Closing the Distance: My experience with sexual assault

By Ryann McMurry || Contributing Writer

I am proud of my analytical mind. I am an excellent rationalizer, interpreter, justifier, compartmentalizer. I am not as excellent with emotions. Everything from the dynamics of my relationships to my Myers-Briggs profile supports this thesis. When my friends reach out to me with tears it is always a struggle, because it is fundamentally different than how I process. I require a mental and emotional step back, looking at my own life often through a third party perspective.

I thrive on this distance. If you don’t wholly invest in something, you can always escape unscathed. You can never be truly disappointed, truly mocked, truly angered, or truly hurt.

After I was attacked, I put my clothes on and left.

I didn’t scream, I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel it at all.

In 6th grade my Girl Scout troop took a self-defense class. I remember being excited we got to go in the gym at nighttime. A beautifully child-like thrill to focus on the midst of a very adult circumstance. I remember so vividly lying on that cold floor, waiting for the guy costumed in pads like the Michelin Man to come to me. I was one of the more athletic in the group and I had picked up the drills of the nose-breaking punch and the knee to the groin with ease. My mentality was something along the lines of, “Come at me, let me show you what I’ve got.” I got a high-five after successfully ‘incapacitating’ the nice dad who volunteered to help us out that night. Sweet, I am so not getting raped.

“Getting raped” is a fascinating turn of phrase. The passivity is remarkable. It is something you receive. Like “raped” is something you are diagnosed with. Now I could go on for hours, days, years about how sickening it is that Boy Scouts are canoeing and lighting stuff on fire while Girls Scouts are getting a workshop on how not to get raped. I can’t remember if we got a badge for it.

My experience wasn’t quite as clean cut as what I learned when I was 12. Dancing with my friends, handed a drink, beginning to feel groggy, blank space, hit my head, blank space, can’t find my friends, blank space, forced into a cab, blank space, saying no, blank. It wasn’t a man in a ski mask. I didn’t have an unclouded moment to decide between the defense mechanisms we learned. The lines were blurred without my consent. (I hope you enjoy my empowered reappropriation of Robin Thicke’s infuriating lyrics.)

Six hours after I was attacked, I went on a free walking tour of Barcelona. I took pictures, got coffee, and laughed with my friends as we relentlessly ridiculed our senseless guide with the sardonic wit that I have honed as my primary mode of communication for years.

You often hear that after trauma, the scars are internal. I felt as if the exact opposite had happened to me. I have a physical scar from that night, in fact I was in horrible shape, but felt nothing on the inside. Eventually the bruises healed, the concussion passed, but one scar persisted. It has been a part of me since October 25, an element of my anatomical makeup that will not fade or evanesce.

I am a student of gender politics. Just as most F&M seniors focused in any field could say respectively, I am well versed in the intricacies of my discourse. I’ve read more memoirs of powerful activists, gender theory, and women’s literature than your average 22-year-old. I am grateful for my education, and derive a great deal of personal dignity from this adeptness.

To feel that you grasp the dynamics of something like rape and discuss it on such a complex, analytical level consistently, allows for a distance between you and the subject. You and the act. I simultaneously understood so much about it, and nothing at all. I fell into habit, clung to the facts and allowed them to encapsulate my experience.

“Rape is not aggressive sexuality, it is sexualized aggression.” -Audre Lorde

“Rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” -Susan Brownmiller

“Politically, I call it rape whenever a woman has sex and feels violated.” -Catherine MacKinnon

Great- I understand what happened to me now. Analysis complete. File it in the unmarked folder of experiences we don’t want to access.

This worked effectively for the last 6 months, but that persistent external scar endured. My mind had moved on, why couldn’t my body? How do I compartmentalize a scar? How do I erase this permanent
impression?

Last night was Take Back the Night, and it was absolutely incredible. Hundreds of students came out, I didn’t trip over my words introducing President Porterfield, and Sister Outsider blew the roof off Mayser with a hefty dose of beautifully crafted, eloquently delivered, feminist real talk. My experience flickered in and out of my head, but was silenced by the logistics of the event running smoothly.

Tonight, in the shower I felt my scar. Something swept over me and I felt a great anxiety, like I was in the ocean watching a wave climb before me. As quickly as it onset it crashed down, my knees went weak and I sunk to the floor. I have no memory of crying like that ever before. A sadness came from somewhere deep and there was no stopping it once it emerged.

I had no idea the gravity of what I had been carrying. The residuals of violation. The anger ignited. The subconscious effects of powerlessness. The shame and blame for allowing it to happen to me when I thought I knew so much better. The shame for blaming myself when I knew I knew better. The realizations fall heavy on these pages. One thing is for certain: My compartments weren’t sufficient tonight, and the scar had its turn to speak.

As I sit here at 4 a.m., starkly awake despite an incredibly exhausting week, I realize there is no preparation sufficient.

Whether it is taking a class in self-defense or learning the specifics of rape culture in the classroom, there are no exemptions. No feminist free-pass. That is because in the end, it isn’t about me. It isn’t about anyone who survives sexual assault. What a startling and sobering lack of agency.

I am not offering a solution. I am offering a voice.

This started as a journal entry, an attempt to verbalize feelings from someone who has difficulty accessing them within herself. It ended as an article. What may have already been forgotten by the perpetrator I will own forever, and I will continue to define in my own words. I choose to assume agency by adding my perspective to the discourse. I am exhilarated to find choice in an experience that is defined by the lack of it. That is what hundreds F&M students did as they marched across Hartman Green at Take Back the Night. There is power in analysis, but there is also power in feeling. There is courage in vulnerability. There is strength in authenticity.

I choose to take a step forward, closing the distance between my emotions and myself. To expose and embrace the extremes. I fully commit to talking about it until something changes. Until then, prepare to hear a lot of my voice.

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