In May I texted my sister: “CW: assault. Wait to read this if you’re not up for it.” I hit the return key ten times to create lots of screen space before asking her if she had time for a Zoom soon. “I want to talk to you about some poems I’ve been working on for a few years that have to do with the aftershock of your being assaulted. I’d like to submit them for publication, but I want to make sure you’re comfortable first.”
Then I felt sick.
Nearly forty years ago, my sister was kidnapped on her way home from school and sexually assaulted before she returned home. She was sixteen. I was fourteen. We were supposed to always walk together, but that day my sister wanted to hang out with friends and I wanted to get home. I headed home right after school, leaving her to walk home later. Alone.
I’ve never regretted anything more. I’ve felt guilt, shame, terror. I’ve tried to make sense of that afternoon. How it changed my sister. How it changed our family. How it changed me.
My sister was a tomboy, an athlete, short-tempered, protective. If I’d had money, I would’ve bet that the guy picked the wrong girl to mess with.
Except: he had a weapon. All she had was her slim body, her quick wit, her willingness to be helpful, which is what got her in the end. He was pretending to have car trouble. She was polite. And then she was taken.
The year after her kidnapping, I wrote a serial story for my school paper about a girl who gets raped. Her rapist gets caught. Goes to jail. She is not re-traumatized by a trial. In real life, the police had a lead on the guy who hurt my sister, but she decided she did not want to go through a trial. Her habit of smiling when nervous convinced her that she would not be believed. I’m not sure my sister or parents had language like “victim blaming,” but I assume they understood how a woman gets portrayed in most rape trials.
He did not go to jail. He got away with it.
As a young woman, I absorbed that it would always be my fault, whatever it was. When President Clinton was impeached, I heard many members of the Silent Generation, including some in my own family, blaming Monica Lewinsky.
For years, I wrote around my sister’s assault, trying to make sense of it. I wrote a novel, the early drafts of which included the rape of an independent young woman, the kind of person you expect to push back, to get away. I wrote short stories about near misses, trying to revise that day. I attempted personal essays without knowing how to include myself. But I never managed to capture the most elusive experiences—the silence, the ripple effects.
Like many Gen Xers, I grew up with two solid understandings: (1) Nobody cares what I think, and (2) I should buck up—other people have it worse. When I was assaulted by a man crashing at my boyfriend’s house, I never said a word. I wasn’t kidnapped, and I was able to stop him before it got too bad.
I was in my forties when I attended a mandatory Title IX training with a colleague. As we returned to our office, she said, “based on what we’ve learned, I’ve been raped multiple times. So has just about every woman I know.” I’m confident very few of us allowed ourselves to think our stories were about anything more than bad sex. We’d been groomed to buck up. This inclination remains in me still.
My sister and I are the last two kids of five. In 1983, we shared a room in half of our converted attic, and our older sister, a working college student, was rarely home. Our older brothers were already out of the house.
We had been a close family, eating dinner together almost every night. Maybe it was because we were teenagers with busy lives, or maybe it was because it was so difficult to sit together without someone getting angry, but after my sister’s assault, family dinners were less regular.
No one talked about what had happened to her. No one, at least in my hearing, asked her what she needed. What she wanted. Including me.
Six years ago, I took up an intense study of poetry. Working with a mentor, I read and analyzed and wrote poems, essentially completing another MFA without the degree. Early on, my mentor and I spoke about what I hoped to explore in my poems. I started with place and aging until I grew to trust her. One day, I told her all about what had happened to my sister, and how I struggled to tell the story because I seemed to default to my sister’s experience, and I didn’t want to publish that work. Did I have a right to the story I’ve been compelled for decades to tell?
She said to me that a therapist had told her that when we are children, a trauma that happens to a sibling happens also to us. A weight lifted off of me. I’d never claim that my sister’s trauma had happened to me, but I was affected by it. I finally understood that my own story mattered too.
I didn’t see Dirty Dancing until I was thirty. Lisa and Baby drew me in with their acrimonious relationship; it reminded me of my sister and me. Even before my sister was assaulted, our interactions ranged from being barely tolerant of each other to whispering our secret mantra each night, to physical blows. The day she was kidnapped, my sister had assured me that Sports Day at our high school meant you could wear the uniform or outfit for any sport you wanted. I borrowed her horseback riding clothes only to find out that it meant wearing your school sport uniform. I burned with humiliation all day long.
In the immediate aftermath, my parents became overly protective of us, and I can’t blame them. We were driven to school and picked up afterward—no more walking home. I chafed at the overprotection, but I carried a whistle, walked with keys in my hands, and once I learned to drive, I never parked anywhere that felt sketchy. The sadness at home weighed on me, and while I understood that my sister was not to blame for it, I knew that her trauma caused it. I developed a deeply seated compulsion to avoid disappointing my family, particularly my parents. An unhealthy perfectionism haunted me; I couldn’t achieve—in any aspect of my life—the level I believed might balance out the pain of my sister’s trauma. The silence I perceived at home festered in me, and it has taken decades for me to learn to communicate openly.
My sister had about ten minutes between meetings the day I texted her, and she called me. She asked me to tell her about what I’d been writing. I told her that I had made every effort to write my story, not hers. That if it was upsetting, to let me know, and that I would never publish without her permission. I cried as I told her how painful it’d been to know what she had been through and to not know what to do about the silences in our house. To not know how to support her. How to fix things. To feel that other siblings of survivors needed to know that they were not alone, that it was right to feel the damage’s rippling effects.
She said that I had my story to tell and did not need her permission. That she would love to read my work. That she had not realized how affected I’d been all the years.
Later that summer she visited me. I had selected a handful of poems to represent the collection-in-progress—ones that would be (I’d hoped) the least activating. I’d spent nearly forty years in this delicate relationship with one goal: don’t be the person who causes her to contemplate suicide again.
I was baking and cooking for a work party when she arrived. She got out her camera, telling me she wanted pictures of my hands doing this work. I didn’t mention the poems. She didn’t mention the poems. Later we sat on my porch, ate a late lunch together and didn’t mention the poems.
Feeling as sick as I had when I’d originally texted her, at last I said, “Do you want to read some of my poems while I clean up?”
“I was hoping you’d show them to me,” she said.
I handed them to her and urged her to just stop reading if they were upsetting. I promised her I wouldn’t mind if she did.
As I washed dishes, I peeked out the kitchen window to watch her read. I couldn’t help myself. After a short while, I saw her take off her glasses and wipe her eyes. I returned to the porch and sat next to her, close enough that our shoulders touched.
“Which one is making you cry?”
She showed me. It was a poem in which I was bearing witness to the pain she’s been in since her assault.
“I never knew you saw me. I never knew that you knew how deeply I was hurt,” she said. “I never knew that I wasn’t alone.”
In fairy tales there’s magic to saying a thing three times. It makes the thing true.
The thing my sister said to me, once by phone and once by text, shifted when I heard it the third time, in person: “I’ve always been relieved it wasn’t you.”
I always wished it had been me, that I had been able to protect her, that I could have taken the brunt of evil that made her life difficult. I couldn’t help but believe that she, too, had wished it was me. After all, we had plenty of acrimony between us over the years. It seemed legit that she would harbor anger towards me.
Instead, just as she’d never known how I’d quietly tried to support and love her, I’d never known that she wasn’t angry at me. That she was grateful.
Her grace in telling me how glad she was to have shielded me, to have protected me by being the one assaulted, cracked me open. Violence and trauma wreak havoc on a family, with every member needing to wrestle with impacts as far-ranging as self-blame to PTSD. After my sister and I silently and separately navigated the ripple effects of her trauma for nearly forty years, we now have a relationship where we can acknowledge each other’s suffering, each other’s beauty, and create space to support each other.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary people who engage 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.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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