McKay: When You Least Expect It
Content warning: The following contains images and content that may trigger survivors of violence or sexual assault.
I was raped two months before I matriculated at Dartmouth.
He was a close high-school friend, and I was visiting him at his house the night it happened. After, I cried in his bed while he slept on the couch just a few feet away. In the morning, I hugged him and thanked him for letting me spend the night. I didn’t know what else to do.
Weeks later, I tried to confront him, but I did not understand the intricacies of acquaintance or drug- and alcohol-facilitated rape well enough to recognize this incident as it was — perfectly, heartbreakingly normal.
When he told me to “take responsibility” for what happened, I wondered if he was right.
Back then, I was the only person I knew who had been raped. My friends and I possessed no rubric for making sense of this. One friend even chastised me for talking about it so much. I could not explain to her how the incident was like a corrosive and igneous presence in the back of my throat, how I needed to talk about it to abate this feeling. I could not explain to her how lonely and terrifying it was.
When I arrived on campus, sexual assault was barely discussed. As an opinion columnist for this newspaper, I made it my mission to address the issue. Writing about rape was not a political agenda but a personal duty. Although my peers might dismiss or politicize sexual violence, I resolved to neither ignore nor sensationalize it. I attempted to write about sexual assault in a way that was completely impersonal, because I was not ready to reveal what had happened to me.
Besides, my experience was so far removed from the dialogue with which I was engaging. National discourse on campus rape sought to identify specific, structural causes such as Greek life or so-called rape culture, whereas my story of assault was so personal and small. The quotidian reality of rape and its aftermath was, in my experience, so detached from these abstractions.
When my classmates spoke about rape, they were comfortable with the concept in general but dismissive of specific instances like mine — I found myself living in a rape culture that somehow possessed no rapists and, implicitly, no victims either. I grew increasingly alienated, but I could not resist the temptation to pick fights with my peers, rubbing salt into my own wound to keep from feeling desensitized.
That year, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although the cancer and the rape were unrelated, both shattered my reality. My body suddenly felt foreign and my life unpredictable. I felt responsible for my rape, and I felt as if my instability were somehow contributing to my mother’s suffering as well.
I lost 15 pounds by the end of freshman year, 40 by sophomore winter. My knee-bones ground together while I slept, and my veins protruded from my arms. I could no longer recognize myself. It was as if I were watching a film about someone else’s life. I cringed at how broken and pathetic this person seemed, and I mourned the person I had been before the assault.
Then, one morning late in the winter of 2014, I awoke in Dick’s House wearing a flimsy cotton gown with bile in my hair. I learned that a friend had found me naked and vomiting in a fraternity the night before, in an upstairs bedroom with one of the brothers. I did not remember meeting him, nor did I remember going upstairs — but through my texts and emails I could piece together what had happened.
Lightning is not supposed to strike twice, but it did. It should have been devastating, and in some ways it was, but just imagine spending years blaming yourself for an assault that you had endured. Imagine obsessing over your weight and your body, and whatever other attributes might have incurred the assault, only to realize that it was all so meaningless. What had escaped me for the last two years was suddenly obvious: it was not, and had never been, my fault.
This realization could not bring back the last two years, and it could not solve my now-fraught relationship with my body nor could it release me from the scrutiny of my peers, but it was a start.
I reported the incident to the College and allowed it to investigate what I could not remember. When he was found responsible for sexual misconduct, I didn’t look back. I poured myself into my close friendships, into a much-needed off-term and into a year of leading this newspaper. I repaired my personal relationships and took on new challenges.
Many people back home still cannot accept that my friend could have committed rape, and on this campus I’ve seen my experience get swept up in the broader discussion on how the College is supposedly changing, its old traditions failing. But I’ve learned to forgive those who either cannot comprehend or refuse to accept my experiences. I do not need others to understand in order to be happy with myself. I have nothing to prove. Furthermore, I know that I can never restore my life to how it was before the assault, but doing so is no longer my goal.
Recently, I heard someone describe hearing about friends’ rapes and then seeing how their lives returned to normalcy as being like pressing into a sponge then watching it bounce back to its original form. I liked this, but I cannot help but wonder whether or not there will always be a small but indelible mark left behind — and perhaps that’s not the worst thing.
If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN hotline at (800)-656-4673 or the on-call crisis counselor at Dick’s House at (603)646-9442 during the daytime and on weekdays or (603)646-3333 after hours or on weekends. Each of these resources is confidential.
Katie McKay ’16 is the former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth.