Category Archives: Sexual Abuse

Published by Women Writers, Women’s Books – Memoir: You Gotta Feel To Heal

Not long ago, I wrote a piece for Women Writers, Woman’s Books, an online literary magazine. This request coincided with the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the emerging #metoo movement. It was perfect timing because I had recently finished writing the rape chapter in my memoir (still in progress). I have included an excerpt and a link to read the full essay.

EXCERPT:

Healing Begins
Once I began writing, I couldn’t stop. It was as if my wounded teenage self—who yearned for healing—guided my fingers like a magical puppeteer. I began writing the hardest material first: the rape I experienced as a 15-year-old virgin. Then I tackled the knifepoint abduction that occurred a month after the sexual assault.

Examined Every Detail
Completing the rape chapter took a whole winter and multiple revisions. I examined every buried detail from that night: my rapist’s smell and threats, the way the room looked, the physical pain, his shaming comments when he felt he’d been cheated because I didn’t bleed.  It also took a long time for me to realize that I had been raped—my definition of “rape” had always involved being jumped and beaten by a stranger in a dark alley, but I had known my 19-year-old abuser.

It Wasn’t my Fault
My shift in perception—realizing that I’d been raped and it wasn’t my fault—didn’t begin until my 92-year-old mother helped me relive the experience. It was as if she was leading a blind person through a minefield. Once the details were on the page, I realized I wouldn’t hesitate to call it rape if the scenario involved my own daughter. In fact, I would have delighted in stringing the perpetrator up by his balls and beating the crap out of him. For over forty years, I had recalled the abuse with my naïve 15-year-old memories of guilt and shame. It took my mother’s guidance, much reflection, and many revisions to stop blaming myself.

I Blamed the Victim
After reading about the recent scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, I was amazed (almost vindicated) that one of his accusers internalized her experience in the same way that I had.  Lucia Evans told The New Yorker, “I just put it in a part of my brain and closed the door. It was always my fault for not stopping him. I had an eating problem for years. I was disgusted with myself.  It’s funny, all these unrelated things I did to hurt myself because of this one thing.” Like Evans, I blamed myself, the victim, instead of blaming the perpetrator—probably like millions of women all over the world who have been assaulted. Evans opened her door by coming forward. I opened mine by writing.

As do many sexual abuse victims, I silently blamed myself for my rape. I now realize that the subconscious guilt and shame I felt colored many of my life choices and decisions. I wonder what the years may have looked like had my rape not occurred. Would I have picked different partners? Would I be in a long-term loving relationship today?  I’ll never know.

 

 

 

 

 

How a Coworker Hurt My Feelings

One of my coworkers is a middle-aged screenwriter, a former sports editor, and a nice enough guy with a dry sense of humor and sarcastic wit. Let’s call him Ben. Great life, great wife. You know the type. During the fifteen years that we’ve worked out of the same branch office, we’ve chatted a number of times. When I began writing my memoir, I approached him for his take on the whole writing thing.

We sat in the lobby of our office building, a crown of skylights overhead, cool ceramic tile floor at our feet, and rays of sunlight streaming in on the leather couch where we sat. Ben had just read an early draft of my essay “A Lousy Lay,” which is about being raped as a fifteen-year-old virgin and will eventually become a chapter in my book-length memoir. I was anxious to hear if he thought I had potential as a writer.

Ben looked directly into my eyes, as if he was seeing me for the first time. He said, in a seriously concerned voice, “Have you had therapy for this?” It wasn’t his words that hurt but the way that he looked at me—not so much with pity but as if I was the victim of a debilitating internal burn, like I was permanently scarred on the inside. His eyes showed me how “normal” people view those of us who have experienced violent trauma and messy pasts.

Or was it just my imagined perception, filtered through a thin veil of shame, that made me see it that way? Regardless, I was embarrassed by his concern. I had never felt like a victim; if anything, I blamed myself for the rape. My ego didn’t want his pity—or was it compassion? I couldn’t tell. I felt like I had scabies. I wanted to say, “Oh no, it’s not contagious. I’m OK. What you read on the page, that thing, it didn’t really hurt me.”

Ben didn’t know that I had been unable to see the truth until I put my words onto the page. Through writing, I let go of the lies my emotions had told me and I finally saw the raw facts about the rape. Once I started writing, I saw that shame had been hovering in my subconscious, influencing many of my life decisions.

Over the following months, I wondered why my feelings about that conversation kept nagging at me. Eventually, I realized that what I’d seen in Ben’s eyes was true: I had been scarred by my rape. Anyone would have been. I just didn’t want to admit it.

For decades after the rape, my egocentric mind kept saying, “No, I’ve got this.” I’d pressed on with my life, proving to everyone else—and to myself—that I was OK. I’ve had a lot of success, and on the surface, it seems as if I’ve always had my life together. That’s the image I’ve presented to the world. But I saw from Ben’s look that he had a different assessment.

I assured him that of course I’ve had therapy. “You know,” I said, “it was 43 years ago.” But I didn’t tell him that my therapy had been for the other difficult stuff that I’d experienced, not for the rape. How could I? I already felt like a freak.

Months later, I consulted with Ben again, this time about starting a blog. He agreed that it was a great idea for a new writer to build a following, and he shared one of his favorite blogs with me. It was raw, funny, and slightly vulgar. Weeks earlier, he had read another piece I had written; it was also in a funny, vulgar vein but not a part of my memoir. He said, “You can call your new blog My Crazy Fucked Up Life!”

My immediate thought was, “Ouch.” The next thought was, “You don’t get it. It’s My Beautiful Fucked Up Life.” It’s because of all the shit, the muck, the sludge that I am who I am. Not because I survived it, but because I somehow emerged from it with compassion for myself and others who are seemingly damaged goods. My wonderful mom said it best: “From cesspools and slimy things come beautiful flowers.

 

Why I Gained 20 Pounds While Writing My Memoir

Monica Against Wall

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I’m pretty much an open book. That’s what I thought, too—until I started writing my memoir.

I’ve told my kids many crazy, entertaining stories from my past, but I’ve also told them about some of the bad things that happened to me when I was a teen. Initially, it was my daughter who urged me to write my memoir. I have kept a journal on and off since I was twelve, and I’d published some industry papers in my entrepreneurial years, but never had I considered writing a book, least of all a memoir. Even so, my daughter insisted that my life would make fascinating reading. I thought, how hard can it be?

I began writing and almost immediately felt an urge, like the bearing-down pains of childbirth. This story wanted—needed—to come out, and nothing was going to stop it. As I wrote, I discovered that some memories stay buried for a reason.

I had been working on the memoir for almost a year when, through a series of seemingly unrelated events, I happened upon a developmental editor, Signe Jorgenson, who earned her master’s degree in Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up and where much of my memoir is based. She lived there many years after the wild oil boom that was the backdrop for my eventful childhood and teenage years, but she had heard the stories.

I’d been told that if I wanted to publish my memoir, I should create a few standalone pieces and submit them to magazines and literary journals so I could accumulate some publishing credits and develop an audience for my work. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this, so I sent my editor one of the more difficult and painful chapters, the one about the 1972 rape that I had kept secret for fifteen years, and worked with her to turn it into an essay.

Working on the essay was like therapy, only deeper. I did about five revisions, each of which was met with six or more pages of developmental notes and a corresponding annotated version of my manuscript. I once asked my editor if she had a background in psychotherapy. She didn’t, but because of her training and years of teaching writing, she knew the deeper questions to ask. An example: When I wrote, “I hung my head in shame,” she asked me to write about why I was feeling shame. Strangely enough, the why had never occurred to me. Deeper and deeper I dug, uncovering memories that I had buried in my subconscious for decades.

My meditation practice, spiritual connection, family, and recovery friends were not enough to get me through this process. I quit drinking thirty-three years ago and I don’t take medications. Instead, I ate many, many times when I wasn’t physically hungry while working on this essay. I knew what I was doing as I sat on the couch with a fat bag of chips, temporarily numbing my pain, but I did it anyway. I would tell myself, “It’s OK. You’ll get a handle on the eating and lose the twenty pounds when you finish the essay.”

Memories are funny things. When I began writing about my rape, I still felt the shame and guilt I had felt when I was a fifteen-year-old girl. I was transported back to that time and place, and to that mindset. I would write my memories and then talk them over with my sweet 91-year-old mom, then write some more. Once I had it all on paper, every single detail of that night, from what the room looked like to the way my rapist smelled and the words he used to shame me, my mom walked me through it from an adult’s perspective.

Gradually, I began to see the rape with my grown-up mind and not my fifteen-year-old feelings. I discovered that I had never directed the blame, rage, and judgment toward the perpetrator. I had placed it all on myself, the victim.

I doubt that I will ever mend completely, but the writing and revision processes have allowed me to gain a much deeper level of healing. I’ve also found compassion for the fifteen-year-old girl who was forced to grow up way too fast.

Now I’m at work on another essay, this one about an abduction attempt that occurred just months after I was raped. I’m going through that same process of mining my memories and reconciling my teenage perspective with my adult understanding. But this time, I am not eating my way through it.