Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Break the Silence

In general, I don't use our blog as a platform for anything that isn't climbing or adventure related--trip reports, gear reviews, pro tips, and the occasional short story.  Lately, however, I have been seeing a lot of media regarding the recent Steubenville rape case that has got me thinking.  In particular, a friend on Facebook recently shared a link to a posting on upworthy.com titled "Remember That Time A Rapist Got Convicted And The Internet Threatened To Kill The Victim For It?"  What I found there troubled me quite a bit and was clearly indicative of the still-pervasive rape culture in this country.

For 18 months during undergraduate I volunteered as a rape crisis advocate for survivors of sexual assault in and around Columbia, South Carolina.  I worked a Thursday night shift every week, and there was not a single week that I did not get called to a local hospital to provide advocacy for someone undergoing a rape protocol exam.  I have witnessed the very real consequences of rape, and I have met and know personally more than my share of rape survivors.

I wrote the story below some months ago as a cathartic piece but had not really pursued formal or informal publication of it until now.  While it is fictionalized and no real names are used, make no mistake that this is the sort of thing that I saw on a weekly basis.  There is some graphic language, but I feel it is wholly appropriate.  While it may be tempting to accuse survivors of rape of being "sluts" who were "asking for it," my hope is that in reading this piece it might be possible to see just a glimpse of what the survivor endures.

*     *     *

I can’t recall all of the exact intervening steps, but it was well before 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning when Jane and I left downtown.  Sometime in the pre-dawn darkness, I found myself sitting with Jane on the floor of her cramped bedroom in the residence hall.  I remember not knowing exactly what to say as she spoke at me, detached at first, then in bouts and spasms of uncontrollable sobbing.  I was in the unenviable position of wanting to comfort her with every fiber of my being, yet was at an absolute loss as to how to do so.

In my own private, empathic agony, I witnessed her soft features drawn up sharply, her otherwise fair cheeks tight and her lips pulled up, opening her mouth just enough for sobs to escape.  Her normally soft, full brunette hair was frizzed and frayed, accenting her furrowing and frowning brown eyes. Her face was drained of blood yet somehow flushed, eyes bloodshot, and chin dirtied from a slowly gathering stream of tears and snot.  She was at once beautiful and pitiable.

She hunched forward, shoulders heaving between sobs, head hanging down, fixating on some spot between her feet, as she sat cross-legged on the recycled plastic fibers that the university would have us believe served as carpet.

Her head still lowered toward the floor, she drew her gaze up to look at me across the room, just a short distance away, within arm’s reach.  Her pupils refocused, and through them I saw a maelstrom of emotion—anguish, shame, guilt, confusion, and an undeniable entreaty to be loved in a way more genuine than anyone could hope to imagine.

I wanted so very badly to reach out to her, draw her head near to my chest, place my hand on her upper back, stroke here hair, hug her, and comfort her.  But I couldn’t; things were complicated.  In my bewilderment, I didn’t think to ask if she would like a hug.  Instead, I simply sat and listened, offering with my presence as much consolation as I could to someone in her situation.

I wanted to tell her that everything would be alright.  I wanted to make her believe that.  I wanted her to feel comfortable in her own skin.  I wanted to make her feel safe again.

I wanted to beat the ever-living shit out of Neal.

But I couldn’t do any of that.

Instead, we got in her car and I drove us out of the city, away.  I had no idea where we were going, and it didn’t matter in the slightest.  We just needed to go.  Away.  Anywhere.

Soon we were exiting the interstate at the local commercial district, in an upscale suburb replete with chain restaurants, a mall, SUVs full of soccer moms and their children, box stores, and the most congested traffic pattern within a 100-mile radius.  But this early on Sunday morning we had the roads to ourselves and soon found our way to the parking lot of a large chain bookstore just as it was opening.

Jane and I made our way to the back of the store and planted ourselves firmly in the center of the bright, cheery children’s section.  As we seated ourselves at a table much too small for us, I watched Jane closely, gauging her reaction.  She offered a weak half-smile, more for my benefit than hers, and sank into her seat.

I hoped being surrounded by the children’s book, toys, bright colors, and an artificial tree house would help raise her spirits a tiny bit, if just by ambiance alone.  In cases of such emotional distress, I was sometimes drawn to tap into a more innocent, child-like frame of mind.

We sat and sipped our recently purchased, over-priced coffee-derived beverages; I couldn’t help but feel a little ridiculous.  From across the table, my best friend’s ex-girlfriend expressed it in words:

“This is a little ridiculous.”

I concurred.  “Yeah, but we had to do something.”

Jane nodded, and looked momentarily wistful.  “Thank you.”

I smiled across the table at her, finally feeling like I might be doing something right.  “Any time,” I said.

Over the course of the next few minutes we began forgetting.  We forgot how inhuman humans can be to each other.  We forgot how neither of us had really slept much.  We forgot how exhausting but relieving it can feel after a solid bout of catharsis.  And, most of all, we forgot what Neal had done less than 12 hours earlier.

But we didn’t really forget that part.  That’s not the kind of thing you ever really forget.

Neither of us was sure to what extent, but we both knew that Jane and Neal’s respective states of inebriation clouded the issue.  What was perfectly clear, however, was that Neal had perpetrated a heinous indignity against Jane.

In the early hours of the morning, still in her room, she had described to me in detail how Neal had suggested things to her, suggestions she was not comfortable with, that she politely declined.  Suggestions that weren’t really suggestions at all.

She described how he brought her a drink because “no one should be at a party without a beer in their hand.”  She described how she had followed him from the party to his bedroom and found herself kissing with him. She described how they awkwardly laid down next to each other on the floor.  Then, she described how with a slow, constant pressure, he “suggested” her slowly down toward his waist, unbuttoned his pants, and stood up, inserting himself into her mouth along the way.

Surprised and angered, she pushed herself forcefully away, against his thighs.  He immediately countered by placing both hands behind her head and pulling sharply forward.  He repeated this motion, thrusting, again, and again, and again.  She felt herself growing strangely distant, watching from outside herself as he thrust with increasing fervor.

When she finally returned to a consciousness no longer outside of herself, she was covered in his spunk.  It pervaded everything, globs of it in her mouth, on her tongue, on her teeth, her cheek, the back of her throat, her eyelid.  Seemingly in one motion, Neal slapped his member across her face, re-buttoned his pants, and said, “Thanks.  That wasn’t bad,” on his way out the door.

Stunned, it took her a few moments before she even thought to get up off her knees.  In a fog, she made her way from the party back to her place.  Within the hour, she had called me.

So here we were, in an empty bookstore, trying to come to terms with the reality of the situation.  She had finally calmed down enough to begin making decisions:  She did not want to tell anyone else.  She did not want to say anything to Neal.  She did not want to get a rape protocol exam.  She did not need medical attention.  She did not want to press charges.

I had trouble focusing as we discussed this.  I was acutely aware that nothing would happen to Neal as a result of this.  And Neal would do the same thing again.  And again.  And again.  And nothing would stop him until someone finally broke the silence.

But I could not break the silence today, because of Jane’s wishes.  I stood up and moved stiffly to the nearby bookshelf.  I never knew what to say.  What could I possibly wish for an individual who had endured so much pain?  With each survivor I met, I always hoped it would never happen to anyone ever again, knowing all too well that was blatantly untrue.

I returned to the table, anxious to gulp down more caffeine.  Somehow I thought this would help calm my nerves.  I opened the book I had selected, placing it between us.

Oh The Places You’ll Go, by Doctor Seuss,” I said.

For the first time in what seemed like forever, Jane smiled.

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