After I Am Raped, I Write a Book and Do Not Use the Word Rape

Cover of After I Am Raped, I Write a Book and Do Not Use the Word Rape

A lot of people are raped every year, and they all fall into one of two major categories: those that report it and those that do not. There are many, small nuances after that, hundreds of tiny decisions that make each one of these earth-shattering disasters unique, but these are the two biggest ones because it is often the first thing people ask when they learn it happened. Some will ask it directly: Well, did you tell anyone

I fell into the Not Reporting category. In fact, I didn’t even know there was something to report for the first several years after it happened, because after the first time I was raped, I woke up on my friend’s couch and watched Iliza Shlesinger’s stand-up comedy shows for six hours in the dark. I laughed even though I didn’t think they were really funny. And then I drove home, and then I finished spring break at my house in rural West Virginia. Then I went back to school again and tried not to think about it by doing a lot of things that were bad for me, like drinking eight cups of coffee a day and eating only french fries for all my meals, by drinking a lot more, by sleeping as much as I could, and in trying to avoid it, it wrecked my life for a long time.

Several years after I was raped and only briefly after I acknowledged that was what happened, I saw a movie come out that a lot of people I knew liked. I was working on my thesis, which would become my book where I write about rape and do not say rape. I thought, based on the title of the movie, it was going to be about a raped women becoming a serial killer in a kind of funny, revenge-based way. I was excited. And then I learned it was not about that. It was about someone who’s friend was raped, and the friend died, and now the alive woman was getting revenge. Raped girl is dead off-screen. This is not uncommon. Raped characters don’t live long. They are usually plot devices for a main character who hasn’t been sullied in such a way. Or sometimes they do survive, and it gets to be background fodder for why they’re so crazy. For a while I thought that was what happened to me—that being raped made me go crazy.

In the first year after I was raped, I started dating a future engineer who was taller than my ex-boyfriend. My ex was someone I secretly loved and hated and who made me feel like there was a string wrapped around my guts that was always pulling me towards him, getting knotted along the way. I didn’t tell the future engineer that. We didn’t talk about much at all, really. After I was raped, I started having a lot of sex, and it was mostly with him. We broke up that fall, and I don’t think I could have told you anything true or real about him, except that the day before we broke up I told him I loved him, which I did a little bit, I guess. 

This is all to say that after I was raped, I had a lot of sex. I have since learned that this is not uncommon. There is rationale behind it—a reclamation, a re-empowering to take the thing that hurt you and use it yourself. This is not what I was doing. I, to be clear, was just fucking around, using sex as a way to feel tethered to my body through a pain that I had swallowed deep in my stomach. I spent a lot of time feeling like I was one thing, and my body was another. I had sex  with friends, with strangers, with people I didn’t care a bit about, with people I had met less than ten minutes ago. There was not a power in it. In fact, there was mostly pain.

In reflection, it makes me very sad. I want to hold who I was and tell her she didn’t need to do any of that to be loved and wanted and worthy of being a human. Because a big part of all those feels came down to the fact that I didn’t want to be human anymore. I didn’t really want to die most of the time (though there was some time) but mostly I just didn’t want to be in a body so fallible, so ridiculously large and painful. So, I had sex to try and forget who I was. I also listened to a lot of Lana Del Rey and started smoking weed several hours a day and began trying drugs that made me see things in the patterns of our walls. I think all these things probably had something to all do with each other.

I feel like past me would be offended at these sentiments. I would have felt belittled, and maybe I would have been right. I believed I was having a good time. And sometimes I truly was; tucked inside all the pain were moments of great beauty, of being loved and broke and young and stupid.  But a lot of the time I wasn’t. Because after I was raped, I developed a drinking problem. I really don’t think it was because of the rape, though it couldn’t hurt. Everyone I knew had a drinking problem. I moved to the biggest city in West Virginia, which was a college town, and we all drank all the time. It was a culture built completely around drinking, and to have stopped would have been a total shift in our way of life.

I had a group of neighbors made up of five people I had known since I was fourteen. We had all grown up in different areas of the state, met at summer camp, and ended up next door to each other. The house was exactly one block away from where I had been raped. Sometimes my neighbors came over and would pound on the door, yelling for me to come out with them. It was easier to just go, my roommates would tell me. And it was. They’d knock on the door or call my phone and be generally annoying until I agreed to at least do shots with them. I mean, twist my fucking arm.

John wore glasses and had dark hair and big, beautiful eyes. He would come over sometimes and ask if I wanted to go on a bender that weekend. This was the kind of guy he was. An accountant. He pre-planned benders. And I always said yes. Once we were drunk for a little over 24 hours straight, Friday evening to the Sunday in the witching hours. His dad taught me how to gut a fish that day, after I beat John at flip cup. I forgot I was scheduled to work the Sunday evening shift. It was just one person working on the weekends. I threw up twice before I got to work at two different gas stations and once at work, where I also took a nap in the bathroom. I didn’t see it as a problem. Just someone having fun. 

It took moving to New Orleans to call it what it was, and that still wasn’t for a year or so. I moved for school officially, but it was more so that if I stayed in West Virginia I was going to end up dead. I knew this like I knew a memory. That place was killing me.

I don’t know what made me realize it was rape. I was in my grad program and wrote a lot about being nebulously sad and sometimes about being sexually assaulted in a very general way, in a way that I could not understand. I briefly dated a boy in the city who never stopped when I told him too, and somewhere in the back of my head I thought, this isn’t okay, but then I kept inviting him over, kept kissing him at bars, and when I told him to stop, that I needed to stop, he wouldn’t, and I would avoid him for awhile and then I would get lonely again and it happened over again.  I didn’t know many people and he told me I was beautiful. I allowed it to go on for an embarrassingly long time. 

I was circling around it in my writing, feeling something like one of Jupiter’s smaller, outlying moons that cannot see the planet it follows. And then one day I read a story about a cicada, and it all came back to me, what had happened very specifically the first time. And then the second time. That is not this story though, because that was what happened during the rape, and this is what happened after.

For a long time, after I realized what it was, I was afraid to say it out loud. Or, not afraid. Embarrassed, which is a kind of fear. People said I was brave for writing about it. And I have written about it. A lot. But to say it out loud was too much. Too real. Even my writing darts around the word. I say things like “hurt’ and “a violence done” and leave things off the page. I focus on the blood after, the fear of pregnancy, the touches I thought I wanted but suddenly didn’t. To say rape was to claim it.


In part because I have been fed the fear that I will ruin someone’s life. I grew up in a place where women deferred. Men were people. Women were minor players. Men made mistakes and could grow from it. Women were to be pretty and kind and always say yes because women were for men’s pleasure, but also you couldn’t say yes, because then you were a slut. It was a very confusing system designed to try and turn everyone I knew into flat, cardboard cutouts of themselves.


When I was a college freshman, in my comm class, it was asked that anyone who considered themselves to be a feminist raise their hand. There were two of us in a class of fifty. We were asked why. I said something about believing women needed equal rights and modern feminism was revolutionizing. The other person said I’m also a menist. I believe in both sides. 


There is another reason, one I keep very close to my chest because it is so painful to say. That because I am not usually considered beautiful, because growing up I was never one of the pretty people, at one point I believed I was supposed to be thankful. I was supposed to be so hungry for love that this rape was an act of pity. It is a fucked up thing to think and yet, I cannot make it stop. I can just try to make it quieter. This is the culture I come from: so much emphasis was placed on being consumable for others. 

I couldn’t ruin anyone’s life, even if I wanted to. I didn’t know his name. I have no way of finding it. I can barely remember what he looks like. I pushed it so far away for so long that the only thing that stays are the smells of crown royal and vomit and the voice telling me to turn around. 

I want to kill Brock Turner, a little bit. 

And maybe Brett Kavanagh. 

But that’s really where ruining someone’s life ends in my head, and I’m not even capable of that.

So why am I afraid to say it out loud? 

Rape is a loaded word. It is one of deep violence. It is heavy in its language. It brings a lot of private pain that I do not wish to unleash on others. But it is an accurate word. It is what happened. 

I am also worried it will hurt my family. I don’t know what they’ll say. I am afraid to share news about my book coming out because I don’t want them to read it. I don’t want them to know I was having sex, to start with, much less that I still do. 

I am an oldest daughter. My issues are spoken about in past tense. I used to have an eating disorder, I told my mom once. Oh, she said. I didn’t know. I believe her when she says this, because I love her so much, so I cannot tell her how clearly it feels in reflection, laid out like breadcrumbs. I do not remind her about dizzy spells, the low iron, the sores on my mouth, the counting of the ribs. She didn’t know, she says, and I truly believe she did not.

My parents must know, I am sure. I am vague with my answer about what my work is about, but they are not dumb. Recently they asked what I was writing about and I said You know, sad stuff. My mom said, Oh, people seem to really like that.

Would I say it if not for my parents? Probably not. I am afraid of being perceived differently. For people I have not seen since high school to see a photo of me, happy and smiling, and think, she was raped. I do not want others to define me by the worst moments of my life.

But now the book is coming out and everyone will know—or at least, everyone who reads it will know. There is a strange disconnect happening. There are three selves at work: the person it happened to, the person who wrote the book, and the person I am now, having to market it and talk about it. I still do not know if I want to say rape, but I am no longer afraid of it. It is true. And I am fine.


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