Tag Archives: rape

I See You. I Believe You. I’m With You.

I, like so many, have been glued to my screens following Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at today’s Senate hearing. I don’t think I need to sum up the details of the case; if you haven’t heard, you haven’t been paying attention–and shame on you for that. Ford’s testimony today and her leveraging a sexual assault accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is important for so many reasons.

I sat down on my bed and I watched Ford go through everything that happened to her thirty plus years ago. She was strong and consistent and an amazing witness. But it was one of her first statements that stuck with me: “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.”

Terrified. But in four hours of questioning, Ford did not stumble at all. She was steady and sure. She did not ask for what happened to her so many years ago. She did not ask to have to relive the nightmare in front of the entire world. She certainly did not ask to be an example to others. But as she sat before that committee, in her strength, she is. And today, she is my hero.

If this brave woman can come forward and tell the entire world, because the world is watching, about this horrible thing that happened to her, that means the rest of us can too. The fact of the matter is, we live in a world now where the President of the United States does not support women. Where survivors are mocked, not believed, accused of having faulty memories. This sort of response is why so many do not report sexual assault. THIS sort of response creates a culture where sexual assault is okay. A lack of report does not negate the horror of assault. Survivors do not report for so many reasons–fear, shame, guilt, to name a few–but that does not make what happened to them any less real.

I think it’s important to remember on a day like today, as we look to Dr. Ford, that we also live in a world now where survivors are banding together, stronger together, and saying that this is not okay. Much of the world stopped today to watch this hearing. Work stopped. School stopped. People watched on the train, in waiting rooms, in their cars at the side of the highway. And that says something.

We are watching. We are listening. We are still here, and you will hear us. None of this is okay.

It’s time now to do more than just say words. It’s time to stand up. To do something. To believe. And so, Dr. Ford, I see you. I believe you. I’m with you. I was raped, and I can only wish I was as brave as you are. You are not alone. Your fellow survivors are standing with you.

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What I Didn’t Say

I had never been to the baseball diamond in our town before. It was a night right before our wedding, and reaching backwards in memory, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been on any baseball diamond. Except for one time, in seventh grade…

His hand was in my pants.

In seventh grade, my gym teacher tried to teach our class how to play baseball. I couldn’t get past learning how to grip the bat, and I never hit the ball that year, no matter how hard I tried. I was that kid nobody wanted on their team; I was the one who got booed every time I went up to the plate.

He wanted me. His hand was in my pants, and I didn’t know what to do, and all I could think about was standing on that baseball field in seventh grade. He felt his way inside of my underwear. Yes? No? Other? I didn’t know what to say. I never knew what to say.

The more I got booed in gym class, the less I wanted to play. I sat on the bench behind home plate, and I cried because I knew my turn was coming and I would have to do what was expected of me, but I didn’t know what that was.

One finger grazed my skin, pressing down, and it hurt. I wondered offhandedly if it was supposed to. I did not say yes, but I did not say no. Was there something wrong with me? Had my childhood irrevocably fucked me up in terms of liking sex?

No, I knew what to do, I just wasn’t an athlete. Stand behind the plate. Plant my feet. Grip the bat, not too tight, not too loose. Swing. Hit. Run. I knew what to do, but I couldn’t do it.

He wanted to touch me, but I had no interest in touching him. I became certain that I was broken. I did not say yes, but I did not say no. I didn’t know I could say no.

I wanted my classmates to like me, but I wasn’t good enough and I never would be. I gave up. I took detention after detention rather than go up to that plate. I almost failed gym. I didn’t care.

“Why don’t you ever do it back?” he asked quietly. “Don’t you like me that way?”

I didn’t know what to say; if this was how love worked, I wasn’t sure I loved him back. But I needed to. I needed him to stay. So I did not say yes, but I also did not say no.

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The Hardest Thing

I did all the right things after I was raped. I drove myself to the hospital; I had a rape kit done. I tried to file charges. To this day, I don’t know how I did those things. Blind courage? A desperate carnal need to survive? To win, for once? It was not the first time I’d been raped; it was the first time I’d tried to fight back. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I lost.

Two days later, I returned to my regularly scheduled life, already in progress. I spent the day hidden behind a curtain of hair and a ratty gray sweatshirt hood. I thought that everybody knew, that everybody could see me. I didn’t want them to see me. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Yet I wanted to scream it, I wanted one person to hear me, truly hear me, to understand. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone, I wanted someone to tell me it would be okay, that I didn’t have to cut it, cut him, out of me. 

But I screamed nothing. I said nothing. I was nothing. No one would ever understand; no one would ever feel the magnitude of the weight I was carrying.

A friend put a notebook and a pen in my lap. She looked at me, tried unsuccessfully to hide her tears, and told me to write it out.

Write it out.

I had never written much by way of nonfiction before then; I didn’t think it was a craft I could master. I’d written stories, sure, but all fiction. Writing about myself, my real self, was different. I found myself there, again, with that paper and pen. I made a decision to cry my tears and then stuff them inside and not talk about it, but I wrote about it. No one would hear me, but I knew that people would read. For me, writing was talking. In many ways, it still is. But I found it hard to write, to say, rape. It’s such a powerful word. I’d see it and my hands would start to shake. My breath would grow stuttered. My body would grow cold.

But rape is just a word. A noun. I decided to look it up, to take it back. To make it mine, in the only way I could–by writing it down. Webster Dictionary has several definitions for said noun, including:

  1. Unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will
  2. An outrageous violation
  3. An act or instance of robbing or carrying away a person by force

Rape is also a verb.

  1. To commit rape on
  2. To seize and take away by force.

And at its best, an agricultural term:

  1. An Old World herb of the mustard family
  2. A plant related to mustard that is grown for animals to graze on
  3. Rapeseed; bird food
  4. The pomace of grapes left after expression of the juice

That last definition is my favorite; the idea that the use of the word rape as a sexual assault term came from the concept of squeezing a grape so hard that you force the literal guts out of it.

The grape didn’t ask to be raped.

I didn’t either.

Once upon a time, I wrote a story about a coyote and a little woodland creature. A rabbit, maybe? I can’t find it now, but it was your basic fairytale–the rabbit happily ran through the forest with all of its rabbit friends, oblivious of the existence of the coyote. The coyote loved the rabbit, so he followed it everywhere, always careful to stay at a distance. One day, the coyote tried to eat the rabbit. The rabbit got away, survived, but it always remembered what the coyote howled after the rabbit jumped from its gaping maw: Say nothing. Trust no one.

It’s obvious. The coyote is my rapist, and the rabbit is me. But I couldn’t say that then. I can say it now. Because rape? It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s a thing that happened to me, but not a thing I asked for. Not a thing I deserved.

I have written so many pages of material on being raped, about rape, about surviving. I will never grow tired of writing about it, because I think that the issue needs to be talked about. The most important thing I’ve learned through my writing is that I need to make myself show up. Not just be physically present, but really show up, let my walls down, present myself, my story, with no apologies, and be there to be with it. To sit with it. To own it. Because that’s the most important part of my experience–not how well I write it, but how well I own it. How well I use it to help others over feeling sorry for myself.

Every time I’ve kept silent, hidden myself, my story, every time I tell myself I’m not worth as much as other people, every time I think about giving up, I am giving my attacker what he wanted all along. I am letting him own me. I am letting him win. It’s important, I think, to own the word and therefore the experience, to draw the map of that violation on our bodies, to write and speak our stories to reach others who share our stories so that we all know that we aren’t alone.

We aren’t alone.

I learned that being abused was normal. I learned that my attacker had the power, that I had none of it. But the word rape belongs to me now, and I own the power over all of these experiences. Someone important to me told me today: “We have to wrap them up and store them and start over. Consider it like moving. When you move from one place to another, you pack up what you need and want to take with you and leave the rummage behind for the pickers. LEAVE IT BEHIND. It is a mental choice to move forward, and it is the hardest thing you will do.”

It took me a long time to find one person who truly understood who I was, what I’d been through. One person who I could be myself with, no apologies. I found that friendship through writing. I kept writing, and suddenly I had two people. Two people who understood. And then more. I don’t know where I’d be without them now, and I wish that everybody could have this. A safe space. People to talk to, that they trust. This week, I stopped using my pen name. I started being myself. I wrote my experience, I owned my experience. I put my name on that experience and I sat with it and proudly said, “Yes, this happened to me. And I survived it.”

I want to create that safe space, here. Together, we write. This is how we speak. And as we speak, we pack things up. We command them, we control them, we bend and shape them to our will, and no one else’s. And then, emotionally, we leave them behind. We write, we move forward. It is a mental choice, to move forward, and it is the hardest thing we will ever do.

 

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The Bite

I can still feel the dog’s teeth hooked into my calf, can still hear the sound of huffed breathing through his snout intermingled with the weirdest most inhuman growling I’d ever been privy too, can still smell blood. It doesn’t smell like you’d think. When I close my eyes, I remember what it felt like, that moment when I realized that he wasn’t letting go, when I realized that this job I had only just realized was so truly important to me could actually kill me.

I remember the sound his head made when I hit it with the fridge door, the clunk of skull against metal as he reset and grabbed my boot. I remember the blood that trickled down, that still stains my right boot two months later, remember the rip up the jeans leg of the pants I had just purchased two days before.

I remember going back in, after, to see the dog’s tail wagging, but the instant I moved, his eyes regressed back into whatever aggressive mode had overtaken him. He’d forgotten me. I slammed the door on him; I tried to forget him.

I can’t.

He has left me afraid.

I remember thinking why me, back then. I think it now. Why did I move across the country, why did I come all this way into this job that I loved only to be scared of it? And I can talk about it until I’m blue in the face, for lack of a more creative expression, but people don’t get what it’s like to default to a state of fear. To see a dog running at me with its teeth out and automatically assume it’s going to eat my face. I would have been different, before. I would have turned my back, dropped into a neutral position, taken that possible nip on my fingers when I offered my hand. But everything is different now. I am different now. Now? I freeze. And dogs sense that. They seize on it. I’ve had more bites in the last two months than I have had in nearly four years.

I can clearly label them, the squares that make up the quilt that is my fear, and I use them to hide behind so I don’t have to make myself be better.

I see a knife against my throat in the backseat of a car, feel a seatbelt in my back, smell the scent of garlic, feel the winter cold on my naked lower half as this man I hate presses hard against me; this is every time a man gets too close on the sidewalk, on the train, every time a man even looks at me strangely. I feel less than for being afraid.

I see my dead son, any time I try to get close to someone, because I know that eventually everything ends. Everyone dies, and we go in a fridge, and that is the end of that. I fear relationships, so I treasure the ones I do have.

And I see this dog, this damn stupid dog, at a time in my life when I thought I conquered all the things. When I thought I was not afraid.

I’ve been challenged to publicly demolish my fears, to tell myself that one bad event doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, doesn’t mean I deserved all the events, doesn’t mean I should be afraid. I think I owe this dog a thank you, honestly, that I need to look at what happened as a reminder that I can actually handle a lot of bullshit. Because name a major traumatic event, and I’ve probably survived it. And I can survive more. I can survive divorce and child death and abuse and rape and I can survive being mauled by a dog because I am absolutely more than all of these things.

So the next time a dog runs at me, or a man sits weirdly close to me and leers creepily, or someone I know has a baby, I will make a choice–a choice to not be afraid, a choice to remember that my personal quilt actually makes me better, stronger. I know I won’t always be successful at this. But I will try. And that’s enough.

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The Stain

My students were a rowdy bunch, a consequence of teaching drama–and not a bad one, just one that tried the patience sometimes. Especially when I had to drive them places. The youngest was eating pomegranate seeds that Thursday night that resembled reddish purple unpopped popcorn kernels. It became a fun game to squeeze them between his second finger and his thumb so that the juice would drip out into his mouth, sometimes missing and gracing his chin, his coat, my car seats. Pomegranate juice seemed small in comparison to the rotting pumpkin I’d once kept in my car trunk for over a year, but it bothered me for some reason–which is how I found myself in the garbage the next day, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the backseat of my car with Lysol wipes and hoping the dumb stain would come out, but knowing it was already set.

It’s funny, really, how quickly stains work sometimes. They hit the fabric and it’s sink or swim; either in or out. And if it’s in, god pity that fabric. The fabric didn’t ask to be stained. It didn’t ask for that pomegranate juice to spread slowly and mingle in with the gray threads. And yet there it was, a stain I hadn’t gotten to fast enough because I’d been driving that had now permeated and completely altered the makeup of my backseat. I thought about replacing the fabric, or buying covers for the seats. I never did.

I asked him, once. What I’d done to make him hate me so much. He told me I was a stain, that I had brought my blackness in and ruined everything. When he bled me there, when he ripped me apart in that backseat, the pomegranate stain was the least of my concerns. There it was, this bigger, darker stain, and I stared at the pomegranate blotch and it stared back at me and I felt the change within me, the volta, as I ripped apart and came together. His stain bled into the fabric that made me me, and I came out different as it permeated and completely altered my being.

There was a bigger stain now, darker, one I had no hope of ever erasing. The game then became living with, managing, the stain. I had to live with the stain, as you do, because there would be no replacing, no covering, no changing. You can’t reverse when it’s your true self that’s stained. But you can grow. Grow, and change, and own the stain and make it a part of you. Find others with the stain, stand together, make a union and be strong until it’s not a stain at all, but just a thing that is carried.

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Let’s Talk About Matt Lauer

My roommate walks a dog in a building in Chelsea. Monday night, a woman was trying to come in the service entrance and she got attacked when the doorman didn’t open the door fast enough. The response of one of the other doormen was something along the lines of “well, women should take self defense classes and carry pepper spray,” a go-to that seems much too common. In my head, I’m thinking “well, okay. So a woman gets attacked because she didn’t take self defense classes or carry pepper spray?” I took self defense classes. I carried pepper spray (and still do). I got attacked.

It seems so simple to me. Why, instead of telling woman to find means to protect themselves that don’t necessarily work, don’t we just tell men to stop attacking women? I’ve been going round and round in my head on this all week. It’s not rocket science to me. It’s not hard. DO. NOT. ATTACK. WOMEN.

And then I woke up this morning to a flurry of news notifications on my phone: Matt Lauer got fired from The Today Show after sexual harassment allegations. According to Buzzfeed, Lauer had a button wired in his office that would lock the door without him having to get up. (Whatcha doing that for, Matt?) The New York Post and CNN both report that Lauer “behaved inappropriately” while covering the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. The New York Times discusses Lauer summoning a colleague to his office and having sex with her, which she didn’t decline out of fear for her job. And Variety lists a slew of Lauer’s offenses, including a sex toy he gave a coworker as a gift along with a note that told her how much he wanted to use it.

I tried to think about what I would say about this whole thing; I’ve been considering the issue since the Weinstein story broke. Because sexual harassment/assault is not a new issue, nor is it a secret that I feel passionately about the issue. I’ve said a lot about it, and I will continue to say a lot about it. But it’s on a new level now; not because these people, from Weinstein to Lauer, are “celebrities,” but because of the spotlight their status puts on the issue. Society should not care more just because these men are celebrities. Yet, it does. So much more notice has been taken.

In the midst of my pondering, I stumbled on a friend’s Facebook post; she seemed sad, so I clicked through the screenshots she had posted, which made me sad. And then mad. Here are some of the highlights from the comments section, used with her permission:

“What happened to calling 911 when you are violated??? Not waiting years??!!!”

“It’s an incident hat allegedly happened 20 years ago. Women can explain they fear for their jobs and … that’s why they never come forward but … if you are going to sell your dignity for a job, if you aren’t going to stand up for yourself or someone else out of fear then you are part responsible for the conduct continuing … Matt Lauer should have the benefit of the doubt here, and I feel as though it’s the trendy thing and he’s now being made an example of.”

“Women are human beings, so it would follow that they are more than capable of committing terribly unethical acts for the sake of self interest. There’s no statistic to cite here about a ratio of honest vs. dishonest accusations.”

Allow me to soap box for a moment? (Who am I kidding? It’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.)

If someone is holding a knife to my throat, nope, I’m not going to call 911. I’d like to live, thanks. Will I call after? Maybe? I might be too afraid, for myself, for what might happen. For what people will think of me when they know. Hell, I don’t discuss what happened to me outside my working manuscript in anything but vague tones because I am afraid of what will happen when he finds it. Cause let’s be real, he will find it. And since when is rape trendy? Rape isn’t trendy, thank you very much. Please name me one victim who stands up and says “YES PLEASE RAPE ME.” You can’t? Didn’t think so. The recent roster of accusations is not a trend at all, but rather an outpouring of hope–the more women who realize it is okay to stand up and say “this is not okay,” the more women will be paying attention, and the less these sorts of things will happen. THIS is a trend that we want to have; a trend where the responsibility is on the attacker to not attack! And really…why would someone lie about being raped? I understand that it happens (anywhere from two to ten percent); however, cases based on a lie rarely make it to any substantial stage of prosecution. It takes a “special” person to spin that kind of lie, and I do not mean that in a good way. Why draw that kind of negative attention on yourself? What would even be the point? And why, when the percentage of false accusers is so small, does society just default to “the woman is lying” before considering that statistically, she’s probably not?

Cry me a river that Lauer lost his job today. It sounds like he deserved it, like the allegations had enough proof behind them to warrant immediate action. I’m sure lots of people loved him, but that doesn’t change the things he did. People are so angry about it, so filled with hate towards these women, and I don’t understand them–nor do I desire to do so.

Lauer getting fired seems to be the tipping point for a lot of people in both directions–men stop attacking women versus women stop getting attacked–but the fact of the matter is, the overarching issue isn’t about Lauer at all. It’s about the fact that scared woman suffered something 20 years ago and finally had the courage to come forward because of ALL THE OTHER WOMEN who also came forward. Yup, it’s a lot of women, and, to quote the social media multitude, “it’s too many.” Women everywhere are standing up, together, and they’re telling everyone who’ll listen that this is not okay. And it’s NOT. It’s not okay for men to use a position of authority to coerce women into sex. It’s not okay for men to slip drugs into a woman’s drink at a bar or a party, to grab a woman in an alley, to throw a woman in the back seat of a car, or in anyway put a woman in a position where she is expected to have sex without consent.

Imma gonna say it again: This. Is. Not. Okay.

So let’s talk about Lauer. But let’s talk about Lauer for the right reasons. Before you take the time to cry outrage over the fire of a beloved tv news icon, take the time to consider what it really means. A vote for undoing this termination is a vote for redoing silence. And NO ONE should have to be silent. Everyone deserves their chance to be heard.

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Carry That Weight

It isn’t often that I watch a tv show that actually truly affects me, much less one that does so in a positive manner. Game of Thrones got me all fired up when they once again used the rape of a female character to unnecessarily advance the arc of a male, a plot device created by the show that wasn’t in the books — and don’t bash me friends, but I won’t watch it anymore, and that’s my choice. Mike and Molly spurred on a conversation with my grandmother (it was her favorite show) about how the jokes they made at the expense of LGBT persons were not acceptable. Two Broke Girls? Well, that show is all over the place as a mockery of feminism, even though you think it would be the opposite. 
This summer though, I found a different sort of show called The Bold Type. The Bold Type is Freeform’s latest entry into the adult market. I encouraged my friends to watch it, and I coined it as a fun example of how woman can balance work and sex and just generally being female while being amazing, a great example of how sexy can also fall under feminist, and vice versa. Yes, it’s a younger show. Yes, it can be a bit fluffy. But damn can it hit on the issues. My favorite arc of the season, and I’m not even sure favorite is the right word here, was the immigration storyline involving a lesbian woman facing deportation who was not allowed to be a lesbian in her home country. It was hard hitting, honest, and true–things I look for in a show that tend to make shows without fall flat on their faces. Favorite until last night anyway. 
Last night’s episode was based on the personal art/performance piece, Carry That Weight. If you read my blog, I’m sure you’ve heard of it–I have a pretty specific audience. A college student named Emma Sulkoicz carried her 50 pound mattress around the Columbia campus every day, pledging to do so until the man who raped her either faced justice, was expelled, or left campus by some other means. Her attacker faced no charges, and Emma carried that mattress until she graduated. Along the way, others would help her carry the weight so that she wasn’t alone. I wanted to write my critical thesis about Emma, as we were in school in the same city at the same time with a similar pain, but I didn’t–which seems silly now. 
My roommate and I were sitting on my bed last night watching the season (series? I hope not!) finale of The Bold Type, and I knew right away what the girl in the park with the scales of justice represented. The main character, Jane, pitched an article idea where she would interview this girl for the magazine (the show is based off of the woman who work at Cosmo), but her editor, Jacqueline, was resistant. “You have to do it right. It’s a sensitive story. I don’t know if you’ve grown enough to do it right.” In an effort to get attention back on Mia, the survivor, Jane installs a webcam in the park. Jacqueline was taken aback: “But how does that help? Who is standing with her?? Who is supporting her??” The comments of online viewers to Mia’s pain just weren’t enough. At the climatic moment of the episode, Jane and her two best friends go to Mia and stand with her. In this version of the project, the girls could not take the weight for Mia because they were not survivors. Jacqueline, however, could, (a fact I predicted much earlier in the episode) and did, with silence and grace (while I hugged the stuffed pony that lives in my headboard). At the end of the episode, Jacqueline allowed herself to be interviewed for Jane’s story. Jane asked her how it felt to discuss something she had never discussed before, never reported, and if she had ever gotten back to normal after the rape. Jacqueline replied: “You find a new normal, and it works so well that sometimes you don’t even know that it’s not. And I don’t think I realized how much of the weight I was still carrying.”
This episode is important to me for so many reasons. First and foremost, there is zero time devoted to the violence–it’s all devoted to the living. To the after. To what it’s like to be a rape survivor in a world that continues to move on like nothing happened; to survive when time has stopped for you but goes on for everyone else. It’s important because we, the survivors, are out there. We are riding the train. We are walking your dogs. We are serving your coffee. We are writing in blogs. We are normal, but we are not “your” normal, because that normal is gone for us, and we live in the world that someone else made for us. So we go on, like Jacqueline, and we shape that world to be the best we can, to be our new normal, to hopefully be even better than what came before. 
I like to think I’ve done that. But what came to me last night was the reminder that I am clearly passionate about this subject and do not do enough to serve that passion. I ran from my book because it scared me. I ran from writing because I don’t want to write about anything else, not in the same way I write about this. 
I am a survivor who carries my own weight. And I’m happy in my life. I love my job, I love my dogs. I love writing, even though I’m not doing it so it SEEMS like I don’t. But I want to do more. I want to use my new normal to help others make their own new normal; I want to be that person, even though it’s a completely unrealistic idea, who makes sure that no one else carries their weight alone. I can work with dogs and understand their pain, sure, but I cannot let that be enough for me when there is so much more to be done. 
I don’t know other survivors, not in person, but I’d like to find them. I’d like to share the weight, theirs and mine. I’d like to finish, really finish, my book, to show the weightless that we are out here and we are okay. To help them understand that they too can help us carry the weight. 
We, the survivors, are out here. We are out in the world, and we are normal but also not normal, because we are our own normals. So why are we not these new normals together?
PS, Y’all should watch this show. 

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There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

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Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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Pedro (On Wrestling With Our Ghosts)

As part of the more boring managerial aspect of my job, I commute in to the doggy daycare a few days a week with my laptop to do my staffing work in the presence of fluffy canines and people who don’t really give a crap what I do as long as things get done. I bought a laptop bag solely for this purpose, a sixty dollar messenger bag laptop carrying wonder that rests across my body and tucks under my armpit for safety. As an added bonus, it has a small zipper pocket on the outside of the front panel that’s just the right size for my transit card. I made an offhanded joke to my roommates when we started working out of the daycare that I needed this close-fit messenger bag so my laptop wouldn’t get stolen.

I didn’t actually think it would.

Fast forward less than two months to a Monday on the F train. (It’s always the F train. Don’t ride the F train). I was sitting in my seat and NOT playing on my phone for once, which is unusual for me, when the man came up and stood in front of me. I didn’t look up. I assumed he was looking at the subway map on the wall behind me. He wasn’t. He told me to give him the bag.

*

I have a new dog friend, Pedro. He’s five or so, a pit/lab mix with a secret passion for brightly colored toys that squeak and sticks he can destroy, but also with an intense burning hatred for dogs. He doesn’t just bark when dogs pass—he squats and lunges, jumps up in the air and spins around as if the passing dog means the end of the world as he knows it. When we pass a place where he saw a dog before, he reacts as if the dog is still there, reacts to the ghost of the dog.

Do dogs get PTSD? Certainly seems that way. I wish I could reach back into the past and see what he’s seen, be where he’s been. I wish I could bend down and tell him that I have PTSD too and that it’s cool because we can figure it out together. But I can’t, because those words aren’t words that a dog would understand. I don’t even understand myself the way my brain works, the way a single stupid moment can take me back to another stupid moment and another and another until they all blend together.

I lead Pedro away from his ghosts.

*

Give me the bag.

I hold on to words more than I hold on to anything else. But I also hold on to places, actions. My brain works in such a way that a thing happens and I latch on to the smallest of details. It’s not a thing I’m proud of. It’s an unpleasant aftereffect of being assaulted, of being abused, of life. Once a thing is marked for me, I don’t do it anymore. Headphones. Seatbelts. Shopping carts. Brooms. Knives. A purple stain in fabric. Backseats. The smell of garlic. The words I love you.

I love you.

iloveyougivemethebagiloveyouifyoutellanyoneillkillyou

newcarsmellandtheseatbeltinmybackandthesmellofgarlicandthepurplestainontheseatasidiginmyfingersandihateyouandfuckyouandgivemethebaggivemethebag

Give me the bag.

*

I am good at what I do because I see the inside of the dog’s brain inside my head, because I feel the pain that they feel from their pasts even when I don’t know what those pasts are. Pedro didn’t really care about me at first. He had a lot of dog sad—he was rescued four years ago by the great organization that I volunteer for. Sick, confused, and scared, his skin was mottled with malnutrition and scars from whatever had happened to him before his rescue. His diet and nutrition were easily fixed, but his spirits weren’t. Then, somehow, a special woman came along and adopted him. Three years later, she got very sick and he was returned to the organization. And now here we were, Pedro and I. Me in the hallway of the cat shelter where he has to live because even the sight of another dog sends him into hysterics, him inside the closet where he lives now because he has no home. Eye to eye. He challenged me to understand him before laying back in his bed in defeat. You don’t understand my sad, he told me. No one does.

I laid down on the floor of the cat shelter where everything smelled deeply of cats. I waited for him to come back out, to circle me and sniff me and get all up in my business. I waited there, completely still, until he laid down next to me and shoved his face into my armpit. You might understand, he said, so you can pet me. And I did.

*

My entire life is on my laptop. This is not to say I don’t back it up. Of course I back it up. But that’s beside the point. My left hand tightened on the strap; my right hand crawled its way into my pocket. There is no electronic device in the world worth dying for, but my laptop is the closest I’d come to it. His hand grazed my chest as he latched on to the strap; I sprayed him in the face with my pepper spray. I got lucky. He ran away crying like a starving baby and I was pretty damn proud of my accomplishment.

I’ve already forgotten what he looked like, which is unusual for me. This happened three days ago, and I didn’t write it down, so he’s gone. He was white, dirty. That’s all I know. And it doesn’t matter, because he’s just a small insignificant thing in the grand scheme of my life and I’m already past it. But I won’t sit in that spot on the train again. I will stay away from the doors.

*

Week two with Pedro, I had some extra time and took him to the small backyard of the cat shelter a volunteer had cleaned up for him. I sat on the porch and he sat at the foot of a tree on the end of his ten foot leash, staring off into the distance. On a hunch, I bent over and picked up a stick tapping it on the porch. “Hey, Pedro.” Tap tap. His ears flickered. “Wanna play?” He turned around slightly, his big head resting on his shoulder as he eyed the stick and hesitated for just that one moment. And then he pounced like a cat. I threw the stick across the yard and he brought it back again and again and again. I was instantly good people in the eyes of Pedro. I didn’t get it, or him, totally, but I was trying and he liked that. Connecting to Pedro is about finding the sparks that aren’t ghosts, about not wrestling because he’s not there yet. Connecting to Pedro is about being with him. 

I went to see him yesterday, and he ran out to greet me with a happy wagging tail. I came back for him; I hadn’t forgotten him. I won’t.

I think I found my calling. Maybe I screw it up sometimes, though I think everyone screws up at some point, but I know that these are the dogs I want to work with. I want to rescue. And, just as importantly, I want to tell their stories.

(If any of you lovelies are interested in sponsoring, fostering, or adopting my special friend Pedro, here’s a link to his information: http://www.mightymutts.org/pedro.html . You can also follow his quest to find his forever home on Instagram: @findpedroahome).

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When Sometimes We Fail

My grandma bred in me a spirit of giving; volunteering is a thing I have always done and like to think I will always do. Over the last year, I’ve become pretty well versed in the land of dog via my job and my volunteer time. The volunteer dogs were supposed to be the fun ones–using the knowledge I’d learned on redirection and body language and the intricate way in which dogs think was going to be the new way that I gave back. I had training skills, I told myself. Why not use them? My friend and coworker S found this great organization, and we decided to do just that.

Enter G, a great big lovable smart goofball of a pitbull mix with a food motivated heart of gold and a tendency toward mischievous naughty acts. No one else can handle him, I was told. He was just for me. We clicked instantly. After all, I came with a pouch of treats and two hands to give plentiful pets. We were a match made in heaven. I became G’s personal vending machine.

G, I was told, got bored at adoption drives. He had an incident where he lunged at a passerby, and after that he wasn’t allowed to come out for almost a year. Having never seen the foster farm where he lived, I pictured the worst. I decided that I would be the one to fix him, and I set to work during adoption drives teaching him skills like sit, stay, wait. G and I quickly moved on to more fun commands like paw, crawl, switch, and perch on a stool like a circus animal. He looked utterly ridiculous yet still adorable–an easily 80 pound pitbull standing on a tiny plastic stool, but it was his favorite trick. People loved him, even though he only loved them if they had treats. I loved him. I like to think he loved me too. We had a connection; we understood each other.

It wasn’t until I started writing my thesis that I realized how my love of dog training and my status as a rape survivor went hand in hand. Because I was raped, I have a fear of many things (some weirder than you might expect). Because of the things that happened in the pasts of the dogs I’ve worked with, they are afraid too. The dogs I work with are weird and wonderful and wacky, but for all the fun, they’re hard a lot of the time. T, one of my favorite pitbull mixes, was left alone in her former home for much longer than dogs should be ever left alone; as a result, she was never properly socialized with other dogs and thinks they are the absolute worst. M, a little Boston terrier I walked until recently, was attacked in an elevator and subsequently feared not only the elevator but all other dogs ever. MV, an 80 pound plotthound mix, was not only attacked in the dog park this year, but was also attacked while we were out walking by a homeless man and a shopping cart. She’s afraid of everything now. I like to think that, by training them, I’m helping them. But G was different. He always was for me. I didn’t know where he came from; I didn’t know what he’d seen. I tried the best I could to help him.

Today was a busy Saturday. G seemed super overstimulated when I took him from the van. We got to the drive; he got his lunch. There was a little brown haired boy in a blue coat walking a touch too close, pointing a finger at G. I was instantly leery, because G hated kids. I pulled back on the leash, holding tight, and followed the boy with my eyes as he walked to safety beside his parents. I was so focused on him, I never saw the little girl in the pink coat come up behind me. G was on her and had her on the ground before I even knew what happened. We left the drive and looped the city before coming back to give the family time to leave. G was put on no pets restriction. He was fine until a crowd came. There was so many people that another little girl got just a little too close; G went in for a bite, but I had him on such a short leash that he only got her coat. We left the drive. I was told he would never be allowed back. We looped the neighborhood for a long time, and I pondered what I could have done differently. Rationally, I knew I handled the situation as best I could. I knew that anyone else may not have been as equipped as me; I knew those kids could have been seriously hurt if it wasn’t for my quick thinking. But it didn’t make it easier to know the sad fact that I would never see G again. At the van, he went into his crate, and I watched the door close on him eating vanilla ice cream out of a dirty styrofoam cup.

One year together, countless Saturday’s, enough hours to fully earn my CPDT certification, and I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t get a chance to.

I feel like I let him down.

When I was raped, the people close to me in life didn’t give up on me. They could have, sure. I was a super bitch for a while there. But it wasn’t because I’m that way by nature. I had been hurt. I lashed out where I could. They didn’t dismiss me. They tried their best to understand. To help me through it. I’m a better person for that, for the strength and the will of the people around me. I’m a strong and wonderful independent woman now. It may seem like a strange correlation, but I work with dogs because I understand them; my experiences have given me this gift that I am only just now beginning to comprehend. Totally different circumstances and species, but I wanted to be for G what people were for me. And I wasn’t that. I stopped coming out as much. I stopped really showing up for him. And, what I think happened, is that G stopped showing up for me.

You can say he’s just a dog. But dogs feel just like people. They hurt just like people. I know he always knew me when those vans doors opened. There was a glimmer, a light, in his eyes the moment he spotted me. Now he won’t know me, and I will no longer know him. That’s hard and feels weird, because I keep telling myself I could have should have done more. He’s just a dog, yes. But he was more than that to me. All of the dogs I work with are. My heart still believes I could fix him. My mind isn’t sure that’s true.

I’m standing on a C train platform right now, waiting for the next train, and when I shove my hand into my pocket it comes out coated in crumbs from G’s treats. I’ll have to give these to another dog, and that’s weird too. I bought the bulk bag–I thought I’d see him next week. I won’t. I know what it’s like to be rejected. I didn’t want to be that person, but I have to be. I was supposed to be this great handler, the best of the best, but there’s this one dog I couldn’t help. One dog that I failed.

A lot of dogs I didn’t.

I smile a little as I finger the treats, even though I’m crying, again (ridiculous, over a dog), and I realize that rather than a failing, I should try to think of my experience with G as an opportunity to learn how to be better. Right now it hurts and it’s sad, and I feel at fault. But I’m not, not really, and I know that. Whether I believe it or not, I need to tell myself this is a learning in order to feel better. I won’t fail next time if I learn from this.

So until I’m allowed to visit you, or until you miraculously get adopted, here’s to everything I learned from you, G. May you have all the ice cream and the hot dogs and the meatballs that you could ever want, and may your dreams be filled with Biljacs chicken and liver treats.

Goodbye.

 

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