ENOUGH: Infra Dig

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 runs every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

***

Infra Dig
Emi Nietfeld

in·fra dig
adjective
INFORMAL•BRITISH
Origin: abbreviation of Latin infra dignitatem ‘beneath (one’s) dignity’

One month after I graduated high school, I was raped. Three weeks later, I was on my hands and knees in Northern England excavating Roman ruins.

The dig seemed like a good idea a few months earlier. I was seventeen and longed to see the world outside of Minnesota. My single mom couldn’t afford to send me abroad so—in typical overachiever fashion—I found the dig along with a “summer learning” scholarship that could subsidize a backpacking trip beforehand.

“Genius!” my mom said. As soon as I won the money, she told me all she knew about the Romans. “My daughter will be unearthing history!” she bragged to every cashier at the local Rainbow Foods.

I rolled my eyes. I had no interest in archeology. I couldn’t have cared less about classical societies. At best, I thought the dig would make a good metaphor.

I knew my mom was jealous of my adventure. She often reminisced on the time she’d traveled abroad in her late twenties. A psychiatrist in Athens had tried to rape her but she’d gotten away, an incident that inspired one of her favorite jokes: “When someone offers to ‘show you his art collection,’ RUN!” She didn’t seem concerned about my trip but told me to email her every few days and recommended a book about men called Excuse Me Miss, Have You Seen the Acropolis?.

I could still hear my mom’s voice in my head, reminding me that Romance languages had nothing to do with love, when I arrived in Budapest after two weeks in Europe. I was sitting in the corner of my hostel’s kitchen, wearing a pair of extremely cool raw denim jeans not available in the US and chatting with a thirty-something-year-old employee. He stood up, took three steps towards me, and trapped me.

He towered over me with his pants down. I looked up at him. My voice shook as I said, “I’m a virgin.”

My chair banged against the wall behind me. When the man grabbed me, his hands felt like they could crumble my skull. No one would have heard me scream. No one even knew I was in Hungary.

The man forced himself into my mouth and thrust into my face. Pain shot through me. I had no idea what was going on.

The next day, I googled it. I stumbled on an entry in The Latin Sexual Vocabulary for irrumatio. The Romans considered it one of the most degrading things one person could do to another. But I didn’t need a book to figure that out.

 

In the eight-and-a-half years since the attack, I’ve studied the dictionary trying to understand my feelings.

Shame: feeling bad as a person, accompanied by the urge to hide. I felt ashamed when I called my mom from a payphone, sobbing, afraid that the rapist’s violence revealed flaws in my character.

Guilt: remorse over wrongdoing, how I felt when my mom relayed wisdom from a shopkeeper in Athens: “If you just say ‘NO!’ loudly and clearly, they usually won’t rape you.” Guilt overwhelmed me that I hadn’t escaped like my mom had.

Embarrassment: awkward, self-conscious discomfort when action undermines self-image. I wanted to be seen as mature so it embarrassed me to bawl in front of the barricades of the US embassy, where my mom suggested I go if I really needed help. I felt like a child as I cried the guards with machine guns, “I’m seventeen without my parents.” It undermined my self-image as an invincible world-traveler to tell the lady who whisked me through the X-ray machine, “A man shoved his dick down my throat.”

Humiliation is an emotion, but it’s more. It’s a process in which a humiliator intentionally degrades a victim. It’s a state: when the victim is judged as reduced.

I felt humiliated. The rapist called me a bitch. He came on my sweater and on my new jeans. He stood over me, lit a cigarette, and asked, “What’s your name again?” He laughed and added, “Just kidding, Emi.”

I didn’t contemplate the social condition of humiliation until my mom emailed me the cryptic instruction “keep your dignity” and I knew my value was at risk.

If humiliation requires a witness to judge the victim as reduced, could I have avoided it by not telling anyone? Did each disclosure make it worse? In writing this, and making the reader the witness, am I humiliating myself?

 

As much as my mom didn’t want the “bastard” to ruin my vacation, the foreign service insisted I go home. My two thousand dollar, one-way plane ticket triggered red flags which meant I got frisked three times and had all my souvenirs confiscated—except for the jeans.

I sunk into my seat on the airplane, eager to forget it all and keep my dignity, whatever that meant.

As the plane reached altitude, I got very cold. I had no warm clothes besides the sweater with the semen on it. I put it on and shivered.

My one consolation was that I wouldn’t have to go on the archeological dig.

 

My mom came up with creative ways to describe the situation. She told my older brother, “Emi was detained as a potential terrorist and sent back by the State Department.” Apparently, “potential terrorist” was better than “rape victim.”

Every secondary survivor responds uniquely to the news that their loved one was victimized. My mom responded by fixating on “incurable,” “life-threatening,” “contagious” diseases, but we did not discuss the mechanism of transmission. Instead, she referred to the ordeal as “coming back from Europe,” or simply, “Europe.” As in, “my daughter may have contracted an STD in Europe,” when scheduling my appointment with the pediatrician.

I worried I’d strangle my mom if she mentioned syphilis one more time, so I made her stay in the waiting room. I stared at my chewed-down fingernails as I explained to the doctor that a man had forced me to go down on him. After she examined my throat and made me gag on a very long Q-tip, she assured me the soreness would eventually subside.

I looked up from the floor. The pediatrician looked into my eyes. She asked, “Was it rape?”

I was mortified. What was this, a vocabulary quiz? An exam on international legal terms? Wasn’t she the doctor?

I had no idea if what happened “counted” or not. After all, I hadn’t said the magic word loudly and clearly and it was just my face and mouth and throat. My mom had called it “assault” in one email and “selfish” in another. Now she called it “Europe.” If even a doctor couldn’t help me put words to it, I felt doomed to never understand.

I sat on my hands. “I don’t know,” I said. But all I could think was, “the Romans called this irrumatio.”

 

Back in the car, my mom offered me a Diet Dr. Pepper, reminded me it took six weeks to test positive for HIV, and asked, “Have you bought your flight to England yet?”

“What?” One week had passed since I’d envisioned my body floating down the Danube. I hadn’t slept through the night since. All I wanted was to pass out and never wake up. “I don’t want to go.”

“They gave you the scholarship. You have to go.”

“Can’t someone call and explain the situation?”

My mom looked straight ahead at I-35W. She wasn’t going to call. I knew she didn’t want me to forgo my amazing chance to explore antiquity.

I stared out the window. The only thing worse than flying back to sift through the detritus of toga-wearing perverts would be calling the scholarship coordinator. What was I supposed to tell her? “There’s this Latin word for what happened to me…”?

That night, I spent most of my savings on another plane ticket.

 

Two weeks later, I arrived in South Shields, England, a town so economically depressed that it made Minneapolis seem like a global capital. Seagulls loitered in the desolate streets.

The principal investigator showed the diggers—five high schoolers and me—scale models of the once-majestic Fort Arbeia. Then, he showed us the site: a grassy field, littered with trailers. I shivered in my warmest outfit: a raincoat, thrift-store hiking boots, and the same jeans and sweater as I’d worn during the rape.

After my lunch of crisps and a Mars bar, one of the research assistants handed me a trowel and directed me to a fenced-off pit. “Don’t dig,” he instructed me, “Scrape. Gently.”

I got on my hands and knees and diligently scraped.

Then, I grazed something solid. With the tip of my tool, I loosened a clay shard, a few centimeters long.

I flagged down the investigator and handed him my find. He held it close to his face. After a moment, he said something.

“Can you repeat that?” I asked, “Sorry, the accent.”

“This is a statue fragment of a male figure,” he enunciated. He pointed to some indentations on the clay. “You can tell it’s a male by these bits here.”

The other teenagers gathered around. I folded my arms, smug. It seemed like the dig wasn’t so bad after all.

 

That night, after I’d laid aside my soiled clothes to wear again the next day, I found an email from my mom. She wrote:

Hope you are fine.

Compared to the many exciting things you have done, this may seem a little tedious. Think of it as unearthing history and good discipline. I’m really proud of you for fulfilling this commitment. I’m sure you will learn many things that you can apply to other areas of your life.

Love and prayers,
Mom

I sat on my twin-size bed and re-read the email, noting a strange lack of exclamation points. I couldn’t help but wonder if the “many exciting things” included the rape.

I tried to assume the best. Twenty-one days had passed since the attack. My mom probably thought it was time to put it behind me. I knew my mom envied my chance to travel internationally and meet history buffs and call the bathroom a “WC” without irony.

But I worried the way I’d come back from Europe changed the way she saw me. I’d over-achieved enough that donors gave me three thousand dollars for the trip, so it didn’t make sense I suddenly needed to unearth good discipline. I had no idea what lessons I was supposed to be learning. The “commitment” felt like punishment.

I tried to put these worries out of my mind, although an ominous movie-narrator voice kept whispering, “Keep your dignity.”

I replied to tell my mom I’d found a shard of a male sculpture.

Then, I lay back, exhausted. When I couldn’t fall asleep, I blamed the jet lag.

 

That night, the birds’ racket woke me four times. In the morning, a chaperone startled me awake with a hard pound on my door. It was time to unearth discipline.

At the site, I assumed my position on all fours and began scraping at the soil. As soon as I bent over, I realized my V-neck shirt exposed my breasts and my sports bra. I asked for permission to go to the porta-potties, where I reversed my shirt, so the V was in the back. When I returned to my pit, the neckline strangled me slightly, which made it hard for me to breathe, reminding me of how I’d felt during the attack, struggling for air as the man moaned.

I tried to focus on the dirt. I tugged on my shirt. Someone turned on a radio and the song of the summer, “Baby” by Justin Bieber, blasted out. A few of the other teens hummed along.

After an eternity, I looked up at the dim, flat sky. It revealed nothing about the passage of time.

I flagged down the investigator. “How long has it been?” I asked.

He looked at his watch. “It’s 10 a.m.”

 

We were so far north that the sky didn’t go black until 11 p.m. Once I fell asleep, I kept jolting awake, phantom fingernails digging into my scalp. The alarm clock read 12:15 a.m., 12:45 a.m., 1:52 a.m.

One night, midway through the trip, I sank into a deep sleep. It felt like being buried: heavy, restful. I no longer needed to breathe so no one could choke me. The weight pushed down on me, the earth supporting me, the earth taking me. Eventually, it would decompose my sweater, decompose my skin. The soil and I would become one again. All that would remain were my earrings, two in each lobe, the crowns in my teeth, my belly button ring.

Then, I shook awake to a terrible clatter.

“CAW CAW CAW.” It was the seagulls. I stumbled up to the window. The sun wouldn’t rise until 4:51 a.m., another two hours. “CAW CAW CAW.”

I pushed aside the curtain and saw hundreds of birds flying in formation. Hundreds more carpeted the cobblestone street.

They’re just seagulls, I told myself.

But I couldn’t help but think they were mocking me.

“CAW! CAW! CAW!” they screamed. “WHAT’S! YOUR! NAME! AGAIN?”

“HA! HA! HA! JUST! KIDDING! EMI!”

I pulled the curtain back over the windows. I berated myself. Stop taking everything so personally! I crawled into bed. I pulled the pillow over my head and smashed it down, trying to drown out the sound. Everything got warm and moist, the air got thin. But unlike in my dream, I still had to breathe.

I couldn’t fall back asleep. Instead, I lay paralyzed as my bedroom in England turned into the kitchen in Budapest. Again and again, pain burst through me as the man thrust into me. Again and again, I struggled not to move so the man wouldn’t injure me accidentally or get upset and kill me on purpose. Again and again, I begged in my head, I’ll do anything you want just please stop hurting me anything at all I can’t breathe I need air.

But there were no words, only the sound of my choking and gagging, the rapist’s moaning. It sounded just like the seagulls.

 

The sun never came out during the two weeks of the trip. When it was too cold and wet to dig, we sat in trailers and scrubbed pieces of pottery with toothbrushes. When it was merely chilly and damp, we fought over who got to use the hoe.

Mostly, we worked silently. Occasionally, someone laughed and I wanted to stab them with a trowel.

My mom emailed, congratulating me on my find. She asked: “Was the statue male from muscles, facial hair, or what Monty Python would call ‘naughty bits’? (Maybe ‘bits’ is a British term for testicles?)”

I found this insensitive and didn’t write back.

 

On our final day of digging, the principal investigator handed me a pickaxe and told me to hack out a wide, deep hole.

I stared at the tool dumbly. Then I slammed the blade into the ground.

Birds cawed. If one came near me, I decided I’d decapitate it.

I smashed into the soil until I felt warm. I peeled off my rain jacket. I threw my sweater on the ground. Raindrops gathered on the V of exposed skin on my upper back.

I chopped and I chopped and I thought FUCK FUCK FUCK. I hated Europe, I hated my mom. I hated England, I hated my “commitments” and my “discipline” and my “learnings.” I hated that I had to dig this hole. And the hole was not a metaphor, the whole trip was, and I hated the trip. Most of all, I hated the birds, hated that I couldn’t sleep, hated that the cost of not being humiliated was to stay silent, to stay ashamed.

I wondered how much deeper I had to dig to make a grave. Someone could cover me in dirt. I’d say it was a joke, get one of the other diggers to take a picture. Then maybe I could take a rest, maybe I could nap, finally in my element.

The principal investigator came up behind me. Startled, I jumped up and screamed.

“That’ll do,” he said.

I sighed and surrendered the pickaxe.

 

I clearly did not unearth good discipline because I ignored the scholarship coordinator for months. When I finally sent my report to the donors just before Thanksgiving, I sugarcoated things. “Every morning, I woke up and felt like a truck had hit me,” I wrote. After a brief paragraph about the seagulls, I signed off, “I learned more than I could have possibly imagined.”

In my haste slapping together a report, I forgot to mention my new passion for research. My findings? Humiliated comes from the Latin humus and means “to be made close to the dirt.” In almost every language, the etymology involves a downward orientation: the perpetrator over the victim, the rapist standing over me, the seagulls overhead, cawing.

I also learned that irrumatio typified the Latin sexual vocabulary. The Romans loved rape jokes, especially ones about shutting up rivals. Sculptures with giant phalluses guarded gardens to ward off would-be robbers (but those weren’t supposed to be funny). They even had a concept of sexual assault being unspeakable. Catullus, the most prominent poet after Homer and Virgil, wrote about an evil nephew: “However much he should irrumate / his own uncle now, his uncle won’t say a word.” William Fitzgerald analyzed this as, “The victim is silenced because to speak out against the perpetrator would be to acknowledge his own humiliation.” But I didn’t need a scholar to explain that.

My mom and I never discussed the rape, but she emailed all the time to tell me how proud she was of me. In the silence, her praise became a cacophony.

 

Two years later, my mom signed up for her own archeological dig. In the first of many group emails, she detailed her “almost embarrassing” jealousy towards the things I’d experienced. She wrote: “Why not me?”

The dispatches arrived in my inbox. She joked: “I’m still pondering what Mad magazine’s visual would be for ‘natural cleavage plains.’” She shared advice prefixed with asterisks so no one could miss it: “*NEVER put anything creamy in your pocket, even if it is wrapped in a napkin.” But mostly, she complained. She hated the annoying wildlife, “recycled” food, and having to dig in the dirt. On a weekend swim outing, a riptide pulled her out to sea and she nearly drowned.

I took delight in my mom’s grievances: they were the closest I’d get to revenge. My rapist faced no consequences. I struggled to feel angry towards him—after all, I didn’t even know his name. So I eked out each modicum of pleasure from my mom’s descriptions of the bratty adolescents, pre-dawn wakeups, and having to wear the same “FILTHY” clothes three days in a row.

I skipped to the end of her final philosophical email, ready for vindication. My mom would admit that envy had blinded her but that she now understood that archeology was awful, demeaning work. She’d apologize for making me go to South Shields and, by extension, for how she’d handed the whole rape thing.

Yet she seemed to have forgotten her discomfort before she even got the dirt out of her scalp. In the penultimate paragraph, she wrote, “I realize our fears strangle us but vanish when we face them.”

Her insights destroyed my schadenfreude. My mom wasn’t waking up at 4 a.m. from nightmares—she had a tour bus to catch. No one had ejaculated on her “FILTHY” clothing while she cried. When she described a night at her hotel as “the decibel level is rising and I may soon have hearing damage” and the staff told her she was lucky not to understand the vile things her fellow guests were saying, it was completely different from the rapist yelling at me, “Swallow my cock, bitch.”

I pretended to avoid her because I was too busy doing exciting things, for the next six years.

 

Awake in the middle of the night, I found a phrase on the internet that described that summer perfectly: “infra dig.” It’s a British colloquialism for “demeaning,” abbreviated from the Latin infra dignitatem, “beneath one’s dignity.”

It made me realize that, despite trying so hard to keep mine, I’d never looked up what “dignity” meant. I found two relevant definitions: “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect” and “self-respect.” The first, more common definition bothers me. “Dignity” only seems to be invoked when lost or threatened. It communicates the harm of sexual assault but like the adjective “unspeakable,” it makes the stigma worse. A crime only humiliates the victim if witnesses decide it does. Something is only unspeakable if others refuse to hear it.

Or, if no one is willing to say it.

On my semi-annual weekend trip home when I was twenty-six, I told my brother a story. When I got to that summer, he winced in recognition.

“What do you know?” I asked. He made a face indicating he knew it was a sensitive topic.

I prodded him until he said it. “Mom told me you were detained as a potential terrorist and sent back by the State Department.”

I couldn’t stop laughing at the creativity of the euphemism. Then, I realized my brother believed it. After eight years, he still thought his little sister had posed a threat to global security.

“I was raped.”

He winced again. “I’m sorry.”

My brother proposed that maybe our mom felt guilty she’d let me travel on my own. I wondered if it hit too close to home with the Greek psychiatrist. Or, perhaps she had so much invested in living vicariously through me that she couldn’t accept reality. Whatever the reason, I realized I was humiliating myself with my silence.

 

When I finally asked my mom about the rape, she called it “the creepy situation.”

“The creepy situation?”

“The creepy, creepy situation.” I pushed her to tell me what she remembered. She said, “he forced you down and held you down.” The specificity stunned me. When I called her back to follow up, she told me, “You agreed. You just didn’t like it when he got aggressive.”

Perplexed by the relationship between “he forced you” and “you agreed and just didn’t like it,” I asked the most important question: “What words did I use?”

“You said you were sexually assaulted.” I suddenly understood why I’d grown into an adult who constantly referred to the dictionary.

My mom explained that I hadn’t screamed, that I hadn’t fought, that I had wanted to go on the archeological dig.

We argued over definitions. I chipped away at her blame. (*Lesson: don’t use a trowel when the job calls for a pickaxe.) After that, my mom didn’t reach out for a month. Then, the messages resumed but without her catchphrase tacked onto even the shortest notes: “I’m proud of you.”

Three months have passed. Each time she withholds her approval, I ache like a child to return to her good graces. I want to say I’m sorry, but I’m not sure for what. For getting raped? For talking about it?

Then I remember the etymology of irrumate: to give the teat, turning the victim into a metaphorical infant (infans: one who can’t speak) at the mercy of an adult. Then I remember the second definition of “dignity”: self-respect. Then, I remember my favorite phrase and know I can’t apologize. It would be infra dig.

***

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.