here lies an essay by Shannon Frost Greenstein
TW: rape, anorexia, trauma, sexual abuse, mental abuse, depression, anxiety
Everyone Says It Wasn’t My Fault
Everyone says it wasn’t my fault.
I hear it every time I share this story, and include the truth, my true feelings, my actual emotions that I experience when I recall being raped, and that truth is that I do believe it was my fault.
I can be told from today until forever that the victim is never at fault, that the onus is on my rapist, that I am innocent. Innocent until proven guilty, so why am I wracked with guilt when I remember that night in college, fifteen years ago, remember it at random and inappropriate times, so that this part of my identity, forged in pain and confusion and regret and grief, remains stoic and omnipresent after the fact?
Even if it wasn’t my fault…what does that change? I still feel damaged. I still remember. I can’t Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind this shit. It’s part of me now, part of the quantum tangle that has shaped my life, and I own it. I own my guilt, I own my belief that I am at fault, because, otherwise…who else is there to take ownership?
Certainly not the frat boy whose name I don’t remember. Certainly not that brother, upon our first meeting in a beer-soaked cavalcade in a fraternity house basement. Certainly not the young adult, the grown man, the boy who should have known better, whom I told I was not sexually active, whom I told I did not want to have sex, whom I reluctantly told I would lie with anyway for the night, whom swore we didn’t need to have sex, whom borrowed a condom from his roommate after I passed out in an alcohol-induced stupor…how thoughtful…and whom penetrated me while I slept, while I awoke, while I did everything in my power to convey that I was not consenting, enthusiastically or otherwise. Whom stole my virginity. Whom stole my purity, despite the Greek chorus of mental health voices advocating for my innocence. Whom raped me, and went on with his life, none the wiser that mine had just been violently changed.
He will certainly not be taking ownership. And that leaves me.
Everyone says it wasn’t my fault, but I disagree. I drank the beer. I wore the low cut shirt. I lay in a bed with a stranger, a cute stranger, sure, but one who wanted only my body and took it at the first opportunity he had. I put myself in the situation, I handicapped my defenses, and I made a bad choice.
I hear all the feminists, all the advocates, chiming in, telling me what they’re supposed to tell me, what I both want to hear and resent the hell out of, because after, after it all, we’re just left with me raped and nowhere to put all those emotions but to sublimate them into self-destruction.
And self-destruct I did, in undergrad, a prestigious university with NO RESOURCES for mental health or assault survivors, with pressure and expectations and real life, physically cutting my flesh, starving my body, punishing my brain, numbing the pain.
I went to treatment for anorexia. The doctors there told me it wasn’t my fault, too. I heard stories from the other women in treatment, horrible stories, the stories they can’t even make Lifetime after school movies about because they are just that terrible. I realized my own assault barely made a dent in the sum total of abuse against women, against men, against the nonbinary and everyone in between, and I felt again that being raped was on me because I had no one else to blame.
I spent years in therapy, trying to figure out why I hated myself, my body, my thoughts, my actions, myself. I did EMDR, DBT, CBT, mindfulness. I worked…oh, how I worked…to eliminate the boy from my psyche, to remove the scar he forced upon my consciousness, to cope with the event that he probably does not even remember now but I still think about when I shower at night and feel dirty.
Everyone says it wasn’t my fault, but they don’t have to live with the memory. They don’t have to internally cringe when people mention their “first time” stories, because who wants to hear, in the middle of a girls’ night with wine and popcorn, that my virginity was non-consentually stolen from me because I funneled a beer and followed the wrong man?
Presently, I’m me. I deal. I function. I parent, I work, I write, I live, I love. But there is hatred, and rage, which I seldom acknowledge, which taints the beauty of this gift we call life. Because there IS someone at fault, who does not even know what he did, who should bear the burden of this curse like Sisyphus. And instead, he’s probably an engineer, or an accountant, picket fence, SUV, children, children who are learning from the behavior he models, behavior that puts the vulnerable at risk because that’s how the cycle continues.
Intellectually, yes, I know it’s not my fault. I said no to sex. I fell asleep. There was never consent, and thus, I am absolved of responsibility.
But, emotionally, things are very different. Emotionally, I will always feel that I deserved this crime, because I made mistakes, because I did not pay attention to the Freshman Orientation information sessions about “staying safe”, because I trusted that a decent human being wouldn’t force himself on me just because I was defenseless. I don’t deserve the burden of this mistake, but I bear it nonetheless, and I don’t think anything can change what has already been done.
As Nietzsche says, “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves, but all existence.”
That event, that crime, that evening, horrid as it was, shaped the course of my life. My identity, as a victim, as a survivor, as someone who lived through trauma and used it, merged with my pre-rape identity of me, and here I am. Damaged, but lucky, to have followed the path to my children, my job, my soulmate, who doesn’t mind my damage, though it weighs heavy on me at night when we are together, naked, and I remember.
So it’s not my fault, but what does that do? I’m still here. Still me. Still raped, still recovering, still frozen in that moment of terror and anger, still moving on relentlessly. Blame becomes useless. Fault is arbitrary. All that matters is continuing, going forward, only forward, and that means leaving that night in the past. Regardless of my actions, regardless of the society that drills into me that short skirts are an invitation for assault, regardless of whether or not I should have been drinking, I am a rape victim, and that cannot be separated from the rest of me.
So I own it. I own my trauma, because it brought me here, and taught me strength and how to fight for what I want. I appreciate being told I’m not at fault, even if I don’t believe it. And I hope someday that I will come to a place where I DO hear those voices, where I DO absolve myself of guilt for being forced against my will, where I receive the absolution from my inner monologue I desperately crave, to quiet the voices that remind me, when I’m changing, when I’m naked, when I touch my body, that it was once not mine, not under my own control, out of my agency, and it feels foreign and wrong.
Someday. That is what I want. And until then…thanks for telling me it wasn’t my fault. I need to hear it. Because this is something you don’t just get over, and the loneliness and isolation are as big an issue to address as the short skirts you shouldn’t be wearing to avoid this situation in the first place.
Not my fault. Sure. But now what?
Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia with her children and soulmate, who keep things from descending into cat-lady territory. She is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and comes up when you Google her.