February 16, 2011

Like any MIT student would, I’ve studied this and done my research. I’ve read the stories of other survivors online. The stories, though all uniquely horrifying, share certain patterns, none more striking than the fact that no one ever thinks it will happen to her. When you read about it, when it's a scary idea instead of your daily reality, you think you're smart enough to avoid it. You're not slutty, that you're trained in self-defense. You think that in the impossible case that it happens, you'd have no qualms reporting it. You’ve watched enough Law and Order — you know it would be the obvious choice, what the law is. That you would deserve justice, and that you would get it. But it doesn't matter – because you're smarter than that. You won't let it happen to you. It’s horrifying that 90% of survivors on college campuses can identify their attackers, but that won’t happen to you. 1 in 4 women gets assaulted in her life? That’s tragic, but not your life. You won’t let it happen to you.

Then it does. Then you’re on the other side of the statistics.

I’m now part of the 1 in 4. And I have to tell you, it doesn't always hit you right away. It doesn't always hurt right after. Your first reaction isn't always to tell someone. Your second reaction isn't always to go to someone in a position of authority. Sometimes, all you want to do is take a shower and crawl into bed. Sometimes, you don’t even think anything is wrong.

I now fall into the 90% who can identify their attackers, but identify barely covers it. I can tell you his full name, where he lives, where he grew up and what his mother does for a living. I can tell you what I was wearing, down to my shoe and jewelry choice. I can tell you what I drank; I can tell you where it happened. And I can tell you what it felt like to tell the story. I spent four years of my life training and being trained in counseling, how to listen, how to understand pain. And yet I missed my own behavior —the classic behavior of a victim. Every time I told the story it got a little worse, but each time I felt like I was giving an accurate account.

"Oh we hooked up" became "oh we hooked up and he wanted it to go further but we didn't." Then that became "He really wanted to have sex, but I was so not down." Then one day I said it. One day I told the right story. The story that says that you were so drunk you were passing in and out of consciousness on your feet, that says that you went upstairs with him. The story that remembers telling him you're too drunk to climb stairs, that no, he should not get a condom because we are not having sex. The story that remembers what it felt like to wake up, God knows how many minutes later, because your feet hurt because someone forced your legs up against a wall above your head. To wake up with someone inside of you. To realize that someone had stolen your virginity in your sleep. The day you say "he raped me."

You never know how people are going to react when you tell them. You never know if they'll cry, or be shocked, or get angry... or just not believe you. You don't know if they'll blame you, or say it was your fault. But the reaction that in its own way makes the least sense is “But it’s MIT, stuff like that doesn’t happen here.” As if our brilliance makes us impervious to this problem. As if our fraternities are immune to sexism.

By the time I accepted it, I was already falling in love with a very sweet boy in the same social circle. Shortly after we said those famous three words, I decided never to report what had happened, because I couldn't bear to bother him with it—because the person who attacked me was his brother. Besides, I thought, love can fix anything.

And so at first it was great, it was a beautiful distraction, it was fixing it. So what if I couldn't shake the nightmares, my sweet boy was holding me when I woke up panicked in the middle of the night. So what if I still saw my attacker all the time, I was in love with someone who loved me, and that was fixing it. And then, when I wasn't getting help, when I wasn't talking about it, then it started to get worse.

I insisted that everything I do be normal, that our relationship be unaffected by my pain. Force it out with love. Force it out by forcing myself into normalcy. I didn’t realize I was making myself relive it over and over, every night, at the hand of the person I was trusting to help me heal. But after a while, you start thinking you’re broken because being with the person you love doesn’t feel good, doesn’t feel good at all.

Unfortunately our society and especially our institution doesn't prepare people for helping someone through trauma, and, with few exceptions, fraternity culture doesn’t reward anyone for empathy and listening and patience. So one day he realized that most boys don't have to deal with this, with girlfriends who get really quiet after sex. That there are girls who don't take everything so seriously, who are just a good time. That’s when he told me I just wasn't fun anymore, that I was too sad to love.

At almost every point you think it can't get worse. When denial leaves and you feel the blow of acceptance, you think healing means it's all uphill from there. Then when the first person doesn't believe you, you think you'll develop an immunity to the indignity. Then when someone you love more than you could dream of loving yourself leaves because you're too broken, you think well it couldn't hurt more. It can only be better than this nightmare. But escaping it feels impossible.

It was after he left that all of the pain finally hit me. I begged that someone would have the mercy to end my life, because I couldn’t sleep without pills, and every time I woke up the unimaginable pain returned. I stopped eating because I was constantly nauseous. I didn't look when I crossed streets, thinking it wouldn't count as suicide if I was just leaving it up to chance. I didn't make eye contact with people for more than five seconds because odds were that I was going to start crying without warning. I was told that I was unloved and unlovable, and simple daily function was torture.

I'm never going to get justice by any conventional definition of the word. Sexual assault is trapped in darkness, suffocated by awkward social standards and sexism. We think if you're smart it doesn't happen to you. If you're smart you don't do it to other people.

I can talk for hours and hours about that night, the other snippets I remember, about the boy I loved telling me I wasn’t fun or normal because he didn’t know how to support a rape victim. But that’s a horror story that isn’t as important to me as the day I finally understood that I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.

I want you to take away from this what resonates with you, what will make you think, make you listen and make you care. But if you know anything, know this: if you don't understand how to help someone, don't abandon them – get them help. If you don't believe them, ask yourself why someone would, or how someone could, fake that tremendous pain. It doesn't always leave a physical mark like a beating, or signs of something missing as if you were robbed, but no marks doesn't mean no pain, and no signs doesn't mean they haven't been robbed of something far more meaningful than money or belongings.

I’m a firm believer, however, that beautiful things can come from the dark. So what you can give —what you must give —is light. Please – give light.