Susy

The alcoholic punch his fraternity was known for was made of straight grain alcohol and had only one purpose.

My rapist knew I was utterly drunk, unable to talk, stand or move, and eventually even unresponsive and unconscious.

He knew I was 16. It was statutory rape.

His fraternity brothers knew, too. I’ve been told that my rapist was razzed at the next fraternity meeting, with the brothers hooting and hollering at him as they showed a slide of a little girl jumping rope.

I’m hardly alone. I know of several other women who were raped or sexually assaulted when they visited Dartmouth as high school students. These young women repressed the experience or managed it in some crazy way and matriculated, like me, so grateful to be accepted by an Ivy League school and eager for all the academic rewards and better life it promised us. We were willfully blind to the fact that Dartmouth had already betrayed that promise.

I know many other women who were sexually assaulted while at Dartmouth. I know men too.

I wrote this essay for a friend’s senior thesis at Dartmouth. Her thesis – a collection of first person experiences of “date rape” that she introduced with a great essay on the date rape epidemic and the environment that supports it – was published as a book.

I thought about rewriting the essay but decided to keep it intact, as this version is more immediate than anything I would write now. Until I retyped it for this site, it had been many years since I’d read what I’d written when I was twenty-one, five years after the rape. It was hard to refrain from reworking various points that cry out to me now for better explanation. Much of what I wrote then makes me cringe now, as only the creative, self-reflective work of our youth can, but it also made me weep for who I was and what I was struggling with then …. and now.

The rape tore my family apart. We cannot speak of it. We are ok now, but it is always there. Reading this again, I am struck by how willfully naïve they were. Their life’s dream was to educate their children to the best of their ability. They made inordinate sacrifices to send me to Dartmouth. They could not comprehend that the institution of Dartmouth would betray us so deeply. I’m still not sure they can.

I love my parents.

Against all odds, as I wanted nothing to do with Dartmouth after I graduated and fled far west, I eventually married a Dartmouth graduate. His father was a Dartmouth graduate as well. We have children, and we dream of sending them to Hanover. There is so much about Dartmouth that we both love and cherish: the unparalleled academic experience, the engaging and memorable professors, the sublime beauty of the area, and all the supportive, loving and accomplished friends we made while there.

But we won’t send our children to a failed institution that will betray them.

There are so many things that the Dartmouth trustees and administration could do to dramatically improve sexual assault prevention if they had the courage. But they don’t.

For shame.

Susan S.

——————————————————-

The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Other Side of Silence: Women Tell about Their Experiences with Date Rape, ed. Carter, Christine, Avocus Publishing, Inc., Gilsum, NH. 1995. Print.

The names of the off-campus house and the alcoholic punch associated with the fraternity have been changed to neutral terms to avoid defamation claims.

“So Fucking Beautiful”: Rebuilding Self-Image in the Aftermath of Rape

I woke up suddenly but the light was too strong for my eyes so I kept them shut. My surroundings came to me through impressions: a spring breeze, sunlight, and singing birds. When I finally opened my eyes, I didn’t know where I was at first. The room was overwhelmingly bright with morning light reflecting off hospital-white walls. The floors were wood, but I don’t remember if there were any posters, or a stereo, or bookshelves. The room was unfamiliar. By the second minute I turned numb and realized I was lying naked on my back on a mattress. There were no covers and no one was with me. I couldn’t move. I remember thinking back to my third-grade yoga instruction, wondering if this was the state of consciousness we had been trying to reach; I could feel and understand every square inch of my body. My back hurt, my thighs were sticky and sore when I rubbed them together, and my hands felt as if I’d been clutching a pole all night. I think that the moment I realized what had happened mind skipped and blanked. Eventually a young man walked into the room. I don’t really remember what he looked like, except that he was tall and had sandy brown hair. He was very quiet. I can’t remember what he said either but he must have offered to take me back to my friend’s dorm. He left and I dressed in a daze; my mind was so far away that I forgot my underwear. He dropped me off in front of his dorm and we never said a word.

I was sixteen and a junior in high school. That winter I had met a freshman from college while skiing – I’ll call him Josh. He was a great guy and he went to my ideal college. It had been my dream college since I had first visited it at fourteen. We became good friends – he lived only an hour away – and he invited me to visit him at school after his spring break. I jumped at the chance, so my parents and I drove out for a weekend that March, stopping at other prospective colleges along the way.

I stayed with my parents at a hotel the first night, but they let me stay with Josh in his dorm the last night since we were going to an off-campus party and wouldn’t return until late. My parents were not overly permissive but they knew how level-headed and strong-willed I was and they trusted Josh. I had always been extremely independent and by sixteen truly had the maturity of an average twenty-five year old, although not the depth of experience. I had drank before – never enough to get drunk – but I knew my limits and was very adept at handling just about any situation. I was not naïve about the potentially dangerous outcome of mixing young men and alcohol. I just say this to exonerate my parents from any blame, I suppose. We were very close and their confidence in me was neither misplaced nor a result of not caring.

I suppose it was my overconfidence that kept me from paying attention to the warning signs that I was in over my head. I was wearing a skirt when I met Josh at his dorm before the party and he strongly insisted that I change into pants. He was worried about the extra attention I’d receive if I wore the skirt, even though it reached my knees. I just shrugged it off, as his argument was kind of flattering, and changed to stop his pestering. We hung out in his dorm for a while and then left for the party. It was nearby, in a house called the “The House” where five or six juniors from his fraternity lived. As we were walking, I told Josh that I knew I was going to drink that night. I wasn’t very experienced with hard alcohol and I asked him to watch out for me and to cut me off if I couldn’t handle it. He agreed and told me to make sure that I stuck by him, saying something to the effect that there were a lot of strange men at college and my going to this party was like a sheep walking into a den of wolves. Coupled with his insistence that I wear long pants, this comment should have warned me that the college social scene was unlike any I had ever encountered before. However, I felt that Josh liked me and I naively interpreted his warning as possessiveness and jealousy.

What I remember of that night is foggy. I only remember having two “Drinks” – they were awful drinks, really sweet and sticky – and I remember a bunch of drunken men with their arms encircling each other’s shoulders gathered around a garbage can of Drinks singing fraternity songs. I remember talking to a lot of college students – mostly men – and having a great time. I don’t remember seeing Josh around anywhere. I remember being in the basement, pushed up against a wall by a large guy who was kissing me. I didn’t want him kissing me, but I couldn’t say no or shove him away. I was helpless; my mind was coherent but I couldn’t make my intoxicated body move or respond. I remember looking up and seeing a shorter guy who I’d talked to extensively earlier walk up the stairs, holding a beer and shaking his head at me as if he were disgusted by my behavior. I called out to him – but not aloud, I think – to help get this guy off me, that I really wasn’t the type of girl you should shake your head at and leave alone. I remember finally shoving the tall man away and going into the bathroom, which had an orange door and a bright fluorescent light. He pounded on the door while I threw up in the sink. The next thing I remember is being on a bed with him on top of me, trying to shove his penis into me. I remember it hurting terribly and saying no and I pushed his hips away and tried to roll over. He grabbed my shoulders and shoved me up further on the bed and my head slammed against the wall. He asked me if I was OK…. and that’s the last thing I remember.

We left the next day for Williams College. My parents were alarmed when they saw I was hung over and joked nervously about it, but I assured them that everything had been great. I don’t know why I didn’t tell them what had happened. I don’t think it was because I was scared or embarrassed. It probably never occurred to me to tell them; I’ve always tried to deal with my problems by myself. Besides, it was over and what could be done about it? I laid down on the backseat and pretended to sleep for the whole ride. I felt as if I were in a movie: too pained to move, I lay clutching the cold seat and numbly watched the treetops fly past the car window. My mind hovered somewhere just above full recollection; I was embarrassed that I’d left my underwear in that strange bedroom. I was dancing around my memory of what had happened, too scared to actually jump in. My only thought was the superficial embarrassment and worry over what the students I had met thought of me now. When we arrived at our hotel in Williams my parents went down for dinner and I stayed behind to take a shower. I turned the water on as hot as possible and washed the blood and semen from between my legs. There were bruises on my arms and thighs and a huge lump on my head. I cried.

I don’t know when I named what had happened to me as rape. The morning after the party, Josh walked out of his dorm room just as I walked in. We stood apart and looked at each other in silence. I had managed to maintain my numbness during the ride to Josh’s but again a sudden flood of emotion and awareness flowed through me. My mind allowed me to realize that something horrible and unwanted had happened to me, but I couldn’t have gotten the word past my tongue had I tried. It’s a terrible cliché, but at that moment I aged a hundred lifetimes over. I’ll never forget the look of bewilderment, shame, and hurt on Josh’s face: he turned into a helpless, ignorant little boy in front of me while I felt the pain of thousands of years somehow supporting me. I define my womanhood by that moment – not the taking of my virginity, but the sudden knowledge of centuries of women’s outrage like steel infused into my spine. Josh finally broke the silence with some mumbled neutral comment. I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t question or console me. By his actions I knew he knew what had happened, or at least had a good idea, and I also knew he was incapable of handling the situation. I didn’t speak about the previous night either. I didn’t want him involved at all. I wasn’t worried that he wouldn’t believe me; I simply couldn’t explain what had happened. He wouldn’t understand nor could he help me. I felt alone and I liked that: like a completely different species, wholly separate from everything about him. He went back to bed while I lay down on the couch and ate a whole bag of Oreos, which I later forced myself to throw up.

Until I wrote this story, Josh and I hadn’t spoken about that night. I didn’t tell anyone what happened for two years, besides a friend who I knew would pay for an abortion if I needed one. And I didn’t even tell him the full story; I was repressing my memories of that night and couldn’t frankly discuss it even with my most trusted friend. The possibility of disease never occurred to me. When I woke up in the middle of the night a few weeks later and my period had started, I cried. And until recently, that was the last time I really thought about what had happened and the last time I cried over it as well. I never tried to rationalize or explain it to myself. Nor did I consciously blame myself or the college. I simply blanked it out. The mind is incredibly adept at repression and intellectualization – I didn’t think twice about applying to the same college “early decision.” After all, it was my ideal college. I was accepted and I enrolled.

During Homecoming of my freshman year, I was sexually assaulted by the same man who I believe had raped me two years earlier. Although it was the Thursday before Homecoming Weekend, alumni had already flooded town. In fact, I went home early from a party that night because there were too many alums trying to prove their old alcohol capacities in the fraternity basements. I lived in a single dorm room near one of the more popular fraternities. Around two or three o’clock in the morning, I woke to heavy pounding on my door and a man shouting for me to let him in. I wasn’t at all alarmed – I was used to drunk friends stopping by at all hours and had even opened my door several times in the morning to find friends passed out in the hallway. I opened the door a crack and saw a tall, sandy-haired man trying to stand up by holding on to the door frame. I didn’t recognize him so I didn’t open the door any further (there were no chain latches on the doors or peepholes) and asked him what he wanted. I wasn’t afraid or worried; I figured he was another drunk and lost alum. He said he had met me when I was a prospective student and that he hadn’t forgotten me. I can’t describe the rush of awareness that hit me: I stood in shock, my hands frozen on the door, thinking about the night two years earlier which I had suppressed so well. The center of my constructed world disappeared. He said “you’re as fucking beautiful as you were then, god you’re so beautiful,” and pushed the door open. He grabbed my shoulders, shoved me against the wall and tried to kiss me. I couldn’t move or breathe and I think I might have blacked out for a few seconds. I finally pushed him away, and while he regained his balance I ran into the hallway. He followed and kept saying that he wanted to talk to me, just talk. I said that was fine, that that was why I had gone into the hallway, then I jumped back into my room and slammed the door. I stood in the middle of my room and stared at the locked door while he pounded on the other side, begging me to just give him a chance. He eventually gave up and left. I retched for a while in the wastepaper basket – I was afraid to go out, even though I’d heard him stumble away – then sat at my desk until dawn. I didn’t know with any certainty if he was the same man who had raped me at sixteen and I still don’t. I remember the rape only in shaky snapshots and I worry that I have repressed or dramatized certain points in order to better deal with it. But the similarities between the two men are too unnerving.

I didn’t tell anyone about this event either until much later. Actually, when I was first approached about writing about my rape I forgot to mention the sexual assault. Why? Do I just lump it in with all the other sexual abuses that have happened to me over the years? The discomforting stares, unwanted groping, rude and threatening remarks from strangers, “overzealous” dates, drunken attacks in bars and on the streets – so many abuses, small and large, have occurred to me over the years that I can’t recall them all. I was never really upset about them when they happened because I always felt in control, never truly endangered. They just added to my general contempt for men. But the assault made me see these incidents for what they were: unwarranted and prolific abuses. I lost confidence in my ability to be in control. My world was suddenly not a safe or good place anymore.

But why didn’t I speak out, and why do I still have trouble doing so now? Have I simply become inured to these things? Have I resigned myself to them as my lot in life because I am a woman, especially an attractive woman? Do I actually expect it? Do I feel that hopeless and helpless about myself – and about my rights and power as a woman – to not tell anyone or do anything? I definitely have a personality that doesn’t cry over “spilt milk.” Or am I crying so much that my forgetfulness is some sort of defense? Anyone reading this is probably dumbfounded that I didn’t press charges, but it never occurred to me that I could do something about either the rape or the assault. I didn’t trust my undergraduate advisor and I was unaware of any campus sexual assault resources. Looking back, I wonder how these stories would have stood up in court. But I think I didn’t take any action not only because I was ignorant of any recourse, but also because I was embarrassed, ashamed, and felt incredibly hopeless. I wasn’t worried that no one would believe my story. But why bother? What could be done to erase what happened? I felt no anger or desire for revenge. I took the rape, assault, and numerous other sexual abuses as “normal” parts of college life. To speak against the college would have been a sacrilege to me. Maybe I was afraid that my potential confidant would have told me that I had been “asking for it” by going to parties, drinking and talking to men. Writing this even now, I am afraid that the reader will agree, even though I’ve received enough training and education through my own anti-rape activities that I know better than to blame myself.

Maybe I was afraid that I would be told to expect such things because of my looks. The assailant’s comments during the assault certainly pointed to that: “fucking beautiful,” or beautiful enough to fuck. When I finally spoke to Josh a few months ago it seemed that he almost saw the rape that way as well: he was trying to “explain” how a college senior could rape a sixteen-year-old girl by saying that the rapist didn’t really know how old I was because he was blinded by my “earth-shattering beauty.” I don’t think I’ll ever untangle the psychological mess this has left me in. I’ve always felt awkward about my appearance, but the rape threw me into deep confusion. Before, my looks made me envied by girls and deemed unapproachable by guys. Now I felt cursed and branded as an easy target. I felt that I would never been seen as the person I was but rather as an object to be used and hurt. I could no longer see myself clearly through my own sight but rather saw myself as I imagined others saw me, as my assailant saw me. I wrote a story a while ago about a prisoner in a tower with one window overlooking a beautiful and peaceful valley. However, a mirror was placed outside his window so that he could never admire the view – he could only stare at the reflection of the tower’s gray stone. His punishment was to forever desire to see the wonderful view he knew was in front of him but to never actually see anything but a sterile reflection. It wasn’t until I wrote this that I realized the connection: I’ve lost the ability to see my true self. Most people wish to see a different, improved reflection when they look in a mirror; I don’t even see a recognizable reflection. After the rape I lost myself and distrusted everyone.

However, those feelings didn’t really appear in my behavior until after the assault my freshman year. It was my first year away from home. I was emotionally vulnerable and could no longer box up the jumble of horrid memories the assault had triggered. If I had had a roommate the first two years of college I would have been committed to some sort of treatment center; no one could have lived with me. Looking back, I can’t believe how psychologically disturbed I was at that time. Yet I put on a good enough show that I don’t think anyone ever realized how crazy I was. I had been a very outgoing, gregarious person, but after the assault I holed up in my dorm room and had to force myself to leave even for classes. I cried constantly – in my dorm room, in the bathroom between classes, in the library, in the computer center. Because I couldn’t deal with my big problems of the rape and assault, I instead became stressed over trivial matters. I ground and chipped my teeth in my sleep so badly that I had to have extensive dental work. My abuse of food escalated and I gained an inordinate amount of weight. I was so incredibly self-conscious that anything related to my appearance, from catching my reflection in a window to seeing my clothes hanging in the closet, could cause a complete emotional breakdown. Getting ready to go out meant an hour of hellish mental gymnastics as I debated the hypocrisy of trying to be attractive to the sex I feared, despised, yet somehow needed. Walking across campus was torture. I couldn’t look people in the eye, especially men. I constantly wondered how men perceived me. Every time a man talked to me I panicked. My mind would flip-flop between worrying how to deal with him if he were attracted to me and berating myself for ever thinking that he could be attracted to someone as pathetic and gross as I was. I especially wondered what the men in my rapist’s fraternity thought of me. Did they know what had happened? What was the story they heard? Was it a joke that was passed down from year to year and told repeatedly at meetings? I wanted to start a relationship with a man my senior year at college but I couldn’t do it; he was a member of that fraternity and I was certain that he had heard a skewed version of that night and thought poorly of me. My relationships with women deteriorated as well. I was so envious of how happy, clean, and simple their lives seemed and I felt so loathsome in comparison (how ironic that so many women at the college had similar experiences to mine). I joined a sorority my sophomore year, hoping to find comfort in the company of women, but it only reinforced my feelings of alienation and loneliness. It saddens me to think of all the men and women I didn’t get to know at college because of my insecurity and distrust. It is the one thing I regret most in my life.

My relationship with my boyfriend at home fell apart as soon as I returned from my college visits. I haven’t had a healthy relationship since. I wasn’t afraid of him, I simply couldn’t believe that he really “saw” me; he was just like all the others. I did not tell him about the rape. I have plenty of male friends but I can’t move into intimacy without all my trust in the man crumbling and blowing away. Although intellectually I know this distrust is ridiculous – not all men are abusive – something deep down still tells me it’s the only safe way. I did have one long-term relationship in college that started soon after the assault. Unfortunately, he used my sexuality as a psychological weapon against me and a year later I was left more emotionally unstable and bewildered than ever. I also feel that I was too “loose” with my sexuality in college. Part of this stemmed from the more sexually liberal atmosphere of college life, but it mostly resulted from my complete confusion over my sexuality and its place in my life. Sex meant nothing to me. I had no self-confidence and little self-respect, but mostly I didn’t understand sex. To me, sex was purely physical. I couldn’t deal with the conflicting emotions sex brought up so I pretended they weren’t there.

My abuse of food progressed in a similar fashion. Although my eating problems started in an adolescent power struggle between me and my parents, it exploded into uncontrollable abuse after the rape. I was disgusted and scared by my body; it seemed alien and dirty. I didn’t blame myself for what had happened, yet I still felt that my body had somehow betrayed me. Before, I had generally taken joy in the pure strength and beauty of my body, but now it seemed to have directly caused me to be hurt. My body hadn’t handled the alcohol well, hadn’t fended off the attack in the basement, and had even passed out during the rape. I remember picking at my salad during dinner with my parents the night after the rape and longing to stab and rake my Judas flesh with the fork. My binging worsened. No matter how hard I tried I could rarely force myself to vomit, so I instead abused laxatives. I wanted to be attractive but I was scared to allow myself to be so. My subconscious told me that overeating and gaining weight was what I HAD to do in order to be safe. I didn’t need to draw any more attention to myself, did I? From my parents I learned that I could never be good-looking enough to satisfy them, and from the rape I learned that being attractive gave men free license to hurt you. Moreover, I could never be attractive enough to hide the bitter and twisted person I had become inside. In high school I would eat enormous amounts of foods I hated – biscuits from Kentucky Fried Chicken, candy bars, raw sugar, anything – in order to hurt my body as much as possible. At college and away from my parents’ security/domination, my eating disorder took on epic proportions. I would eat two pizzas, drink a six-pack of Diet Coke and be so ill afterwards that I could only lie on the floor of my dark room and cry for hours. I finally spoke with a counselor at my college health center my freshman spring, mainly because my boyfriend told me that I disgusted him. In our initial discussion I casually told the counselor about the rape – but not the assault – and admitted that it might have played a small part in my eating problems. She suggested that it was probably the main cause. I never returned for another appointment. I don’t know exactly what I thought was causing my eating disorder, but I felt that blaming the rape for all my problems was using it as a scapegoat. I didn’t want to talk about the rape and I didn’t want anyone to think I felt sorry for myself because of it.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I consciously used the word rape to describe what happened to me; I believe it was the counselor who first defined it as such. But I do remember the moment I began to pull my shattered psyche together. I studied abroad my junior fall and winter and returned to campus that spring with a strength and clarity I hadn’t had in years. My first day back I went over to my good friend Amy’s house, which I hadn’t seen before. She wasn’t home, so I walked in and flopped down on the bed to write her a note. It was a beautiful spring day, sunny with a slight breeze. I lay on the bed and watched the shadows’ shifting pattern on the white wall. Birds sang outside. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe or hear. I stared and stared at the shadows trying to fight off the nauseating falling feeling I had: I was in the same room in which I’d woken up that terrible morning four years earlier. The bed was in the same place. The views and sounds were exactly the same. I don’t know how long I lay there paralyzed, clutching a pencil and some paper. When I finally sat up the paper was damp with perspiration. Yet I felt strangely relieved, as if some perverted circle had been completed and I was ready to move one. My mind had gone numb just as it had four years earlier, but this time it surfaced with the certainty that the rape and assault were things I could deal with. I was ready.

I called Josh before I wrote this to make sure I had the facts as straight as possible. He did say that he had been worried when he couldn’t find me at the party. He questioned his fraternity brothers, but they told him that I was “fine” and that he should relax and not bother me – and I’m sure they pressured him to drink more. I don’t fault Josh for what happened; he was a naïve freshman trying to make a good impression with his brothers. But why didn’t the older, more “knowledgeable” brothers help me? Did no one realize what was going on? Was that considered normal behavior? Or was there a scheme to get me in bed somehow? Josh also told me my rapist’s name. Some lingering repression mechanism makes me unable to remember it; I have to refer to the notes I took on our conversation. I know what he looks like from his fraternity picture, and the face matches what I vaguely remember. The temptation to write his name now in bold letters is overwhelming, yet I can’t bring myself to and I don’t know why. I worry that my silence might endanger other women – I hope it hasn’t already. I loathe and pity him, and I’m completely bewildered by it all. I would love to meet him. I would love to tell him how I can’t look into a mirror without feeling deep disgust for myself. How I smashed all my mirrors in high school. I want to tell him that I’m torn between wanting to be attractive and my fear of doing so. How after he assaulted me I started to slash my face but ended up just slashing my arms with scissors because I still hoped that I could someday be proud of my looks – maybe someday someone might love me despite my being so disgusting. I want to describe to him the pain of my twisted relationship with food that exploded after the rape. How my weight problem has torn apart my family and changed my life. How my self-hatred has driven away and hurt the people I love but how I can’t seem to stop it. How I mistrust men and see all men as predators. How I’m afraid I will never have a meaningful relationship with a man. I would love for him to go through the confusion I went through – and am still going through – over my sexuality and its power. I would love for him to live a day full of the self-doubt, self-loathing, and hopelessness that I have. I want to give him all the cynicism and bitterness that I’ve carried around for so long and of which I’m so tired.

I would love to drown him in all the tears I’ve cried while writing this.