Years ago, before I started therapy and before I started writing for others, I made a decision. I had a parenting moment which demonstrated to me that my life of “being fine” was a lie, and—most importantly—that I wasn’t going to be the only person hurt by that lie. I had to make a choice: face my past, or continue to shove my head into the sand and pretend nothing was wrong, assuring I’d pass some of the trauma I was trying to forget to my children.
I chose to face my past, but I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone else about it quite yet. First, I needed to do some long overdue introspection and see if I could locate the doors I knew needed opening. The way I decided to do that was by writing everything I could remember of my life, beginning with my earliest fragmented memories when I was a toddler.
A few weeks after I started writing down my life’s events, my husband and I were sitting in a restaurant. I was pregnant at the time with our second daughter, our first was about eighteen months old. I told my husband that I had decided to write down my life and he asked me if I was going to publish it one day.
I shook my head and laughed uncomfortably. “Goodness, no,” I replied.
“It’s okay if you do,” he said. “I just want to know first if there’s anything I don’t already know that I would want to know before it goes out to the public.”
My eyes darted to his face quickly and then back down as my heart sped up painfully and I started sweating profusely. “Only one thing,” I said quietly before swallowing. “Um… you remember when you cheated on me with Lynn?” I asked.
He shuddered violently. “Unfortunately,” he replied, his voice soft.
“Well, I went to that party that weekend after I found out and broke up with you, and I… um…” I swallowed again, dryly, and took a deep breath as I stared at the table. “I was so heartbroken. And angry. I got drunk.”
“You did?” he asked, his eyebrows raised when I glanced up at him.
My cheeks burned; I wasn’t a drinker or a partier back then, so what I’d done was really out of character. “Yeah, I know. I just decided… well… fuck it, you know? I didn’t want to feel anything anymore.”
He looked to the side. “Yeah, I know that feeling. That’s why I did all the stupid shit I did when we were teens.”
I nodded. “I know that.” And I always had, even back then when he was doing it.
“So, you got drunk?” he asked, bringing the conversation back to where it was before we got distracted.
I nodded again. “Well, drunk would be a bit of an understatement, actually. I was wasted. Beyond wasted. I don’t know how I didn’t end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning… Anyway…” I took a few breaths, trying to get the words out. “I was so wasted I couldn’t stand up or walk. I have a lot of blanks in my memory. You know?” I looked up briefly and saw my husband’s jaw was clenched, could hear his foot tapping violently against the floor under the table, and I couldn’t get another word off my tongue. I was frozen, trapped in his glare as my heart hammered against my chest.
“You fucked someone,” he said, his voice hard.
I looked down in shame as my stomach lurched. “There were two,” I started, taking a breath before adding their names—I knew he’d demand to know.
“Those fuckers,” he muttered before I had a chance to say anything else.
“I’m so sorry,” I said softly, fighting tears as the room tunneled around me. I could see the agony in his features and knew what I’d just told him would torment him for years to come, even though it had happened fifteen years before. I wanted to tell him what happened, what I remembered, tell him I hadn’t been asked first, never even given an opportunity to have a say in what happened.
“Why did you do it?” he asked, his eyes glassy as his voice broke.
My chest caved in and I struggled to breathe. I’d known my husband for twenty years and I knew what explaining what happened would do to him, how he would blame himself that he wasn’t there to protect me because of our break-up.
Instead, I told him what I’d been trying to make myself believe for years, a narrative that gave me a choice. “To get back at you, I guess. To try to feel loved?” Maybe now that I’d said it out loud, I’d finally be able to believe it myself; it was so much better than admitting that if I hadn’t been so drunk, I maybe could have stopped it.
Fast forward several years…
My editor sent back her first round of edits on my memoir manuscript. I went through, page by page, line by line, looking at her edits and reading her comments in the margin. I had written the first version she edited in a retrospective point of view, as my adult self, reflecting on what had happened in my life, something I subsequently changed. But that’s how it was written when I wrote this line:
But no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t see it any other way—I’d chosen to get so drunk that I couldn’t distinguish between dream and reality, let alone stop two guys from using me for sex.
She changed the last phrase to read: let alone stop two guys from raping me while I was unable to consent and then left this comment: “Call it what it is, as hard as it is.”
I winced as I read her words and looked away from my computer screen, thinking back over the last few weeks.
While my manuscript was on my editor’s desk, I’d read Know My Name by Chanel Miller. There are books that stick with you. There are books that have the potential to change your life. And then there are books like Chanel’s, which take the ground you’re standing on and flip it into the air, sending you tumbling, and the only thing you know for sure is that when you land, you’ll never be the same. But how you change is up to you. You’re forced to make a critical decision that will forever impact your personal journey, your emotional trajectory.
As I read about what happened to her, how her body had been violated when she was unable to say no, how she was blamed and vilified for it because she had chosen to drink alcohol, how she had “knowingly put herself at risk” and was “asking for it”, how it was her fault for being too intoxicated to stop what happened to her, I was enraged on her behalf. I wanted to turn back time and place my body in front of hers to protect her—on the night she was assaulted, yes, but on every subsequent day. I wanted to be a physical barrier for her, to use a hand to keep her behind me so I could absorb the vitriol hurtled in her direction. I wanted to bare my teeth and growl like a wild animal the way a guard dog would at an intruder until people backed away and left her alone for good. My heart completely split in half for her. Tears poured down my face, soaking my pajamas each night as I read page after page, read about all those people who equated choosing to be drunk with asking to be sexually assaulted.
I also felt this simultaneous surge of guilt for being so angry on her behalf, like I had no right, like I was being hypocritical or that I was more like those I wished to protect her from. I ignored the unwelcome sensation and continued reading. Each night it grew stronger and more insistent, and each night I worked harder to ignore it.
Then I read the following words: “Sometimes I’m too angry, seething after reading another rape story, I need to slice a dick off.” My heart skipped and it was like a jolt of electricity through my body—no, my entire being.
After that party when I was sixteen, I went through a period that I refer to as my Castration Queen Phase (the same one I mentioned briefly in my post The Art of Waterproofing). I fantasized about ripping off penises, talked about it, drew pictures of doing it. I dreamed about meeting someone who had been castrated so I could feel loved and respected and safe and never even have to think about sex again. I knew exactly what Chanel meant by the feeling that you need to slice a dick off.
I realized it was just another similarity I’d found between the covers of her book and that’s when it hit me. If it hadn’t been her fault simply because she was drunk… it hadn’t been mine either. The guilt I’d been ignoring was guilt for how I’d treated myself for more than twenty years since that party, the lies I’d told myself because I shouldered the blame for what was done to me—two peers using my body without my permission.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with holding myself to a different standard than I hold the rest of the world. A much higher standard, one that is often impossible to attain. Most can identify with this tendency—particularly anyone with abuse or neglect in their past. What is understandable or forgivable in someone else isn’t when you’re the person in question; something you easily recognize someone else had no control over, you just as easily shoulder the blame for.
This is something I’ve worked on with my therapists over the years, trying not to create different rules for myself, not to treat myself differently than I treat others. I had this stereotypical epiphany moment during one of my sessions that opened my eyes to the fact that—in large part—I struggled with holding myself to the same standard as others because I didn’t love myself, and I have been working to remedy that ever since.
That journey to love myself—to treat myself the way I treat others—had already helped me to let go of the guilt and self-blame I carried for not being able to stop my cousin from molesting me when I was six. The guilt and self-blame I carried for not being able to stop my mom’s friend from molesting me when I was eight. The guilt and self-blame I carried for not being able to stop my then-boyfriend’s two brothers from raping me when I was thirteen. And that journey meant that when I recognized myself in Chanel’s words, I could finally loosen my hold on the guilt and self-blame festering inside me for what happened when I was sixteen and got drunk one night. I could finally do what my editor told me to in her comment and call it what it was.
Know My Name didn’t just change my life, it gave me life. Chanel’s book taught me in a way I could no longer ignore that the absence of “no” is not the same thing as “yes”, including when it comes to myself. It taught me that being drunk means it’s my fault if I have a hangover the next day; it’s never my fault if people take advantage of my inability to stop them.
It taught me that what happened to me is my rapists’ shame to carry—not mine.
Releasing that grip on my guilt and deeply-rooted shame lifted a weight from my shoulders, my mind, my heart. I could breathe deeper and more easily. Over time I could think back on what happened without entering a spiral of self-hatred. I can finally think and write about what happened without that veil of self-blame and instead with self-compassion.
I know other stories from my past that I’ve shared have given others hope or helped them to realize they weren’t at fault or provided comfort by assuring them they aren’t alone. By sharing this story as well—my own struggle with understanding and accepting that what happened was not my fault—I hope I can help someone again by giving life to another survivor residing where I was before I read Chanel’s incredible book.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
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Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.