Tonic immobility

For two weeks after the election, I walked around in a thick haze of confusion and grief. I grieved for the nation I thought we were, for the terror that many people I care about were now facing, for the uncertainty of the four years that lay ahead. We need to give him a chance! People cried. He didn’t mean those things, it was just an election! Right. He didn’t mean those things. Except many of the vile things he has spewed were long before he was considering a run for president.

Maya Angelou tells us, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

It wasn’t until I dropped the ball professionally on something that I snapped out of the state I was in, the fog cleared, and I began to understand why I felt knotted and paralyzed with fear myself. Our nation put a man into the white house who had bragged about sexually assaulting women. He had boasted about his perceived right to (attractive) women’s bodies because of his celebrity status. And, collectively, the Christians in the country began their mental Cirque du Soleil to defend him. Locker room talk! They said, dismissively.*

Not long after that tape emerged, I walked into a negotiation meeting where an old white man attorney promised a woman attorney on a conference phone—the only woman besides me in the meeting—that they would “keep the locker room talk to a minimum.” She gave a weak laugh because that’s what you do as a professional woman in a man’s world. It is disgusting. We are complicit, and we hate ourselves for it. I shifted uncomfortably and excused myself to the restroom so no one would see my red, angry face.

This is not locker room talk.

This is talk of sexual assault. Period. No ambiguity. No room for argument. He was talking about grabbing women by their genitals. Even if it was in jest (and I sincerely doubt it was, given what we know of the monster), still, he laughingly boasted about stealing women’s agency because he is entitled to grab women by the genitals because he’s a celebrity.

It was when I missed the mark professionally that I awakened to how hard I’d been hit by the election results. And I began to piece together exactly why it had gotten hold of me on a personal level, why it didn’t feel like some abstract concept of being worried about nuclear war and trade problems and cabinet appointments. Those issues are all very real, and they affect us and we should all be worried about them. But something about the election results had reached in and seized me by the soul and left me reeling, and because I am so accustomed to glossing over certain parts of myself, I had to stop and consider my visceral reaction.

I am a survivor of sexual assault.

More than once, I have been victimized by a man who was empowered to take away my agency and help himself to my body.

When I was 15 years old, I was somewhat adrift. My family had moved to the Midwest from the south right at the start of my seventh grade year, and I had been severely bullied by a group of nasty girls. They drew pictures of how they wanted me to die. Years later, the crude pen drawings are burned into my memory, particularly the one with the noose.

They passed around letters I had written to a boy I liked, and they made fun of me, pulling in whomever would participate. It was humiliating and devastating. I was new to making friends because I had spent most of my childhood with horses and dogs and de facto friends in my god-family and my sisters’ friends. Somehow I survived the ordeal, and went on to survive eighth grade, too. I had a serious boyfriend through most of eighth grade, a sophomore with whom I played video games and roller bladed through the unlined streets of our small town. We “messed around,” but agreed we did not want to have sex. We didn’t feel ready for sex. He respected me, treated me with dignity, and never pressured me despite being older than I was.

I honestly remember very little about my freshman year in high school. Almost nothing, in fact, except that I was bullied by upperclassmen. You read that right. I was a freshman girl who was picked on by dudes who were about to go out into the world. The memories I have are of things like having my books and papers knocked from my hands in a cramped back stairwell between classes by a junior on the varsity football team, a maxi pad being stolen from my purse and used to mock me (because a pragmatic young woman knowing her period was coming up is hysterically funny), and finally snapping while standing at my locker one day—except it was at some poor kid who was just going to ask me a harmless question.

I remember that I was raw and I was tired, and still I struggled to be “cool” and fit in, whatever the fuck that means.

My boyfriend and I had broken up, my family had moved a couple of times and been in some living situations straight out of a Netflix documentary, and I was severely depressed. My parents would not seek treatment, despite my asking repeatedly. Looking back, I suspect my mom was fearful of the possibility that some government agency would come sniffing around and maybe take me away. That they might take away her other underage daughter, too.

My dad, though present, was only in touch with his emotions when he was drunk—and even then, getting into issues like, “Dad, I really need to see a counselor, I am not okay,” was a surefire way to get him to clam up, change the subject, and probably leave. His flight instinct has always been stellar.

Between the booze and the pills and the unconventional living situations, including my parents living in the same house, despite having been divorced for several years because it was easier to manage bills that way, it may have been a legitimate fear. My 16-year-old sister and I smoked cigarettes our parents bought for us, we worked in a local restaurant and bar, and our parents struggled with addiction.

Besides or maybe because of all that, my mom believed I should just be able to talk to her, and she often prodded and harassed me to do just that. I understand now as a mother better than I ever did before. When my son falls or pinches his fingers, I instinctively race to wherever he is, snatch him from whomever has him, and hold him tightly to my body. When I am the cause of his hurt, I want to crawl into a hole and die. So, I can only imagine how tough it must be to know your child is hurting and there is nothing you can do to alleviate it, that your child doesn’t want you to even try to do anything about it.

Still, it was a failure on my mom’s part, one we talked about at length in the final weeks of her life. She regretted it to her grave, and my heart hurts thinking of her living and dying with that and a host of other regrets about how she failed me.

Sometime in my freshman year, I started online chatting with people via an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client.** It transported me away from the shithole school where the class sizes ranged from 50 to 80, and the white hicks were almost entirely assholes of varying degrees. It took me away from my too-small house where I shared a bedroom and the only space I had was outside behind the grain bins.

The summer after my freshman year, I worked full time at Dairy Queen where I took on responsibilities way beyond what was appropriate for someone my age. I covered for the 18-year-old who snorted lines by the tiny sink in the back and I ran the grill when the manager was passed out drunk in the walk-in cooler. And when I got home at night, smelling of chocolate syrup and marshmallows and deep fryer oil, I would park myself at the Compaq Presario my mom’s boss had gifted us, using Farmwagon dial-up internet he also paid for, and I would reach out to a host of people who I could talk to, finally, about everything that needed to escape my troubled teenage mind. I would wear headphones that blared house, trance, and hardcore music, chain smoking and typing furiously.

I am still friends to this day with some of the people I met back then. Some of those relationships saved my life.

One person I met was a 17-going-on-18-year-old I’ll call Telly. (Bonus points if you know the 90s movie character that references.) We talked and flirted in a way that you can only understand if you have also engaged in meaningful relationships online. He called me “dude” and sent me scanned pictures of himself, and we shared music and the terrible, self-centered writing that can only be conjured in the hormone-addled minds of adolescents.

We talked all summer, and by the time August rolled around, I had convinced my mom to let him come stay with us for a few days. It would be no big deal, I assured her. Despite everything, she had always been strict, but my oldest sister was running around with a man in his mid-to-late twenties and they’d had a baby together that June. My mom was preoccupied, and acquiesced. She even took me to the train station to pick him up.

I was enamored. He was older, and popular in our online circles. He was so much cooler than I was. Yet he was interested in me, and told me I was beautiful. He’d sneak into my room in the early morning hours to put headphones on me in my sleep, Unkle songs spinning on the CD in the walkman. He helped clean up the house. He was, by most accounts, perfectly lovely while he was there.

Until he raped me.

It took me many, many years of unpacking, counseling, conversations, writing, reading, and unpacking some more to be able to refer to it that way.

Because we are collectively told, in the midst of the rape culture in which we live, that “rape” cannot happen between two people who love, or even like, each other. Rape is supposed to be violent, where the attacker has a weapon and he holds you down and you fight but you can’t get away.

We ask rape victims, Did you fight back?

Or even worse, Why didn’t you fight back?

The unspoken but very loud subtext is, you could/should have prevented this; you must have wanted this on some level.

In my case, I was a child. I thought maybe I wanted to have sex with him someday, when we were older and married (thanks, American Conservative Christianity®!) but I didn’t want to go “too far” at that stage in our lives. I wanted to be careful, to protect my virginity, which I had been taught was enormously important.

We were behind the grain bins and it was a year for soybeans instead of corn, which meant there was not much cover in the way there might be if the corn had been up. By August the beans were tall, but you could still see for miles. The sun had gone down and I was in my pajamas, and we were mooning over each other and the grandiose futures we imagined for ourselves. I was going to be a broadcast journalist, and I would write on the side. I already had an online radio show, and people loved my voice, so obviously it would all work out perfectly. He was going to be a professional graffiti artist. Because that’s a job that pays you money.</sarcasm font>

We started kissing in much the same way we had throughout his stay, and I reminded him verbally in much the same way I had that I did not want to have sex. He told me to turn around, and I complied because I trusted him. He kissed the back of my neck and then put his knees into the backs of mine, bringing me to all fours in the wet grass. I was uncomfortable and told him. “Shhh, dude, it’s okay, just relax, we’re good.” He stroked my bare shoulders with each of his hands to reassure me. My tank top and shorts felt inadequate and I shivered a bit in the night air. I wanted to go inside. I wanted to be alone. And then I was on all fours in the grass and he was inside me, taking away my agency, taking away my virginity, taking, taking, taking, taking from me.

This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, this can’t happen, no, no, no, no, no, this can’t happen, this is not happening.

I didn’t move. I froze. I couldn’t move.

What would happen? Where would I go? Where would he go? He wasn’t scheduled to leave for two more days. What if my parents found out? Wouldn’t I be in trouble? Was this my fault? Did I deserve this? This couldn’t be happening. Maybe this is just what it’s like. He loves me, right? Does he love me? Do I love him? Why is this happening? This isn’t happening. Is this happening? Why is this happening? This isn’t happening.

I remember the wetness of the grass and the sound the beans made when the breeze would blow. The distant sound of a vehicle barreling down the highway a quarter mile from the house. The twinkling of stars on the far distant horizon, stars that would have been invisible if the corn had been up. I remember feeling cold and confused and like something important had been stolen from me. Crickets chirped. The sounds of summer whirred in my ears.

This had happened. He had done this. He had made a choice to do this. He had made my choice for me.

He left as scheduled, and my life fell apart in some ways. I was so indoctrinated with the notion that I could only give my virginity to my husband that I waged war to do whatever I could to be with him so that we could get married and be together and I would not have to answer to God for what we had done. He stayed in touch for a while, particularly while he was on house arrest for a few weeks shortly after leaving our house, a detail he didn’t share until he was already staying with us.

We didn’t call that encounter “rape,” because—to him, and to me at the time because I didn’t know better—it was simply sex. I was going to emancipate myself from my family, work full time, move to Minnesota to be nearer to him, go straight to college with no high school education. I dropped out of school to work full time and help my mom care for my nephew, under the guise of home-schooling. I would eventually receive my GED when I was 21, and even by then I had barely begun to address what had actually happened between us.

While I wound myself into knots, he moved on to other girls. And then he dropped out of my life completely, even in online spaces. He was just gone and I was broken. I was lost. He had shattered me, taken some of the pieces, and left me to clean up the rest, alone.

For a long time, my sisters and mom just thought I had gotten suddenly moody because I couldn’t have my way. I’m not sure that my sisters know the whole story, even now.

It was another reality of my life that Mama and I talked about toward the end of hers. It was another way in which she felt she had failed me. It was another data point in the map of my life that my dad either never knew about or never cared about.

And even as I begged and pleaded with my mother, even as I plunged into being suicidal from the guilt and the brokenness, still no one sought help for me. Although I still stayed up late in those months after he left, I had a hard time focusing and even chatting online. What if I “ran into” him? I sat in the dank basement chain smoking and hand writing my pain onto unlined printer paper, pausing once in a while to slice into my flesh with a steak knife—the poor kid’s cutting razor blade.

This was not the first time I had been sexually violated. A family friend molested me when I was about five years old, and I immediately told my mother. Again, perhaps because she was afraid of some government agency interfering in her life—something with which I identify, and for which I have compassion—she did not take action. She did not press charges against that man. But she also did not keep us away from he and his family. Their kids played with us. We were close. Sometimes his wife babysat us.

And as my mother descended into her own grief and my father remained oblivious, I internalized the message that my feelings about the safety and sanctity of my body did not matter.

Even though it was my mother’s greatest horror, the notion that any of her children might be victimized like she had been, she did not keep me safe. She carried that reality as an albatross around her neck for the remainder of her life, or at least that’s how she described it in those tearful conversations we had on the last leg of the journey toward her dying.

I sat next to her on my sister’s couch and held her hand in both of mine as she sobbed and gasped and apologized. And while I had been so angry with her for many years, I felt nothing but compassion for her in that moment. I suspect if I had a similarly cathartic conversation with my dad, I might feel the same way. I try to have compassion for them both, as I imagine how young they were, how difficult life is, how hard it is to make space for grief in your primary relationships (my mom lost both of her parents violently, and they’d both been subject to other losses throughout their lives). I try to remind myself that neither of my parents was given the tools necessary to be an emotionally healthy adult person, and that sometimes you make huge missteps that seem like a good idea at the time.

I thought until recently that I had unpacked and dealt with my molestation and my rape. I had not done anything in either of those situations but sit there, unable to move. I had let it happen. I had let these men, both of whom I had trusted, make use of my body without my express permission.

Then, the election happened. And after it, I decided to become a sexual assault crisis counselor because that seems especially important to me, given how triggered I was in the wake of a man rising to power who brags about assaulting womenPart of our training was to listen to a webinar by a neurobiologist who describes the phenomenon of tonic immobility, which is an autonomic response that some rape victims have, particularly when the perceived safest move is to not fight back. It is not a choice that survivors make; like fight or flight, the urge to freeze is primal. 

At the end of the webinar, there is a Q&A in which a woman stands up and bursts into relieved sobs at finding out about this phenomenon. She had gone on a date with a man she trusted, and he had sexually assaulted her. She had trusted him, and he had victimized her. She hadn’t fought, she hadn’t fled. She froze. And she had blamed and berated herself ever since.

I had to excuse myself to the restroom, which is not at all unusual in this kind of training. It is expected that much of it will be triggering and heavy, and self-care is brought up repeatedly to remind us to engage in it. I sat on the large stall on the toilet in the university building that houses the Family Resiliency Center, and sobbed, while that woman’s sobs rang in my ears. I also had never known about tonic immobility, and it was a huge weight off my chest to understand it, to frame my own experience.

It took dropping a ball professionally to bring me out of the haze I had been in since the election. I let myself be complacent while President Obama was in office. I exercised my privilege and allowed myself to trust in the process and in President Obama and in the Democrats; or at least I had given myself permission to disengage. I was grieving Jason, and then my mom, and then my aunt and uncle, and some others, and I didn’t have the energy to keep up with the news or the happenings on The Hill.

I could move through the world in a mostly safe way, or at least I told myself that I could. In truth, I relied heavily on the men in my life to help keep me safe. Because rape culture is real and we live in it and I am less safe as a woman alone than I am with my tall man friends walking beside me.

When people have the audacity to tell me that maybe should just wait and see what Drumpf does as president, I remember the sound of soybeans rustling in an evening gust of Midwestern summer wind. I recall the adult man telling a five-year-old girl, “this can be our secret, okay?” I remember the far-reaching impact of what was done to me by men who felt entitled to my body, men who used my trust in them and their position to take from me what I did not want to give, men who were able to do so because rape culture is real and we live in it.

When people talk about voting for him because they want “something different” or say they think he’ll do an all right job because they think he will bring back jobs or help the economy,*** I recall huge hands on my tiny little girl’s body and teenage knees in the backs of mine, and being paralyzed with confusion, fear, and sadness.

I am not in a haze now. I am not frozen. I will not be silent. I will not back down. I will not wait and see. I will resist.

* It’s important to note that for some voters, this was where they drew the line with Drumpf, and that is not okay. He could say whatever he wanted about a range of people of color and mock a reporter’s disability and it was not enough to keep people from voting for him. But the idea of him helping himself to married white women’s bodies was too much. Someone tweeted something to this effect, and I can’t find the tweet—if anyone has it, please share.

** Note that I do not think the internet is an inherently dangerous place, or that every chat room is stuffed with would-be predators. Rather, I think the internet mirrors real life, and—let me reiterate—we live in a rape culture.

*** Aside from the fact that it’s simply not true. Natural gas and automation took your coal mining and factory jobs, plan and simple. It wasn’t President Obama’s fault.

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