A PIERCE OF ANGELS
Light airs! Light airs! A pierce of angels! Theodore Roethke
…it is not the skill of the hand / That writes poetry, but water, trees, / And the sky which is clear to us even though it’s dark. Czeslaw Milosz
I was torn between the desire to show how well I was dealing with things and the imperative to show that I was not O.K., that this man’s actions had derailed my life in a thousand ways. Rebecca Makkai
Each time, Greta recreates her grief from scratch. There is no mercy for time served. She bobs to the surface like some stupid laughing doll.
Well, what did he know? How many times had he been raped? Greta could tell him that you went numb and left your body to float somewhere near the sparkly sprayed-on ceiling. That way, you weren’t really there. But afterwards, your body bled and bruised. You hit your head against the wall to shake out thoughts: how you wanted to die, how you should die.
Then, two days later, you walked around as if you were just like everyone else: worried about exams and what you were going to be when you grew up. Greta could also tell him you were never the same. The rapist coiled inside like a snake, and no matter how many times you made love because you chose to, the rapist had always been there first.
This is one more narrative about a young woman, a child really, trying to navigate a fucked-up predatory world. I dream I’m in some kind of ceremony where I am free to shout at the top of my lungs as I’ve never shouted in my life. Girls aren’t supposed to shout.
With rape, I see this again and again. The girl (Greta) marches off bravely to her rape, although of course she never anticipates that’s what she’s marching off to. During the assault, she hunkers down, hoping not to be injured or killed or even to offend. Either she doesn’t tell anyone because she’s so ashamed or she tells lots of people. They say (a) it didn’t happen, (b) what happened wasn’t rape, (c) he used the oldest ruse in the book, or (d) girls are meant to be raped.
All I ever wanted was to be a forest bodhisattva. Writing about rape, my own and that of one of four girls and one in six boys before we reach eighteen, I feel empty, like death. If my partner or a friend turns away for one instant, I feel abandoned.
As a child, I wasn’t safe. When I was in elementary school, a houseguest fondled me. When I told the family friend who brought that guest, he told me that men did that. Then he started in too.
My college was a predator’s playground. Many male faculty members, single or married, had relationships with students. While writing this, I called four of those faculty members I most trusted, even revered. What they said was off the record, I assured them. I just wanted to know their thoughts. One asked, “Do you think it hurts students to have affairs with married faculty members?”
As I headed off to college, the man who molested me as I was growing up asked, “Do you think what I did hurt you or damaged you?”
Of course not, I assured him.
And I believed it.
Turns out the professor who asked whether affairs hurt students fathered a child with one. He refused to acknowledge her pregnancy. Later, the son turned up on campus to confront his father. They looked like twins.
Many who are assaulted don’t blame the assailant. We blame ourselves. There’s something wrong with me, I thought as a child, as a teen.
Though for the years I counseled survivors of rape and assault, never once did I blame the woman. Or the girl.
When I arrived at college, I was still a child. Although I believed myself ancient and wise, able to handle anything, I knew little about the world. My confidants were my journals and books. I felt and still feel safest surrounded by wilderness and the calls of wild creatures. After I was assaulted on campus, lacking loving mirrors, I failed to comprehend how severely I was injured. Predators stalk easy prey.
The male plot line in so many novels and stories: I saw her. She wanted me. I fucked her. She loved it.
My plot line: when walking in the forest or writing, I feel the best or almost the best that I ever feel. Time vanishes. Writing is anesthesia. The forest heals.
At first, I could only write about being raped if I used third person. Sometimes, to further distance myself, I wrote third person in Spanish. I was ashamed to admit I was so incredibly naive. When my college work-study supervisor asked if I was interested in art modeling, I was flattered. The wage he quoted was three times what I earned baby-sitting for professors, waking at dawn to serve bacon and eggs in the campus food service, or collating and stapling course materials in the print shop.
My roommate modeled for the art department. I was already jealous. She must be prettier than I and certainly sexier; she had a boyfriend, and I did not. When I told her I didn’t want a boyfriend, that I came to college to learn, she told me I needed to surrender. But when she and her boyfriend had sex a few feet from my head in our tiny shared dorm room, it didn’t sound fun. I’d rather be buried in a pile of books, reading my way through the nights.
“Boring,” my roommate said. “Posing in the art department? So fucking boring.”
I heard about classmates jumping from windows. As our dorms were only four stories high, I wondered how they died. I became obsessed with literary suicides. I read journals and letters of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. I was angry they died instead of sharing secrets for survival. Assigned a literary biography for a class, I dressed as Virginia Woolf and reported her life story as if it were my own. The prof asked me to stay after class. He said the presentation was brilliant. “If you ever need a rec, come to me,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant and was too shy to ask.
I wrote my research paper on the Artist as Madwoman. Plath and Woolf again. A+ on that one.
Six years ago, graduates from my college were invited to participate in something called the Memory Project. The four editors, two of whom I knew, provided prompts: Who were you when you were a student? Who were your friends, enemies, or nemeses? What was the craziest, funniest, or most memorable event from your college years? What were the most important themes of your studies and the most valuable skills gained from your undergraduate experience?
Describe a pivotal learning moment.
“Expect classmates to respond to your story from their memories and version of events, which will also become part of the public record,” the invitation concluded.
Although grateful to attend college at all, I’d never felt much affection for my alma mater. As I responded to the prompts, I found myself waking at three in the morning frozen in terror. At random moments, I would cry. When I called those four professors, the ones I’d trusted most, I learned our campus was much darker than I’d known, and that few had perfectly clean hands.
All four assured me I must share my memories. “I’m glad you’re finding closure,” one said.
After I was assaulted, I rode my bicycle to a remote cottage maintained by the college. With a blue fountain pen, I filled a spiral notebook with self-blame. I began with, “how can I live after this?” I ended with a poem about mosses, which I was studying in botany class. After being crushed underfoot, I wrote, moss springs back.
I wrote about Greta. I wrote in Spanish. I wrote in third person.
Although devastated, Greta was strong.
When I sent my pages to the Memory Project coordinators, one responded that my contribution reminded him of our “attempts to find freedom and joy to replace fear and coercion.” Then, a few days before I was to set off to share my piece with other contributors, I received a call from someone I’d never met: the new college dean.
“I have bad news for you,” he said. “Your piece can’t be included in the Memory Project.” He’d showed my contribution to university counsel, he said. They said it could be libel. “Maybe you don’t care about that,” he said.
“The rape?” I asked. “Or the student who harassed me afterward?” I pointed out I’d written only in the most general terms. I’d used no names or identifying details. As for the student who pounded on my dorm room door afterward, shouting that I was a whore and should fuck him too? He’d dropped out of school, only to later confess he and his roommate had placed bets on whether they could get me to kill myself.
“I’m asking you to withdraw your piece,” the dean said. “I don’t want to be discriminatory, but if you don’t pull yours, the Memory Project can’t go forward.”
As I’d already made reservations for the event at my college, I headed north with my husband and our ailing collie. We parked a few feet away from where the assault began. My collie peed on the very spot.
The dean and others gave speeches about why alums should donate financially to the college.
“Rape isn’t good for fund-raising,” my husband whispered.
A student of color described how the college had empowered her. I wondered if she was safe. In the restroom, stacks of poppy-colored cards listed nine places to contact “if you experience sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, or other sexual misconduct.”
Later, sleeping in our rented room, I awoke gasping, as though a gigantic foot was planted on my chest.
Jonathan Shay writes that Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is a kind of moral injury, a “betrayal of what’s right in a high-stakes situation by someone who holds power.” Traumatic memory enters the body and “stays there forever, initiating a complex chemical process that not only changes the physiology of the victims, but the physiology of their offspring.”
Hortense Calisher says, “Speaking out loud is an antidote to shame.” Nancy Mairs disagrees. “I know the rules of polite discourse,” Mairs writes. “I should have kept my shame, and the nearly lethal sense of isolation and alienation it brought, to myself.” Dorothy Allison describes how she tried to kill herself, because erasing the self meant erasing the shame.
Yearning to die, writes bell hooks, is about a “longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill the self in writing.”
“If every cell / inside my brain / is replaced // after seven years, / then why can’t I excise this,” writes Cathy Linh Che.
“I am a savant of survivor mode,” writes Jessica Knoll.
I wore a baggy brown dress I’d sewed myself. I was scheduled to meet my work-study supervisor in the dorm parking lot at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. It was April 9th, my mother’s birthday. In my teenaged cocoon of magical thinking, four details rendered me safe: Nothing bad could happen at ten-thirty in the morning. Nothing bad could happen on my mother’s birthday. A baggy brown dress rendered me sexless. My work-study supervisor was a college employee.
Also: Tuition had just tripled. My savings from high school and college jobs were nearly gone. If I couldn’t make tuition, I’d have to drop out.
As a counselor/advocate for rape and assault survivors, I heard my own story from an eighteen-year-old first raped at eleven. She described how the man tossed a bill onto her bare belly. Another was later murdered. Many said they needed money to put themselves through college or to support their extended family.
When my former classmate called to confess his roommate’s plot to make me commit suicide, I laughed. Or maybe Greta laughed. “You picked the toughest person in the school,” I said. I had other things to do. A life to live. I wasn’t going to let him or anyone derail my life. I didn’t yet know derailing can happen in other, subtler ways. I wanted the rape never to have happened. My solution was to devote myself to healing everyone else.
My husband wondered why I engaged with the Memory Project at all. “The invitation says we’re going to have a dialogue,” I said. I wanted to share my experiences with the people who’d been there. Maybe my story would help someone else.
As naïve as confiding in my former mentors turned out to be, even more naïve was my belief that someone might want to get to the bottom of what happened when a college employee used his position to lure young work-study students, already in need of funds to attend college, into danger. Because I’d also learned that I was not the only one.
Five months after the alumni event, while washing dishes in my sink, I overheard an NPR news clip. My alma mater was the subject of a federal investigation for Title IX Civil Rights violations. In April, shortly before the new dean’s call to head me off, a local news source had announced the investigation for failure to respond appropriately to reports of campus sexual abuse. If one of five women is assaulted on campus, the news source stated, that meant four hundred assaults on my former campus each year.
In the preceding three years, the report continued, only twelve reports were filed. Of those, three resulted in disciplinary action.
The school was further accused of silencing survivors of sexual violence by dismissing their cases. When one contacted a campus office listed on the poppy-colored card, they were told (by a man) that crying, going numb, or being silent did not mean that what happened was rape. Another had to face her assailant when she walked into her first seminar the next academic year. According to the local news source, the young man saw himself as the victim.
While serving as counselor/advocate for survivors, only three of fifty women I met with in a two-year span chose to contact the police. I was courtroom advocate for one of the rare cases that went all the way to court. The fifteen-year-old was badly beaten as well as sexually assaulted. As I saw it, the defense attorney objected to almost anything asked of the defendant, while the young woman was questioned endlessly. Why did she go into the house with him? How was she dressed? Was she a virgin? How many other men had she slept with? Did she lead him on?
Only two jury members were women. After the assailant was found innocent, I asked one why she voted for acquittal. “Who hasn’t been knocked around a bit?” she asked.
As a college student, I helped start a women’s group. One night someone suggested we each describe how we lost our virginity. Maybe I was still working msyelf around to sharing what had happened to me, but at the last minute, I dodged. I described not the rape, but my first voluntary sexual experience a year later. I did learn, though, that of nine smart, ambitious young women, only one described her first experience as positive. I envied her. She was my age yet absolutely confident about her sexuality, her right to occupy her own body, and to use that body as she chose.
I still have my spiral notebook filled with self-blame. For years afterward, through helping others, I sought to dispel my horror. “Conquering the rapist,” my psychiatrist called it. I want survivors to tell their stories and be heard, to speak out with courage and strength. I enjoy my alma mater’s prize-winning magazine featuring campus programs. Yet amidst the smiling faces and world-class accomplishments, I’ve never read a single reference about how to address campus assaults. I get it. Rape isn’t good for fund-raising. Neither is hiding the truth that adversely impacts students’ lives.
KC Pedersen’s writing appears in numerous journals and includes nominations for the Pushcart and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. More of Pedersen’s writing can be found at www.kiriepedersen.com
Cover Design by Karen Rile