Let’s talk about that for a change. I’m not only talking about the media circus around the girl who committed suicide after being gang raped and then ridiculed about it. I am also talking about the everyday reality of life for someone who has been raped. Please remember when you’re reading this that I am somebody that society would define as having fully recovered. I have been married to the same man for 17 years. I organize Slutwalk Johannesburg. I speak about my rape as if it happened to somebody else.
When women like me stand up to speak, we speak with hindsight. We speak of healing. We speak of triumph. Love. Power. Strength. We want to give hope to other survivors. Sometimes what is needed more than hope is truth. So here it is.
We talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) clinically. Therapists talk about the big symptoms, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia... We discuss ways of coping with panic attacks. We look at practical solutions. What we don’t talk about is the everyday realities of living with the emotional and cognitive effects of having experienced a physical violation that crosses all personal boundaries. It is difficult to understand how triggers work if you haven’t had personal experience of something so invasive that even the slightest reminder of it sets your heart racing, sends pins and needles into your fingertips, makes it feel like your lungs will never fill up completely again… So let me tell you about it.
Yes the big things are hard, but the Devil is in the details. A few years ago I wrote a piece for an international publication. Some contributions were a few lines of poetry while others were pages long. The one sentence that stood out for me in that entire book, was one in which the writer describes sleeping with one foot uncovered. I have also done that for as long as I can remember. Is that a survivor thing? Do we all do it? It doesn’t matter. What matters is the way that one detail jumped out at me - the fact that I did wonder if doing that is somehow related to having been raped.
It is the same way that I struggle to buy anything for myself. Then I analyse those difficulties until I’m going around in circles. Why did it take me 18 months to commit to a pair of boots? Was it because I am generally indecisive? Is that because I had the basic choice of whether or not to have sex taken away from me at the age of 7? How does one have the confidence to make such small decisions when such big ones have been forced out of your control? Is it because I am worried that my husband won’t approve of my choice of boots? I can’t handle hearing about how ugly they are every time I wear them. Where does my need for approval come from? Am I trying to prove that I’m a good girl because I somehow still believe that deep down inside I am to blame for having been raped? You know, because only certain types of girls get raped so I must have done lots wrong to have been raped repeatedly as a kid and then again as an adult. Then of course there’s the obvious, do I really deserve to spend that much money on myself?
In case you haven’t figured it out the boots are one example, a metaphor if you like, for my whole life. I constantly question every behaviour, every relationship, everything about the way I am. My daughter plays a game where she tries to surprise me. She thinks she is sneaking up behind me and expects a startle response when she suddenly tickles me. What she doesn’t know is that my senses are mostly on such high alert that not much startles me. I have to put my Ipod on sometimes to shut out the world, just to maintain some shred of sanity.
I was raped by someone who was giving me lift home after a night out. More than 20 years later I was asked to participate in a radio talk show at night. The producers offered to send a driver. I spent hours agonising over whether it would be safer to accept the offer or to drive alone at night. I even considered asking my husband to take me, even though it would have meant that he would have to take his 94 yr old mother (with her wheelchair) and our children out after 10pm to come fetch me. I eventually accepted the offer of a driver. When he arrived my husband came out to speak to him. All the way to the studio, I talked to him. I asked him about himself, his life, his family and spoke to him about mine. While I do generally interact with people on that level, this time there was a sense of desperation about it. I needed to humanise myself. I needed him to see me as a wife, a mother, a person with feelings and worth. When the show was over I made sure I asked for the same driver again. When other crew member got into the car to be dropped off before me I was scared all over again. I didn’t breathe easy until I was safely inside my own home again.
Another thing I do is always make sure that I never arrive home after dark without my husband. If I feel like I might run late, I go to his work and wait for him to finish so that we can get home together. One night last week, I had timed my drive home from a play rehearsal so that I would get home just before dark. I didn’t count on there being a roadblock on the way home. It took half an hour to get through it. By the time I got home it was dark. Before we even got to our driveway, I made my teenage daughter get the Tazer out of my handbag because it has a torch function as well. I stopped in the driveway and got the kids into the house. Then I went back to the car for the groceries and bags that had to be carried into the house. It took me about six tries to park the car properly. By the time I got back inside I was shaking from head to foot. My heart was thumping against my ribcage. I couldn’t breathe deeply enough to fill my lungs. I collapsed into a chair so that I wouldn’t pass out. My daughter made me a cup of tea. When my husband got home I fell into his arms, a weeping mess. We had toasted cheese sandwiches for supper that night.
This is the reality of surviving. It is not all strength and healing and love smiles. It is hard work, every day. Too many people make the mistake of assuming that just because we, as activists speak of our pain with courage, we are over it. I am not over anything. I have chosen to act, to write and to speak because of my fear, not in spite of it.
Every person who has been through the ordeal of rape suffers the consequences in some way every day for the rest of their lives. Please think about that the next time you’re discussing a rape case. Let’s talk about the sentence that has been forced upon the survivor. Let us be clear that in the moment a person chooses to rape another human being they have not had “20 minutes of action” they have chosen to inflict a lifetime of suffering on another human being.
Maybe, just maybe, if we talk about the dire consequences for the survivor instead of the token slap on the wrist for the perpetrators we will find some shred of human compassion that will unite us in an effort to end this scourge of violent invasions of other human beings.