ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
I can count the number of times I’ve shared that I was sexually assaulted as a child on one hand.
The last time caught me by surprise.
I was on a trip with two friends a few months ago. We were lounging in the morning, drinking coffee after a late night, and in the midst of a conversation about many things, I heard it come out of my mouth. It hung there, in the air, and instantly, I wanted to pull it back in, letter by letter. I love and trust these friends, they’ve known me since high school, but this is not who I am to them, nor how I want to be perceived.
Oftentimes, I blame my self-awareness on being a Virgo, but in reality, for most of my life, I’ve tried to scrub myself clean of the child who was sexually assaulted. For she was wounded and scared, some days, I’ve even labeled her as weak. Surely, this is not who I am.
Regardless of my self-awareness, my experience with sexual assault has followed me everywhere. It’s the oversized dinosaur skeleton that I am constantly trying to disassemble and shove into a locked drawer. At the most unexpected times—during a movie, while reading an article, seeing an image—it shows up and bolsters itself vertebrae by vertebrae until it towers over me, and once again, I am small.
As a Colombian-American, I was raised in a family where women’s bodies are simultaneously revered, celebrated, and carefully picked apart. Most of the women in both my paternal and maternal families have undergone some kind of plastic surgery procedure. As a child, whenever I visited Colombia, the unspoken beauty standard became clear: a woman is curvaceous, sensual, pious, and honorable. It was also evident that I—with my jeans, backpack, sneakers, and sweaters layered over t-shirts—did not fit the standard. This was mostly okay with me because I did not want my body to be picked apart. It was mine. My sweaters, and there have been many throughout the years, became my invisibility cloak. Since a young age, I’ve been careful, methodical, and always keenly aware of how my body moves through the world around me.
It wasn’t until college, when I met other women who had been sexually assaulted, that I started to feel more love for the younger version of myself.
One spring, I attended a Take Back the Night event in support of a friend. And while I never shared anything with said friend, I shouted wildly at the moon with a group of students and then I almost collapsed in awe of the hundreds of screaming women around me.
Still, while living in Brooklyn after college and working too many odd jobs that caused me to get home at sporadic hours, I’d circle my block a few times before walking into my building. While walking to a train late at night, I’d fake an overly loud phone call to a boyfriend or father, or another kind of male figure, in hopes of appearing protected. To this day, I look over my shoulder all the time while: climbing a stairwell, unlocking my car, running, walking my dogs. I explained this to a male friend once and he reacted with: “but you’re so put together” and “that seems a little paranoid.” In the moment, I dismissed his response as “typically male.” But later, the hurt set in. Paranoid or not, this was the only way I knew to exist. I’d become very good at noticing, rationalizing, and disassembling my anxiety. I wore my sweater everywhere.
In grad school, I met even more women, and each one was radical and brave for sharing her story of sexual assault.
At the start of my second year of grad school, I sat in the car with a family member in complete silence. Suffering from anxiety laced with sadness, I was trying out an exercise a friend of mine shared with me; she learned it from her therapist. At the time, I was too nervous to see a therapist on my own, so I practiced therapy by proxy via the Internet and through friends who were open about their therapists’ advice.
In the car, I focused on a point of stillness and imagined a heavy crank. Slowly, I inhaled and exhaled as I turned the crank fourteen times in sync with my breath. And then, I told this family member about what happened to me when I was nine. It was the first time I ever said it aloud, it was almost two decades after the experience.
I noticed the tears. Mine and hers. And then we stayed in the parking lot sharing other experiences of sexual assault and harassment we’ve had as adults.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to disassemble and reassemble the assaulted little girl, whom I’ve carried like a ghost. I want to extract the sadness, the memory, and put her back together. There is a distance between my current self and this experience that allows me to replay the memory from time to time in a slow-paced analytical way. What could I have done differently? Nothing. But, I sometimes find myself desperately wishing I could go back in time to protect her, to take her place as an adult even, to let her know that when she grows up, she’ll be less alone.
Day 1: Resistance
I don’t want to share. I am overwhelmed by the harrowing #MeToo stories from women I know. Chronic harassment and the fear of assault are open secrets women share. But this viral online storytelling is triggering and it puts pressure on people like me, who can’t or don’t want to make their personal trauma public. I see testimonies about catcalls and verbal street harassment, and I think: this is not the same as rape or assault. These things can’t be conflated. But I understand why public revelation of any of the gendered violence endured by women embedded in a world culture of rape and patriarchy and misogyny means empowerment and solidarity. I respect that baring the soul takes courage.
I still don’t want to share.
What I want, what would be different and shake the world, is for perpetrators to look in the mirror and stand up and say #IDidIt. Many assaulters know exactly what they’re doing; many harassers are in willful denial. Go on. We’re waiting.
Day 2: Reality
I am in transit at the Denver, Colorado airport, waiting for my second flight of the day. A young Indian man has been harassing and following me since the San Francisco flight we both boarded this morning. He thinks because we appear to be of the same ethnicity, and there is no one else here who looks like us, that we are friends, that we could be more, that he is entitled to my time and space. He asks me intimate questions about where I live and where I am going. Our destination is the same, so he thinks this meeting is fate and destiny.
It’s dangerous for people who are brown like me, who have my Muslim name, to cause a scene at an airport in the United States of America. And I have work to do: I teach, so I brought papers to grade, as I always do when I travel. I justify choosing non-confrontation: I am busy and don’t have time for a scene. I escape to the women’s restroom.
He is waiting. I am too fearful to look up and meet his eyes, so I only know he has returned to my side when I see his white sneakers align themselves with my oxfords.
The man in the white sneakers gives me a wrapped square of Ghirardelli chocolate. I take it, and curse myself afterward for being too polite, for not refusing this transaction. I joke to my friends over text: this fresh-off-the-boat fool in his blindingly white sneakers. Do I look like that cheap of a date? Couldn’t he at least spring for a whole bag of chocolate? Are we supposed to get married now that he’s given me his Halloween candy? This is America—bride price and dowry have gone up!
I scan for a safe person to sit next to. There are no women nearby, so I pick an older Sikh gentleman, an uncle. He could be the uncle of the man who is following me, too. The man in the white sneakers stares but does not follow.
A white man in a wheelchair approaches, and stares at Uncle’s turban. Where are you from? Are you from India? Where are you going? Uncle and I both rightly read the interaction as threat. We are in an airport. 9/11 looms. When I fly internationally, I must steel my body for the customary “random” secondary screening. But we are all in America this time, and I am unprepared.
Uncle turns his back on the man and stares at his phone and mumbles that he is busy. The man curses him, says no one is friendly these days, and thankfully moves on. Uncle and I exchange a pained and complicated look of racial solidarity. Stupid, he says. Always in these airports. He can’t quite look me in the eye. I see he is a tall, muscular man. He is wearing a business suit and a hefty gold ring. He is powerful in his life. But in this moment, he is afraid and shamed in front of me.
I am in an untenable, unendurable, quotidian, banal situation, for which I paid $500 and earned air miles for the next journey, the next time I willingly expose myself to simultaneous depersonalization by Homeland Security and the man on the street (or tarmac). All I want now is to be left alone to grade my eighteen student papers, and to arrive home safely. I don’t want to be the living embodiment of the gender and racial intersectionality we will discuss in class tomorrow. I just want to live. I’m tired. I feel like crying. Maybe the man in the white sneakers will be waiting at the carousel when I claim my luggage.
So, I share.
You Are Not Alone
Olivia Kate Cerrone
Growing up in a working class, Roman Catholic family, my initial perception of a woman’s value was shaped largely by how she was perceived sexually by men. Women in my family were dismissed as either good or bad, matronly saints or evil tramps. Bad things happened to bad people, and therefore, a bad girl always deserved what happened to her, no matter the circumstances.
Years later, as a graduate student, I was sexually assaulted by a professor, a man I believed honestly cared for me at the time. The dynamic between us was one that felt familiar. He held all the power and control in the situation, and to some perverse extent, I thought this might protect me if I just did what he wanted. If I was the good girl. Then the physical abuse began. As the violence escalated, I managed to extricate myself from him but at a price—he threatened to take legal action against me if I ever spoke up.
The few people I tried to confide in about the situation used the information to further shame me, gossiping about my experiences in the competitively toxic MFA program we attended together. I became ostracized by my peers and fell into a deep depression as a result, one that led to self-harming and thoughts of suicide. I internalized the humiliation and shame, believing that I deserved to be abused. Over the next ten years, I bounced from one abusive relationship to another, before finding a therapist a few years ago who helped me root out the negative conditioning, and helped me learn how to heal and change my life.
Patriarchal systems enable predators like Harvey Weinstein to abuse and exploit women. They diminish women and strip them of their agency and self-worth. We must uphold the stories of those who have been abused and sexually assaulted and harassed, working to uplift those voices instead of silencing or disempowering them.
To anyone who has been abused: it’s not your fault. You did not deserve to be mistreated by anyone. You do not deserve to suffer. There are people out there who will support you. I support you. You are not alone.
Erin, emailing from Little Rock, AR, June 2014, midnight
Subject line: I think we were drugged and raped in Greece by the same man
I have flown from bed to email you. Moments ago, I was reading an essay which prompted me to google “Greece drugging rape…” I found your blog and learned of your rape and trial. The man’s picture you linked was the same man who drugged me in the summer of 2004, I am sure of it. Dear god. I hoped I was somehow mistaken. Your experience makes it utterly clear I wasn’t. If three others have come forward, how many of us can there be?
The facts I recall are hauntingly similar to those on your blog. I was on a trip to Greece following a law school summer study abroad. I had been in Kefalonia with two girlfriends, then traveled alone by ferry to fly home from Athens the next day. He was on the ferry. He approached me as I was reading. As with you, he said he was a pilot, was from Athens, could give me a tour of the Acropolis. I checked into a hotel and let him leave his bag in my room “until after our tour.” On the tour, he seemed to be a knowledgeable historian. After, he said I should eat something, left me in a square, returned with a pastry. It tasted bitter. I thought it was the spices. He said we should go for a drink. It was maybe 7 p.m. and I had an early flight to Atlanta the next morning, but I agreed to one drink. He took me to a bar. I ordered Ouzo at his suggestion. After the first couple of sips, something hit me so hard I nearly fell off the bar stool. Next came headlights, blurred and streaking. I asked if he put something in my drink. He said, “Do you even know where you are? Without me, you are a ship without a rudder.” Next, I was awake in my hotel room with light pouring in, the mattress soaked with my urine. If I didn’t leave immediately, I was going to miss my plane. I told my cab driver I thought I was drugged. I told family and friends. Many responses helped me chalk it up to a bad dream.
So many things in my life have changed since then… marriage, loss of a child, birth of a child at twenty-three weeks. Things eclipsed it. Until tonight. I have punished myself for not saying something, but I never knew what to do or who to tell that had the power to make it matter.
Is he free? What else to say. This is astonishing.
Natalie, emailing from Nyakagyezi, Uganda
RE: I think we were drugged and raped in Greece by the same man
I’m sitting on the floor, reading your email on my phone, in total shock. There is no question that it’s the same man. You’re right, there probably are countless other victims.
He is in prison. He has the option of appealing the sentence, and probably will, I would imagine. I went through a whole series of attempted trials (there were at least eight—I lost count after a while—they were cancelled, postponed, delayed due to strikes, etc. etc. including one I flew to Athens to attend in 2010). I probably don’t need to tell you how unhelpful the Greek authorities were with all this.
In the end, I did not have to travel to Athens for the final trial, because it turned out I didn’t need to be present to give adequate evidence. This was a godsend as I don’t know if I could have withstood another trip.
The day he was convicted was unforgettable. It was like a giant weight had been lifted, eight years later. And you know what I just realized?
It was exactly a year ago from the day you wrote me.
There is so much more to say.
Please, ask me any questions you want.
Wishing you all the best,
Across three years we’ve emailed, Skyped, and phoned from Little Rock to wherever Natalie was—Uganda, New Zealand, Bali… discovering a long list of common interests and experiences. We’ve both endured divorce, struggled with infertility, had an abusive parent, and more. We’re both writers, editors, and writing coaches. Natalie’s essay became part of my edited anthology, published in 2015.
When our rapist was released early from prison, who could better understand our fears and anxieties?
We’ve become friends. Strangely close, strangely open, old-friend-type-friends, even though we’ve never met in person. We edit each other’s work. We share our life struggles. These commonalties add up to a sense that even if we didn’t have this life-altering tragedy in common, we would have been friends anyway. But without it, we would never have met.
Imagine having to explain your friendship with someone as “we were raped by the same man.” I’ve done this a few times, awkwardly, hesitantly. But I realize, writing this now, that I am over giving that explanation with any sense of shame. Connecting with Erin gave me support and sisterhood that I would have given anything for when I “came out” about the rape in 2007. I felt so alone, so isolated at that time, and then experienced so much secondary trauma, from Internet trolls and members of my own family—people telling me I was hanging onto the past, I deserved it, and what did I expect, traveling alone?
And then, ten years later, came #MeToo.
We share our story because we understand the power of this movement. We understand that standing together is crucial if we want change. And we want change. We want a world where what happened to us is unthinkable.
(On November 29, Natalie and Erin met for the first time.)
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change.
We received over four hundred submissions to our initial call and will not be accepting additional pieces at this time. We may reopen for submissions at a future date. We also must acknowledge that the submissions we received overwhelmingly came from white, heterosexual women. While we are actively assessing how we can do better in our next call for submissions, we also believe this points to systemic inequalities that need to be addressed: who has access to healthcare and to therapy, who has been taught to speak up and who has been taught to be silent.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
Visit the archives here.