I got an email from one of my professors today asking me how I was dealing with the past two class discussions.
You see, in my Novel class, we have just finished discussing the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. In this novel (SPOILER ALERT), the main character, Tess, gets drugged and raped by a man named Alec; as a result, she becomes pregnant (the baby dies after a few months). A few months after her baby dies, Tess decides to start a new life: she goes to a dairy farm where she falls in love and eventually marries. When she tells her husband what happens to her, he throws it in her face, implies she’s impure, and that she was asking for it. Tess and Angel, her husband, then separate. Some time passes, and Tess runs into Alec (you know the guy who raped her), and she decides to become his mistress.
You know, because we accept the love we think we deserve. Anyway, after more time passes, Angel returns. Tess then kills Alec, which in turn causes Tess to be hanged.
Needless to say, this book upset me. Granted, I know it was written in the late 19th century, a time when women had very few rights and had even less protection against such acts. But that didn’t stop the novel from hurting me any less.
Tess tries to be honest and ends up getting hurt. Tess is raped, and society dpesn’t try to help her. She is raped; it is her fault; and she has to deal with the consequences all on her own.
And it’s upsetting, because her mother never tells her of the dangers in the world: “How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me?”
As an English Major, this is not the first time I’ve had to discuss books about rape. Last semester, I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak, which is also a book about sexual assualt. This book hit a little closer to home for me (as evidenced by the following blog post I wrote back in December):
“IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding.”“I have survived. I am here. Confused, screwed up, but here. So, how can I find my way? Is there a chain saw of the soul, an ax I can take to my memories or fears?” – Speak, by Laurie Halse Andserson
In my Adolescent Lit class on Tuesday, we discussed the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. At the beginning of the Semester, my Professor introduced the book by saying, “It’s a book about Sexual Assault.”
And immediately, right there, my mind stopped. I thought to myself, “Wait, what?” So, after class I went up to my Professor and said, ” Prof Q, I don’t know if I can read this book.” And I told her my story, just like I’ve told it so many times before. And she understood, and she told me I didn’t have to come to class the day we discussed Speak.
I didn’t have to go to class.
Half a semester later, my mind was telling me “Don’t go to class,” but my feet weren’t listening. So, I showed up to class, and was immediately told to write a 10 minute response to the following question, “How accurate is Melinda’s (the main character) portrayal of High School in this book? Use examples from your own life or from somebody else’s.”
I am Melinda. Melinda is me. As I read this book, I was in tears from laughing at Melinda’s scathing wit and biting sarcasm. As I read this book, I was in tears from crying because of the experience we share. High School is exactly as it was portrayed in this book, at least for me. I remember thinking these things. I remember doing what she did. I remember doing it all. This is the most believable book I’ve read thus far to date.
As we discussed the book in class, I felt awkward, compressed, as though there were 4000 pounds of weight on my chest. I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest, unless of course the pressure surrounding my lungs didn’t kill me first. I sat there in silence, doodling in my notebook, checking my phone, analyzing Beauty and the Beast in my head, and doing pretty much anything that distracted me from the conversation at hand.
I didn’t say anything until Prof Q asked the last question, “How did you like the ending?”
I immediately got angry. I hated the ending.
(SPOILER ALERT: The book ends with Melinda confronting her assaulter in her hide-away closet at school. She threatens him with a shard of glass to his neck.
And then some other stuff goes down, but those details aren’t important).
I spoke up, “I hated the ending. It makes for a better story, but it doesn’t actually happen that way. I don’t know, I mean, I do know. But, ya.”
As much as Melinda and I have in common, our stories are just as different. We were both Sexually Assaulted at the end of 8th grade. But it took me two years to admit anything was wrong.
Melinda had one IT. I had 5 ITs, which means I had THEM.
And while IT happened at a party for Melinda, THEM happened in a school bathroom for me.
I didn’t have a place to run and hide in school. I didn’t have a place I belonged. I haven’t told anyone their names even though I saw their faces everyday until they either dropped out, moved away, or until we graduated together.
But, like Melinda I know the fear of THEM. I know the not wanting to get out of bed. I know the wanting to tell someone but not knowing how. I know the self-hatred and the self-blaming. I know the grimacing when I hear their names or their voices. I know the thought “what if I said ‘no’ one more time?” I know it all.
I struggled with self-injury for years before I stopped. I struggled with Anorexia all the way through High School and into college. And I’m lucky if I don’t have a mental breakdown anytime I run into someone who even remotely looks like one of THEM.
So, no. I don’t think my story will ever end like Melinda’s. And that’s ok. Because they took a lot from me, and I’ve spent so much time and energy trying to reclaim it as my own.
And it’s taken me a long time to get where I am today, and it’s been a lot of baby steps along the way. I’ve stopped cutting. I’ve started eating. I’ve started believing myself to be beautiful. I’ve stopped wanting to jump every time I’m up high.
Yesterday, I saw a picture of one of THEM on Facebook because of a mutual friend, and I didn’t slam my laptop shut, want to throw up, or take 5 showers. So, ya. That happened, and it was big.
And 5.5 years later, I’ve gotten to the point where I can finally identify THEM by name (but I won’t list them here, because this is the internet, and this is not the place for naming names). And one day, I may even say “Hi” to them if I see them in Walmart, that is if I don’t go cry in the bathroom first.
No, but really though. One day I will say Hi, because I want them to know they don’t have a hold of me anymore. I’ve reclaimed what was mine. And yes, I still have flashbacks from time to time, but I’ve learned that when I speak, people will listen. They told me I would never amount to anything in my life. Clearly, I’ve proved them wrong.
Books like these hurt to read, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they are not worthy of being read, because I do.
These books help educate society on a topic that is still somewhat taboo.
I’m open and honest with what’s happened to me, because I don’t want my past to be used against me. I’m open and honest with my story because I was told that getting raped was my fault (which it totally wasn’t, by the way).
Unlike Tess, I have a great support system, and I hope other rape victims do, too.
Unlike Tess, women nowadays are told from a young age are taught how to avoid getting raped: don’t walk along at night; don’t put yourself in situations when you could potentially get raped, etc.
I think society is doing better when it comes to rape, but I still think we can do better. We can start teaching our boys how not to rape; we can stop blaming the victims: stop asking what clothes they were wearing, how much skin was showing.
Books like Tess and Speak help illustrate the devestating effects of rape without having to experience it firsthand. And I value that: you shouldn’t have to experience something in order to become aware of the consequences.
Books like Tess and Speak remind me that I cannot change my past, but I can accept it, learn from it, and grow from it.
But why would I want to change the past, anyway? It’s made me who I am. It’s made me stronger.
And like Tess and Melinda, I’ve faced my demons: Tess murders hers. Melinda tells hers off. I forgave mine.
So, yes. I am ok with talking about books like these, because these topics are a real part of society, and sometimes, books have taught me the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned: hope exists. You are not alone.