Scenes from the day: In a delivery van, with a good friend, watching the time slowly tick, knowing that a judge in a court room in another city is reading a thirty page decision. Pretty sure we know what the outcome will be. Starting to feel sad and panicky, and then my good friend says, wait. Let’s take a moment and imagine he’s found guilty. Let’s just live in that reality for five minutes. Turned out we didn’t need five minutes. I got goosebumps, instantly. I feel so… seen, I said. This is so unexpected, she said, and so right. For once, our justice system has not failed survivors of sexual assault. This changes everything, we said. And we believed it. She cried, and then I cried, and they were tears of relief.
An hour later, just before we order lunch, in a brightly painted downtown restaurant. My phone starts to buzz with texts. He’s been acquitted. We stare at each other across the table. I’m glad we had that moment, before, she says. I nod. We can’t think of anything else to say. My phone continues to buzz, with messages from my mom, my young friend, my older friend, my cousin friend, my sister in law. I imagine every phone in the pocket or purse of every woman I know lighting up in this way. I can’t tell if it makes me feel better or worse. I can’t tell what I feel, at all.
A little after that, walking three blocks to home. Suddenly, all I feel is flayed. Vulnerable. A peeled grape. Every man I pass, I think, you’re equipped with the knowledge that women lie, so it doesn’t matter what you do to them, because everyone knows they lie. It’s not logical—I recognize that, and yet, it feels real. My logical brain urges me to the bright side I have prioritized for the last eighteen months. The sea change that seems to be happening in our culture. The conversations about sexual assault and how survivors behave. The way men are participating in those conversations. But logic isn’t ruling this day. Instead, there’s a deep undercurrent of: that judge said you can’t trust sexual assault victims to tell the truth.
I get home and shut the door and shake. I shake like it’s my full time job.
I think about myself thirteen years ago. Could I take the stand in a court room and testify about things that happened thirteen years ago? What would I remember? The moment someone slapped and choked me? Or the stuff that happened the next day and the day after that? Which would be more memorable? The feeling of hands around my throat, or a photo we took in the park the next day? Looking back through the lens of more than a decade, what would I remember about my subsequent interactions with that person? Would I remember the normalizing I attempted? Or would I react as my current self and feel disgust, animosity, deadened? How credible a witness would I be, to any of my own experiences of that long ago?
And then I think, it doesn’t matter how perfect a victim you are. Earlier this month, an admitted rapist was sentenced to ninety days, served on weekends. He received that relatively sweet deal because he admitted his guilt, thus saving his victim the trauma of a trial. His victim fought to get free from him. She said no. She tried to text or call someone, and he took her phone away and threatened her if she tried to make contact with anyone. He said, why won’t you just let me do what I gotta do? She tried so hard not to get raped. In the morning, he mocked her, saying: you look like someone who just got raped all night. She went to the police. She was eight and a half months pregnant. Her young daughter was asleep in the next bedroom. The guy admitted his guilt. A perfect victim, a perfect case. Ninety days. Served on weekends. This is what passes for justice. So his victim was spared the trauma of a trial. That’s no small mercy. But it was his only one.
It doesn’t matter if you pose for a photo in the park with your assailant the day after the assault, or if you fight to get away from him. It doesn’t matter if you send him a bikini photo or if you report him to the police. It doesn’t matter what kind of victim you are. It doesn’t matter what kind of survivor you are.
It’s 2016. Survivors of sexual assault are still the ones paying the price for the crime of being assaulted.
What is the lesson here?
No, seriously, you tell me. What is the lesson?
I’ve been reading The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston lately and it is slaying me with its economy and energy. Such tidy sentences that describe such unruly human emotion. I love writers who can make it seem so effortless, and Livingstone is definitely one of those. The book is about terrible grief and guilt, so there is some common ground there. I’m paying close attention to the way Livingstone navigates it.
Last night I went to see Jason Isbell and Shovels and Rope play and it was so deeply good. Isbell especially writes songs that hit me exactly where I live. He writes about small-town struggle, addiction, loneliness, loss, true love. Expect to feel all the feelings when Isbell is in the house. And Shovels and Rope moved me with their incredible, unstoppable energy. They’re a wife-and-husband team, a two-person band. Watching her play drums and keyboard and sing all while looking like a total badass was completely inspiring.
Check out Livingston, Isbell and Shovels and Rope, and tell me: What’s inspiring you these days?