Originally published in Survivor Lit
tw: sexual assault
It’s the winter of 2006, and I am describing an assembly to Leia as we walk from our middle school to the bus loop outside. A survivor of the Second Sudanese Civil War had been brought in to talk to us about his experience as a refugee, and I am explaining the horrors of his childhood to her. “The PLA killed the men and raped the women!” I half-whisper to her, wide-eyed.
“What does rape mean?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I think it means attacking someone with a rapier,” I reply.
The next day, as Leia and I are walking home from the bus stop, she breaks the news to me. She doesn’t make eye contact, looks at the sidewalk instead.
“I asked my dad what rape means. He said it’s when a man forces a woman to have sex with him.”
I am aghast. We walk the rest of the way home without talking, traffic and the slap of our feet against concrete the only sounds breaking our silence.
It’s the summer of 2007, and I am playing some morbid game of imagination with a couple of neighborhood boys in the brown-carpeted back room of my house. Somehow our game escalates, turns to my pretend rape and murder. I pause, shocked by the twist they have added to the story, to ask them “Wait, rapists kill their victims too?”
“Well, yeah,” they reply, looking at me like I’m stupid, “how else would they avoid her identifying them to the police?”
Years later I will learn that rape rarely occurs between strangers , and that survivors are commonplace, but for now I feel foolish. The boys know more than me about our sordid world.
It’s the winter of 2010, and I am lounging backstage in a dimly-lit theater with two other actors in our high-school play. We lean against the black cinderblock wall, our legs dangling off of the bed prop on which we sit. We’re gossiping.
“My friend Jules says she’s dating Luke,” I offer. “I don’t know him, but she seems really happy.”
The other two give me an odd look.
“Seriously? Everyone knows Luke is a rapist. He gets away with it because his friends are always ready with an alibi.”
I jump up, alarmed. “Oh my god,” I say, “we have to warn her.” The other two share another look.
“I don’t know. Jules can be really stubborn. She might not listen if she’s really head-over-heels for him.”
The next day in school, I go against their advice and tell Jules what the other kids said. They were right. She doesn’t want to hear it.
It’s the spring of 2011, and I am walking home from the bus stop with my friends Roxie and Carter. We walk single-file along the grassy margins of the road: there is no sidewalk in this part of the neighborhood. Roxie used to date my then-boyfriend, and she is trying to warn me about him, tell me that he’s a predator.
“I know him. He told me all about how he used to be manipulative, how he’s scared of going back to that. He’s changed,” I say.
“I just don’t believe that people can change. They say they can, but it’s all empty promises,” she rejoins.
I am furious, and Carter seems to sense it. He changes the subject. We don’t talk about my boyfriend again for a month.
It’s the summer of 2011, and I am kneeling in an empty clearing adjacent to the local park. The grass is cropped short beneath my knees, but as the ground slopes toward the tree line it springs up into willowy, wild arches. I am crying. My boyfriend has just coaxed me over a line I had drawn clearly and repeatedly between us since the beginning of our relationship 5 or 6 months prior: no sex of any description, including oral. “Just try it,” he had plead for weeks, “just the tip,” and in a momentary impulse, I’d acquiesced to his demands. In my 15-year-old idealistic mind, I had been saving myself for marriage. I mourn the loss of what I see as my innocence with peals of silent tears. To quell my crying, he kisses me, breathes in so deeply that the air is sucked from my lungs. Somehow, I construe this as romantic. I will stay with him for 7 more years.
It’s the fall of 2011, and I am watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy has just gotten together with Spike, a leather-clad vampire with bleach-blond hair, and I’m furious. As a 16-year-old Tumblr feminist, I cannot countenance a redemption arc that allows an attempted rapist to successfully woo his would-be victim: it’s implausible, or so I think. Though I don’t personally know of any relationships like Spike and Buffy’s, kindled after the fact—at least, not without coercion—it’s common for sexual assault survivors to stay in contact with their attacker afterward . This is not to say that it was a well-researched plotline. It’s much more likely that Whedon, known for his masturbatory gaze and clumsy handling of gendered issues, simply deemed it more important to add another soapy twist to the plot of Buffy than to respect the trauma that real survivors face. I feel betrayed. I will feel betrayed many more times in years to come.
It’s the winter of 2014, and I am walking with my then-boyfriend to class. We’re both bundled against the cold that whips around our concrete-and-glass campus, and he is admonishing me about the latest boy I’ve failed to properly reject. According to him, I’m too gentle in letting them down.
“Men don’t listen to a soft no,” he says. “They’ll think they have a chance, because that’s all we think about. Opportunities.”
I suppose it isn’t ironic, looking back. But it feels that way. A colloquial sort of irony.
It’s the spring of 2016, and I am sitting in the grass that rings one of the shallow ponds on campus. I’ve just received a string of texts from Rachel, one of my best friends, and I have to think. Her 2-year relationship is on the rocks and she wants my advice. Slowly, I type out a response:
“It’s ultimately your decision, but he’s hurt you so much. He doesn’t accept that you’re asexual, not really, and he pressured you into saying I love you early on. I can’t make the decision for you, but I think you really need to consider whether the relationship is worth salvaging if he’s going to continue to hurt you like this.”
In a year I will learn that he has been raping her since she texted me for advice, maybe longer. I am devastated. How much of her suffering was because I failed to see what was going on, had introduced them, even? That line of thinking is grandiose, but my guilt is no less real. I carry it for months.
When my then-boyfriend finds out, he will tell her, I told you so.
It’s the winter of 2016, and I am kneeling between my boyfriend’s legs in the apartment he shares with two of our friends. One of his hands is in my hair. The off-white carpet cushions my knees; our pet rat scrabbles around softly in his cage behind us. As I come up for breath, the pressure at the back of my head suddenly quadruples: my boyfriend is forcing my head down, moaning as I gag. I can get through this, I think, if I just distance myself like before. Tears spring involuntarily from my eyes. He presses further, further, until I retch, bringing up bile and chunks of partially-digested food.
I apologize and go to the bathroom down the hall to clean myself up.
It’s the spring of 2017, and I am sitting on the bed in my dorm with my friend Jake, watching Kill Bill Volume 1. When we get to the part where The Bride is raped and pimped out by an orderly while comatose, he gasps: “That’s not realistic!” I am irritated by his male naïveté. In the moment I think he means that women couldn’t possibly be subjected to abuse by medical professionals, when I know that, to the contrary, such things happen with dismaying frequency . Later, though, mulling over his remark, I realize that he’s right. It isn’t realistic. The orderly and his client are cartoon rapists, the grimy container of Vaseline tossed between them a signifier, a gesture by Weinstein away from himself. Look, it says, I couldn’t possibly be a rapist. I’m a professional. I don’t have a handlebar moustache and a Caterpillar brand baseball cap and a truck that says Pussy Wagon. I’m respectable. It is a classist foisting off of responsibility. Rape has no class, and often, wealth and privilege provide immunity to the perpetrators who wield them.
It’s the winter of 2017, and I am lying sandwiched between my then-boyfriend and the wooden slats surrounding his twin bed. We are both naked, and have been having sex for over an hour. His medication makes it difficult for him to finish. “Well,” he says accusatorily, “you know what would make me cum.” Though I have told him repeatedly that it hurts, that it makes me feel disgusting, I roll over onto my stomach. I obey his insistence yet again.
It’s the summer of 2020, and I am reading Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. I read it in between nannying shifts; I read it in chairs; I read it in bed. I highlight passage after passage, scribbling in the margins. I am not the type to usually write in books. When I get to his section on varieties of abusive men, a few are immediately familiar: The Victim in particular, who commonly “tells persuasive and heart-rending stories about how he was abused by his former partner,” and “maneuvers the woman into hating [her] and may succeed in enlisting [the new girlfriend] in a campaign of harassment, rumor spreading, or battling for custody.” Guilt over my role in my ex’s devaluation of Roxie re-emerges, though I have since apologized to her—received forgiveness, even. Indignation, too, swells in me: this seems to confirm my suspicion that he has been spreading the same sorts of lies about me that he did about her. I get out my phone, look up his new partner on Instagram. I know of them through mutual friends. They are younger than me by a few years, and I was younger than him by a few more; their large eyes and delicate features appear to radiate the innocence that their age suggests. I snap a picture of a few highlighted passages in the book and press send.
When they respond, they are furious with me. I receive long strings of angry text, enough to make me dissolve into tears, and earn myself a block. So much for solidarity. I should have known better. Roxie tried to warn me too, and look how well that went.
It’s the fall of 2020, and I am reading Amie Whittemore’s poem “The Animal Eyes Go Dark” on the Great River Review website. I read online literary magazines often. There is nothing unusual about this, except that one line in particular is a visceral squeeze, a tightening of the fingers of truth around my gut:
“we know too well the frayed land /
between acquiescence and consent.”
I get my phone out. I find the link on my Android, rather than take a photo of my laptop screen, and send it to my new boyfriend.
“This. This is exactly what it was like.”
He texts back with sympathy, familiar by now with the story of how my ex manipulated me. He didn’t have to do so often—I was well-trained to center his desire—but occasionally, when I did assert a boundary, my ex would wear it away like waves against a rocky shore, asking again and again until I was too tired to continue saying no. My own piece of that frayed land.
It’s January of 2021, and I am reading Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl. The memoir, in which Vanasco interviews a man who raped her 14 years ago, is both familiar and infuriating. Reclining on my couch, less than 200 pages in, I find myself wanting to yell: why she is so, so, so deferential to a man who betrayed her trust in one of the worst possible ways? Yet I, too, equivocate about what happened to me. Mine was less clear cut—he was my boyfriend, I gave in to his pressure—but if there is any lesson to draw from the book, it’s that so many survivors doubt their own experiences. Survivors. It feels problematic to apply the term to myself, but then, doesn’t Vanasco write of her own difficulty in naming her assault: “I don’t want to offend women, such as my friend Nina, whose rapes were more severe than my experience with Mark”? And I know what she means. I am ashamed of the essays I wrote when I was still processing my anger toward my ex, ashamed of having used the term rape for myself when the friend who gave me the book still has flashbacks about her own sexually abusive ex. I’ve never had flashbacks. The occasional abstracted nightmare, but never a flashback.
So, here we are, in the now. Over 2 years have passed since I broke off that nearly 8-year relationship, and yet it comes to mind every time I encounter another piece about rape or abuse. I am still unsure of what to call my experiences: sexual assault sounds too definitive, much less rape; manipulation, though closer to the truth, sounds too soft. The shell I developed around myself after the breakup has been thinning for months now, worn down by reminders that others have survived so much worse. In the end it is Vanasco’s memoir which taps through what remains of the shell to my soft interior. I know a more forgiving reckoning is due: something gentler, more removed, less ablaze with the flames of indignation. I don’t have to rehash every instance of his using me; just enough to remind myself that he did. I will write, this time careful to throw off the mantel of righteous victimhood, about what happened between us, in the hopes that it might help someone else recognize when they are being used. Once more, but quieter. Nobody should have to assume their story isn’t bad enough.
 Perpetrators of Sexual Violence. 20 June 2019, www.new-hope.org/perpetrators-of-sexual-violence/.
 Matis, Aspen. “Continuing a Relationship with a Rapist Doesn’t Mean It Didn’t Happen.” Daily News, 17 Oct. 2018, www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-rape-and-relationships-20181016-story.html.
 Dubois, James M., et al. “Sexual Violation of Patients by Physicians: A Mixed-Methods, Exploratory Analysis of 101 Cases.” Sexual Abuse, vol. 31, no. 5, 2017, pp. 503–523., doi:10.1177/1079063217712217.
MICHAELA MAYER is a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher and poet from Virginia. She holds a B.A. in English from the College of William & Mary and a Ma.Ed. in Elementary Education from the same institution. Her works have been previously published in Burning House Press, Mineral Lit Mag, Minute Magazine, Snapdragon Journal, Winged Nation, Perhappened, Windows Facing Windows, Feral Poetry, Survivor Lit, and Barren Magazine. She can be found on Twitter @mswannmayer5.