Rape aftermath: why I didn’t report | Survivor Saturday

Disclaimer/warning to family and friends: I know that some of you read this blog now and then, and so I wanted to warn you that this particular post might be especially sad and painful. Please consider that carefully before you continue reading. And remember that I’m OK now…in fact, much more than OK.

There has been a lot of discussion swirling around the recent verdict in the Stanford rape case. This is written in response to some of that.

In the morning, the older of my two rapists didn’t want me to leave. He mockingly and cruelly pretended as if we had just spent a lovely night together; why wouldn’t I stay for breakfast? He wouldn’t tell me where he had put my clothes, and jokingly insisted that I hadn’t been wearing any when my friend and I had come over for dinner the evening before.

Somehow I managed to find my clothes, put them on, and walk over to my apartment. No one was there. It was my first day at a new job, so I knew I had to hold myself together.

One of the legacies of the bullying and sexual abuse in my past was learning how to dissociate, how to “go away” or “make myself small” in order to separate myself as much as possible from my body. That’s how I could refuse to feel anything as I took that shower that rape survivors know all too well. To this day, I have no idea of the extent of my injuries. I was vaguely aware of upper body bruising that I accidentally caught glimpse of in the mirror. The next day, I dissociated during the exam done by my sweet, gentle, caring doctor — I still get tears of gratitude in my eyes whenever remembering him. In the shower that morning, I recall scrubbing and scrubbing, refusing to look, refusing to know, refusing to feel.

Of course I couldn’t escape every feeling. The sense of shame and filthiness was overwhelming, as was the sense that they had stolen my body. There are no words to describe what that felt like.

Somehow, I made it to work, a shattered little shell of my former self. Looking back, I am in awe of my strength. How did I manage that?

After work, I came back home, and was immediately convinced that I could not live with the knowledge of what happened to me. I came as close to killing myself as possible, saved only by my precious Jesus who presented me with a theological quandary. (Ever carried on an internal debate of Calvinism versus Arminianism with a loaded and cocked .357 magnum in your mouth and your finger on the trigger? I have.) Unable to resolve the issue of eternal security to my satisfaction, I next contemplated murder. All of this was done, believe it or not, with the utmost calm, and without a single tear.

I recognized that I might not be in the best frame of mind to decide on a course of action that would change my life forever, so I went for a drive…for hours upon aimless hours.

There is much more to the story than that, of course, but fast forward about three decades. I had decided that EMDR might be a helpful course of treatment, and my therapist was on board with the idea, even though it was outside of his scope of practice. So I found another temporary therapist, supposedly the local EMDR expert. Unfortunately, within weeks, I began referring to her among some of my friends as Bad Therapist.

Apparently she thought Donny and I had spent the past three years playing tiddlywinks or staring mutely at each other, because she insisted that I was not ready, not strong enough, to tell my story. She also saw nothing wrong with a therapist touching a sexual trauma survivor without permission, and found it weird that I didn’t appreciate this boundary violation. Supposedly all her other clients loved having their knees and thighs touched suddenly and without warning.

Knowing nothing about my rape, she asked me if I had reported it to the police. What? Why not?! Then she took issue with my answer.

Far be it from me to discourage anyone from reporting, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for those who do. They are my heroes. Really and truly. But there has never been a moment in all the years since then that I have ever regretted not attempting to press charges against my rapists.

I was not strong enough.

Back then, I was only 23 years old, and it took more years than that until I was finally ready to tell my story, in as much torturous detail that I could manage, to my therapist. Donny believed me. This was not open court. He did not pick apart my account in an attempt to disprove my allegations, paint me as a liar, and try to convince a jury that I was the worst slut ever while my rapists were kind, upstanding citizens. Yet telling him what happened the night I was raped was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made myself do, even all those years later. He had to cancel his next appointment because I was in no shape to leave his office when I was done with the telling. After that, I drove home somehow and collapsed in bed for the rest of the day, only to be tortured with night after night of flashbacks and nightmares.

Some people, and not just Bad Therapist, take issue with any survivor who doesn’t immediately go to the police. “Oh, yeah? If you were really raped, if it was a legitimate rape, you would have reported and your rapists would be in jail!” “You must not have thought it was that bad if you didn’t want your rapists locked up so they couldn’t rape anyone else.” “Obviously you knew your story wouldn’t hold up in court. Why should we believe you when you claim you were raped?”

But, if your rapist was caught in the act, and the case goes to court, and your rapist gets a slap on the wrist, some people will cry that this promising youth has suffered enough for his “20 minutes of action”, that being a registered sex offender is almost too overwhelming a punishment for any man to bear, and that the poor lad deserves our sympathy for all the trauma he has had to endure and will endure for the rest of his life. Besides, if young women didn’t drink and hang out with participants in the hook-up culture, rapists would have to figure out another tactic, and some might become so discouraged by the effort involved that they might even rape a few less women. At least that seems to be the logic.

We expect a lot from rape survivors. From birth onward, they need to be above reproach, living virtuous and cautious lives, avoiding any possibility of danger. Without being paranoid or anything but kind and gracious, they must not let down their guard for a moment. They must neither date nor should they reject men wishing to date them — lest their rejcted suitors feel compelled to rape them — but they must not date the wrong man either. They must be mind readers and self-defense experts who can predict the future. They must be tough, fierce, and fearless, incapable of being intimidated by any threat or the brandishing of any weapon. If, through no fault of their own, they manage to get themselves raped anyway, they must conduct themselves perfectly afterwards, showing whatever it is that we believe to be the appropriate emotional response and actions. They must immediately demonstrate expert knowledge of proper post-rape behavior, along with such clarity of thinking, impeccable instincts, wisdom, and a perfect memory for details, that it is as if their mental abilities and quick reactions were not just untouched by trauma, but enhanced by it. They must never make what we consider as a single mistake, not before the rape, not during, and not after.

I was 23. It seems awfully young to me now, but I was old enough to have learned these cultural lessons well. And, much to my sorrow, they are driven home to me again…and again…and again…whenever a rape case is discussed and dissected in the public sphere.

We need to change. We need to be different.

Hiding from help

“Why do you get angry at any adult who really cares about you?” my sweet, kind, and bewildered friend confronted me when I was in high school.

“What? No, I don’t. I just can’t stand ultra-concerned types.” I put so much sneered emotion behind the words “ultra-concerned types” that one would have thought I was plagued by obnoxious, overly-zealous, heavy-handed, intruding busybodies trying to bulldoze over me and seize control of my life.

“But why get so angry when they care about you?” she asked again, mentioning some specific examples of kind, wonderful adults.

I brushed her off, muttering something about how I suffered at the hands of “ultra-concerned types” and their annoying ways. I rather angrily denied that I was angry, and then changed the subject.

It took me over three decades to find out the answer to my friend’s question.

Back then, and for those many years afterward, I was hiding a deep dark secret, one so deep and so dark that I could only cope by refusing to think about it, by pretending it away. That didn’t work well. As a teenager, I was filled with the constant, overwhelming sense that there was something very much wrong with me, but I had no idea what — and I never connected that sense with the hidden burden I carried. Fear, shame, and secrecy had become a way of life for me. So had a form of denial so profound that it was almost as if I’d created an alternative reality for myself.

I had to keep people at arm’s length. If anyone, especially an adult, got too close and actually looked into my eyes, they might know whatever it was I dared not face.

At the same time, my innermost being was desperately crying out for help, and my greatest desire was to be rescued…from what, I dared not think. The memories of some of the wonderful adults who managed to overcome my defenses long enough to plant seeds of hope in my bruised and battered, locked up heart, cause tears of gratitude as I write. There was, for example, the youth director from another church who spent a Friday night playing bumper pool with me, laughing with me, having fun with me, and treating me as an interesting person of value and importance. I don’t remember your name, my brother, and I never saw you again, but you were like a ministering angel to me that night.

Then there was Mr. Bottaro, my tenth grade English teacher. He told me, when I was attempting to argue with him about a paper I’d written, “Someday I’m going to break through your façade.” Façade? I fumed angrily. What on earth is he talking about? The nerve of him! The next year, even though I was no longer in his class, he would often stop me on campus and ask how I was doing. He never believed my polite responses or automatic answers. “No, really,” he would insist, his eyes trying to search mine for the truth. “Come up to my room and see me,” he would urge, no matter what I answered. I knew he saw…something.

Finally I decided to take him up on his offer. I would sit in front of him, let him look in my eyes, and tell him that there was something terribly, seriously wrong with me but I was too afraid to try to think about it. Surely he would be able to figure it out. That was my plan, anyway, to beg him to help me, when I arrived on campus early one morning. I was on my way to his classroom when another teacher stopped me with devastating news.

Mr. Bottaro was dead of a massive heart attack.

It took over 30 years for me to try again, to sit across from someone else and let him try to figure out what on earth was so terribly, horribly wrong with me. But, as desperate as I was for help, I didn’t make it easy for my therapist. I hadn’t just erected protective walls around my growing mountain of secrets — I’d planted prickly cacti outside the walls, dug a moat, and filled it with alligators. Then I stood in my watchtower, safely out of reach, and threw rocks at anyone who dared commit the heinous crime of caring in ways that made me uncomfortable or threatened my defenses. My therapist did not have an easy time gaining my trust, and overcoming my anger and fear.

Exposing our dark secrets to the light of day — it’s scary stuff, I tell you. Absolutely terrifying. I do not exaggerate when I say it came close to killing me. But hidden secrets can never be healed, and there is no freedom comparable to living in the light. There are burdens we were never meant to carry alone.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the prickliness when I ventured too close to someone who did not wish to be known, who feared what I might discover. I’ve experienced what it’s like when others lash out in fear and panic because a secret has been exposed. So now I know both sides, and I understand.

Until recent years, I had no idea what true freedom was. I was in survival mode, always feeling as if I were on the brink of chaos, barely holding things together. My life was a carefully erected house of cards that might fall down at any moment, and I couldn’t let anyone know. The fear of exposure — even exposure of some of my more trivial flaws and failings — was crippling. The worst is that this didn’t just effect me. I raised six beautiful, wonderful, amazing children in a climate polluted by my fear, isolation, and secrecy. By the grace of God, they are now much stronger and healthier than I could have ever hoped.

The enemy of our soul hates freedom. He hates the light. Stay in the dark! he urges us. Don’t let them see who you really are! Don’t even admit to yourself how desperate your situation is. Deny. Minimize. Hide. Cover up. Isolate. Live in secrecy. Get angry at anyone who refuses to play along. Break relationships with those who care for you and try to help. Live in fear!

That house of cards? Trust me, once you start walking in freedom and truth, you won’t ever miss what you were once so desperately protecting. Experiencing true healing is more than worth the temporary pain of bringing shameful, dark, or painful secrets out into the light.

Walk in the light. It’s absolutely beautiful out here!

Why I’m glad that I’m no longer a Calvinist…

…and some other rambling thoughts about suffering and stumbling.

I wrote this as a comment on a blog a few months ago:

I wish I had the rest of the day to respond to individual posts. As many of you so eloquently and heartbreakingly described, grief and suffering HURTS. Jesus showed us what true compassion and grief looks like when he wept with his friends over the loss of their brother — even though Jesus knew full well he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Later, Paul would remind Christians to weep with those who weep, to bear each others’ burdens.

And, you know what? Doing that HURTS — not as much as the actual pain of the one grieving, but it hurts to sit with someone in their pain and totally open your heart, allowing their pain to invade your safe little bubble. It’s scary to admit that we don’t have neat, tidy answers to difficult tragedies. It’s scary to admit similarly devastating blows could strike us as well. So we blame people for their own pain in a self-righteous and desperate attempt to promise ourselves that this same sickness, this same tragedy, will never come near us. And, if it does, we will handle it better. We are made of stronger stuff and better theology, so we will never hurt as much as those other people. That’s what we tell ourselves.

I know. I was that person…until my world exploded about 6 years ago, and years of running from pain and being all “praise God, the past is in the past!” came crashing down on me. Thank God that I had left Calvinists and Calvinism behind before then.

There were no easy answers. I did not heal nicely, or neatly, or tidily. It was messy. I stumbled and fell a lot. I sinned — not by grieving or hurting or being a mess, but by actual sins. I met a ragtag group of beautiful fellow sufferers who showed me what true, loving acceptance looks like. The best thing that eventually came out of the evil that Satan intended for me — and he intends evil for all of us because he is all about killing, stealing, and destroying — is that God showed me that he is a redemptive God. Sin and evil and sickness has no silver lining, but God can redeem the worst thing. And the best way he redeemed all that ugliness in my life, all the pain that came to a head in recent years, is that he revealed himself to me as the perfect, loving Father that I’d never dreamed he could be. It was in relationship with him — and some of his representatives who shared his love — that I have been able to walk out my healing journey. (It has felt like stumbling and even being dragged more than walking at times.)

This longwinded comment is to say that I think when we begin to comprehend the enormity and tenderness of God’s love — especially in the midst of life’s ickyness —when we begin to experience how deeply personal and intimate his love is for us, it makes all the difference. The Calvinist view of God is much safer. It keeps God at a comfortable distance. God up close and personal is beautiful and healing beyond all comprehension, but it’s also overwhelming. After all, this is the God of the universe we’re talking about.

My world has been rocked. My heart has been broken. I’ve lost my taste for nominal Christianity. I have no easy answers. Sometimes all I can do is hug someone, pray for them, and weep. And that hurts, even though compassion is a good hurt, a good heartbreak.

That’s what I was running from when I was a Calvinist. I needed a small, safe, understandable, predictable God who provided security and a safe haven from pain and messiness. What I’ve found now is this huge, wild, mysterious, incomprehensible God who has captured my heart, melted and broken it, healed and tenderized it — and turned my world upside down.

I wish everybody could know that wonderful, amazing, magnificent God.

Christian testimonies and life stories

My husband has one of the coolest testimonies in the world. He can’t remember a time in his life when he didn’t love Jesus. He never wavered, never backslid, never rebelled, never let up or drifted to the point that he ever felt the need to “re-dedicate” his life to Christ. He has remained steadfast from early childhood until now.

My mother’s testimony is much the same. Well, the details are different — she had a dramatic conversion at the age of 5 and lived through the war in Nazi Germany — but the steadfast, unwavering part is the same.

I simply cannot relate to people like that. Of course, it goes both ways. They look at me, baffled and dismayed by my history of flaky sinfulness, and say things like, “I just prayed that God would make me hate sin”, or “No, I never wanted to rebel,” or “I love Jesus too much to be even tempted by such things.” For example, when I was in my teens, my mother often told me that just the thought of kissing any other man but my father was so unappealing that it made her feel sick to her stomach. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her only daughter was, in contrast to her, a lust-filled perv: icky guys were nauseating but I found the thought of kissing cute guys quite appealing. (Thank God I was weird, awkward, shy, and uninteresting to most teenage boys.)

People like my mother and my husband seem to have an easy strength, a serene confidence, that is beyond my experience and comprehension. They are like Daniel in the Bible — if he did anything wrong, it was so trivial that it isn’t even part of his story. Compared to them, my story is sin-laden and ugly. I’m a walking disaster — a chaotic bundle of ups and downs, highs and lows, starts and stops. Sometimes I think they might need even more prayer than I do. After all, how on earth can they keep from getting disillusioned and disappointed as they watch me run, fall, stumble, wander, and lurch my way through life? Oh, wait…they are made of sterner stuff. I’m the one who gets disillusioned and discouraged. They do what they always do — stand firm and steadfast in the Lord.

They have been spared so much, so very much. I wish people like my mother and my husband could somehow bottle whatever it is that they have, could somehow impart their secrets to the rest of us, so that less lives would be littered with the debris and wreckage of mistakes and regrets. I want my children to follow in their footsteps and not mine.

Sometimes I wonder if my problem is not so much that I possess some terrible character flaw — a greater propensity to sin, rebellion, and weakness — but that I really do not love Jesus enough. After all, what greater motivation is there for faithful obedience than love?

Then I remember something Jesus Himself said: “Who is forgiven much, loves much.” My therapist has mentioned that I tend to extremes, and I have to admit that there is a passion in my life that seems missing in those who do not struggle. There is something that has been borne of desperation, of pain and deep grief — an intensity and zeal — that I don’t see in the lives of those who are calm and steady. They have been spared the lows, but also the highs.

In the end, I have to admit that I wouldn’t change my prodigal story for theirs. Yes, I have regrets. But I have seen and experienced beautiful, powerful, amazing redemption miracles  — and that’s something those who are constant as the northern star can only guess at.

Her name was Tina

She was 7 years old, skinny, often unkempt, a wild little thing who screamed like a banshee, knew cuss words no little girl should know, and was quite the disruptive influence at the church school her grandparents paid for her to attend.

Somehow she stole my heart. I was 19 or 20, still young and idealistic, and I had not yet outgrown my childhood notion that love was enough to heal and fix anything. She was as drawn to me, a childcare worker at the school, as I was to her. At first she called me “Teacher”. Then she broke my heart by calling me “Mommy”.

Her mother, a single mom and an alcoholic, bought her a Raggedy Andy doll so that Tina could, as she claimed her mother told her, “also have a man in her bed at night”. She told me of what sounded like a steady stream of men in her mother’s bed, about fixing her own suppers, and about getting herself ready for school in the morning.

No matter how early I arrived to open up the church before morning day care started at 7:00am, it seemed that Tina would be waiting for me alone on the playground, underdressed for the weather, blonde hair all a mess, her thin little arms wrapped around herself, shivering. I would bundle her in my sweatshirt and hold her in my lap until she warmed up. It was one of those times that she started calling me “Mommy”.

She was impossible. She defied rules, tested boundaries, threw temper fits, fought with other children, and cussed like a little sailor. But she also sang the cutest rendition of both parts of Donnie and Marie’s signature duet that I’ve ever heard. And she craved affection and attention so desperately that it was painful to watch.

One day she flipped out when one of the school dads got playful with her. She shrieked, “Don’t molest me!!” and it scared him so much that he avoided her like the plague after that. I tried not to think about possible reasons for her reaction.

She was a bad influence on my little brother, and on a number of the other children. If she wasn’t clinging to me, I had to watch her like a hawk. She was a troubled little soul, desperately screaming for help.

One day she asked me if she could live with me, if I could be her mommy for real. I presented my case to my parents. In my naïveté, I actually thought I could ask her mother — who obviously didn’t want her — to give Tina to me, and I could raise her and love her to wholeness. Surely, despite my flaws and my youth, I would be a far better mother. We would live together in the “little house” behind the parsonage, and I would make sure she would not impose a burden on anyone else.

To me, she was worth turning my life upside down and backwards, worth giving up any hope of a “normal” future. How could I not do everything in my power to help her, to give her a better life, to rescue her, to save her?

I hated it when my mother would respond to my idealistic ideas with, “It’s not that simple.” This time I really hated it, because she was right.

And then Tina was kicked out of school. I marched into the principal’s office and demanded, pleaded, advocated, begged, guilted, quoted Scripture…you name it, I did it. How could we abandon Tina? Wasn’t she the sort of child who needed this school the most? The grandparents had sacrificed, skimping together money they didn’t have, in a desperate attempt to provide help for their little, troubled granddaughter — and we were tossing her out on her ear? I was eloquent and convincing…well, to my ears anyway. Everyone else seemed relieved to be free of the numerous ongoing and escalating behavior problems that were disrupting the other students. “We can’t sacrifice all the other students for one child,” the principal told me. “Why not?” I had the audacity to reply. “She needs us much more than they do.”

Just like that, Tina was out of my life. I never got to say goodbye, never saw or heard from her again. We had failed her. I was both angry and grieved.

The girl in this heartbreaking video reminded me of Tina…something about parts of her story, the way she looks and her outbursts of anger.

Tina impacted me more than she will ever know. I have no idea what became of her…if she’s still alive…if she even remembers me…I hope that she remembers that someone once loved her and believed in her, and thought she was worth rescuing. More than that, I hope that someone did in fact rescue her.

I hope her story had a happy, hopeful ending, her own version of this one: