Into The Light

How getting raped helped me overcome my past

By Meghan Walsh

I woke up to cold, grainy asphalt against my face. Almost six years later, I can still feel the hardness beneath me. I didn’t know where I was. Or what had happened. I just ran. From my recollection, I traveled maybe a block. Retracing the route later, though, I found it was closer to a mile. Barefoot I ran through the North Phoenix suburban neighborhoods, a grid of identical stucco homes with gravel yards. The streets were still and the sky was dark.

I began pounding on doors. The panic in my chest tightened with every strike. Finally, someone answered. A man in his pajamas came to the door to find a young woman trembling on the wooden deck of his manufactured house—without any pants. And without any underwear. It was April, and a desert chill lingered in the early-morning air.

Spring in Arizona is my favorite time of year. I had already begun working on my annual tan and was eager to wear something light and feminine. So that Friday night I wore white linen pants, a white lace halter top that crossed in the back, and nude cork wedges. My blond hair fell in waves at my shoulders. I was 20. I remember feeling pretty and confident.

I went to meet some old friends at a bar near where I grew up in Scottsdale, using a fake ID to slip past the bouncers. We laughed, drank Pacificos, and flirted. When the place closed, several of us went back to a house, where we continued to drink, listen to music, and play pool. Meanwhile, over text messages, I flirted with the man I was really interested in. We bantered back and forth, as I bragged about my unconquerable thumb-wrestling skills. Brandon and I worked at a cocktail lounge across town and had started seeing each other just a couple of weeks earlier. It was new and exciting. Since I’d been drinking, he agreed to come pick me up after he closed the bar down.

Around 4:30 a.m., I walked outside to meet Brandon. He couldn’t find the house, so I wandered to the corner. We stayed on the phone, but the signal was erratic and the calls kept dropping. The streets were deserted—except for a single car that began rolling slowly in my direction. I noticed it several blocks away, and for no apparent reason, other than the foreboding feeling in my gut, I told Brandon to hurry.

Photo by Alexis Kenyon

Photo by Alexis Kenyon

Then the phone cut out.

Memories are selective. I remember the cement brick wall behind me as I writhed with desperation in the gravel, scraping the skin from my bare back. I remember the feeling of being hit with something, I think a rock, across my right eye before going unconscious.

Brandon, who was my partner for the next six years, remembers squeezing the glass of water in his hand, hoping it would shatter, as my mom told him the next morning what had happened while he drove around trying to find me. My brother remembers working in the front yard when his wife handed him the phone—but not his knees buckling at the sight of my swollen and bruised face. My sister remembers sleeping in the hospital bed with me that first night, unable to let go, while her friends went without her to prom.

But despite desperately trying, I can’t remember how many men there were or what they looked like or what exactly happened. Whether due to the shock or the traumatic brain injury from the assault, everything was a blur. At first, I was so out of it that I insisted I had only been beaten up, and pointed police to the last face I remembered seeing back at the house—one of my friends. It wasn’t until after a detective informed me that the nurses had found semen when they did a rape kit that later memories began to come into focus—the unfamiliar car, the man demanding, “Stop fighting, bitch.” But I remained unable to positively identify a suspect. (My friend was arrested but never charged. We haven’t talked since.)

For weeks, I lay barricaded in darkness as I recovered from my injuries, unable to hold food down or even shower standing. As my body healed and I soaked up the compassion of friends and family, I still didn’t realize the significance of what had happened. I didn’t realize how deep the wound was, or all the other scars I would have to reopen before it would heal. I only knew that my body had been violated before and I’d buried that. I thought I could bury this, too.

So, as soon as I started to feel healthy again, I headed to Brandon’s house for a barbecue, and soon I was doing backflips off the roof into the pool. I started to run again around that time, too. Before the incident, as I referred to it, I would often jog at night. After, I told myself that I would not allow these thieves to take any more than they already had, so I continued to plunge into the streets after dark, even though I cried with every step, making it difficult to breathe.

But the backflips and defiant runs were only a misguided display of bravado. I was afraid that if I let my guard down, even for a second, I would splinter. The world would see what was really lurking inside: a young woman who, deep down, was relieved after being raped, because it justified to the world all the hurt and shame she was already carrying, and underneath that a teenage girl who had been no stranger to sexual predators.

I had a rough adolescence. It was devoured by drug use and older men. But I did finally manage to pull it together enough to get an academic scholarship to a state university and move on with my life. By the time of the incident, my sophomore year in college, I had stopped using drugs and, to all who didn’t know otherwise, appeared to be a productive, stable young woman.

Still, I never trusted the world would understand if I shared the pain and shame from my early teens. I feared I wouldn’t be seen as a victim. I would be labeled a slut—or, as some have put it, a bad girl. Whether my fears were justified or I was merely casting my own judgments on others, I don’t know. I do know the first adult boyfriend I confided in used the information to emotionally assault me. And I do know the way society too often judges women who are, or have ever been, less than virtuous.

Several weeks after the attack, my mom and I went back to warn the neighbors. We wanted to let them know what had happened in their neighborhood. When we told one couple with two young girls the story, the first response from the father was “Were you drinking?” Never mind that I had simply walked outside, in a seemingly safe middle-class neighborhood, to meet someone—because I was drunk, it was somehow partially my fault.

There are experiences from my childhood and deep-rooted feelings I could use to explain why I had no regard for my body or life as a teenager. But it’s really irrelevant. We all act out for different reasons. I was a broken little girl—and, yes, even a 15-year-old with breasts and a fake ID is a little girl. As I moved into adulthood, that child remained stuck inside, still pleading for forgiveness and compassion, mostly from myself. When I was raped by a complete stranger, for a while, that little girl was relieved she would finally get the unconditional empathy she was desperate for but never felt she deserved. I did finally find it, though I was well into my mid 20s before I could accept it.

There is no doubt the actual act of being attacked affected me in numerous ways. Perhaps it seems odd, but since I have no emotional attachment to the person responsible, the rape itself doesn’t penetrate as deeply as the societal shame. The most painful parts have been knowing that a stranger thought it was my fault for being drunk, thinking that my friend hated me for pointing to him, and finding out that the police didn’t think my case was worthy of their time.

My dad, a Vietnam vet from Jersey City who doesn’t take shit from anyone, had planned to murder the friend I had initially pointed to—and I have no doubt he would have followed through with it had he been given the opportunity. Even my brother, a Christian addiction specialist (substance abuse is widespread in our family), seriously contemplated accompanying him. They had no trouble feeling rage for whoever attacked me.

Until recently, though, I couldn’t figure out why I, a person who is normally quick to express her aggravation, had never really felt angry with the perpetrator. I eventually realized it’s because I didn’t consider rape to be worse than other forms of physical assault and didn’t understand why people made it out to be any more vicious than the beating. I thought women who talked about rape were just seeking pity and attention.

In order to survive my teenage years, I completely closed off any emotional connection to sexuality. After the rape, I numbed myself even more. To this day, despite no physical damage, I haven’t had my period. And, although I loved Brandon, I never felt I expressed it through sex.

I recently found out that even though the police collected DNA, my case has been lost. The evidence was never entered into the system to see if there was a match and then, I was told, was mistakenly destroyed in 2008. For all these years, I had believed the DNA had been processed and if there were ever a match, I would get a call. It wasn’t until I began writing this essay and went looking for answers that I found out the truth: My rapist will never be brought to justice. And there is nothing I can do about it. It’s a familiar feeling of powerlessness and fury, as you are violated and then thrown aside like you are worthless, just a piece of trash to be tossed on the ground, a meaningless case to be destroyed.

Photo by Alexis Kenyon

Photo by Alexis Kenyon

Normally when someone loses a loved one or endures a tragedy, they turn to their community for support, but sexual assault victims too often retreat within. Like me, many of us bury the memories in the deepest soils of our souls, where they feed off darkness, continuing to grow. It’s been a slow and often ungraceful path toward healing, but it started with forgiving myself. Letting go of the shame. Not calling it the incident, but the rape.

The first step in taking back my power is not doing backflips off the roof. It’s having the courage to challenge the intolerance surrounding sexual violence and the abuse of women’s sexuality in general. I slept with adult men as an adolescent, but I am not a whore. I got drunk with a fake ID and then raped when I was 20, but I don’t carry the blame, regardless of what some stranger implies. I still often cry when I run, but now I do so in the daylight.dots-1