“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
It’s strange to me when I remember what sort of evening it was when it happened. The air was warm and safe and the moon was so bright that the night sky illuminated like fireflies.
When my PTSD flares up, I forget where I am. So before I type the next part, I have to steady my shaking. I have to hug my body and notice that I am not naked. I have to take note of my surroundings. The oversized calendar beneath my laptop is curved up on the bottom edges like a party blower. The pumpkins on my desk are smooth and orange; my feet are just a little bit too cold. I try to also notice three different smells to stay grounded. Today my nose is stuffed up so instead I trust that my hair still smells like coconut, my hands still smell like candy apple, and my clothes still smell like lavender Downy.
Now, as I notice the miniature pumpkins and the smell of lavender Downy, I can tell you why the bright October night sky is so strange to me. The bright October night sky is so strange to me because the room he locked me in that night was pitch black. It reminded me of El Coyotepe—Somoza’s torture prison. We had toured that prison as a group a few weeks earlier. The tour guide explained how the prison was so dark that many prisoners became permanently blind after finally being released. The darkness of that room felt the same. I remember rubbing my eyes to try to see but I couldn’t even make out his shadow.
The professor in charge of our group had lectured the females of our group from the first day on how to act and how to dress. I can see the way the classroom was setup and the way she talked to us sternly from the front. I was sitting in the last seat of the furthest row of desks to the left. I was most likely rolling my eyes when she said, “Don’t wear skimpy clothes or it’s an invitation. Don’t look the men in the eye or it’s an invitation. Don’t talk to the men or it’s an invitation.” After the assault, when I heard she had been called and would arrive at some point, I remember telling myself, “I’m going to get in trouble.” I wore a bathing suit. I looked him in the eye. I talked to him. So did I invite what happened next?
I was wearing a bathing suit because I had just come out of the swimming pool. It was bright blue with purple and yellow flowers. It was a two-piece boy cut/halter combination. I bought it in Florida and my aunt Tammy helped me pick it out. I used the last dressing room on the right. It’s funny the way I remember every detail of some parts while other parts are gaping foggy holes.
Being twenty-one is a strange age to be. You are an adult but you are still growing into yourself. You still feel like you need your mom to take care of you when you’re sick. You are at an age where you can make your own decisions but want to be told which decisions to make at the same time. I just wanted my mom. But instead I was stuck with this professor to be the motherly figure of my trauma’s aftermath.
She didn’t hug me or comfort me or tell me it wasn’t my fault. She didn’t brush my hair or sit with me or tell me that I’m safe now. She was the kid in the back of the classroom rolling her eyes at me when she said, “You put yourself in an ugly situation.”
I learned only recently, after opening up about my story, what she was telling the other students. She was the mean girl in high school bullying the most vulnerable kid in her class. Except she was sent to protect me. She told the other students, “That wasn’t rape. It didn’t happen like that. Do you know they found a condom?” I wouldn’t have known anything about that because I couldn’t see. In her mind a rapist would never use a condom. In her mind a condom equals consent. She wasn’t in the room with me to watch the way he threw me onto the bed and held me down. She wasn’t in the room to hear the way I shrieked in the dark over and over until my voice was hoarse, “No quiero! No quiero! No quiero! No quiero!” She wasn’t in my head to hear my panicked thoughts scream through the chaos, “Oh my God. He’s raping me.” So no, Professor, I promise you: a condom does not equal consent.
When the body encounters danger, it does one of three things: it freezes, it flees, or it fights. I wish my body had reacted with fight. My God, do I wish my body had reacted with fight. But I didn’t get to choose that my body reacted by freezing instead. If I hadn’t frozen, maybe he wouldn’t have put that condom on. If I hadn’t frozen, maybe he wouldn’t have raped me at all. I can’t go back in time and unfreeze. And the person in charge told all of my classmates that I had not been raped because there was a condom involved.
Yes we were adults in a technical sense. But as twenty-one-year-olds, we were the kids looking to this adult for guidance. How is a twenty-one-year-old supposed to respond when the grownup in charge states as a fact, “She was not raped.” Not only did I not receive support from the person in charge, her denial of my experience led my classmates to doubt my story. I felt shunned in many ways. I didn’t know at the time that she had told them not to believe me. But now that I know, it all makes sense.
The friend who found me after the assault was asked by police to give a detailed statement. I was asked by police to give a detailed statement also. Just days after the attack, I was asked to speak every detail out loud in this hole in the wall ciber café to a man I did not know as he typed the shame I wasn’t ready to vomit. The professor said afterwards, “Your statement doesn’t match his.” How could they possibly match? We both had different experiences. He wasn’t in the room with me when it happened. He found me afterwards in the hallway partially clothed and crumbled in a clenched fetal position. The professor’s comment about the mismatched statements left me doubting my own reality all over again. The more she talked, the less I trusted myself.
I wanted to be a regular college kid enjoying the rest of my trip abroad. I wanted to still be able to go out dancing with the group, to walk to and from adventures, even if it was nighttime. I got scared often, would freeze and have to will my body to thaw and put one step in front of the other. I had to will my body towards normalcy. One evening, I got dressed up and psyched myself up to go out dancing with my friends. The walk to the club was uphill on a dirt road and my black flip-flops kept sinking into the muddy spots. I was wearing a blank tank top and jean skirt. My hair was pulled back in a headband. The professor walked beside me and scoffed, “You’re really going to wear that after everything?” I had been feeling brave enough to have my first normal night out since the event. I pulled my skirt down lower and crossed my arms over my chest repeating her words over and over again, “You’re really going to wear that? You’re really going to wear that?” The room started spinning and I began to sob. I turned around and walked away from the loud music and bright lights and back down the dirt road towards my hotel. I remember holding myself tightly, sobbing as I rocked my body in blame.
The way the professor acted towards me went beyond the shaming and blaming comments. I don’t know how to explain the way she acted towards me other than pure disgust. There were a lot of nasty looks. There was a lot of eye rolling. We toured many places and traveled by bus. At one of our stops, I went looking for a restroom. This old grimy man with a cigarette in his mouth told me I could use his bathroom. On my way out, he reached his rough blackened hands into my shirt and grabbed my breasts. I told the professor about this when I got back on the bus. She rolled her eyes at me. That was her response to me being grabbed by a smutty stranger. I knew she didn’t believe me.
I did my best to keep busy and stay distracted for the duration of the trip. I still do my best to stay busy and distracted fourteen years later. Flashbacks happened unexpectedly in both the day and night. Flashbacks still happen unexpectedly in both the day and night. Do you know what I hear over and over again as the images blink frantically? I hear, “You put yourself in an ugly situation,” and now, “That wasn’t rape.”
Yesterday evening, I told my story to two members of Calvin faculty who now oversee and handle cases of sexual assault on campus and abroad. I mostly wanted to tell them that I know better now. I know that I didn’t deserve the way the professor treated me. I wanted reassurance that going forward, no other student will be shamed and blamed and bullied the way that I was. With my voice breaking and my eyes looking up to the ceiling’s sky, I was back where I had come from. The sky was clear and bright and warm, even though it was evening. With my voice breaking and tears streaming from the eyes that looked up, I very slowly, stutteringly said, “I wonder how my life could have been different if she had been kind.”
I am still learning how to not blame myself, not only for the assault but for everything. I am still learning how to stop saying, “I’m sorry,” when I didn’t do anything wrong. I am still learning to not self-destruct. It has been, and continues to be—a long road.
I look at my years of therapy and hospitalizations and recovery and relapse. I notice the scars that stay from the times I punished myself for this path I must have somehow chosen. I wonder if there would be less scars, had she been kind. She lay the groundwork for the shame and self-blame. These things stay. I smile often and a lot of times I really am happy. But most of the time, I am just surviving. I am hanging on. I am getting through the next moment. I am putting one foot in front of the other. I try to remember to breathe in and out slowly. But more often than not, I forget to do this. At thirty-five-years-old, I am still trying to learn how to do simple things.
How do I wish my professor had acted towards me after my assault? I wish she had not asked me any questions. Not one. How much did you drink? What were you wearing? Did you flirt with him? How did you get yourself into that situation? Although she was never kind enough to ask, “Are you okay,” I wouldn’t have wanted her to even ask that. No I’m not okay. I’m not fucking okay.
How do I wish my professor had acted towards me after my assault? I wish she hadn’t shown me that my trauma was her burden. I wish she had thought about how she would act if I were her daughter. Maybe she would have held me. Maybe she would have braided my hair. Maybe she would have wiped my tears and snot away with her fingers.
How do I wish my professor had acted towards me after my assault? I wish she had stayed nearby. She didn’t have to say a word. She just needed to stay close enough to show me that I wasn’t alone. When the nightmares would wake me and I would forget where I was, she could hold my hand and whisper, “You’re safe right now.”
What are some of the things my professor could have told me that may have helped? It’s not your fault. You are safe. You did not deserve this. It doesn’t matter what happened leading up to this. You did not ask to be raped. I am so sorry. I believe you. I wonder how my life could have looked differently if my professor had told me some of these things after my assault.
It would have been the simplest thing in the world for her to be kind. If she had been kind, I wonder if I would feel flashes of comfort instead of flashes of blame when recalling the aftermath. I will never know, but I will always wonder.