I don’t know a sexual assault survivor who doesn’t have regrets. I’ve never met a single woman who didn’t say, if I hadn’t been walking alone, or if I had only fought harder or I knew better than to get in that car. No matter how many times people tell you it isn’t your fault, those doubts, those “what ifs” always linger. What if I hadn’t been out so late? What if I had screamed louder? What if I hadn’t been drunk?
What if I could have stopped him?
Everyone tells you there’s no way you could have. That the whole point of rape is to overpower, to control. It is not your fault.
So why don’t we believe that?
The best theory I have been able to come up with is survival. Our brains have an amazing capacity for protecting us from the worst shit, and have built-in mechanisms to defend not just from physical attacks, but psychological ones as well. Most of us have heard the term “fight or flight” and have a general idea of what it means. Overly simplified, it’s your brain’s spidey-sense. Those survival instincts that tell you, in the moment, that guy jogging over there is dangerous; I should or shouldn’t follow this person’s commands; now’s the moment I could maybe escape. That part of your brain is also the one sending out signals to your body that make your heart pound, your breathing fast, and cause adrenaline to rocket through your veins. It’s a tiny, almond-shaped organ called the amygdala, and it’s got a shitload of power. It’s operating on hyper drive before, during, and unfortunately, long after a traumatic event like a sexual assault. And I think it’s part of what keeps us stuck in self-blame.
Why would a rape victim prefer to believe that she had some responsibility in the attack? Because to admit that she was blameless is to also admit that she was powerless. If you had some culpability, if there was another decision you could have made to stop it, then you still have a crumb of control to hold onto. But when you fully grasp the concept that it was really not your fault, then also you give up that illusion of control. You have to accept the reality of everything that you lost: power, control, dignity, security, bodily integrity, and so much more. It’s a little different for every person, the things that were lost. Correction: the things that were stolen. And I believe it’s the unconscious reticence to fall into that abyss of grief and loss that keeps people blaming themselves. There is also, of course, posttraumatic stress disorder and the physiological hypervigilance that keeps you in survival mode, keeps you thinking and acting like your still in the attack. When that’s very active, I don’t even know that it’s possible to reach a place of acceptance like is necessary in order to grieve. You don’t hold funerals in the middle of the war zone; the soldiers have to get safely home first.
When it comes to this idea of regrets, I have an interesting perspective. As a child, I was raped and molested from the ages of three to nine by my father. Then when I was sixteen, I was raped by a stranger. The ways that society responds to incest as opposed to stranger rape are somewhat discouraging. I found that people are much more sympathetic to the idea of a stranger blitz attacking you once than your father sneaking into your bedroom at night for years. Why? Well, there’s a great deal of shame involved, certainly. I think it’s easier to say you were attacked by a random person than a family member. And when you report being raped by a stranger, you aren’t risking breaking up your entire family while admitting that your mom unknowingly married a pedophile and you’re his kid. Because believe me, that sucks. And I can’t tell you how often I actually wished that if I had to have been raped, it could have just been one really brutal stranger rape instead of all those nights in my own bed as a child. If I could, I would still go back and make that trade. If it meant that I could have had an actual father who supported and loved me instead of the man I actually grew up with, but then had to go through something really hideous as an adult, I would take that. Because the way I see it, when you demolish a house, if there’s a solid foundation you can start rebuilding right away. But if the foundation is shit, then you have to dig an even bigger hole and start from scratch. My foundation was shit. And then my house got demolished.
And those aren’t the only regrets I have, the only wishes and trades I’d make. I have no idea who raped me when I was sixteen. None. And I never will. I didn’t report it, there was no evidence collected, I never said a word to anyone until almost three years later. And I didn’t really tell the whole story until eight years later, when I was twenty-four. I wish that I had. Sometimes I think, you know what, if it happened to me now, if it happened again, THIS guy would not get away with it. I think about how I would do everything right this time: go to the hospital immediately, do a rape kit, a police report, take care of myself medically and psychologically. I’d follow up on the case and make sure that the DA went through with prosecution, I’d get up on the witness stand and be strong under cross examination. I’d get a conviction this time. I would get justice. And that would make up for all the injustice of the past.
Just a few problems with this little fantasy. One, I don’t live in an episode of Law & Order SVU. Two, I think I’ve experienced enough sexual assault for one lifetime; I’ll pass on the refresher course. Three, let’s say for the sake of argument that everything I stated above happened. One perpetrator was convicted. Does that really make up for the ones that weren’t? Even thinking that it could is such an impoverished brand of justice, it makes my heart break. Can there even be justice with such a crime as rape? I really don’t know.
What I do know is that there is a way to live after rape. There is a way to pick up the pieces of your heart and your life and your body, and put them back in a way that fits, even if it isn’t exactly like the original. There is a way to move forward without one eye constantly trained on the past, and a way to settle back into your own skin, your own soul. As for justice? From what I understand, justice is societal; revenge is personal. And I don’t believe in revenge. Except, of course, in the form of living well– without regrets.
© Sarah Ann Henderson 2010