TRIGGER WARNING!!!!The following is a factual account of a sexual assault that occurred in May 2013. Readers may find content extremely disturbing and/or triggering.
It was mid-May 2013.
I’m not sure of the date. Joe R***** and I went out after work to have some drinks. We were meeting up with some of his friends and one of mine. We had been out together twice before — once soon after I started the job, in late summer 2012, and again in March 2013 at a house party for one of our mutual co-workers. We had previous light sexual contact (kissing) before the May 2013 incident.
I drove to Joe’s apartment after my shift. We did shots of Jim Beam, maybe 2 or 3 each. Then we walked downtown to Connor O’Neils. His friends were there. We danced. I had a beer. I think only one, but maybe two. My friend, Geof, showed up later. We did Irish Car Bomb shots. We left the bar and walked back to Joe’s apartment. Geof had some cocaine that we were going to snort.
I had never done cocaine.
When we got to his place, I felt very sick. I went into the bathroom and threw up. I stayed on the bathroom floor for a long time. I went into a dark bedroom, away from the kitchen light. I laid down and passed out. Joe and Geof stayed up in the kitchen, doing lines of coke. I don’t know for how long.
My friend Geof came in to the bedroom to tell me he was leaving.
I don’t know if this is an actual memory, or just a memory of Geof telling me what happened. I can’t remember. I don’t remember Joe getting into bed with me. I remember seeing the street light outside the window, through the blinds. I don’t remember him taking off my clothes. I was clothed when I laid down.
remember him on top of me. I remember him whispering words. I remember him slapping the side of my face and saying, “Stay with me.” I remember wishing I could be sober so I could stop him from having sex with me. But I couldn’t stay awake. I didn’t have control over my muscles; I couldn’t even get up to walk to the bathroom.
A few hours later, still in the early morning, it happened again. This time I was already naked. This time, he finished. I fell bask asleep. I woke up a few hours later and got up to go to the bathroom. I grabbed a shirt of his off the floor to cover up. I felt something wet on my thigh and I realized he had ejaculated inside of me. I asked him about it when he woke up. He said yes, that he did, and that it had been “stupid” of him. I told him I wasn’t on birth control. I asked if he had STDs, because he didn’t use a condom. He said no. I told him I would get the morning after pill.
He watched me as I got dressed. I left.
Three months later, I had an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured, destroying my right Fallopian tube and nearly killing me. I had emergency surgery. The doctor said it was about three months along.
I came back to work after three weeks.
I told Joe I needed to talk to him. One night after work, outside, I told him that about the pregnancy, the helicopter ride, the surgery. I told him it was his because I hadn’t had unprotected sex with anyone else. My boyfriend and I always used a condom. I told Joe I was mad he didn’t use a condom because it almost killed me. I said that if I’d had a choice, I wouldn’t have had sex with him. He said I was “still a good egg.”
I never talked to him again. In December 2014, I left him a letter. It told him I had been in therapy, in a support group. That I was taking a leave for PTSD. That I had been scared of him, but I wasn’t anymore. I wrote that he had raped me, and didn’t apologize when he had the chance. I asked him to pay the remaining $500 of my hospital bills.
I got a series of texts from him the day he read the letter.
“Can i talk to you about your letter at all? If not, how can i go about paying my share?”
“I am sorry. Truly sorry.”
“I’m sorry for your emergency trip and the surgery and all of the terrible things that came after, to be clear. I believed all sexual contact between us was consensual. … “
I emailed him a few days later to ask that all further contact with me be conducted through email.
We have not had any contact since.
This is my experience of my rape, presented in the most factual way possible. Noted out are the parts of the story that could not be confirmed independently by someone other than myself or my rapist.
This is how a journalist thinks. This is how a journalist must think. There’s an old joke: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
A newspaper would never run an assault story like this. Not unless there was a police report. Or unless it was an accusation of a school/church/official mishandling claims. Or if either the accused or the accuser were famous.
This is not a criticism of journalism: It’s the sad and unfortunate truth that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about sexual assault. They’re disturbingly commonplace.
But the fact that I’m a journalist and that my attacker was a journalist has always made me wonder: How would the people in our newsroom approach this assault as a news story? Assuming every piece of information that could be verified was important enough to verify.
Would they find his friends? The bartenders? Confirm how many drinks I had? Question Joe’s roommate about the sounds of retching coming from the bathroom? Track down Geof in Vietnam to attest to my physical condition at the time? Would that even matter, given that the largest chunk of my story, the only parts that pertain to the actual sexual contact, would be deemed completely inadmissible?
After all, there were only us two there. Only us two, with our potentially conflicting versions of the story. Even my story is in patches. Like all traumatic memories, it is not a neat, clean, linear narrative. It is jagged; patches of sights and sounds and sensations.
This is how someone’s experience, someone’s truth, is transformed into he said/she said. When we hear of rape victims coming forward, telling their stories, these are the parts that are parsed out, questioned, doubted.
“Just the facts, ma’am.”
As a journalist, I’m a firm believer in the facts being enough to draw a reasonable conclusion. And there are certainly more facts to this story, ones that can be confirmed by outside parties. My therapy, which can be traced in payments of thousands of dollars over several months. My presence for the past 18 months in a support group. My two-month leave from work; my diagnosis of PTSD. My panic attacks at work were largely invisible, but did anyone take note of my shifting attitude, my increasingly dour silences?
Shouldn’t this secondary evidence be considered? We mark behavioral changes in children as evidence of abuse, but what of adults? Are my personal struggles facts that bolster my story or merely circumstantial tidbits to be tossed aside?
And what of my character? I shudder to imagine those conversations. It’s technically not allowed to be used in courtroom arguments anymore, and it would be frowned upon in journalism, I think. But there’s always someone asking: What’s she getting out of this? How do we know we can trust her? There is always an edge of doubt — despite the statistics that false reporting of rape hovers around 1-2% — always the fleeting thought that anyone reporting this sensitive crime, instead of hiding away in shame, is seeking attention.
I’m not arguing that journalists should alter the way they report on sexual assaults. If you asked me what to change and how, I wouldn’t have an answer for you. I am as much a journalist as I am a survivor, and it’s hard as hell to unify those disparate parts of myself.
I think the reason it took so long for me to seek help, to admit to myself that there was a problem, was that I was approaching it as a journalist: There was sexual contact, but we had both been drinking. I couldn’t remember much, so who’s to say what really happened?
It took months of pointed questions from my support group — If you were awake and participating, why did he have to slap your face and say, ‘Stay with me’? Why did he call you a ‘good egg’ when you told him? That implies that YOU did something wrong. Would your boyfriend have done the same thing in the same situation? How about your guy friends? — before I could begin to admit that something was off.
I framed my experience in different terms: What if this happened to a friend of mine? Would I tell her the things I told myself, that is was OK, no big deal, just another bad night of drinking, another regrettable sexual decision? Or would I be upset — angry even — on her behalf?
I still believe in journalism. It is essential to a free, informed society. I still believe in its power and prestige. But in order to believe in myself more, I had to start believing in journalism less. Because as great as it is, as integral and as influential, it does not have all the answers. Not for me. Not for other survivors.
The kind of support we need will never be found on a newspaper page or a web article. The kind of belief we need to cultivate in ourselves can only come from others.
I’m not sure how being a journalist has helped me survive. But I know that surviving, choosing to heal from sexual assault, has made me a better journalist.
I have learned how to listen more intently; I have been forced to practice honesty; I have reaffirmed that my intuition is a powerful force, to be trusted. I have changed my interactions with people, gained appreciation for experiences both dissimilar and familiar to mine. And again and again, I have asked the hard questions — of myself and others — and prepared myself for the difficult answers.
What I wasn’t prepared for was my shaken faith in journalists.
Journalism was my first refuge from an unkind world. When I stepped into that college newsroom, I belonged somewhere — for the very first time in my life. Here there were people who were a little bit funny, a little bit nerdy, and a whole lot skeptical. They labored for answers when most people didn’t even bother asking. And I fit right in.
We are supposed to be the good guys, defenders of truth and justice in a false and unjust society. I never expected to find a predator here, a wolf among shepherds. But I walked straight into his lair.
Maybe that was my last and final lesson as a journalist — question everything, and everybody. Trust no one, not even your own peers.
As a human being, what I learned was different. It was something that perhaps I should have realized long ago: Perpetrators come from all walks of life. They are preachers, they are coaches, they are friends and soldiers. They are young and old, male and female (but mostly male. As a journalist, I feel duty bound to report that factoid.).
Overwhelmingly, they are someone you know and trust.
But “trust no one” is not an ethos for life. You can’t live that way. I tried, for years, and it left me more broken than before. Instead, what I finally learned is not to trust or distrust an entire group of people based on personal association.
I am a survivor. I am also a journalist. Within those spheres, there are good people and bad people — but mostly good. And those are the ones I’m choosing to believe in.
I have yet to encounter someone in this newsroom who reacted negatively to my truth as a survivor. They have accepted and embraced me and my story not as journalists, but as people. And I have learned to do the same.
I am not going to leave the survivor behind. I have to learn to embrace her, for all her strengths AND weaknesses. Neither can I reject journalism because of how it fails me as a victim. I have a foot in both worlds, and I’m learning how to stay balanced.