Almost ten years ago, when I was in college, I was raped by a stranger. They never found out who did it. It took me several years and some poor choices before I got over the experience, but I believe that I am now fully recovered not especially afraid or angry, and no more flashbacks. In fact, I rarely think about it. And even if—despite all the evidence, including my terrific marriage—I am not fully recovered, it is not something I choose to discuss unless I have a good reason, such as helping another person.
I especially don’t choose to discuss it with my friend “Maggie,” but she keeps raising the subject. She must have done this a dozen times in the past year. Sometimes she comes at it sideways by working it into the conversation—like when she asks me whether I think my own experience colored my response to sexual violence in a news story, or a book our group just read, or a TV show. (Game of Thrones has been a treasure trove for her.) Other times she is more direct. She will ask me to talk about the rape or its aftermath, and when I tell her I won’t she says stuff like that she is “puzzled and troubled” that I shy away from the topic, and wishes I would open up to her.
I always make it clear that the subject is off limits. At this point she will either shake her head—with this really annoying sad, knowing expression—and acquiesce. Until the next time! Or she will remind me that she is a therapist and say that she knows she could help if I would only let her.
Getting Maggie out of my life is not really an option. We work in the same hospital, and she is engaged to my brother and pretty much part of the family these days. (I introduced them, which I am coming to regret.) Besides, we have had many good times together and I do value many other aspects of our friendship.
So what should I do?
—Closed in Cleveland.
Rarely have I been more tempted to say: “Oh, just go ahead and punch her lights out.” But I doubt if that would work. With your luck, she’d probably go all wise and understanding on you. I can see her standing there, holding one or more bags of frozen peas against her face and trying not to gloat while she explains that your issues are even more serious than she’d thought.
Besides, it would be wrong. Much as we might like to, we can’t go around rearranging the faces of our friends, especially friends who are brides- and relatives- to-be. Next thing you know we’d be brawling in the streets, or tossing paper towels at desperate hurricane victims.
You do have to be firm, though. Unless you’ve left out something important—like that you frequently vomit or hyperventilate or turn to drugs in response to a host of triggers, or that you have never actually discussed what happened to you with anybody, ever—it sounds as though you are indeed doing just fine without outside assistance. And even if you could benefit from he services of, say, a therapist, Maggie should not be among your top 100,000 choices, given that she is your personal friend, will soon become your sister-in-law, and has been raising the topic of your sexual assault in completely tone-deaf, officious, and borderline creepy ways.
There should be a special little anteroom in purgatory for people who persist in offering unwanted and unnecessary “help,” leaving their targets no choice but to give in or face a series of unpleasant encounters. Maggie must be stopped.
Since you have already made it clear that you do not want her “help,” you are going to have to ratchet things up a notch. I suggest that you take the initiative here. Raise the subject yourself, but only to tell her that if she ever raises it again, you will be deeply offended.
Tell her that you have had (or, if this is this case, are currently receiving) all the help you need, that you are doing fine, and that you do not choose to reopen old wounds. Tell her that she needs to respect your autonomy here: she may believe that talking to her would help you, but you do not, and this is very much your party.
You know this woman and I don’t, so I am not sure how dramatic you want to get. But if it rings true and you think it might help, I would add that any request—much less any pressure—to discuss the matter just feels like a further violation. You could even go on the offensive, asking her to think about what her motives might be for insisting on discussing something when you’ve told her repeatedly that doing so would upset you.
As conciliatory touches, you could tell her that when (if ever) you feel the need to talk about the assault in a nonprofessional setting, you will certainly think of her. You could even add that she already gives you all the support you need just be being your friend and, now, part of your family.
If you say all, or even half, these things, you will be saying a mouthful. For this reason, and to give your words a sense of added seriousness, it would make sense to use some sort of written communication. But you, who know Maggie and have to live with her—and are probably youngish and not a lawyer—may see a letter, or even a series of texts, as too abrupt an escalation. If so, just find some gemütlich environment, preferably on your own turf, and talk to her. You can always write later. (When and if you do write, make sure to tell her that all you want from her is respectful silence, NOT any kind of written answer and certainly no further debate.)
Do you have a therapist or a former therapist you could consult? A good therapist or counselor could help walk you through your showdown(s) with Maggie. (A less good one might want the session to be about why you resist confiding in Maggie, in which case I would resist the therapist.) It might also be satisfying to be able to tell Maggie that your therapist has “urged you to assert yourself,” or some such.
Stand fast.In this one area, at least, Maggie sounds like very bad news. And spend plenty of time cultivating your other friends.
La Wally responds:
Say: “Please don’t ever mention this again. Ever. I mean it.” If she still does, make sure you never see her alone.
My husband “Edward” has a large trunk in his home office that he keeps locked. He says that it contains old photos, letters, and keepsakes but won’t let me look at them. He tells me that when he gets around to it he will sort through the stuff in there, but we have lived together for three years, married for two, and he never has. When we moved last year, he just had the guys move the whole trunk.
The other day he left his ring of keys home when we went out jogging. There’s a key to the trunk’s padlock on the ring —I know this because, I confess, I tried it out. But I felt guilty and stopped short of actually opening the trunk.
Do you think that I should go ahead and open it the next time I get the chance? And do you think I should be concerned about Edward’s secretiveness?
—Snoopy in Sonora
No, I do not think you should open it—at least not unless you have good reason to believe that the trunk’s contents are not, in fact, limited to “old photos, letters, and [legal, nontoxic, odor-free, etc.] keepsakes.” I see no reason for you to intrude on Edward’s privacy. Except for the fact that they take up a bit more space in your shared home—and this should not really matter, since the trunk stays in his office—its contents do not strike me as relevantly different from documents and images on his computer. You wouldn’t feel right snooping there, would you?
I do have to admit that I can see how those “keepsakes” Edward mentions might somehow feel different from letters and photos, especially if they consist of more than documents. Although I am not sure why and have trouble justifying my position, I think I would have more trouble taking my mind off actual stuff—a single glove, a lock of hair, a scratched LP, a decrepit bong, whips, a lithograph, a Louisville slugger—than text and images. Even so, I think that here, again, you should trust Edward unless he has given you some reason not to, like spending lots of unexplained time locked in his office, or acting bizarre and defensive when you mention the trunk.
This leads me to your second question: should you be concerned?
Probably not, I would guess, although I wish I you had told me a bit more. Does he get bizarre and defensive about the trunk? Is he evasive in general, or about the trunk, or about his past? How often does the subject of the trunk come up? Do you have any reason to believe he ever actually opens the trunk, either to hide stuff in it or spend significant amounts of time visiting with whatever’s inside it? Has he given you any other clues about what, specifically, is inside it?
And is there anything in particular you are nervous about? Do you have any reason to think there is something in that trunk that relates to his current life, or to some sort of sordid or criminal past? If not, I would not worry. We are all entitled to our memories and souvenirs, as long as we don’t dwell on them in ways that adversely affect our ongoing lives and the people who share them with us.
If you trust Edward, and if all that he has done and said so far is consistent with what he’s told you—that he has some old papers and mementos in there, and hasn’t gotten around to sorting through them—I think you should try to resist the lure of that key ring. If, for some reason, you do not completely trust him where the trunk is concerned, you might want to try asking him a few more light, good-humored questions about it. You could ask him if he has any old yearbooks, and are they in the trunk? You could ask him what kind of “keepsakes” he has in there—sports trophies, a favorite old shirt, gifts from ex-girlfriends? You could even offer up some information of your own, like: “I have a big box of ticket stubs and love letters in my parents’ attic—maybe I’ll go through them some time, too.” His answers may reassure you.
Or they may not, which would probably be good to know. If you feel, rightly or wrongly, that you cannot fully trust Edward or his commitment to you, this should give you pause. You should work on it. Seek counseling, perhaps. Talk with him about both your lives.
I hope you and Edward resolve both your trunk problem and your trust problem.
La Wally says:
I think it’s weird, personally. But I would not have married a guy with a locked trunk, and she did. She should ask again what’s in the trunk, in a nice way. If his answer makes her nervous or scared, then maybe she should look.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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