ENOUGH: Handing Back the Shame
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.
Handing Back the Shame
Each year, when baby-pink blossoms coat the trees in candyfloss, when petals swirl in the balmy air like confetti, my body remembers being raped.
It may only be for a moment, but I am catapulted back in time: pried away from these child-bearing hips of a woman in her mid-forties living with her family in London, hurled over the English Channel to France, and dragged back to the night when my twenty-one-year-old self was forced under the writhing, slithering body of the man who raped me. I’m in his locked up flat. He’s backed me into a corner. Threatened me with a knife. Told me no one will hear my screams. I’m pleading, sobbing, begging. Until, with fear hemorrhaging in my brain, I realize how helpless and powerless I truly am.
For seventy-two hours after the rape, I cowered in my apartment fearing any minute the rapist was going to track me down and kill me. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t cry. It took me three days and three nights to build up enough courage to leave my flat and run to the police station. Yes, all the evidence was washed down the plughole. Yes, it was my word against his. Most likely, he would not be prosecuted. But I was desperate to feel safe again. Knew I had to warn the authorities this man was a danger to women.
The police, however, they shot me down.
Over and over, they asked: “Why would a nice girl like you be friends with a Moroccan man?” “Why would you even think about going back to his apartment?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had been brought up with no reason to fear the police, taught to respect those in authority, defer to their better judgment. Yet, here, something atrocious was happening, something dark and alien and heinous. I felt sick to my core.
Distraught, I stared back at the policemen.
It was racist to suggest a girl should not go back to a Moroccan man’s apartment, as if all Moroccan men cannot control themselves in the presence of a woman. It was wrong to say a “nice girl” should know better than to mix with a man of color and therefore infer it was her fault if an “un-nice girl” put herself at risk.
I wanted to scream: “He is not a rapist because his skin is brown or because he is an immigrant; he is a rapist because he rapes.”
But dread was already pressing hard into my heart and lungs, blame peeling my skin off and infecting my wounds with shame. The policemen’s response had savaged me as violently as the rapist’s threat to press his knife hard against my throat.
I gazed at the policemen’s badges and stripes on their lapels and thought how girls and women around the world are raped in their own homes, in schools, in churches, at parties, in bathrooms, in taxis, in fields—anywhere where a rapist is present. I was appalled that these two policemen, who were charged with keeping me safe, and perhaps the whole of their police force, too, were prejudiced and did not possess an accurate understanding of what causes men to rape. As long as men continued to attack women and girls, it really didn’t matter where the fuck I happened to be, in which country this man was born, or what the color of his skin was.
Breathing fast, I became aware that the seemingly unpalatable truth of my story could never fit into the round, smooth shapes of the myths they believed. In just a few corrosive words these grown men, these figures of authority, had lifted up any drawbridge of help; now, I was alone, up against the propaganda of history, urgently forced, despite my trauma, to check and re-check the facts of what happened, forced to start believing that I had done something wrong, that there must be something wrong with me, something “un-nice,” because a “nice girl” would have behaved differently.
I explained he’d befriended my group of friends—both male and female—months earlier. Everyone had trusted him. Why would I think he’d hurt me? I desperately wanted the police officers to tell me I wasn’t to blame, that the only person to blame for the rape was the man who raped me. The officers snorted, started to flick through a series of mugshots, when suddenly the sneering face of the rapist scorched through the photographic paper and burnt my eyes right through to their sockets. In the photograph, he looked different: his eyes seethed with a deep-seated hatred. My whole body began to shake uncontrollably; he had deceived me and my friends for months, biding his time for the right moment to rape any one of us. Everything that I knew about the world seemed to disintegrate.
Days later, without any warning, a policeman led me into an interview room in which the rapist and another policeman were waiting. Icy panic stopped me dead; it felt like I had been tricked again. The policemen instructed me to sit right next to the rapist—no more than an inch away—while they took their seats behind a desk so very far away on the other side of the room.
Perhaps the police had not been given sufficient training to understand the psychological effects of rape. Maybe they were not aware of the horrific levels of intimidation and terror that a victim of sexual assault or rape can feel when giving evidence in sight of her attacker. Or perhaps they just didn’t take my rape case seriously.
When I caught sight of the rapist, a terrifying white silence ruptured in my ears. Revulsion engulfed me, scouring raw every organ, every layer of tissue, knocking me sideways. Slumping down onto the chair, I turned my whole body away from the rapist in an attempt to shield myself. From the corner of my eye, I saw how he looked me up and down with a sense of triumph, gloating at the damage he had wrecked upon a young girl for the rest of her life. I sensed his glee that now he could hold me up to the police as a trophy of his evilness, that now he would have an audience to watch as he continued to decimate me. I shook from the ferocity of rage and despair and fear that erupted in my stomach and ricocheted through my body.
My wild eyes darted to and from the door of the interview room. Once more, I felt trapped, forced back into his apartment, forced back under his body, overpowered and as afraid and out-of-control and helpless as I’d felt that sorrowful night. And, at the very same time I was reliving the trauma of the rape, my rapist’s menacing presence right next to me felt as if he were holding a knife in his hand and was relentlessly slicing my eyes and cheekbones and lips to shreds, slashing my arms and legs, severing my torso, cutting me up and cutting me down. Everything went blank; all I could feel was numbness, a glassy detachment from reality.
I wanted to scream at the police to help me, to get me out of this room, to take me somewhere safe away from this violent man but my mouth had locked shut, my tongue seized up, and my jaw ground and grated my teeth. A tornado of utter confusion battered my young brain; I could not understand why my whole body was preparing to be killed when the police looked so calm. And because I’d been brought up to be a good girl, because I trusted the police to keep me safe and protect me, I didn’t feel I could challenge these men in power, didn’t feel I could yell at them: “Fuck you! How dare you treat me like this.” Even then, I put my trust in the police to care for me. I shut down my feelings of absolute terror, ignored my instinct to get the hell out, and forced myself to become compliant, to do as these men told me—a pattern my body would repeat compulsively for the next twenty-five years as it tried to cope with the impact of this moment.
The police insisted we pit our stories one against the other; they bombarded me with victim-blaming questions that assumed I could have avoided the rape and excused the rapist. Again and again, the rapist shouted in my face, “She’s a liar.” With each strike, I held my head in my hands or wrapped my arms around my body, holding and hugging myself, anything to fend off each blow. So overpowering was his hatred and rage, I feared he would kill me, right there, in front of the officers who remained aloof and unresponsive. In a daze, as I stumbled through my French vocabulary, summing up every last ounce of concentration and inner strength to stay alert to the minefield of their questioning, it felt like his hands and their cold steely blame were strangling me, like what was left of this shadow of a girl was being sent to the gallows. But still my brave twenty-one-year-old self battled on, praying this relentless onslaught would be worth it if it stopped this violent man from preying on others.
When the police finally let me go that afternoon, I was stunned and disoriented. I had no one to support me. No one to walk me home safely. I had trusted the police to treat me like a victim of a serious violent crime. Their response exacerbated my trauma. They hadn’t supported me or protected me from further harm. Their blame made me feel even more worthless, even more ashamed, even more disgusting. Like I’d been violated a second time.
Even now, twenty-five years later, when I think back to being forced to sit next to the rapist, I start to shake, the turmoil returns to squeeze my head tighter and tighter as if it is held in a clamp, an oppressive fog of grief weighs me down, and my stomach clenches and contorts with the fear I still carry. The right side of my body, the side that was nearest to the rapist, throbs heavy with pain. Once, my right hand had wanted to clench up into a powerful fist and hit back. Once, my right arm had wanted to lift up very slowly, carefully activating every muscle and ligament from my shoulder down to my abdomen, to repeatedly jab my elbow in to the rapist’s sneering eyes and mouth and knock the coward out cold. Once I was limp, frozen rigid with fear. Not anymore.
I didn’t realize it at the time but the way the police treated me stopped me from seeking help for years. Rape brought me face-to-face with the capacity that humans have for evil. Somehow, I kept this unspeakable pain caged up inside. Not realizing how it was gnawing away at my sense of self-worth. Not realizing how it was smothering my body in an oil slick of filthy shame. For twenty-five years, my story went untold. Even now, when I confide in close friends and family that I, too, have been raped, I am fraught with anxiety about how they will react. It still feels like I have done something wrong.
This spring time, I sit under a white cherry blossom tree in the park and stare at a photograph of myself the day before I was raped. A university undergraduate in black leggings and Dr. Martens boots, bouncing down a street in France with a happy-go-lucky spring to her step. As my twenty-one-year-old self grins at the camera, I am struck at just how very young I look.
Twenty-five years on, I wonder: what has changed?
Fighting back the tears, white petals from the blossoms rain down on me. I want to comfort my twenty-one-year-old self, tell her that nowadays the police will help us, take us seriously, and treat us with respect. But too often, this is not the case, and I want to tear my hair out and scream how this very same story has been told by our grandmothers and their grandmothers and theirs, and still the only way to be sure that justice will be done is to get yourself a gun and blow that motherfucker’s curdled, putrid brain to smithereens. But how, my sisters, can we condone violence when it is precisely that against which we fight?
Twenty-five years on, I refuse to carry this shame any longer. It is time to tend to my wounds. I shut my eyes, begin to meditate and carefully transport myself back in time to the police interview room. I look the rapist square in the eye. Head held up, I am a warrior.
“Take back your shame,” I tell him. “It is your shame, not mine.”
I visualize the policemen who blamed me. I did no wrong. My crime was to be a woman, to possess a sacred and sexual power. My crime was to report a rape to the police.
“Take back your shame,” I yell louder in my head.
When I am ready to leave, I open my eyes, return to the present, and gaze at the photograph. Only now can I see how brave my twenty-one-year-old self was, only now do I finally see how she tried her best. And as I acknowledge this, I feel a weight lift off my shoulders. A piece of me shifts back into place. The blossom tree whirls and sways in its white satin dress.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original 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 is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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