Tag Archives: sexual assault

Consent

“Can you look me in the eye and honestly tell me you think it’s your fault?”

On the side of the brown filing cabinet was a newspaper article I had read at least 17 times–bringing awareness of sexual assault to the masses, one campus group at a time–but I read it again anyway because what else was I going to do but tell her the words that she wanted to hear and I didn’t want to say?

“Seriously.” M had a way of leaning in her office chair that made it look she was sitting in front of the television at home and watching Netflix. Her arms draped over the armrests of the chair as she fiddled with her glasses, cleaning them on the weave of her sweater. 

“No.” I had a dream that saying what she wanted me to say would get me out of her office a few minutes sooner. No such luck.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me why.”

M knew me too well. “Tell me why not,” I retorted, drawing the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and shoving a freshly unwrapped Hershey Kiss from the candy bowl into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to say anything else for at least the next sixty seconds.

“Did you ask for it?”

“Did I say no?”

*

A year or so ago, I met this great girl named Fern. Greenish yellow eyes that seemed to change when I looked into them, reddish orange fur, a great pink nose, a beautiful wagging tail. Yes, a dog. The first thing you see when you come to Fern’s house is how low to the ground she gets as she wiggles up excitedly to get pets. You don’t notice her ears that are cropped ridiculously short in an attempted effort to make her look ferocious, because you’re too busy watching as her army-crawling front end struggles to keep up with her bouncy butt. And then you sit on the couch, and Fern sits on you, and as you pet her (because let’s face it, you have no choice in the manner) you realize that she’s a pit bull and that that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because she defies all your preconceived expectations of her breed.

Fern’s beginnings don’t lend themselves to the dog she is now. She started out in a junkyard in Pennsylvania and came to the animal rescue with a fear of men and the world and a collar embedded in her neck. She was scared of everything even after she was freed and with a loving family. The Fourth of July came in her new home, and she was scared of the loud noises and the fireworks and wanted nothing more than to stay inside.

*

“Did you say no?” M parroted back.

“Do you always have to answer every question I ask with a question?”

M stayed silent then, waiting me out.

“No,” I finally caved, “I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have an answer to that question.” And I didn’t, not really. It seemed inappropriate to ask her if she would have said no if she thought she was going to die. “I didn’t say yes. But I didn’t say no.”

“Well, you’re the English major. So you tell me. Does the absence of the word no signify consent?”

*

See, to look at Fern now, it’s quite apparent that she didn’t ask for her past. She didn’t say “chop off my ears and chain me in a yard all alone and do whatever abuse you want to try and make me ferocious and mean.” Fern did not say yes, but Fern did not say no either, because Fern is a dog–and dogs do not say no because dogs don’t speak. 

I probably know less about Fern’s former life than many, but no one knows precisely what she went through. I can make some guesses, based on the opposites of my positivity training. If you want a dog to be well mannered and friendly, you treat them in a loving and respectful manner. But if you want them to be scary and angry and hate people, I assume it would be the opposite. Dogs respond to the way they’re treated. And in that vein, I can make the following leaps–Fern was previously owned by a man. He probably yelled a lot. Maybe banged things to scare her to where he wanted her in the yard or to keep her from approaching him or just plain banged things around the junkyard (and really, that’s all the same, because who wants to listen to loud banging sounds while confined to a chain 24/7?). He may have hit her, kicked her, in an attempt to teach her that humans suck so that she’d go after any trespassers. 

Again, I don’t know these things. I don’t want to think about these things. But if the secret to reversing her skittishness of people was her loving home, then isn’t the opposite true?

Fern did not ask for the things that happened to her, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. 

*

I shook my head so that my hood slid back down my then-lengthy hair and unwrapped another chocolate. I sat chewing it for so long, letting the chocolate melt in my mouth, that the ticking of the desk clock started echoing in my head. I hated the silence. “Do you think…” My voice trailed off, and I went to finish the thought with yet another chocolate and found the bowl empty. 

“Yes?”

“Maybe…we do what we need to do to survive.”

“Did you ask him to do what he did?”

“I didn’t say no.” The words were starting to sound lamely flat the more that I said them. 

“Did you say here I am, come get me?” M put her glasses down gently and pushed them away from the edge of the desk. 

“Excuse me?”

“Here I am, come get me? Is that what you said that night?”

I fumbled under the sofa bench I was on for my purse. “I’m going to go,” I said, standing up. 

She grabbed my wrist, gently, but she grabbed it. She had never touched me before. I sat back down, but she didn’t let go. “The fact of the matter is, you didn’t. You didn’t say that. You wouldn’t say that, because you didn’t want it. The absence of consent is not consent. You did not say yes. He had no right to take what he did from you.”

*

Fern’s a great dog. She always was, but her first owner clearly never saw that because he wanted her to be something she wasn’t. Now she’s one of the best trained dogs I’ve ever met (love and respect will do that, I promise, try it and you’ll see). She’s a little skittish at night sometimes, but it’s understandable. I’d love to actually study PTSD in dogs, because I really do believe it’s a thing. Give me a few weeks of uninterrupted time and see what will happen. But Fern works as a therapy dog and visits people in nursing homes to bring them comfort when they’re feeling lost and lonely. I imagine that Fern understands somewhere inside that she too was once lost and lonely, and that no one should have to feel that way. I believe she fills the world with as much joy as she can because that way, the two plus years where she had no joy are way in the world past where they belong.

*

“I think,” M continued, “that until you accept that none of the fault for the rape is on you, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

My brow creased as I looked at her. I had asked her never to use that word. I never used that word. 

She read my expression instantly. “The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist.”

When I didn’t see it coming, when I should have seen it coming, when I should have done something, when I did nothing, when I did not ask for it in the first place so none of the fault was on me. 

“The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist,” I echoed. 

*

Dogs like Fern are the perfect example of my therapist’s law of consent. Like I said, dogs can’t speak. But spend five minutes with Fern. Heck. Spend one minute with Fern. Did she ask for her sour beginning in life? Did she ask for what happened to her? No. But she absolutely did not say yes. 

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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.

*

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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Rosey (On Being Better)

The first time I met Rosey, I almost didn’t meet Rosey. I had been warned that she was having health issues, so I assumed the worst when no dog met me at the door. She was recovering from cancer. Had she died? I wandered room to room through the new to me apartment, calling her name. No response. So I called our office:
“Rosey isn’t here.”
“What do you mean not there?”
I poked my head into the last room. “Not here, not here. Nowhere in sight.” I heard a quiet woof then, shortly followed by a big golden retriever with a white face shimmying out from under the bed. “Aaaaaand never mind,” I added, saying my goodbyes and hanging up.
I stretched my hand out, and Rosey came to sniff it, tail wagging. After some getting to know each other routine, we went into the kitchen and I got a few milkbones for our walk. She promptly stole them from my hand before I could even consider slipping them into my pocket. They were, after all, hers. We set out into the winter March air, crossing the street to Washington Square Park for a good sniff fest of the grass. Rosey was slow. Any other dog would have lapped the park at least twice. Rosey only made it a quarter of the way before we had to turn around. I didn’t mind though. It was relaxing, and she was such a presence that she truly deserved my time.

Rosey taught me a lot about recovery. I don’t think I realized how stagnant I was in my life  and moving on in my identity as a survivor until I walked Rosey at the same time every day, seven days a week; I got to watch her recover and grow. Things were hard for me for a long time. Harder than I let people know. I imagined it was the same for Rosey, that she didn’t want to show people pain and instead gave all the best pieces of herself. Rape survivors are four times more likely to attempt suicide than people who have not been the victims of crime. I’m not that person. I like being alive. I’m the sort of person who needed things to do. All the things. When I sat still, when I did nothing, the largeness of all the things would overtake me. Like Rosey, I took steps. One, two. Three. Always forward. I had to find ways to connect and people to connect to. It was most important to just let myself live.

Rosey got stronger every day. It almost seemed like she was a puppy again. We met another dog in the park, a little black and gray French bulldog named Charlie. Normally Rosey wouldn’t have gone for that sort of thing, but on that particular day she wagged her tail and solicited attention from the much younger pup. They were a blaze of fur, Rosey’s golden locks tumbling around Charlie as he tried to jump up and grab her head sumo wrestler style. A few weeks later, we were stopped by a blogger who interviewed Rosey for his site. She gave him what for, barking until he gave her a milkbone. Milkbones were like doggy crack to Rosey; they were the only treat she could eat. Ever since her cancer, too much protein made her sick. But Rosey made do. Milkbones were her favorite. She learned quickly how to be okay with, and even take advantage of, her experiences.

I think that being okay is relative. I think that we have to work to attain that status. We have to push ourselves. Someone I will always respect from the bottom of my heart once told me, “I think that only you can decide what will help you. No one else can say that for you. It is, like everything else in your life, your choice.” I had to choose to be better than what my attacker made me. I had to choose to move forward, to embrace life, to embrace my gifts and use them. For me, that meant learning how to tell my story and tell it well. Better.

The last time I walked Rosey as her primary walker, she greeted me at the door with a red and white dish towel in her mouth, the whites and grays of her formerly golden face painting her snout into a perpetual smile. Her tail swung back and forth frenetically as she waited for me to try and take her gift; when my hand closed around the fabric, she gave it to me without a fight. I was careful to keep my dislike of dog drool all over my hand off of my face so I didn’t hurt her feelings. “Thank you, Princess,” I told her. I grabbed her harness from the table next to the piano and draped the main part around her neck. Rosey gave me her left paw without being asked so I could fasten the other section of the harness around her middle. She dragged me to the front door practically the second the harness was fastened, prancing from paw to paw and woofing at me the entire way. The entire elevator ride she could barely contain herself; when we arrived on the ground from the 17th floor, she exploded from the elevator and hauled me out of the lobby and across the street to the park–a fireball of energy. A different dog from the one I had first met that walked so slowly I would never jaywalk for fear of us getting killed.

This morning I received an email that today was Rosey’s last day, that she would be crossing the Rainbow Bridge. I was offered the opportunity, as were all of her walkers, to say goodbye. So I did. I sat on the floor in the hallway with her and her dad and spoke to her and whisper sang her favorite song from Shrek. She was completely paralyzed; it was time. Rosey knew I was there with her though, at the end. Her eyes rolled back to meet mine, and I could tell she was happy we were letting go. She had a good life. I know she’d want me to remember the good and not the bad. Rosey was better than her bad experiences, than the cancer that took her after seventeen years. And I know, from getting to be with her for even a small piece of her seventeen years, that I am better too.

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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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On Owning It (A Call to Fight)

It is April.

April is many things: the start of real spring, the time when rain stops and flowers bloom, the time when graduation is near, the time of remembrance for sexual assault survivors. I usually spend Sexual Assault Awareness Month hiding from all the stimuli of the outside world, the posters and the rallies, the television specials. I don’t want to see these things because I don’t want to be reminded. Yet, I came here, to graduate school, to tell my story. Or rather, to tell it better.

Way back when, 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 bunny friends, oblivious of the existence of the coyote. The coyote loved the rabbit, and he followed it everywhere, always careful to stay at a distance. Long story short, one day the coyote tried to eat the rabbit. The rabbit got away, but it always remembered what the coyote howled after the rabbit jumped from its jaws. Say nothing. Tell no one.

It’s obvious. The coyote is a rapist, and the rabbit is its victim. I’ve studied many different stories of rape this year as part of the critical thesis I’ve been working on. I know many statistics about sexual assault, but they don’t explain the why; they don’t show where it comes from or why such violence flies under the radar in society. I study sexual assault in film and literature because I believe that, as creators, we have a responsibility to portray even the most difficult experiences, to portray trauma in a way that is not about the trauma itself but about the greater picture. Because I have been raped, I am interested in studying the experiences of others as a way to understand and explore my own experience.

Do you see what I did there? What I said? “Because I have been raped…” I’ve learned a learned a lot this year about myself and my work just from working, pushing myself and exploring different ways to create. The most important thing I know now is that I have to 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. The greatest importance of my experience is not in how well I write it, though that’s obviously important too, but in how well I own it.

I believe that many survivors are like me in that they are drawn to portrayals of rape and violence again and again as they learn to comprehend the terrible thing that has happened to them. It is of utmost importance to make sure a reader understands rape is not shameful of the survivor, but how can I deliver that message when I can’t always believe it myself? When I am asked to read and edit my work in my head to avoid saying the word rape, when I come up with creative ways to tell my story to avoid the word, when I keep silent, I am giving the person who hurt me what they want. I am letting them own me; I am letting them win. It is important to let the choice of sharing our experiences be ours, not the person who gave them to us. We need to say the word, to talk about it.

Rape.

It’s a bad act, but it is a thing that happened to me. It does not make me a bad person. I did a reading where I said the phrase “I was raped” out loud for the first time, and it felt good. I want to say it more. I want to use my words to fight. I want to kick ass. I will. I am.

My identity is comprised of many things. I am 31 years old. I am a dog walker, a student, a divorcee, a writer, a fighter. A survivor.

In the past, I was raped; I survived.

Rape is a thing I own, a part of my story, a piece of who I am. This is not a fact I will hide; it is not a fact I will apologize for. Not anymore.

Celebrate April; don’t hide. Be proud of surviving. I am. And I won’t apologize.

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We Were

My cat was there one minute and gone the next. Legit. One night, she was running up and down the hallway chasing The Great Red Dot, and the next she was gone. She had a tumor inside her that exploded, and there was nothing that could be done. It’s a metaphor for life, in a way. A bomb goes off and things are never the same after that.

*

I’m sitting on my bed, sinking into the comfort of my two inches of memory foam beneath three fluffy blankets, the Roku remote in my right hand and a hard cider in my left. There’s a new movie on Lifetime Movie Club today, an older flick entitled “We Were the Mulvaneys.” Beginning in the late 70s, the movie (and as I later found out, the novel by Joyce Carol Oates) centers on a seemingly perfect family that crumbles into oblivion after their daughter, Marianne, is raped by an upperclassman in the parking lot during a high school dance. Marianne’s father is so disgusted when she refuses to press charges against her attacker that he send his daughter away to live in a commune; he falls into alcoholism and leaves his wife after they are forced to sell their generations-old farm to pay off their debt. All three of Marianne’s brothers drift away from their mother, and one goes so far as to exact revenge against Marianne’s rapist. At the end of the movie, the father passes away and the family suddenly reunites, twenty years after the assault, to beginning the process of becoming a family again.

Honestly, I’m a big sucker for sexual assault/recovery movies. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I like seeing other people survive so that I know I’m not the only one. In the past, I’ve been drawn to movies where the survivor seeks revenge, movies like “Bound to Vengeance” and “I Spit on Your Grave.” But “We Were the Mulvaneys” is a totally different animal. Marianne does not seek revenge against her attacker or stand up to him in the slightest; she simply disappears—there one day, gone the next.

*

Every night now when I lay in bed, I find my hand drifting over to the pillow my cat used to sleep on. We were together most nights for sixteen years. She was my best friend. It’s only logical I would reach for her, sometimes. She was there forever, and then she wasn’t. We were always together, and then we weren’t.

*

“Strange:” Marianne’s brother speaks, “how when a light is extinguished, it’s immediately as if it has never been. Darkness fills in again, complete.” Marianne was extinguished so completely by her father that she almost literally ceased to exist. I think that’s how it happens for a lot of survivors of sexual assault, and I think that’s the reason I identify so strongly with “We Were the Mulvaneys.” Sure, I’ll admit that I love a good revenge turn. But a mistake that many of these movies make is that most survivors simply aren’t that person. We may want to be, but in being that person, we become our attacker and our attacker wins. While Marianne’s aftermath is an extreme, I think it’s an end that many survivors drift towards. 68 percent of rapes never get reported at all, and that’s a current statistic—I can’t imagine what it was like in the late 70s. Things are different now than they were then, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

*

My cat’s ashes came today via Fedex, a purple tin wrapped in lavender tissue paper in a purple gift bag inside a brown cardboard box, all the empty space in the box stuffed with marketing materials. I cried when I opened the box, but then I built a shrine on my dresser—purple tin with a black cat tea light candle holder on either side and a clear crystal cat in the front, with two of her favorite toys on top. Squire McSquiggleton and Queenie. They were her favorites. I think she would like the shrine.

We draw lines in the tea light so that she will visit in my dreams and then let the candle burn down to nothing. There one minute, gone the next.

*

I think I’m Marianne. Not that I’m quiet about what happened to me, but that it changed everything. Sexual assault is like a bomb in that once it happens, you don’t go back. I can think of too many moments where I didn’t stand up, where I didn’t fight back, where I didn’t speak.Where I didn’t say “I am a survivor.” But then there are just as many where I did stand up, where I did fight back, where I did speak—I just don’t think about those as much. Marianne never did.

Who I was before what happened to me was gone in what amounts to the blink of an eye. I won’t get that person back. I don’t want her back. I’m stronger without her.

*

I look at cats in shelters online, searching for a new best friend. No one jumps out and screams they’re a perfect match to me. I need to go and see them, visit the cats and pet them and experience them in person, but I’m not ready yet and that’s okay. Who we are is who we are, and what I’ve learned from Marianne and from my cat is that we’re here one minute and gone the next. We don’t control it. We don’t control anything but ourselves.

We were one thing, and then we were the next, and then we were the thing after that. We were always moving. We were change. We are.

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I Brought This On Myself

Fall semester one year ago, I took what I to this day believe to be the worst class in the world.  It was an environmental science class.  Science is not my forte to begin with, but the concept sounded interesting so I went with it for my science gen-ed.  The last class before our first exam, the professor passed out a sheet labelled “Exam 1 Study Guide.”  Common logic would assume that the things on the sheet should be studied for Exam One.  Rather than stick with my normal study habits of flashcards and highlighting/annotating the textbook, I decided to study the study guide instead.

It turned out that absolutely NOTHING on the so-called study guide appeared on the exam.  And for the first time EVER I (literally) failed a test.

I grew incredibly frustrated with the course.  I skipped quite a few days; I stopped paying attention in lectures that I did attend, except when I had to take notes for a friend who was absent.  I didn’t really study.  I got A’s on the homework, but not on exams.  The course gets the honor of my one and only B minus.  I don’t believe I’ve ever had one before, in college or even high school.  The thing is, I brought it on myself.  I gave up.  I stopped trying.

*

I am mad at the world right now, and it’s bleeding through into my life.  I have heard the phrase “you brought this on yourself” one too many times, and I’m officially feeling horrible.  There is a difference between bringing things on yourself and having them happen to you.  As much as it hurts, and as much it feels like it sometimes, we really aren’t magnets.  The excuse was made that it’s men and that they don’t know any better.  That isn’t true, and the idea is a shit show.  I KNOW that there are men out there who know better.  I know.

I can count the number of people I legitimately trust on one hand.  For real.  I tried to let a new person into this circle (though only because I was forced to.)  He asked me a series of questions.

“How was your day?”

“What brings you here?”

“How do you sleep at night?”

“You lost a child?”

“How was your relationship?”

I answered in one-syllable answers.  Fine.  Sleep.  Okay.  Yes.  Meh.  And then.

“Tell me about the sexual assault.”

I took precautions to make this work; I asked for the things I needed like I thought I was supposed to do.  The door was open.  I could see out into the hall; I could see that I wasn’t in trouble.  But hell if it didn’t feel like I was going to die.  Because there is no one-syllable answer for that question.  There is no one word that can sum up my feelings.  There aren’t twenty, or even a hundred.  It isn’t possible.  This is as close as I come to accepting these things as part of my past.

I didn’t answer.  So he filled the silence.  He asked if I knew that I need to be “normal.”  I need to be able to be in a room with a man with the door closed.  I need to be able to interact with all members of the universe without fear.  I need to snap out of myself.  “You should be able to do it,” he told me, with an emphasis on the should that implied I was a massive screw-up.  Here I was, proud of myself for showing up at all, and here he was proving my worst fear.

I will never be normal, or okay.

*

There is a guy at school with whom things have become…weird.  He asked me out on a date once, but it became very apparent that I was not (nor will I probably ever be) ready to be in any kind of relationship.  Not only is he significantly younger (ten years) than me, we’re very different people.  This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with either one of us; it just means that we don’t fit.  I’ve tried to explain this to him, and I flounder at the idea that he doesn’t understand.  I don’t know how I could have made it more clear.  I just want things to not be awkward.  I want us to work together like grown-ups.  But I don’t know that it will happen, and that’s not a fault of mine.  I’ve tried.

Did I bring this on myself?  Because I was hurt in the past and scared and not in want or need for a relationship?  Is it my fault that it’s a stressor now?  Entirely possible.  I know people who think so.  I just wish they wouldn’t say it.  It only reaffirms what is already tangled up inside my head.

That it is my fault.  All of it.  This.  The past.  The assault.  Even the marriage.  All of it.

*

We talked about captivity narratives in one of my classes today, and about fault.  What it means to be captive versus what it means to be free.  The first one in the book (that we read) was by a woman named Mary Rowlandson.  We got on the discussion of why the Indians in these narratives didn’t rape the women.  (Not all Indians raped women; that’s a horrible stereotype.)  The question bounced around the room several times.  The professor pointed out that Mary was bound and not allowed to make her own decisions.  She was captive to the choices of other people and to God.  She didn’t choose to go.  She didn’t want to be kidnapped.  She didn’t bring it on herself.  I cried.  It was short and brief and no one saw.  But I cried.  On day four.  I let myself down.

Did I bring this on myself too, this struggle to handle certain course materials?  I stayed in school.  Does the fact that I actually SPOKE in my classes today balance out the fact that I cried in one?  Is it okay to sometimes be okay and sometimes not?  I don’t know how to answer this.  I don’t know that there is an answer.  I don’t think anyone is normal.

*

By accepting the suggestion that the triggers in the after are brought on by, well, me, I am (at least in part) taking responsibility for everything.  The assault, the loss, the marriage.  I am negating the progress I have made.  And the people who say it, the people who tell me “you brought this on yourself,” they don’t know the implications of how much their words spiral inside my brain.  I can’t be mad at them.  I can wish they would know differently.  I can wish I could explain it.  But I can’t be angry, because part of me knows that the words don’t have a grain of truth in them.  I didn’t ask for any of my past to happen to me.  I didn’t ask to be hurt.  I am not a magnet with an on button that allows me to draw the shit to me.  These things just happened.  They happened to me.  And when people say “you brought this on yourself,” it’s my choice what I choose to do with that, just like it was my direction which way to go after.

Sometimes it feels like I can’t do it, like I don’t fit, like I never will.  And other times I know the answer and I’m me again.  Those confident times are emerging more and more.  I’m pushing through and I’m trying; I’m bringing them on myself.  It is, as always, my choice.

Today, I cried.  Tomorrow, I keep moving forward.

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This is Not Okay

“Since then I’ve always thought that under rape in the dictionary it should tell the truth.  It is not just forcible intercourse; rape means to inhabit and destroy everything…After telling the hard facts to anyone from lover to friend, I have changed in their eyes.  Often it is awe or admiration, sometimes it is repulsion, once or twice it has been fury hurled directly at me for reasons I remain unsure of.”  –Alice Sebold

 

I’m watching a television show called “The Fosters.”  I’m in love with this show for a myriad of reasons, from the fact that the main characters are a lesbian couple to the fact that is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of the foster care system.  But the reason that I love it the most is that it makes me feel something, and that doesn’t happen often while watching television these days.

Right now, I’m furious and in tears.  And if I could throw things at my television, I would.  Another of the main characters is a sixteen year old girl named Callie.  As the summer season has progressed, it has slowly come out that she was raped in a different foster home by her then nineteen year old foster brother, multiple times.  The current episode revolves around her making the decision to go forward with a pre-trial hearing against that foster brother.  It opens with her sitting in her kitchen with an ADA and her foster mothers, and the ADA informs her that because she is a foster child who has no one, and because the incident happened two years prior, it is nothing more than a he said, she said case.  It will never get in front of the jury.  He does, however, tell her that because she was fourteen at the time of the incident and the boy was nineteen, it could be considered statutory rape.  Therefore, if she lies and tells the judge the sex was consensual, the boy will go to jail for a year.  

To recap:  if she tells the truth, nothing will happen to the boy.  But if she lies, he will go to jail for a very short amount of time.  He will get punishment for something, sure, but she will not receive any justice.  Tell the truth, he will go free.  Lie, he goes to jail.  To quote the character herself, “What’s right about that?”  The answer?  Absolutely nothing.  It isn’t right, and it isn’t fair.  Yet, it happens more often than we like to admit.

I know more than my fair share about how the prosecution of a rape works, enough to know that it boils down most of the time to this exact he said, she said situation.  There is one thing that is needed to go forward with a rape prosecution—a sworn statement from the victim.  Add in a rape kit, and it seems pretty open and shut.  Right?  Wrong.  Did the woman say no?  This is very important.  Whether there is a weapon involved or physical force or both, she must say no.  Regardless of the threat level or whether she has been forced to silence, she must say no.  Consent is ambiguous.  She may or may not be believed.  This is made even more difficult in the case of acquaintance (or spousal) rape.  Has she had sex before?  With this man?  How many times?  The lines for prosecution become blurred.  In the eyes of the law, once a man is with a woman it becomes harder to say that they can’t do whatever they want with that woman.  It becomes harder to prove consent.  She said yes once, and that must mean yes every time.  When it is he said, she said between a man and a woman who know each other, the man has a very strong case regardless of evidence.  All he has to do is say that the woman was on board, and it creates enough doubt to invalidate the case.  These women, these victims, are treated like nothing more than objects.  They are harassed and bullied by prosecution and defense alike, simply because they are women and are viewed as weaker.  The only message that they get to take away is that they need not bother with making themselves a better person because life will always screw them over.  And somehow, someway, they have to be okay and make peace with that.  Strong, wonderful, powerful women get screwed and told that they are worth nothing.  And it’s wrong.  So wrong.  This thing happens to them, this tremendously horrible thing, and rather than bolstering a woman’s confidence, going through prosecution leaves her self esteem crumpled in the bottom of a trash can.  

This experience serves to illustrate to the woman that people will not believe her.  It teaches her that is better not to talk about it, that is better to preserve her reputation than to risk complete alienation.  It teaches her that what happened to her is acceptable, and that she is worth nothing.  It takes her voice away.  These women are stuck with pain, with hurt, with blame, with shame, and sometimes even with diseases or babies that they can’t take care of.  It was never voluntary, and yet they receive the blame that rightfully belongs on the shoulders of the man who attacked them.

If a woman says no, it means no.  If she doesn’t say no because she is too terrified to say no, it still means no.  Regardless of the relationship, whether the man knows the woman or was previously with the woman or never knew her at all, it still isn’t okay to force her to have sex.  It is never okay.  Never.  Women should be rewarded for telling their story, not berated or ignored.

Someone needs to stand up and say that this is not okay.

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