For about five years, I counseled survivors of rape. Some had been assaulted years and years ago, when they were children. Some had been attacked a month or two earlier. Some had just arrived at the hospital, fresh from the aftermath of being violated and terrorized.
Let me tell you a few things. First, about memory.
In that group that came to the hospital right after the violence, some remembered everything in vivid and brutal detail. They could answer each and every of the nurse’s and the police officer’s questions: what did he look like, what did he say, where did he touch, how did he touch, where did it happen, what time did it happen, who else might have seen, and so on.
Others — could not. Some couldn’t remember the faces of their attackers, either because their assailants made sure they couldn’t see, or because they were drugged, or because it happened in the dark or too quickly. Or because they arrived seeking help in a state of emotional shock. It was not unusual at all to hear a woman start laughing in the middle of these interviews, even as she was describing some of the most heartbreaking things you would ever hear. Why? People cope. Any way they can.
One woman I remember struggled to tell a police officer what house her attack had happened at just an hour or two before, tried to remember what street, what the house looked like, tried to tell him about the distinctive look of the windows. I happened to know the street she was talking about well, but none of the houses she described matched it. Did that mean she was lying? No, I’m certain it did not. I believe it meant that she was in a state of emotional shock, and her mind was overloaded and doing all that it could to put the details it could remember into order.
Other women came to talk to me later, decades later, speaking about what had happened in childhood. Some of them couldn’t remember the kinds of details I’m hearing now that women are supposed to know, lest we be called liars and opportunists. Like: names. Dates. Places.
But let’s play a game. Think of something emotional that happened to you a long time ago — 10 years, 15 years, 20 years or more ago. Maybe the time you were told that your parent died, or one of those “where were you” moments — the Kennedy assassination or 9-11. Got it in your head? Good. Let’s begin.
So, where were you when it happened? Who were you with? What did you say when you first heard about it? What emotion did you have? What did other people around you say?
I’m going to guess that these questions are relatively easy ones to answer. That’s because they are emotionally imprinted on you, tied to the trauma of that moment. But how about this: What were the people around you wearing? If it wasn’t a national event or an anniversary remembered by your family, do you remember the date? Or what you were doing an hour before? An hour after? If you can remember being in a big car accident, say, 15 years ago on Aug. 13, why can’t you remember what you were doing an hour before the accident?
This is how memory works. It’s Swiss cheese. But once you’ve eaten it, that doesn’t mean you can’t remember that it was both Swiss and cheese.
Another thing. Something that routinely happened in the hospital — and I mean you could set your watch by it — was the man who raped the woman calling her, even during the sexual assault exam, trying to “make amends.” Yes, I put that in quotes, because I see it for what they mostly were, hurried attempts to cover their ass. If they could convince these women that what happened was a misunderstanding, a mistake or a one-time oopsie, the woman would drop any charges and they would be safe. These calls happened more often than they did not.
So if you think it at all unusual that a rape survivor is seen after the fact talking to her assailant, think again. It’s common. Common as dirt. And often, it’s because the assailant has worked very hard to make sure of it.
It comes down t this: Believe. Women.
Women know what happened to their bodies. We hold on to them in ways you might not expect.
When we hear Dr. Ford describe the terror she felt at being held down, being smothered, and being terrified that she might not live to see another sunrise, we remember. And we relive. And our bodies, believe it or not, feel it again, too. The tightness in the throat, the panic, the desperate helplessness.
When we hear Brett Kavanaugh breeze his way through questioning by barking about how much he likes beer, and blithely lying about things we all know better, we remember. And we relive. The rage, the clenched jaw. The desperate helplessness.
And when we hear so many of you jump to his defense by calling Dr. Ford a liar, a fraud, an opportunist, we hear your judgment on us. Because we know that if we dared tell you the truth about our lives, and you questioned us, there would be questions we couldn’t answer. About time. About place. About names. There would be things about the situation that would make it so tempting and so easy for you to turn everything around on us. And that is why we have never told you. And why we never will.
Some of you, like our fathers, because we love you too much and we can’t bear to hurt you, yes. And the stories in this article ring so true and broke my heart again, after hearing so many similar when I was doing counseling as well.
But so many more of you simply don’t deserve to hear our stories, though we are telling them to you anyway. Because you need to hear them. Because otherwise you will never know, and never believe.
I want to leave, though, on a positive note. A hopeful note. Something beautiful that happened on one of those hospital visits that in spite of the setting and the situation and all that was happening, truly showed the best that people are capable of.
A young college student had come in after being drugged at a party and had called for her family to meet her. It would take them a few hours to make the drive, and during that time, the nurse proceeded with the exam and I was there to act as the survivor’s advocate.
Finally, we got the call that the family arrived, so I navigated through the maze of hospital hallways to greet them and bring them back to their daughter. It was clear that they had come in from the country — the men, her father and brother — were dressed in denim overalls and rubber boots caked in mud. They had obviously rushed to get here and not even bothered to change out of their work clothes. Her mother was with them, looking tense and nervous, as was her brother. Her father, though, worried me. He looked agitated, like a caged panther, and I didn’t know what to expect from him. I was half prepared for him to erupt in rage, and I wasn’t quite sure if it might be at his daughter.
We finally made it back to the exam room and the door opened. The daughter looked at her family and broke into sobs. Her first words were, “Daddy, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Her dad rushed forward to her, and I gasped, again, not sure if he was enraged at her or not. Because yes, I’d seen that happen. Too often.
But he wasn’t. This is what he said: “No sorries. Just love.” Only that. And he wrapped her up in his arms and just held her as she cried.
I just stepped back and wiped away my own tears. There was nothing else I was needed for, not that moment. What he did was perfect.
Parents — spouses, lovers, brothers, friends and neighbors — people, please — be like him.