HERS; Speaking of the Unspeakable
BY ALICE SEBOLD; Alice Sebold is a writer who is working on a first novel, ”Jericho.”
Published: February 26, 1989
IN 1981, ON THE LAST day of my freshman year in college, I was raped in a park near my dorm. In this country, nearly three out of every four women could be the victim of a violent crime during their lifetime. What is unusual in my case is that the rapist is now serving a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. When I was raped I lost my virginity and almost lost my life. I also discarded certain assumptions I had held about how the world worked and about how safe I was.
The rapist attacked me from behind. He and I fought in the open. I screamed. I punched and scratched him with my nails, but he eventually got me on the ground. With a knife in one hand and the other so tight around my throat I couldn’t breathe, he made it clear that he would kill me if I didn’t cooperate. He dragged me into an abandoned tunnel. He stripped me and repeatedly raped me on top of broken beer bottles. He kept me prisoner for two hours. He urinated on me, he called me every obscenity, and he forced me to perform oral sex.
I did what women in rape prevention classes are taught to do: I saved my life. I pretended to pity him. I told him he was strong. That was what he wanted to hear. I told him that I was so ashamed of what was happening to me that I would never tell anyone. He had knocked off my glasses when he jumped me so I told him I was almost blind without them. But in fact, I committed every feature on his face to permanent memory. I know I did everything right. I survived.
I am alive but eight years later, I can still see and smell that tunnel. And eight years later, it remains true that no one wants to know what happened. The wall of silence and assumptions that surround the crime are one of the most painful results of rape. It is a sad fact that despite increased attention to the issue, opinion is still shaped by a dark collection of stereotypes.
Shame and pressure to forget are the most common reactions, not only for the victim but for the victim’s family. The majority of rape cases go unreported. Women seek counseling from rape crisis centers years, sometimes 20 years, after the crime. As a result of my rape becoming public knowledge in my community, a 45-year-old woman, the mother of a friend of mine, told her two teen-age sons that she had been raped when she was 18. My friend later told me that his mother had faced the window, doing dishes, as she described the attack to them and the effect it had had on her. She had never told anyone.
After the rapist let me go, I made my way back to my dorm. The desk guard put me inside his glass box of a station until the police arrived. Slowly, as news spread through the halls of my coed dorm, students began surrounding the glass-walled room where I was now, in another way, held prisoner. My fellow students stared at me as if I were a girl on a TV screen. When they looked at me, what they saw under the blood and matted leaves was what I had become for them – a rape victim. In the following years, throughout the trial, which ended in 1982, many remained unable to do more than stare.
Ignorance hurts. In the beginning, even my own father, who has spent his life working with young people, confessed to me that he did not understand how I could have been raped if I didn’t ”want to” be. In Pennsylvania recently, Stephen Freind, the Delaware County Representative to the State Legislature, repeatedly stated that rape victims rarely got pregnant because women under stress have difficulty conceiving. This misinformation supported anti-abortionists in their position that rape should not be part of the abortion controversy.
In New York recently, my gym opted to give studio space to a course called Dirty Dancing instead of to a self-defense course for women. Self-defense is seen as out of style while Dirty Dancing is hip. Unfortunately, rape is not a craze but a constant. So is our need to protect ourselves and those we love by listening to articulate victims.
In the college classrooms where I teach English, I hear naive assertions about rape. What it’s like; who rapes; who gets raped. This willingness to type the victim or the attacker is dangerous. It separates us from the reality of rape’s threat in our own lives. Stereotypes are attractive because if we don’t fit the stereotype we create, we conclude it is impossible for us to be victims. The ”it-can’t-happen-to-me” mentality affects women of every class. Women disassociate themselves from rape because the vast majority of people still believe that a woman who has been raped is filthy, better off dead, irrational, or got what she was looking for.
Rape can happen to anyone and it does. Currently, an average of 90,000 rapes are reported in the United States yearly. According to rape crisis center intake reports, 60 to 70 percent of these are acquaintance rapes. We cannot afford to remove ourselves from facts as clear as these.
We must hear, not assume, the experience of rape victims because our best and only defense is knowledge. A current issue of my university’s campus guide, under the description of the park where I was raped, a park heavily frequented by students, says more or less what it said in 1981. After a lengthy description of park ball fields and basketball courts, the last line reads ”watch out after dark; scary things have been known to happen.” Rape is a nasty word. It is easier to avoid it. This degree of denial and prettification is dangerous.
In my senior year at college, a rapist began attacking women in campus sorority houses. The university was forced to deal with the issue, and claimed that these incidents were extraordinarily rare. It blamed the rapes on carelessness, on a lack of security being observed within those houses where rapes had taken place. In a certain sense, therefore, the school blamed the victims. Small voices revolted and sidewalk graffiti appeared. YOUR DAUGHTER WAS RAPED HERE shouted up from the pavement at prospective students touring the quad with their parents.
The voices of rape victims and their families can be powerful. They can be heard. As a result of a rape and murder on the campus of Lehigh University, the State Legislature passed a ruling on May 26,1988, that requires all colleges in Pennsylvania to publish crime statistics and make them available to prospective students. It was due to the advocacy of the victim’s family that the ruling was passed.
These are voices we must heed. Outrage and clear thinking and political action can work together to dispel the shame and ignorance that surround the crime of rape.