By Cristy Cardinal, Program Director, Prevention Education
My 20th high school reunion will be in November. And, up until recently I was nothing but excited about it. Of course, excited mixed with dread at seeing people I haven’t seen in 20 years-people who have a memory of a certain me that involved giant hair and lip gloss, and people who I have a certain memory of that is probably not part of the current them either. To some extent, Facebook has eliminated some of those mysteries for folks, but there are exceptions, people who’ve managed to resist the Facebook borg or for whatever reason aren’t my friend there (I can’t imagine why).
The organizers (brave souls, them) of the reunion have posted several lists of people they have yet to get in contact with, and at some point, the name of the man who raped me showed up on a list. And someone said they could call him and get his info for the reunion folks.
For some time afterward, I could not stop thinking about this. It got in the way of my productivity at work, for sure, and likely caused me to be a negligent listener or life participant in other ways too. Of course, I think about rape all the time-it’s my job. And because it’s my job, I’ve dealt with my past. I have juggled those demons into an orderly pile and put them to good use as a sexual assault and domestic violence prevention educator. That experience, when that man raped me, is one of the handful of lynchpin moments in my life that gave birth to my own personal brand of feminism. I am not ashamed of it, nor am I proud. It is an experience I share with millions of women and girls the world over, but it is a sisterhood I don’t wish on anyone. But it did propel me forward into this life I lead, this work I do.
Even still, I don’t think about him. That man who did that most vile thing to me. I do think about rape, I might even think about the fact that I was raped, often. But I don’t spare him a thought. On a regular, day-to-day basis, not sparing him a thought has created in me the very indifference that I needed to move on and heal. In the 20 years since he raped me, I have worked hard to not give him any further power in my life. He had all the power in the world over me for one night in 1990, but it has been the ebbs and flows of my own power that has consumed me in the 20 years since.
But then I saw his name. On a list of people invited to the same big party I was invited to. And I’ve had to think about him. I’ve been thinking about that I might see him there, and that I might be put in the position of having to talk to him. I doubt he knows he did anything wrong, as that’s the MO of men who believe and act as if they are entitled to women’s bodies. So, he may want to actually speak with me, this girl he “had sex” with back in the day, and tell me my kids are cute and make uncomfortable small talk. It would likely be a five minute interaction.
It would be five minutes that recreates that feeling of powerlessness I felt 20 years ago, that recreates desperation to do anything to make it stop. I get it, you know? I understand that rape is an interpersonal act that has global repercussions in the lives of women and girls, that rape is the largest, most violent and effective weapon men have to keep women in a place of subservience and subjugation.
And yet. And yet, this man has come back into my consciousness to consume my thoughts in a way that he should not. He doesn’t get to do this to me anymore, but he is. This is how rape works, and keeps on working.
I was debating whether to even go to the reunion after that moment when his name scrolled by on my Facebook. I even considered asking one of the organizers to “accidentally” not get in touch with him. But this is part of the dealing with it. I was wrong to think I had dealt with it, as in done.
There are always going to be little triggers, or even big ones, that I have to face because he raped me. Seeing his name was a little one, and potentially seeing him is a big one. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want him to say my kids are cute, or tell me about his job or some such nonsense.
What I do want, though in this world I live in, is to not hurt about it. This, too, is a fantasy. There’s no way to stop hurting about it, because of those triggers that are out there that I have no control or even predictability about. But I can have the hurt, and I can hold it with my strength, and I can move through it and let it go with each breath until it passes from me, and try to be grateful for the feelings I do have, because those feelings mean I am alive. And being alive is the very essence of surviving.