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.