I was not someone who got sexually assaulted, so I had not been assaulted.
Simple as that.
We all do this to some degree, usually with much lower stakes: I’m a smart person, so that book I love must be a real masterpiece. My child is an angel, so that teacher must have seen things wrong.
Once we have made a choice, our commitment can become overzealous. Often, we go so far as to discount all evidence to the contrary. Everyone else hated that book because they’re idiots and can’t appreciate a good story.
Psychologists love this human foible. So do comedians. Formally, it’s part of cognitive dissonance theory. When something doesn’t match the story we tell ourselves, we don’t change the story. We change our perceptions of the something that doesn’t fit.
I chose not to focus on what had just happened to me. I kept my eye on the ball. Nothing had changed. My number one goal was to find my way out of an abusive family.
Everything else, I didn’t have the bandwidth for.
Top had not assaulted me.
I had not been traumatized.
He was not a predator.
* * *
My TOEFL prep lessons with him became impossible. When I opened a textbook, he reached across the pages and under my shirt to grab my breasts. He stopped paying me. He started inviting me to dinner.
One evening in a parking lot, as we sat in his car, he unzipped his fly and pulled out his penis, purple and swollen. I felt repulsed. I did not want to touch that. But he grabbed my hand and put it on his erection and made me hold him until he came, sticky snot all over my fingers. Eventually, he led me up the rickety wooden stairs behind the Thai restaurant where he lived. He took me into his bedroom where he stripped. He grabbed my head and pushed me down, down, down until my nose aligned with his erection, and he shoved my head into his crotch.
I knew something was wrong, but I thought it was wrong with me. I was supposed to want this, wasn’t I? I thought I had wanted it. Now everything felt like I was trapped in a dream. I felt like someone had draped a bed sheet over my body, and I could only hear and touch and feel through the stiff cotton that separated me from the world. I felt only numbness and detachment. During sex, I often found myself standing in a corner of the room while my body lay in bed with him as he fumbled and pumped and shoved.
But dissociation as a defense mechanism is a double-edged sword. Judith Herman, a pioneer who distinguished between single-event traumas and traumatic stress from repeated traumatic events, writes in her groundbreaking work Trauma and Recovery:
“When a person [feels] completely powerless, and any form of resistance is futile, she may go into a state of surrender. The system of self-defense shuts down entirely. The helpless person escapes from her situation not by action in the real world but rather by altering her state of consciousness … She is observing from outside her body…as though the whole experience is a bad dream from which she will shortly awaken. These perceptual changes combine with a feeling of indifference, emotional detachment, and profound passivity in which the person relinquishes all initiative and struggle.”
I accepted it all as inevitable. As exactly what I deserved. I told myself the problem was that my expectations for love and sex had been too high. I had expected that finally, what I wanted might figure into things.
And now I had learned it wouldn’t.
Top’s first assault had been a clear message to me after I dodged his kiss. You are not allowed to tell me no.
So I did not attempt to say no again for a long time.
* * *
I know now that I could have just walked away. I could have stopped taking his calls. I could have refused to go to his car when he gave me rides from the college. I could have shut him out.
Yes. I could have.
But I didn’t know that then.
I may have been 20 years old, but I was not 20 in any way that mattered.
First, there was Mormonism, a religion that prizes obedience and putting off sexual activity until marriage. It doesn’t do such a great job, though, of teaching young people the distinction between sexual assault and sex. So, as far as I had been taught, I’d had sex with Top. Sure, I was no longer Mormon. I no longer believed. But no one gets to just flip a switch on their socialization. I still felt that to walk away from Top, to not enter into a committed relationship, would leave me dirty. Sinful. Fallen.
We were dating then.
That sounded better than the alternative, walking away and seeing myself as someone who slept around.
Then, there was the abuse that filled my earliest memories and was ongoing when I met Top. Child abuse in all its forms is crippling, but the effects don’t fully become clear until the child is an adult. As Herman writes of child abuse survivors as adults, “Repeated abuse…is passively experienced as a dreaded but unavoidable fate and is accepted as the inevitable price of relationship. Many survivors have such profound deficiencies in self-protection that they can barely imagine themselves in a position of agency or choice.”
To this day, when adults snub me or say something intentionally hurtful, I do nothing if I have a relationship with the person. With strangers, it’s easy. I gently but firmly tell them that’s not acceptable and they can do better. But relationships remain something that can hold me hostage. I have learned to carefully choose friends and to practice assertiveness. But cruelty from those I know—it is still hard for me to feel that I deserve anything better. How much harder then, for the 20-year-old I once was, to attempt any sort of boundary negotiation with Top.
Still, I tried. I tried to break up with him. Repeatedly. Year after year. On a drive home from Mount Rainier. On a roadside near my university. In front of a grocery store. Again and again, like actors rehearsing a scene. The same conversation. Look, I’d begin. I don’t think this is working.
What I never understood, what left me unable to leave successfully, was that leaving someone who is abusive is not the same as ending a normal, if flawed, relationship. The script I’d heard from friends and television shows—it’s not you, it’s me; this has meant so much to me, but I just don’t think we’re right for each other—doesn’t work.
This is true regardless of the abuser’s gender, orientation, or race: abusers don’t listen.
You cannot negotiate. You cannot assert. It gets you nowhere.
* * *
At that time in my life, I needed a friend who loved me, who would always be there for me, who would do anything to get me through the storm I was sailing into. So I invented one.
You can’t lay a thing down until you name it.
And to name it, you have to know it.
I didn’t have the strength to do battle on two fronts—not with my parents and now this, too. So I named it something else. Something so I wouldn’t have to look at it and know it.
I named it love.