How do you just start talking about something that you’ve hidden behind for almost your entire life? How can you just begin a story that you know will hurt people who read it? Or inspire some sort of pity when you really just want closure? Or will create any number of reasons for people to reach out: sympathy, empathy, understanding, compassion, and any multitude of wonderful reasons I’m approached when I tell these sad stories? And why on a blog of all places? A place that is, by definition, meant to be seen and shared and open to public eyes? I internalize this question most of all–that constant need for validation looming so close to my surface that it’s laughable. “Duh, Lauren needs attention.” It doesn’t take a lot of time with me to learn this fact. More often my center-stage impulses are socially acceptable and performative: I’ve got the jokes. I read poetry on stages. I’m a good temperature-taker of any room (I’m a social worker, after all) and I’ve got a natural talent for making people comfortable, which also means my move to create harmony often looks like sardonically hearkening things back to my own “weird-girl” quirks so nobody feels bad. This is a sort of theme of my life. Oh, is that a vulnerability you see in me? Not only am I going to name it first, I’m going to be witty as hell about it, relatably-charming, and so normalizing that in no time this thing that once repelled you from the conversation is now something you’re a part of. Anxious and neurotic?! Let’s talk about all of our invasive thoughts together! “DON’T CRUSH THE CAT TO DEATH JUST TO SEE WHAT WOULD HAPPEN!” Crippingly self-conscious about your body?! “WHO ELSE IS HIDING INSIDE A SHELL OF FLESH?! OOH! OOH! PICK ME!” You wanna call me out? Nice try, here are ALL THE THINGS you need to know ahead of time. Never be quiet enough that people have to wonder about who you are.
I can dance around a lot more self-aggrandizing banter to get to whatever point I’m trying to make. I guess that is the point. There’s always something I can use to cover up whatever dark or heavy thing is caving into me. But if i’m just so easy to be around, if I’m always just likable, if the days are so busy they collide with the next and the only time I’ve had with myself was spent sleeping–then maybe I’m safe? Until…I’m not. Until it just shows up one day and I can’t move past it.
When I left my first life behind, at 17, I packed all of my secrets up with me and pretended that college was just a place that I could be another well-adjusted teenager. No one knew whether or not I had a solid foundation or a summer-sunny childhood dripping with nostalgia. Suddenly I had no history at all and how freeing it was to invent a past that made sense to the child I wished I was. I remember how it started really small. Just avoiding major plot-points instead of going into the drawn out truth of why I had left high school a year early and moved to Massachusetts. It could be as easy as just saying, “It’s complicated.” Sure, people wanna talk about their families, but how normal it was to just say, “My parents are divorced” and leave out the whole saga about my sister…and then poof! I didn’t have to have a sister if I didn’t want to either, and how easily ‘only child’ slipped between my lips and no one knew her name or had heard of her in this oasis. How easy a past could just be erased.
And then those memories you never made but somehow conjured into a life you should have lived becomes a new reality where you are just like anyone else. It’s not lying when you believe what you’re saying, is it? There were suddenly all of these better outcomes that came so naturally. My parents? Super supportive. My past? Boring and totally normal. My fears? The usual, you know, like bad grades and stuff. And my virginity? Oh yeah, I lost that on the beach with my perfect, romantic high school boyfriend, sunset-lit and of course sand doesn’t get into your puss when it’s true love.
Denial is the powerful contagion that it is because it works. It works so fucking well. How quickly you can create an identity where you can push away the self you are and be reborn. How beautifully that works when you move to somewhere new. How well that swell of shit you’re sinking into suffocates when you tell yourself it wasn’t real. Of course, you get brought back from time to time. You see a picture of your child self or you have a conversation with your mother. You’re looking at the way some boy’s fingers wrap around the wrist of your friend and you’re shaking all over, telling yourself not to lunge at him. Because, she’s having a good time, you asshole. Or, you’re just still and silent with yourself and how terrifying that can be.
Sometimes I wonder if I use the internet to tell my stories because even though it’s a complete delusion, there’s this level of anonymity to typed out words that makes them someone else’s. As soon as someone reads your version of the truth, it belongs to them now and maybe you’re a little freer from it. You have to live with this now, not me. Or maybe I just need to remember. Maybe the thing about denial is that it only works for so long and then something–a confrontation with yourself, a reminder of how you used to be–gets shoved forcefully before you and there’s nothing between you except what used to be real and the thing you created that never was. How many times have I shaken this story out of my mind and told myself “DON’T FUCKING GO THERE” and succeeded. Why am I shaking my head so hard right now and why won’t it go away? If you read this, if you know what happened, will it mean I can’t go back to the lie? Does it mean that I am cleansed or further soiled? Does it mean that I still think that it’s my fault? Why can’t I still believe I didn’t cause it? You disgusting pig, you must have wanted it.
I start to feel something break in me when the stories first start coming out. You know the ones. #metoo. I’m a mental health clinician–I know how pervasive it is. I know as soon as I get to the trauma section with a client who identifies as female, she is going to tell me about whoever did it to her first. Usually it’s a boyfriend or a one-night stand. Someone she once trusted. Sometimes worse. Just walking home or singing in church or going to bed in her family home. You can’t show too much emotion during the assessments. You can’t sit with a rape story from a client and show your true face. So you say, “I’m so sorry that happened” with a solemn nod and move to the next demographic. There have only been a few who’ve answered “No. That never happened to me.” I can count them on one hand. When a woman goes to jail, the sexual trauma question isn’t even there. The percentage is so high, it’s just assumed. And you don’t have to be a professional to know this, You just have to be…awake.
There have been two times in my life when I said “no” and was ignored. They’re stories you’re familiar with. They’ve happened to you, too. Once I was drunk and sleeping. Another time too frozen and scared to keep resisting. You’re familiar with the thought: “It will be over soon.” And sure, it’s trauma. It is trauma. When things like this happen to you as an adult, you…or me anyway, (see, ownership is so hard I can’t even speak about this shit in the first person) can compartmentalize it. I woke up after both those nights, only two years apart, justifying the unthinkable actions of two different men based on things like social cues and mixed messages. I knew it was fucked up. I cried about it. I thought about my future daughters and so many things. I confided about it to some friends. I took the hottest showers that I could. I went to work in the morning. I went to therapy. I had sex that I wanted. I let myself forget. And I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying I’ll ever be able to walk alone at night and not feel terrified, but I do it anyway. I know that trauma is a subjective experience. That my ability to tamp this down might be someone else’s everyday hell. I don’t make assumptions. I just know too many of these stories. “I didn’t want to, but it happened.” And we move on, somehow. A lot of us. Aren’t people so…resilient?
I’m not telling you this story because I want to talk about Aziz Ansari. I don’t. There are far more people doing it way better than I ever could. This isn’t a ploy for me to make you read this whole thing just to try and define assault for you. But maybe all of this comes bubbling to the surface right now because for the last few months, if you’re someone like me and way too plugged into social media, then every day has been a reminder of it. More brave stories. More truth. Women owning and naming that thing that festers. Those of us tired of living on the edge of what would happen if we let ourselves go back there, if only for a moment. Or what might trigger it. You wake up to an e-mail, accusing and terse, it brings you to the person that you used to be when you still let yourself remember and then you can’t move beyond it. It’s just been sitting here. It’s real again after all this time and it won’t let you breathe. You’ve never, ever talked about it. Because you stopped letting it exist.
When we share our stories are we healing? Or are we just needing to be seen? If I don’t tell the story did it ever really happen? Could it still be something that I just imagined and forgot? Maybe these things need to stay buried. What if talking about this here is just more of me needing to be laid bare, another stupid thing I have to out myself for. Why so much of my insides curling in on me while typing this, so much disgust like bile in my throat, you fucking bitch just let it go already. Or, again. Or…did this even happen? No one wants to hear this fucking story. In the end, you know you aren’t worth it.
I come home from school and my sister is outside on the front yard, and she’s smoking a cigarette. She is wearing my short overalls, with vertical navy blue pinstripes and a narrow bib. I am immediately angry that she’s wearing my clothes without permission, but she’s older than me. I’m only 14. When I go inside, she follows me, tugs my back-pack, tells me to stay in the living room. I sit down and turn on MTV. There are muddled voices coming from the hallway. I just want to know what they’re doing. I just want to be included and understand. The music is loud, and I can’t even hear the TV. I am angry. Angry that I’m not invited or that she’s there at all with them. Whoever they are. I realize that they’re in my room. Why aren’t they in hers? I am livid, you can’t just–I barge in, the door’s not even locked, my sister on her knees, some boy’s naked crotch, her head bobbing on top, another one standing next to her, stroking himself, my sister’s face when she looks up and sees me there, first anger like maybe she’ll kill me, maybe she’s finally going to kill me like “Get out of here you little bitch” and then the boy is tall, still rubbing himself, even though she’s screaming, and I don’t know what to do but stand there, can’t feel my legs or open my mouth, and then the other one still sitting on the bed, he’s looking at me, he’s looking all over me and then, my sister, smiling. Standing up and grabbing me, I think she’ll throw me out or punch me, but she pulls me to the bed, the music is so loud, they’re laughing at me, all three of them and then the tall one holds me down, his long fingers laced around my little wrists, his face so close to mine and ribbons, or shoelaces, or something. My hands crossed and tied to the white headboard of my twin bed-frame, and the blanket is covered in stars, and this is my safe bed, and there’s all my posters and everything is just as it should be, but I shouldn’t be here like this, and they’re laughing still and my sister is holding down my legs, I don’t even realize that I’m kicking, she’s lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke in my face, and I can’t tell if I’m crying or if I’m laughing, if I’m just screaming or trying to say words, but my sister says, “You’ll like it! You’ll like it!” and there’s this twisting, rotting part of me that just wants her to love me and I think this must be normal, this is just what happens, this is fine, because if I think anything else right now I’ll die. I’ll just stop existing, if I see myself. I close my eyes and the tall one on my left makes me feel him, rubs against the side of my head while I’m bearing down so hard on my tongue that I’m bleeding, he’s trying to kiss me. He is only licking the tight line of my lips and I am trying to remember a song from TRL it must be on now, I’m just watching TRL, can almost hear it in the living room. The other one pulling my shirt over my head is breathing wildly, my sister holds my feet, she’s wearing my short overalls, she’s cackling, she says, “Just fucking do it!” and I am trying to get free now, the other boy takes his hand and cups it around my nose and mouth, I’m clawing at him, feel his skin under my nails and I am thinking that he’ll kill me, I am already dead, I’m drowning, do you remember when she held you under water when you were five and isn’t it a lot like this? And then I am limp. I am floating away. This isn’t my body. This is a movie that you saw or an excerpt of a book you read, this isn’t me. It’s you. This never happened. See, you didn’t die. You must have just imagined it. Go eat dinner with your parents. Go drink milkshakes with your friends. Just throw away the overalls. You can’t see their faces anymore they were only ghosts and you were sleeping just a dream don’t ever ask her why don’t ever…let yourself remember.
But, I do. How can you just keep knowing this? How does the room stop buzzing? When do you forgive yourself? How do you spend so much of your time telling survivors they did nothing wrong. That they needn’t be ashamed. That you believe them. How is it that you mean it, so entirely, when you remind her that she never could have stopped it, that she couldn’t have known, that she was only so many things and it never should have happened. Of course she didn’t deserve it.
So why do I still believe that it’s my fault?