ENOUGH: A Fraying, Taut Rope

By

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.

***

Secret
Kerry Erlanger

It’s dark the first time; it isn’t the last.

We spend days and then nights driving up and down this same empty stretch of road, a two lane highway that splits through our individual memories and turns them into something shared, childhood in the rearview mirror and the endless expanse of adulthood up ahead, looming and imperceivable. He offers me a cigarette and I’m nervous, but not in the way I thought I would be. It’s exhilarating, this nearing teenage rebellion. To imagine a thing and have the means to get away with it.

I’m growing up uncomfortable in my skin and nobody wants to acknowledge it—ignored and uneasy and alone, an unnamed sadness in my chest strong enough that when someone suggests a suicide pact it strikes me as reasonable.

He takes everything I say so seriously it’s almost painful. He likes Talking Heads and carnival rides and gossip, thinks I’m talented in all the ways I never see myself to be, convinces me to try acting. I follow him down dark school corridors, stage left and then right, and I don’t remember the name of the girl he introduces me to, but I’ll never forget sitting across from her in the courthouse waiting room, victim meet victim. He dances to Harvey Danger in the kitchen and never makes me feel small. He’s the first person to ever tell me I’m a good writer and that validation means something.

He makes me keep secrets close to my chest, the heat of his palm a confusing weight against it. The ghost of things both said and unsaid, the radio humming, we’re on a road to nowhere. He sings along even though he knows exactly where he is headed. Now, in retrospect, I do, too.

There’s a statistic somewhere about a majority of sexual abuses being committed by people you know. It’s repeated ad nauseam to scare parents to remain ever vigilant against friends and neighbors, but Lot lies with his family in the Bible and no one ever talks about that.

Nobody ever talks about this either: searching hands, a low voice whispering in the dark, demands for my first real kiss and then. I’m scared, but later he’s scared too when he climbs the stairs to my room asking for silence, and I feel powerful even when I shouldn’t. I’m not holding the cards here, not really, even though he’s convinced me I am. Secrets, secrets are no fun, but it’s us against the world, always has been, always will be. He’s made sure. Years and years go by and I still can’t shake the feeling. Grooming is what it’s known as, but it feels more like Stockholm Syndrome. Spend enough time with a thing and suddenly it’s a part of you.

He’s in my head and every corner of my room and then he’s on the phone from jail, talking to me about psychology with apologies steeped in the vernacular of wayward youth—nobody understands us, this is different and I’m on your side. This is illegal, I think, but then I don’t care. Part of me likes the rebellion of it, likes going behind enemy lines (having the means to get away with it). Mostly I’m looking for a reaction. I throw life without him in his face to try and hurt him, but I’m not sure it ever does. That wasn’t what this was, a meet-cute turned sour. It was years compounding into a criminal record that I can’t help but feel blamed for, this dissolution of a family reality once thought understood. My best and worst childhood memories are of him, strong and self-assured and obviously manipulated. I felt understood by him in a way that I never had before, in a way that I would not again for a very long time. But memory is flawed and that’s part of the problem. What was real and what wasn’t?

Where did he touch you, the prosecutor asks, and I have to use words I am barely comfortable with despite the adult nature of my very not adult life. Show me on the doll, point, like an after school special. Except this is not wrapped up neatly in half an hour. It’s fifteen years and then some of navigating problems no one knows how to fix, of lying in bed and remembering exactly where he touched me and when, of fixating on the one woman in the jury I hated because she had the audacity to look sympathetic, of hating everyone but him. It’s going into school the next day and having everyone know, because it’s all over the local news. It’s learning to live with the dichotomies of after. Life was once black-and-white and now, it’s gray. Secret’s out.

I’m grown up uncomfortable in my skin and still nobody wants to acknowledge it. Nobody wants to talk to me about it, really. Not anymore. If there’s a lesson to be had it’s that secrets should remain as such. I internalize that lesson, make it a part of me.

Years later, I pass him in a supermarket. Our eyes meet briefly, recognition passing between us. I have thought about you every day for over a decade, I want to say. You were my cousin and you loved me, but not in the way I ever wanted you to. We were allies until we weren’t, and how could you ruin that? How could you?

He looks different than I remember, older, worn down. Still, I remember that mouth that grinned and those hands that moved, the laughter and everything that came after. A decade later, but it could be now, because I’m driving up and down the same stretch of interstate, our road to nowhere, but then it never really was that, was it? It was a specific road with a specific destination, always. He knew the way and I didn’t, and wasn’t that the whole point in the end.

He sends me a birthday card at an address he has no business knowing. I start worrying that he’s going to kill me, this man who still whispers sweet nothings in the dark.

The years stretch between us like a fraying, taut rope.

*

The Thawing Out Process
Sandra LeDuc

Start by finding out which state entity or agency you need to report him to.

Talk it over with your therapist, sorting out what you hope to gain from taking this action. What is it you’re trying to do? Is it realistic to think anything will happen given that decades have passed?

Learn that he’s switched jobs and schools three times in three years and feel like you’re going to throw up. Because you know somewhere inside that he’s doing or done what he did to you to other girls, maybe boys, too. That it doesn’t matter that you were both minors when he hurt you. That he’s sadistic and a sociopath.

You are doing this because the man-monster who hurt you as a child is a coach and teacher. He has three children of his own now, too.

Realize that as part of what your therapist calls the “thawing out” process, you must keep this from happening to someone else by telling the right people. Understand that if you don’t speak up, you’ll live with a grinding anguish the rest of your life. Knowing that he could abuse others sometimes causes you to dissociate, to stop breathing, your body flung into the nothingness of just wanting it to be over. Finally, you remember to inhale deeply to keep from flying away or passing out. Then wish you’d stayed in a state of frozen numbness instead.

Of course, you have no proof of his harming others, but there is a knowing. This knowledge leads to the dark, reliable fantasy about driving halfway across the country with a shotgun in your backseat. You have never handled or fired a gun in your life, but somehow a shotgun seems right. You’d stake out his home and school, follow his movements, learn his routines. At the right moment, perhaps in the parking lot of a big box store or fast-food restaurant, you’d confront that fucker: “This is for what you did to me. You won’t hurt anyone ever again.” Blast him in the stomach with the shotgun and leave him to bleed out on the pavement. Walk away, get in the car, drive off.

Years ago, another therapist told you she’d visit you in prison if you decided to do this. You imagine women’s prison and try to shake the thoughts off while keeping the revenge fantasy alive because sometimes it’s all you have.

It is not hard to understand why you want to shoot him in the gut because your own stomach absorbs rage more than any other part of your body—there is a literal fire in your belly. You take meds, eat bland foods, and live with the acid ball as you have for decades now.

Find out you need to contact the commissioner’s office at the State Department of Education. Write the letter about your abuser and what he did in a detached manner. Note that there is a report of the abuse on file with the county you lived in as a child. You predict this will get their attention. Because it’s written down somewhere. There is a record.

Type the letter on your computer, print it out, sign it, heart hammering in your chest as you drop it in the mailbox. Sleep through the night for the first time in months. Wait.

Open the email from the Department of Education confirming receipt of your letter. Feel victorious for a few moments, because now there is another record with his name on it. The email is signed by a woman named Roberta, who invites you to respond to her via email or phone to discuss “this matter.”

Take Roberta up on her offer to talk on the phone. Leave multiple messages on her voice mail, as she never seems to be at her desk. Start calling weekly, then daily, until she finally answers.

Roberta is not pleased to hear from you; you feel her annoyance in the clipped tones of her voice. She tells you that to have the matter heard by a licensing review board with the authority to revoke your abuser’s teaching certificate, you will have to file and sign an official complaint and affidavit. Sound calm and forceful when you tell her that you intend to do just that, though you begin to shake and sweat. Sit down hard on a chair at your kitchen table when you find out this review board will likely ask you to testify at some sort of hearing, which your abuser will also attend. He will be appointed legal representation through his union. He will have the opportunity to respond in writing to your complaint and testify before the board in response to your testimony. Roberta pauses in her litany of procedures: Are you getting the message here? Do I need to keep going? She ends the call by telling you you’re free to contact the charter school where your abuser is employed. You write down the school’s name.

Talk with your therapist again. Try to believe her when she reminds you that you cannot control or fix this situation, nor are you responsible.

Google the charter school where your abuser works. See his staff photo on the school’s website. He teaches physical education and math. Feel sick all over again. Look up the principal of the school. It’s a woman—good. Maybe she will listen. Write her a letter. Be clear about what happened, how you have been impacted. Tell her that you believe your abuser never quit hurting others and he should not be around children, much less teaching them. Do not swear, threaten, or spit words of rage in this letter, because this will only give the principal a reason to ignore you, just as others have dismissed you before. End the letter by reminding the principal of her responsibility to protect the children in her care. Do not sign your name to this first letter. Just send it, and watch. Maybe something will happen. Maybe not. But you can look yourself in the eye again, and that’s a start.

Watch in disbelief, triumph, and rage as other women and men break the silence and expose how other men-monsters have abused, raped, and humiliated them. Cycle through excitement, heartbreak, and confusion daily. Marvel that there is finally a reckoning for some of the famous monsters—they aren’t getting away with it. Read the details about the harassment, the unwanted touching, the forced kissing, the masturbating, the raping, and then stop, because you’re retraumatizing yourself. Feel out of your body again.

Meditate. Do yoga. Do the work. Sob through therapy sessions, walks, meals, train rides, because tears uncried will only poison and fester. Cry so hard you feel like someone has scraped out your insides with a rusty spoon.

Come across the journal entry from the day you sent that first letter about your abuser two years ago, and marvel at how powerful you felt, the words written in all caps: TODAY I SENT THE LETTER. Rage at all the monsters like yours who have been hiding in plain sight for years or decades, allowed unfettered access to more victims. Rage for the millions like you who were shamed, silenced, disbelieved, shunned, told we needed to stop “holding a grudge” because “it wasn’t that bad,” was it? Remember what that feeling of betrayal is like. Remember how you’ve fought your entire life to move from survivor to thriver. You will need the strength of these memories to keep going, to listen and believe and love all the others when they say me too, me too, me too.

***

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.

Visit the archives here.