosen. There are violations that take place physically and violations that are purely verbal. Large and small. Yes, it’s a violation to steal five bucks from a friend’s wallet. Just as clearly, it’s a far greater violation to rape your foster child and many other children that respect and look up to you or put a drug into a woman’s drink in order to steal from her the ability to consent or refuse to consent. Some violations are incidental, almost accidental, while others loom massively and cannot claim any sort of ignorance of their nature.

Specific violations are more likely to occur to certain groups than others, or be perpetrated more often by some. But both the act of violation and its endurance are universally human ones.

The first issue that must always be addressed in terms of violation is that it steals. It is a theft of personal dignity, of the rightful ownership of the self. We belong to ourselves. Our bodies, our minds, these are ours. When this personal sovereignty is trammeled upon, we are wounded in ways that cannot be easily articulated, because our wounds are to the self. It can be hard for those who have not experienced it in full to understand how these wounds fester, how they change the sufferer. The violation itself becomes part of you. As we are the sums of our experiences, how could it not be so? How could we not have such a moment, wherein the precious and transient self is scarred, forever become part of the person we will be from that moment on?

I’m using somewhat vague language up to this point because these can be hard concepts to read. I will do so no more. What comes beyond this point will be frank, perhaps disturbing, perhaps more than some can or want to read. I am telling you this now, in straightforward language, so that if you do not wish to go forward and read details about such you can avoid them.

I cannot sleep without remembering the first time I couldn’t sleep on my back, because I had been raped and my whole lower body was bruised and torn, and inside me hurt so badly that I couldn’t use the bathroom without biting down on a towel. This was not an isolated incident, neither did it happen daily or even weekly. Months would pass without an incident, and then it would happen again, and I would have to remember how to sleep on my side until I healed. I did not tell my parents. My mother died never knowing it had happened, and as far as I know my father does not know. I certainly never told him.

I don’t really remember when it started, or when it ended. I know it didn’t happen before I was ten, because I remember the presence of a pet that didn’t exist before then (not my pet, my grandmother’s) and I’m fairly certain it stopped around the time I was thirteen. It didn’t stop because I said anything or did anything to stop it, because I never did. I cried, and I begged him, but that’s all I did. I never told anyone. Years later, when I was sixteen and had grown so significantly that I was now far larger and stronger, I saw him again and even walked him to the store on my mother’s request because there were people in the neighborhood who would harass him and he was too slight to defend himself. I did not protest it. And we did not speak of it, he made no attempt and I did nothing, said nothing.

I do not blame myself for this. It is simply how it happened. If you are sitting there now reading this and you cannot believe me, I don’t care. You do not know how you will respond to this if it has never happened to you. You do not understand how immediate and drastic it can be, how you would say or do anything to make it stop, to pretend it was not there. I could have killed him with one hand. I could have put it on his throat and strangled him without effort, possibly crushed his throat with a single jerk. Instead I walked him to the store and back, and he talked about the weather and I made noncommittal replies and I never saw him again.

One of the things that always bothers me when I see media coverage of rape trials is how everyone assumes they can discern what a real victim would do, and therefore can pass judgement on whether someone is lying or not based entirely on if he or she cried enough, or not enough, if they reported it immediately or took a shower afterwards, by their demeanor or their perceived relationship with their rapist.

None of this is in fact worthwhile. You cannot know how anyone is going to respond to this. It immediately and terrifyingly changes who you are. Even if you can reclaim most of your self, your belief in yourself, your will and your heart there are tendrils of this that will color everything you do from that moment on. It may make your stronger, it may make you weaker. It will not leave you unscathed. And no two people can deal with that violation the same way. I cannot tell you how you would respond based on my responses. I cannot say, based on what I did at 10, or 13, or 16 what you can or will do if it happens to you tomorrow, or what you did when it happened to you ten years ago. I am not you, I do not know. A violation, any violation, is a heartbreak and a loss, even ones like finding out your friend lied about how your boss felt about your presentation because he feared losing his own job. Think about if you had your wallet stolen, your house broken into, your loved one’s infidelity.

That sensation is so much less than the violation of having your body used by another, your right to determine taken. Your humanity itself discarded, cast aside as someone puts their own desires so much ahead of your shared humanity that they literally treat you like disposable garbage. If you have never had the experience, you cannot understand it. If you have had it, you cannot ignore it. It goes beyond the pain, the fear, even the rage, to the core of you. Will it happen again? Was it my fault? Why is this happening? How did I cause this? Maybe if I’m better, or smarter, or stronger it will never happen again.

Every day people say that these things are the fault of the victim. That they dressed a certain way. That they should have known better to go to a place, to drink, to talk to someone at a bar, and if you never have the experience perhaps that slides off of you unheard, perhaps you don’t internalize it. But I promise you that you will once it has happened to you. You will sit in the dark, and you will think, and all your thoughts will tell you how it is your fault. How you deserved it. If you’d been better, or if you hadn’t been in a bad place… you will absolutely hear the chorus of blame in your heart and you will nod your head and say yes, I know, I was bad, it was my fault and this will only get louder every time.

You can fight that voice, learn to ignore that chorus. You can even grow, and draw back your lips in a snarl, and bellow back in pure inchoate loathing for the world, as I did. You can hate yourself, hate others, deal with it however you can. Even if you overcome it, surpass it, grind that worm of pure visceral disgust at yourself into the dirt and walk free with your head held high, it still remains a part of you forever. What those who have never had the experience cannot understand is that paradox, that even by overcoming and surpassing it you are still marked forever by it. It doesn’t just go away and you don’t just get over it.

I slept with a towel wrapped around me for a week because I couldn’t stop bleeding. I got an infection and wet the bed for a year, and had to get up at night and pee out the window because I didn’t dare go to the bathroom and risk my mom seeing me at night. I had to lie to doctors and to my confused, clearly baffled father. I did all this because I no longer knew who I was, and wanted desperately for it all to just go away, because I knew it was all my fault even if I couldn’t tell you what I did. And that never goes away. You can learn to cope, you can learn to understand that it isn’t logical, you can learn to stop blaming yourself.

You cannot learn away the scars that no one can see. You still have them. You always do.

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§ 3 Responses to How violation matters

  • Wendy H says:

    It’s worse when this happens when you’re a child, because you don’t have the skills to even begin to process the event yet. It becomes a twisted sort of normal, because you trust those older than yourself.

    I’ve always begged my kids to tell me immediately if anything like this happens to them, and I hope that they do. But I fear that they won’t. I fear that the Other will have stronger sway over them than I do, and they’ll have to suffer like this alone…

  • Dianne D says:

    You are very brave for putting this all out here. Even if it doesn’t feel like you are because of how you were hurt.

    I struggle with a sense of inner loathing every day because of being violated myself as a child. That terrible sense of shame is sometimes the most impossible wall to defeat.

    I am so sorry it happened to you. Reading this made me cry. For you, for me, for everyone who has been hurt this way.

  • reader/listener says:

    There is something so terrifying about being smaller, weaker, vulnerable. I’m petite, I’ve never been bigger than anyone. Every so often a friend or coworker will do something seemingly very mild and harmless, like reaching for my wrist or squeezing my shoulder from the back before I know they are there.

    I freak out on them, I ask them to “not do that again,” and the thing that baffles me the most is how often people look so astounded about it. Why would I care about something so harmless? They didn’t mean anything by it. Some people need to be told the same thing twice. Some people never get it. It’s worse at work, where I don’t exactly want to discuss why I don’t want to be touched or snuck up on.

    I can’t remember clearly what happened to me during my assault, even how many times, I just have flashes of the navy blue short-pile carpet, lots of other things. 10 years later I don’t trust my memory. I don’t usually think what happened to me “counts,” or if I just didn’t try hard enough to stop it. Like I don’t deserve to say rape. I’m not worth enough for the meaning of the word…

    I hope this comment isn’t an invasion. I guess my only point is that even though most of the time it feels so lonely, when I read your story, it reminded me that I am probably surrounded everyday by people who do understand. It makes me feel worse and better at the same time.

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