Archive for September, 2010

The five stages of absurdity

Right. Consider this the first of a number of rants which will appear on the blog. I was trying to come up with a list of helpful websites to put up that looked at the long-term consequences of rape. What did I find? Endless, endless pages talking about ‘stages’. even gives you ‘Instructions’ on how to get over rape:

1. Emotional Shock and Disbelief

2. Embarrassment, Shame, Guilt

3. Disorientation

4. Anger, Rage, Revenge Fantasies

Personally, I never felt disoriented, and I certainly never felt guilt. Emotional disbelief perhaps, but only after a a few hours of emotional weeping and definite awareness of what had happened to me. I’m very certain that I felt anger as the rape was going on. These stages seem somewhat out of order. Maybe a different set of stages from another article would be more useful:

1. Depression

2. Fear

3. Flashbacks/Emotional triggering

4. Low self-esteem and dependency on others

5. Despair

6. Sexual dysfunction

7. Forgiveness

Again, I didn’t feel these stages in an ordered, chronological way. A lot of those emotions I did feel, but at random, and often all at once, in a big SMUSH of anguish.So what can we tell from all this? That these stages are total nonsense.  Not because everyone should deal with rape in the order that I did (not that there was an order), but that everyone deals with rape differently. My opinion on this is 90% borrowed from my very good friend Rachel’s dissertation on grief, so I thought I might as well just quote it verbatim:

“We are constrained and controlled by the manner in which we talk about things, living only within our spoken categories, as if the only choices that are open to us are those that we have uttered into existence. Therefore, if we follow Kubler-Ross [and her five stages] and see grief only in terms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – in that order – then what happens if we feel relieved, or guilty, or if we experience denial after an initial acceptance?

“What tends to happen is that we feel that this is not allowed. Not allowed?! Surely we can see how ridiculous this is? But in the midst of the chaos of grief I dont think we can, and this simply adds to our distress. By spending all of our energy on attempting to follow these strict modern conceptions of grief we are actually restricting our emotions – we are not allowing ourselves to properly and fully grieve, and to do so in a manner that is comfortable and helpful for us. We are all individual and as such, each experience one has one will understand and process in a unique manner. So where could any sense possibly lie in trying to box each individual into the same grieving process? We are all going to experience and react to this differently too. We should expect, and we should be allowed, this freedom.”

I have a massive resonance with this. Whilst some of the stages found online do reference promiscuity, it doesn’t really get talked about in everyday magazines – what women are likely to have read before having been raped – so when I reacted by becoming Britain’s Biggest Slut, all I knew was that I was supposed to be terrified of men and hide in my house for the next three years. I felt like I was dealing with my rape wrongly. How awful to make someone who has already been subjected to sexual assault feel as though they should be ashamed for how they dealt with it. Apologies to male readers, but I am reminded of Meredith’s stinging retort to Derek in Grey’s Anatomy:

 “I make no apologies for how I chose to fix what you broke.”

Of course, my wild days weren’t quite a matter of deliberate choice, but the principle remains the same.

Why do we feel the need to label everything up, to organise and order? I think when we are confronted by something as horrific as rape, when the ground has fallen away from us because our child, wife or sister has told us that they were sexually attacked, we like to pretend that there is still a solid foundation. We dream up these stages, as if humans were all automatons just following a roadmap. As if attempting to cope with a trauma like that could be anything other than, in Rachel’s words, “the chaos of grief”. It is chaotic. We are all over the place. That is how it is supposed to happen.

When I first read Rachel’s dissertation, I disagreed with it. I wrote notes on her pages talking about how, in the chaos of grief, perhaps having a roadmap to follow would be a small comfort to me. But the problem with that idea is that you can’t choose how you grieve. You can’t decide that today will be a bargaining day, or that today I will feel anger. These emotions are triggered by what we experience every day: perhaps we walked past someone who resembled our rapist, or perhaps I had a helpful conversation with a friend and had a breakthrough.

The best thing to do is to allow that any of a whole range of emotions can occur at any time, and that these won’t always make sense. Nor will we experience one emotion, finish it, and then move onto the next. I now like to think of myself as being able to talk about my rape in a sensible manner. But my last post – Who is Mark? – left me shaken for the rest of the evening to the extent that I got out the video player and watched some of my childhood favourites, clinging to the familiar. I am far from whole, far from healed. My emotions, my feelings about the rape, fluctuate on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. But I’m not worried about that. The pain will go in time – my time.


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Who is Mark?

I’m shaking a bit. Is it weird that, although I know roughly what things I want to write about, the topic I choose on each occasion is the one that makes me feel slightly sick? I’ve realised that I’m terrified of my own blog. It’s good though, and like that amazing quote, after I finish writing, I do always feel “a shudder of relief”.

So. Who is Mark? That’s the question that is starting to follow me around. He wasn’t a villain who came into existence for a brief fifteen minutes and then exited stage left. Whilst I would happily use the words PRICK and ARSEHOLE to describe him, and many more besides, that lets him off the hook rather easily. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on justice and reconciliation in post-genocidal nations, and one of my key tenets was that it isn’t helpful to describe the perpetrators of genocide as ‘monsters’. If we call them monsters, if that’s all they are, then they bear no responsibility for their actions – they are evil, and don’t possess the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. The same goes for rapists.

It is difficult to accept, but rapists are very human. Mark was normal, he was friendly and conversational. And, he existed before I came across him. What had his childhood been like? Was he abused when he was young? That’s an especially difficult question for me, because I don’t want him to have been – I don’t want him to have an excuse (yes: it is deliberately pejorative language). I want to be content in my hating him, I want it to be simple.

Had he raped before? Was I the first, the only? Were there girls after me? Does my cowardice, my never going to the police, mean that I bear some responsibility for other girls he hurt?

These are all big questions, but it’s not the one that really bothers me.

I want to know where he is now. What his life is like. He was, I think, in his mid to late twenties in 2006. Does he still live in Malta, single and alone? Or – what I keep imagining – is he in Britain, married? Does he have children? Does he take them to the park, and drop them off at school?

Does he ever think about what he did to me? If so, does he attempt to rationalise it? Am I a ‘silly mistake’ he made once? Perhaps it never even flickers across his mind. Or am I one of a string of girls he abused?

All I have are questions. And no answers.

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The physical realities of rape

I won’t lie, when I started this blog I had a vague idea about the topics I wanted to discuss, and this was one that I knew was essential, but that I wasn’t looking forward to writing. So I’m just going to get it out of the way, rip the plaster off, until I can discuss it a bit more profoundly.

Rape hurts. I mean physically. The emotional ramifications are more numerous certainly, but it would be silly to ignore the very real physical stuff: it hurts. And it hurts in lots of different ways. There was the pain of being hit, of someone grabbing my throat and tightening their grip, of my knees hitting the floor from a height. It was immediate pain, and curiously familiar – being smacked in the face was a shocking new experience for me, but I recognised the pain from being hit in the shins by hockey balls, and walking somewhat clumsily into a lamp post. I knew it.

Then there were new types. The inevitable pain the first time someone penetrated me, tearing into my body. And this incredibly foreign feeling of pain deep, deep within me, as he slammed into my pelvic region, again, again, again.

Just a few months before I had been studying for a psychology A level, and listening to my teacher as she discussed the process of rape. She talked in a matter-of-fact way about how most rapists were turned on by the struggle, and that to avoid further damage to yourself, the best thing to do was to go slack, or even to feign enjoyment. She told us that the only moment of weakness was the only time he had one hand on you, when he undid his flies.

I still respect her for having the balls to talk about that level of brutality in such a prissy, protective independent girls’ school. But it’s difficult to hide a grim smile when I think about how little it applied to me. I struggled, and I wept, and I tried to scream, and at no point did a rational thought enter my mind except “God, when will this end? Get him off me. GET HIM OFF ME.” About halfway through, I just screwed my eyes shut and tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.

So that was the initial pain. That night, I was aware of what happened to me for a few hours, as I sobbed into a pillow and tried to make myself small, to wrap myself inside of me. When I woke up, it was gone. Not the memory, just the emotion. I woke up, and I felt stiff, and in pain, with the sorest throat I had ever had, feeling deeply, deeply unnerved and uncomfortable with myself. This will sound incredible, but not once did I attribute that to what had happened the night before. I didn’t know where it had come from. I spent a day exploring the island of Gozo being as silent and far away from my mum as possible.

The pain in my pelvis and throat stayed the longest, but gradually faded. Eventually, I only had the occasional twinge of sharp pain in my abdomen, whenever I twisted quickly or moved awkwardly. And the pain stayed away for four months, until the next time someone penetrated me, someone I was deeply in love with. There wasn’t much pain that time – it didn’t last very long – but on the subsequent occasions when we explored each other, I discovered I had to be very, very careful when he was inside me. If he went too deep the pain was intense, almost bringing tears to my eyes. I was nonplussed, assumed it was a virginity thing, that I just needed time to ‘open up’. As that relationship ended as a result of my flagrant infidelity and I slept with more and more men, the pain never went away. It was always there, and sometimes I protected myself, pushed them away, and at others simply closed my eyes and didn’t say a word, letting them hurt me.

Months later, as I finally began to think about what had happened to me, I realised the connection. I also reasoned that there was no way that the pain could still be from the rape itself – it had to be psychological, since anything else would already have healed. I began to regain control, to only trust a few people with my body, to those who I could explain things to, and they were cautious with me. This June, I finally told my parents the full extent of my adventure in Malta, and upon my return from university, they shipped me off to doctors under slight protest. The doctors did some tests, and their poking and prodding was excruciating. It had been almost four years, and the pain had not gone away. At all.

The results came back, and they told me I had a form of pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID. An infection had been there for four years, eating away at me. After two weeks of fun injections and enough pills to turn me into a rattlesnake, they asked me back for another examination. That morning I was an emotional wreck, and I suddenly realised how terrified I was that it hadn’t worked, that it was psychological after all, that their diagnosis had been wrong. My mum had to convince me to fulfil my appointment. The doctor poked and prodded, and I cried again. She was really concerned, because I was crying more than I had originally, but I finally managed to explain, when I got my breath back, that there was no pain, and I that I was sobbing embarrassingly huge tears of relief and delight at the realisation that for the first time in my life, I could have sex without it hurting.

I’ve had sex twice since, with my (now ex) boyfriend. Throughout, I couldn’t stop thinking “My god. This doesn’t hurt. Do you realise? It doesn’t hurt!” Being free of that pain lifted something huge from me that had been there for years.

So. Tip of the day. No matter how long it’s been, if it still hurts, if anything hurts, go to a doctor. They might not be able to help. But they might be able to. And god, it’s fabulous.

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Each life is a story, structured with a beginning, middle and end. It is a work of collaboration: the author changes. As babies, we are carried by others who write our lives for us, who determine what we shall wear, when we shall eat, and even what we will be called. Gradually we grow, and we learn that we can have some control over our lives; we reach teenage years and realise the importance of autonomy and freedom. We start to consciously mould our own personalities, and that is when we truly become authors of our own lives for the first time.

At that age, we tend to assert our new-found freedom somewhat falsely; we rebel against the previous authors and embrace whatever they would not choose for us. But that limited experiment in self-definition is powerful, and we greedily indulge again and again. We gradually shape ourselves more: we decide on a career, we develop tastes in music and literature, and we choose our friendships. We create ourselves, and we decide on a plot for our stories, for our lives. “I am going to be a successful children’s book editor, and I will spend my twenties living in an attic bedsit in London.” Whether or not this comes true is far less important than that I decided on that plotline for myself.

That is why acts of sexual violence are so shattering. Someone else’s brutality threatens to derail the story that we want to tell, and it sweeps our power and confidence from us. At 18 I was bullish, confident with men, and sure of where my life was heading. Then in fifteen minutes one night in Malta, my world was ripped apart. My life was irrevocably changed, and my personality altered immediately – although you’d have to have been looking for it to notice as an outsider.

I would be lying if I said that before the rape I was some wallflower – I have always been a terrible flirt, and I had kissed my share of boys. But I was very clear at 18 that I wanted my first time to be with someone I loved – indeed, my now-lapsed faith had persuaded me to wait until marriage – and instead, a selfish man deprived me of the right to give my virginity to someone I chose. Having said that, as far as I’m concerned I did lose my true virginity to the first man I loved, a few short months later. What is important is how you choose to view experiences, and I refuse to give that hotel clerk, Mark – his name badge was glinting at my eye level continuously as he moved on top of me  – that honour. So that was the first time that my authorship was removed by him. And then it continued. Unbeknownst to me on any kind of conscious level, most of my actions then became dictated by him, and that experience.

I grew suddenly reckless, going out of my way to walk down alleyways at night, talking to strange men. I didn’t realise it then, but looking back I am clear in my mind that I was doing my very best to stick two fingers up at him, to state defiantly that he had not scarred me. In fact, I was giving him the power by letting him write my story. Similarly, once on my gap year and travelling I was no victim rocking slowly against the wall of a darkened room. I was a near alcoholic who partied every night and slept around. Contrary to tradition, I reacted to rape by becoming incredibly promiscuous. I don’t mean that I had occasional one night stands. I mean I slept with four people in one week. I hasten to add that that was an abnormal week, but still. I was out of control in a very dangerous way.

Why did I react like that? Theories differ. Perhaps, as with the dark alleyways, I was trying to say that I was just fine. Perhaps I was trying to take back control of my sexuality. Perhaps I was trying to convince myself that the rape didn’t matter, because sex wasn’t important, it was run of the mill.  It could be any one of those ideas, or a combination, or something utterly different, and I may never decide. However, what I have learned since – after doing lots of digging online, because it isn’t easily found – is that my reaction to rape is not a singular experience. Plenty of women attempt to get over it by sleeping around, but we never talk about it. This has to change – I thought I was thoroughly alone, but instead, untidy experiences were being hushed up. It is so much easier to sympathise and pity a mute agoraphobic than a drunken slut – so those are the life stories that get printed.

I digress. My promiscuous behaviour continued when I reached university, and only gradually started to get better halfway through first year – which is exactly the time I first told a friend about the rape. In other words, as soon as I took control and began to be the author of my life once more, I prevented the hotel clerk from dictating my life. Thank heavens I went to a university like Durham, which has a total of four clubs surrounded by a close-knit community. That meant that my behaviour was easily found out – and no one likes to be called a slut, no matter how true it is – and that I was limited in my opportunities to go off the rails. Durham has some drugs, but in a very innocent way compared to a lot of unis. I am convinced that if I had gone to Leeds or Nottingham, with a big city culture and lots of ways to get into trouble, I would have been a drug addict within months. In fact, the sometimes irritatingly welfare-based nature of Durham saved me, and helped to put me back in charge of my life.

I gradually got better – I still have bad days, such as when after receiving particularly bad news about a relative, I started drinking at 10am and rounded it off by sleeping with a pseudo-ex who I knew was a prick. Occasionally I have panic attacks where I lose control, and if I’m struggling with something really huge, my gut always tells me to reach for the wine and the nearest penis. But by and large, this thing which dominated me for years – and which will always be a part of me – is now in the background, no longer  steering me. My personality has been irrevocably changed, but not necessarily in a bad way. Dealing with my rape has helped me to find a resolve and strength within myself that I had no idea of. And the self confidence that I now have is utterly different from the one I had at 18. Now it is quiet, determined, and in some strange way, very peaceful. I have a faith in myself that I can deal with anything, and it is that knowledge, more than anything else, that has helped me to regain my authorship.

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The original article

I thought I might as well include it, so you can see where it all began.


As I look back at my three years at Durham, there are some obvious things that have shaped my time here: DUCK, Palatinate, my course, my housemates. There’s one more too, that stayed hidden from view, but that defined my university experience perhaps more than any other.

It took an awfully long time for me to start talking about this. It wasn’t that I denied it – I knew it had happened. I remembered him raping me. But I didn’t realise for months that I had been raped. I thought of it as I thought of eating fish and chips, or getting off the bus. It was something that happened a while ago, nothing particularly out of the ordinary.

Similarly, my behaviour during the following two years was normal to me – I knew I’d acted unwisely, but I didn’t attribute it to what had happened in Malta, my euphemism for the violation, the only way I ever refer to it. On my gap year, and in first year, I spent my time thinking that I was in control. I was a sexually voracious girl, I decided who I slept with, I was in control of my body. I was refusing to be thought of as a ‘victim’. There was something deeply shameful – not about being raped – but about letting myself be affected by it. I was Strong. I was Resilient. I would not let him take more of myself from me than he already had.

Some of what I’ve just written will seem bizarre. This is not the reaction to rape that we all expect and understand. When we read true life stories in Cosmo, or come across rape information sites online, we hear of rape victims retreating into themselves, withdrawing from their friends and family, becoming terrified of men, in some cases going practically mute. This is the familiar discourse on rape. Mine was rather different.

An article on grief I came across recently pointed out that “the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you. Because, in effectively saying, ‘I’ve been stripped by this’, you’re telling the truth.” So I’m going to tell the truth. In November 2006, I was violently raped by the reception clerk of the hotel my mother and I were staying in. It devastated me. It made me feel powerless, and it made me afraid of men. I pretended it didn’t – I purposefully and idiotically strode down dark alleyways at night, and I slept my way around the world, even though it physically hurt every time. I was as outspoken as ever, and I drank like a fish. I cheated on my beloved boyfriend in spectacular fashion, and it took me two years to tell him why it had happened.

In all this, I felt utterly alone. I am a 21st century girl, and when I was dealing with this, my source of information was the Internet. It is appalling what is not online. The familiar discourse of withdrawing, of shying away from life – that was alien to me. The narrow way in which we expect women to deal with sexual abuse stifles further those who have had different experiences. Rape is not an act of sexual satisfaction; it is an act of violence and power. It is an attempt to subordinate women, to terrify them into silence. When we as a society then tell them how they must react – or worse, when we treat rape as a taboo topic that should be kept quiet – we silence them further.

I talked to my friends and my family about whether I should put my name at the top of this piece. I decided anonymity was not the way to go: I, and people who have been through similar experiences, have nothing to be ashamed of. Whilst I am far from proud of everything I have done, I am proud of how I have dealt with this: I sometimes still have physical pain when I have sex, but I am capable of having loving sex with someone I care about; I am capable of talking about my experiences, of acknowledging how they affected me. It is true that I am a victim of rape – but that does not define me. Now, I still don’t talk about it much – not because I am ashamed, but because it is not the sum total of who I am. It will always be with me, but then so will a lot of things. I am a rape victim, a dancer, an avid reader, an editor. I am many things, and that one dark cloud dominates me no more than any other.

Those people who suffer something as humiliating and painful as rape – and those who have gone through other traumas like physical abuse or even the death of a loved one – deserve the respect of being able to talk about their experiences without being shunned or subdued. Women who have been sexually abused are remarkable: yes, they are victims of rape. But far more importantly, they are survivors.

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Why this blog?

I have friends who blog. Sometimes, like everyone, I feel a desire to rant and put my words somewhere Out There, but mostly I always felt that blogs were pointless unless they dealt with more than the minutiae of daily life. So now I have something to write about, that I hope might help other people. And now I blog.

When I was 18, and working for a human rights charity on my gap year, I kept getting ill. And ill. And ill again. The doctors couldn’t figure it out, except that maybe I was exhausted – so they shipped me off to Malta with my mum to ‘convalesce’. Looking back, the irony strikes with the force of a sledgehammer. While I was out there, I would read in the lobby of the hotel at night so as not to keep my mum awake when I couldn’t sleep. On the first night, the hotel clerk was friendly, brought me a hot chocolate. On the second night, he was friendly again, and I was naive enough to accept his invitation to have my hot chocolate in his office, where he raped me.

That’s the bare bones of the story. But the interesting bit is what follows – the revelatory stuff in life isn’t necessarily the traumas or the achievements themselves, but how we choose to deal with them after the fact. I didn’t think about ‘Malta’ – how I now refer to the rape – for months. Not once. I didn’t tell anyone for about 16 months. Then it started to gradually come out in trickles. And perhaps the proudest achievement of my life was the first time I really got up the courage to discuss it publically, in an article I wrote for the final edition of Palatinate, the Durham University student newspaper, in the year I graduated. That started what this will hopefully continue – talking about different reactions to trauma, and widening common conceptions of how we deal with rape.

“I’ve been stripped by this…”

The title of my blog comes from an excerpt of an article from The Independent that first inspired my article, and that I still think about every day. In a piece about grief, the wise Phillip Hodson was recorded saying “”In fact, the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you. Because, in effectively saying, ‘I’ve been stripped by this’, you’re telling the truth.”

The rape stripped me to the core. And it’s taken years, but I’m finally in a place where I can start talking about it. It’s important we talk about it, too. After my article appeared in Palatinate, girls I had never heard of or spoken to humbled me by emailing me and trusting me with their stories. For some, it was the first time they had told anyone what they’d been through. The first time you say the words out loud “I was raped…”, or put them on paper, or on screen, is a turning point in starting to face the experience, and I was so honoured to have been allowed to be a part of that process. My hope is that this blog will help to heal others too.

It won’t be utterly depressing though – I don’t have frequent enough revelations for this to be a totally rape-based blog, plus it’s important that all survivors of rape aren’t just that. There is more to me than what happened four years ago in Malta. So apologies, but the occasional rant about the scarcity of publishing jobs or my excitement over going to the Singalong Sound of Music might slip in occasionally.

And finally – just because I adore it – another quote from Phillip Hodgson: “After all, all tears end with a shudder of relief.”

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