The shape of a memory: surviving sexual abuse outside the bounds of rationality

I don’t remember the first time I was raped, but I know it happened.

I don’t recall when the memory was lost. I can’t answer #WhyIDidntReport.

I do recall remembering exactly what happened, in re-traumatizingly clear detail, two years later: in the middle of an assembly at school on reporting sexual abuse. And then, I did report. Loudly. In the form of a high-pitched yet guttural scream that seemed to have gathered strength from the time the memory sat dormant in my brain.

Around me, other children–other girls, as far as my ten year old self could tell–had also begun to cry (although none quite so spectacularly as I, unfortunately for my social life). The administration at my private Christian school created an after-school support group for all of us. It lasted for six months or so before either they or we decided it wasn’t worth the effort, wasn’t worth re-dredging up our memories over and over with no real resolution. So eventually I forgot, again. At least, I thought I did. But I never really forgot.

I went through a tumultuous adolescence marked with mental instability, self-destructive behavior, and questionable relationships with men and masculine-identified folks. Standard survivor fare; I won’t bore you with those details. What I will say about that time is that I never fully recovered the memory again. I recovered more of it. For instance, during a particularly intense overnight therapy session at a residential treatment facility when I was sixteen, I remembered again where the rape took place, and I remembered penetration. But still, the full awareness of it was, mercifully, kept from me by my psyche.

When I was nineteen I was raped again, and I remember everything about it. It destroyed me, psychologically, but it didn’t reveal the memory of what happened when I was eight. It did, however, induce all sorts of PTSD and dissociative identity issues that forced me to confront my unprocessed trauma. I went into intensive therapy with EMDR, a course that lasted for about seven years. I managed to reintegrate myself, despite not having access to the actual memory of what occurred when I was eight.

Even without details, I can see the shape of the memory. Bordering the gnawing, gaping gaps in the record, there are some clear lines. I remember my excitement over an older white boy thinking this ugly Black duckling was pretty. How good that felt after the years of bullying and torment I endured. How cool I thought I was when we hung out on the jungle gym and flipped other kids off. Him calling me at my house: me, giggling, my mom, hearing me, asking who I was talking to.

And I remember…a nonlinear empty space. (And something involving the lunch tables, something involving something of his inside something of mine. I don’t try to pin down specifics; I truly consider it a gift that I can’t recall what happened anymore.)

Then, I remember my head down in my folded arms after school, crying. A note from him in my third grade yearbook that I think said something about how ugly my hairy armpits were but I could never tell because I scratched it out immediately after I first read it. My grades dropping, my interest in life degrading; partially because I’m not a fan of standardized education, but mainly because my mind was occupied with blaming myself for whatever happened in that empty space. And later, of course, there is the aforementioned mental instability.

What have I learned from this culture about survivorhood and memory? From watching season after season of SVU, from watching now two women in my lifetime testify that a potential Supreme Court justice sexually assaulted them, from the Mike Tyson trial, the Cosby trial, the Very Special Episodes of various sitcoms and dramas? What is important, when you are raped, after a rape? Remember as much detail as you can. (Remember, even, what you were wearing.) Remember not to take a shower, so your body can remember what they left on you, and you can prove this has happened. Remember to try to leave some memory of yourself on them, a scratch, some DNA, some irrefutable scientific proof. And if you can’t? If you didn’t? If your brain’s split-second decision when it realized you were under threat was to shift you into a different state of consciousness while the trauma occurs so you cannot remember the trauma outside of that state? If instead of smells and sounds and sensations there’s just an ominous void where a part of your childhood should be?

What can you do when you’re doomed to know, but never remember?

It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I am a survivor of childhood rape. In fact, I didn’t come to terms with it fully until I was raped again. Part of the reason I had difficulty in validating my experience has to do with the importance memory holds in legitimizing one’s status as a survivor, which in turn derives from a cisheteropatriarchal, white supremacist prioritization of the rational and material over the emotional and the spiritual.

When it comes to sharing experiences of rape, we love details; we love when someone’s juicy underbelly of trauma is served up raw for the re-devouring. Narrative structure is important, too. (Make sure it fits the range of acceptable assaults. Make sure you’re weren’t fucking them consensually first or laughing with them first or drinking with them first or flirting with them first. Make sure you’re white, nondisabled, cishet, thin, and attractive.) If you’ve got physical evidence, bruises, bleeding, we’ll of course take those, maybe rub some salt in those wounds for good measure. And you’ve always got to have the corroborating witnesses, preferably of the highest caliber (so not your drunk ex-BFF who’s consensually banging her boyfriend in an adjacent hotel bed and oblivious to your screams).

But when you just straight can’t remember? When your evidence consists solely of a promising life dashed upon the rocks and an empty space? There’s no empowerment to be found there. No statute of limitations to beat out. Neither our society’s system of justice nor the current pop cultural/political moment occurring around sexual assault readily accommodate the slippery nature of trauma memory.

I’m reminded of the difficulty I had in claiming a political identity as a survivor now, in this moment of #MeToo reckoning, with the development of newer hashtags such as #WhyIDidntReport. So many of our methods of personal resistance against rape culture focus on storytelling, splaying your experiential guts onto a screen of various sizes as a form of empowerment. I do absolutely support survivors who want to tell their stories. But as someone who doesn’t particularly want to feed more bodies to the prison industrial complex, and as someone who remembers the name of their rapist but no details in one instance and a bunch of details but no name in the other, I haven’t participated. What would I say? I keep looking out on my feeds to see if any of the stories resemble mine, an empty space; none so far yet.

The confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh was re-traumatizing for me, as it was for so many other survivors. In my case, it stirred up some latent feelings of inauthenticity. In Dr. Ford’s testimony, she leaned on the Western medical-scientific view of memory as primary in determining legitimacy as a survivor, basically stating that she knew she was assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh because of how traumatic memories encode themselves in the hippocampus. I know I was raped because of how the memory encoded itself into everything else in my life. Could I testify, if my childhood rapist were somehow nominated to some public position? Could I sit in front of that kangaroo court and try to plead my broken life against my rapist’s hippocampus?

(This is one reason why I’m an abolitionist. I don’t believe our current paradigm of justice can account for all the ways one can testify. My testimony is embodied, and so my vision of feminist justice involves a de-centering of narrative testimony, particularly when it comes to rape and sexual assault.)

Our (U.S.) society associates forms of knowledge gleaned outside a rational-scientific framework with femininity and Otherness, thus rendering them inferior in a cisheteropatriarchal white supremacist context. Our society is also a rape culture, and so no amount of remembering in perfect detail will ensure that a rapist is brought to what passes for justice here. So why should I, or you, dredge up our trauma on demand and offer it to an uncaring society with no guarantee of return on our investment? Why prop up the idea that a survivor’s memory is ever worth anything under heterosexist patriarchy?

Again, I don’t want to discourage survivors from telling their stories. I only want us to consider what we accomplish, who is excluded when we emphasize this tactic, and what ideas we’re reifying. Even in the best of circumstances memory can be unreliable, and constructing a homogeneous experience of survivorhood is impossible. There are survivors who remember every last detail, who know but cannot remember, whose memories are completely intact but organized nonlinearly, and whose understanding of themselves as having experienced sexual assault is shaped by the impression the event had on their life rather than any recollection of vivid details of the assault. Some of us contain all these and more. A feminist survivors’ movement must de-center the rational-scientific paradigm and consider all the ways we can know we were harmed, or risk perpetuating cisheteropatriarchal oppression.

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