The Thread: Actual Bodily Harm

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I am not an actor. Yes, that was me, at five years old, standing in the spotlight at the edge of the stage, dressed as a pumpkin in Cinderella. That was me playing a dwarf in Snow White, a maid in Annie, and finally, at twelve, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. That was me flying on a wire as Peter Pan at thirteen, my voice clear, my posture strong, my hair pinned up under a little green hat with a red feather. I loved doing theater as a kid, but by the time I was twenty, I had outgrown it. My interests changed; I went intellectual instead of expressive. I had a million reasons to leave theater, but I couldn’t see the real one for nearly a decade. There was no straight line between cause and effect.

My theater experience helped a lot when I was studying for my first-year law school exams. Instead of song lyrics and blocking, I filled my mind with the elements of crimes, with the moral and philosophical underpinnings of our country’s legal system. I knew the five recognized purposes of punishment: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution. Punishments should fit their crimes; they should be proportional to the harm caused. Punishments should be impartial, and objective, and consistent. I repeated these rules to myself, curled up under a blanket in my tiny apartment with my outline on my lap. And although I was a terrific law student, I am not a lawyer either.

Toward the end of law school, I realized how much I loved teaching my study cohort. Nothing was more fun than explaining some concept, whiteboard marker in hand, in multiple ways. I would try one approach, then another. The moments when my friends finally understood something because of me were some of the most rewarding. I thought I might like to teach law school, or even legal writing, and I set out a few years later to gain some experience in college classrooms as an adjunct. I felt a sort of hominess, a rightness of place that I hadn’t felt in a long time. But I am not a college professor, not even an adjunct, anymore.

What happened to me? Was I just young, inexperienced, learning about myself, and unsure of my direction? Was I fickle and undecided? Lacking in confidence and ambition? A flakey young woman with too much ego? Or was there something else derailing me, every time I wanted something, every moment when I pinned my hopes on a title, on prestige, on respect?

Here are some facts: When I was sixteen, I had an “affair” with my married high-school Shakespeare teacher. It lasted most of my junior year. We were caught and he was fired. He was arrested. He was charged with statutory rape and related crimes. The wheels of justice were set in motion, and I never saw him again, except on theater posters around the Bay Area, on banners and bus stops, his face ten feet high, his dark eyes staring at me like a mask.

Right now, as a handful of powerful men resign or are released from jobs because of the ways they treated women, people like reporter Dylan Byers bemoan that “never has so much talent left the industry all at once.”

Women I know are telling me that while they themselves have been abused by men, raped, harassed, demeaned, they aren’t sure if they can believe the women because sometimes women lie. And everyone is so worried about due process. Should these private companies fire men accused of rape, harassment, and abuse by multiple women? Shouldn’t they wait, let the juries decide? Sure, that sounds great, except the courts use an outdated standard to decide whether a plaintiff should even be allowed to bring suit.

The media has labeled this “The Harvey Weinstein Effect,” giving more credit to the bully whose moral and legal transgressions were inexcusably pervasive than to the brave women who were willing to name him a perpetrator. I would rather call it a wave of mass reckoning. Women with fiery rage in their bellies, secrets they’ve carried too long, names they’ve whispered when they wanted to shout. Somehow we turned the acquiescence into saying their names; women have become The Silence Breakers.

They say justice is blind, and a lady, but it is neither. Justice is a wheel.

Last year, every woman I know read the Stanford rape victim’s letter. This December, her rapist filed for an appeal (even though he was given a six month sentence, and served only half of that time). He wants a new trial. That is due process. The law-student-me would have told you that was just how these systems work, that he’s entitled to his appeal, and that I hope he loses. The victim-me opens her mouth; she wants to scream but the sound she actually makes has no name.

The state carries the burden of proof in the criminal justice system, which sounds reasonable. But when I look at how that was apportioned in my own case, or in other cases of sexual abuse or harassment, I am not so sure. These things usually take place in private, between the abuser and the abused: he said/she said. The state’s burden lands on the victim; at sixteen, I was the only potential witness and I was also unreliable. My memory, the evidence, gapped under pressure, and I had been in love with the accused. I wanted them to stop asking me questions in front of my mother. Would you like to describe, in front of your mother, how your adult boyfriend touched your vagina? Would you like to talk about whether or not his fingers or his tongue entered you, and why his penis didn’t? And would you like for nobody to believe you, even when you tell the truth, because the truth is not the story they want to hear?

I never had sexual intercourse with my teacher. We rounded third base, and stopped there. Time would probably have remedied it. That crushing feeling of wanting to make him happy, to please and never disappoint him, would have gotten me to “yes” eventually. He went down on me for the first time on the floor of his house, the week before Christmas, in 1997. By the spring, he was fired. That wasn’t the home run I had been hoping for.

The charge for statutory rape requires proof of intercourse. The prosecutors, the police, my mother, all believed I was lying to protect him. Tongues don’t count in California, I guess.

With sex crimes, the evidence isn’t a house, it’s a body, and what the mind can recall, has words for, articulate. There are no forensics on floorboards, no fingerprints to gather. Instead, medical technicians sweep vaginal canals for secretions and thighs for hair. Who wants to donate her body to be treated as the site of a crime? We never say a house or a car was asking for it. Who wants to donate her body to due process, and then carry the weight of the state on her shoulders? Who wants to do that when all you get is a lousy rape kit number and the knowledge that thousands upon thousands of rape kits sit untested until they are summarily destroyed. Thousands of bodies of evidence violated for nothing.

I remember the affair itself in technicolor detail. I remember where he first kissed me, and the hours leading up to it with perfect clarity. I could tell you about the traffic on the freeway, the temperature of the air, the color of the sun in October at 4 p.m., the exact flavor of my lip gloss, even the shirt I was wearing. I know what I wore to his house the night he laid me on the floor of his dining room and put his face between my thighs. I remember the exact feeling of awkward inexperience that washed over me when I realized I probably should have reciprocated, but I hadn’t known how to offer or when.

Which details do I remember? Where in my body is the rest of the story? Where my words fail me and the tape goes blank, how do I reconstruct a voice that makes sense? What if they don’t believe me? Some twenty years later, I remember my physical responses to his voice, and the way he growled his pet name for me in my ear. I remember more about the things I did with him than I do about myself at that age without him. I couldn’t tell you what I felt in math class aside from boredom and an intense desire to leave. I can tell you exactly what it felt like, week by week, to fall in love with my Shakespeare teacher. The exquisite secret rush of our becoming. The stabs of jealousy I felt when he paid attention to my classmates. The exact place in the hallway where I saw him flirting with a sophomore, and the way that I wanted to bash her face into the wall and gouge his eyes out with my bare fingers.

I am afraid that he remembers nothing.

The police interviewers made a tape of me describing the exact things that happened in a medically accurate way. I still flinch thinking about recording that tape. And the tape, like the rest of the evidence, is gone now, lost, destroyed, or filed in a warehouse somewhere in California.

But my teacher had his due process.

My process looks like a hole where my words fail, like a ball of something coming undone or becoming. My process is the ocean. My process is the narrative, and another one on top or underneath. My process is every career I wanted and then quit. Actor. Lawyer. College professor. All this time I thought it was me; maybe it was him.

Before they offered my teacher a plea deal, the district attorneys called me. They wanted my blessing, I guess. They wanted me to say the deal was okay. They told me whatever I said would be their decision, not realizing, I suppose, that I would have agreed to almost anything to make the ordeal end. By then, it was 1998, and Monica Lewinsky had become a national punchline. I just wanted to disappear. I wasn’t looking for justice, I was looking for an escape. If I was too young to have sex, I think I was also too young to make an objective decision about another person’s fate, particularly a person that I had loved as intensely as I had loved this man. But they still asked me to do that.

Our shared language crafts our reality. Sky. Blue. Baby. Ball. We point and we agree that the thing is this. I think this is why I’ve adhered these details to my mind. If I can accurately describe the color of the floor, will you believe me? If I can find the police report, will you believe me? I did track it down: San Francisco Police Report # 980366413, but it leads to a warehouse, to nothing. Something happened, we all know it happened, but nobody can tell me where to find what I’m missing.

I ask my friends “what is the word for the experience of not having the word for something?” My own question illustrative of the linguistic gap I was trying to fill. Trauma lives in my body, but it makes my language brain skip like a record. The first time a yoga teacher put me in pigeon pose I began crying. Maybe this is what it means to be a woman: to have a body full of knowledge that your brain has no words for. If there are no words, does it mean it isn’t real?

If he pled to something, I wouldn’t have to testify. I wouldn’t have to say vagina again in front of my mother, in front of him, his wife, the judge. The tradeoff was that he wouldn’t register as a sex offender. That was their deal. No court for me, no mandatory registration for him. It didn’t feel like any of the things I later memorized about punishment: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution. I still agreed to the plea.

He continued his successful Bay Area acting, coaching, and directing career. I recently found a promotional video for a large regional theater company that featured long shots of him, standing in the center of a circle of teenage girls.

I didn’t save anyone, not even myself.

How could I feel a sense of righteousness when my suffering was ignored? Nobody saw the real harm. What I am saying is: it wasn’t his tongue that hurt me. I wanted to be there. I drove myself to his house. The harm was much deeper, more insidious and lasting. It was the blow to my confidence as an actor, and later as a lawyer, and later still, an adjunct. It was the reminder that despite my hard work, my intellect, and my ambition, I was, by virtue of my femaleness, an ornament. An adorable, erotic reward for men. And that was a systemic degrading. Every girl in my school who saw what happened between us carried the lesson that you can get ahead by allowing certain liberties to be taken, that your silence and complicity is your power. If you allow it to happen to you, you will lose yourself; if you don’t go along, you will lose everything else. There is no winning while female.

The wheel is large and wooden, and it turns slowly over the pine needles. The sound of movement, slow, animal. The wheel has balusters. It steers the rudder which moves the ship. The wheel is rubber. The wheel moves fast across the freeway, zoom. The wheel lifts up when it hits water. The wheel keeps turning even after the car stops moving. The wheel is fine black, pedaled forward by thighs. The wheel is blue. Blinding white. The wheel is the wheel; the lady perched on the edge is dancing. She doesn’t have a way off.

What does my justice look like? When is it due? Is it our Shitty Media Men spreadsheets? Our whisper networks? Is justice the friend of mine asking for a Bay Area Theater #MeToo moment? I can’t find the words to tell her that she knows my abuser. I can’t even write his name. Two days later, though, I do write it. I write it and then I tell her what happened, and I send the message, and I regret it, and then I regret my regret. It wasn’t my right to name him, or was it? I am undone.

She writes to me that his was a name she had in mind. There are others, she says. You are not alone, she says. I believe you, she says.

The wheel is huge. It comes toward me in my dreams. It crushes. It crushes. It crushes until the moment I am strong enough to face it, tip it, and shove it in the direction it belongs.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel’s award-winning essays have appeared in The Manifest Station, Under the Gum Tree, Nailed Magazine, and others. She is seeking an agent and publisher for her first book, Played, a memoir of precocity. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler, and writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. More from this author →