My Abuser’s Gender Made Me Doubt My Experience

After an assault, Caroline Catlin questions the safety of queerness.

Caroline Catlin | Longreads | February 2018 | 11 minutes (2,695 words)

Here are some things I know: It happened in September of my junior year at college. It happened on a Friday. I left the party and went home with a well-liked acquaintance. The next morning I met a friend for coffee. She laughed, and said she was proud of me for being so “wild.” As we spoke, another friend walked into the cafe, said I looked “off,” and asked if I was okay. I began to cry. I lay in the bed of a third friend while she researched the process of reporting rape. As I waited, I curled my body into the shape of a comma. There was a circular bruise between my legs. There was blood in my underwear. I saw a therapist, just once. She offered to bring me to the hospital. I refused her offer. Instead, I took pictures of the marks on my body and hid them in a folder on my desktop named “other.” Just in case, I told myself.

***

The summer before I turned 13, I spent most of my time alone in the woods. Something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I knew not to talk about this with anyone, knew that the adults would minimize or escalate what was happening inside of me. Besides, even if I wanted to talk about it, what would I say? I convinced myself that if I followed certain patterns, I would feel okay again. Three taps on one tree, two taps on another. Despite my efforts, by the time my birthday rolled around in October, I was becoming unhinged. My parents, loving and generous, had gifted me a birthday trip — a once in a lifetime opportunity to go with my mom to Florida to see dolphins. For the big unveiling, I unwrapped a small wooden box engraved with a dolphin on its front. That night, I took the box to bed with me, cradling it as I cried. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t this — even this — make me happy?


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Self-portrait(s), age 13


In her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Lewis Herman refers to something called the dialectic of trauma. An experience that I, having had no proper name for it, used to call being caught between.

She describes the “conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud.” In other words, the striving to integrate — to allow traumatic events to be a part of one’s life rather than the central focus, or pushed away completely.

In the weeks following my assault, this struggle — the feeling of being caught between wanting both to speak my truth, and wanting to deny it ever happened — kept me spinning in tighter and tighter circles.

I could not find the balance, could not figure out how to inform listeners without overwhelming them. My story spilled from my mouth without purpose or planning, filling every silence or lull in the conversation. The facts of that night became my makeshift rosary; I held the details in my palm and rolled them between my fingers, whispering them over and over.

For every detail I was sure of, there were two I doubted. I had so many questions. Why did this happen? Will I ever want to have sex again? Was it my fault? What could I have done differently? Did it count as assault?


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Messages sent to a friend the morning after the assault.


My debate about whether or not the experience “counted” as assault rested in the fact that my story did not fit any narrative I had ever heard before. My potential perpetrator did not fit my view of what an aggressor was supposed to look like. I was not attacked by a strange man in a dark alley. In fact, I was not attacked by a man at all.

The person I went home with that September night was a queer woman. She was friends with my friends. She had slept with and dated other women. She was not supposed to be the enemy.

***

Halfway through my special 13th birthday trip, my mom and I sat in traffic in the warm, fading Floridian light and, in between sobs, I told her something was not okay in my body. I explained, as best I could, how my sadness felt adult. Later, I lay wrapped in a stale hotel room comforter and listened to the muffled sounds of my mom speaking with my father on the phone. “Something is wrong,” she said. “Something’s off.”

At first, my fear was not specific or definable, just immense, nonetheless. But eventually, it developed into an obsessive focus on how I felt about kids my age. I was in 8th grade, and the topic of conversation among the other girls always circled back to which of the boys you had a crush on. I did not have crushes on any of the boys. In fact, I was pretty sure that I had crushes on some of the girls. For my 13-year-old self, this knowledge was terrifying. I am unsure what caused the intensity of my fear. Being gay, or even simply being different, was not something condemned or unsafe within my house. Had I been able to voice my truth, I would have still had a place to live, and a family who loved me. I was immensely privileged in the support I was offered, yet I remained silent and inconsolable.

I had limited access to images of queerness as a livable reality. There were queer adults in our community, but I was never told that they were queer. I knew women who lived together, but no one explicitly introduced them as lovers or partners. They were introduced by their names and often with a sideways glance between the gathered adults, a raised eyebrow over the children’s heads, a silent, shared you know. I began to gather each of these moments — however small and seemingly insignificant — as evidence that to feel the way I did was wrong.


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Journal entry, age 13.


In middle school, sexual orientation was approached similarly to sex education: We were taught stiff scientific vocabulary in the classroom and overheard the crude synonyms in the hallways. Our job was to piece them together and figure out what it all meant. And what it seemed to mean was that there was a name for what I was feeling, but it was not a name I should want to call myself.

 Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma describes the experience of becoming stuck in a moment of trauma, of the way new memories and experiences are difficult to integrate, how the feeling of fear and danger remain activated. He writes, “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on — unchanged and immutable — as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”


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A few weeks after the assault, a friend found me crying in an empty classroom. I have no memory of entering or leaving that room, just the whimpering noise I made when she walked in. Most days, I’d take notes on my phone about how long I’d made it until I had a panic attack. 10:20 a.m. 2 p.m. 3:30 p.m. I began skipping class and walked up and down the streets near my school with no destination in mind. A group of my friends drove by. I flagged them down and got in their car. They asked where I was going. “Wherever you’re going!” They laughed and asked me about the hickeys on my neck. They asked me why I sucked in my breath when I sat down. “Big night this past weekend,” they joked, laughing again. I waited for them to call me scandalous and breathed a sigh of relief when they did. Yes, I told myself, let them think that. Please let it just be that.


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Messages sent to a friend, the day after.


For years, accepting my sexuality felt like attempting to swallow a pill without water. Even when I got close to succeeding, I would feel it in my throat, stuck and stiff. It was my first brush with mental illness; something that would eventually become familiar in the way that Sunday afternoon was — not looked forward to, but expected and survivable. The reality of queerness was not the root of the problem, rather the fact I was unable to think of anything else.

Mental illness, I would come to understand, was as intrinsically a part of my selfhood as my tendency to break out in freckles in the sun, or the fact that my left knee would swell under impact. Later, I would be diagnosed with a mood and anxiety disorder, and learn how to manage my fear and gravitation towards rumination. For someone straddling the line between childhood and adulthood, it was new and debilitating. I could not get ahold of my thoughts or the places they would go. I was so afraid of an attraction to women that I stopped reading books for fear of falling in love with the characters. I started watching only cartoons, deeming them okay, until I decided this, too, was risky. I took refuge in sleep until I dreamt of kissing a girl on my soccer team. Even sleep, it seemed, was not to be trusted.


Journal entry, age 13.


Eventually, the intensity of fear began to fade in a soft succession, one tiny moment at a time. I remember a day walking in the fields by my house and thinking that for the first time in months, I felt less heavy. It was as simple and as monumental as that.

Still, it would take years until I moved fully from fearing into accepting — and eventually to reveling in — my queerness. After a closeted freshman year at a small college in Ohio, I transferred to an extremely liberal university in Connecticut, and there, I found my people. At my new school, no one needed to “come out.” Here, it seemed, I could choose to be defined as undefinable. I could speak the name of someone I wanted without needing to explain the way their gender impacted my desire, or for that matter, the way my desire for them defined me in general.

The year I was assaulted I was 21. Queerness had become more than a sexual identity, it had become a reformed way of looking at the world. It allowed me to move within a space that expanded as I did, that allowed me to become, to shrink, to love, to forgive. My fear of being gay had faded, replaced with a sense that I had found a community that was above many of the challenges heterosexual couples faced, that misogyny would not reach me here.

I was, of course, wrong. Queerness does not create immunity, nor does it make you subject to harm. It just is as it is — flawed, beautiful, messy, and evolving. It is a community of people, working for something better, but still standing in a lot of wrong. Recognizing that is easy. Accepting it is the hard part.

***

After the assault, I typed two things so often my phone would confuse them for each other. One was my perpetrator’s name. The other was haha. Obsession had returned in a way it hadn’t since I was 13. My safety in queerness was shaken. The refuge I’d found there was challenged. Once again, queerness was wrong. Being gay was wrong. I flip-flopped between identifying what happened to me as assault and labeling it as another example of my complicated relationship to sexuality. Part of me was convinced that being held down and forced to have sex was somehow further evidence that I did not know what I wanted or who I wanted.

I searched relentlessly for stories like mine and often came up empty. Eventually, I would begin to unearth these examples and hold onto the similar stories like tiny tokens of proof — a message from a stranger who had heard my story stating that something similar had happened to her; an unearthed memoir on same-gender assault; a confession from a friend that a woman had assaulted her too.

But at first, all I had were the facts of my experience, the pictures I’d taken, and the words of a few friends who believed my story.

Aside from the doubt inspired by the gender of my perpetrator, I was deeply confused by my own reactions to the assault and the fuzziness of my memory. Some things I remembered with a startling clarity — the flash of her body above mine, the bright light of the hallway when I left, a look on her face, one that seemed to come to me at random times. But I couldn’t remember the sequence, the order in which things had happened. I tried writing it down, making actual quizzes for myself.

True or false, I’d write at the top of the page, I stayed silent the entire time.

True or false, I cried out loud.

True or false, Despite it all, I kept trying to be polite.

Searching for answers, I interviewed Jim Hopper, an independent consultant and a teaching associate in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

Hopper, who has done extensive research on the neurobiology of trauma, introduced me to the role that habits and reflexes have in a traumatic event. He explained how, “A lot of the responses people have in an assault after the initial freeze kicks in are the habits that they learn growing up in their family, in their school, in their community, for how to deal with dominant aggressive people, or abusive people…Once the fear kicks in, there’s impairment of the prefrontal cortex so all you’ve got is habits and reflexes.”

I marveled at this information, at the fact that my reactions during the assault, ones that I felt were deeply shameful and confusing, could be explained by the fact that my brain felt I was under attack. That fear had taken over. As Hopper spoke, I listened with immense gratitude.

It’s not my fault. A bad thing happened, but it’s not my fault.

***

Here are the things I still don’t know: How soon I showered after. If I should have reported it. What would have happened if I had. Why my body stayed so frozen during all of it. Why it felt like I was watching the room from above. What I told my professors when they asked why my grades were dropping so quickly. Why my doctors kept prescribing more and more psychiatric meds without asking me why I needed them. How long until I stopped needing to lock the door and then check the lock several times before falling asleep. What my perpetrator will think if she reads this. If she will be kind to herself while still recognizing the wrong. If there’s something wrong with me for wanting her to be kind to herself, even while I am still struggling with that wrong. If this is what healing looks like sometimes.

***

When I was around 10, I found a story in a magazine that profiled a lesbian couple and their life together. Shocked and exuberant, I ran with it to my mom, held it up and said, “They look so normal, they look just like me!” She smiled, a bit confused at my amazement and nodded in agreement, “Yes, gay people do not have to look any certain way, they can look just like you.”

I took that magazine back to my room, held it close to my chest. If I could, I’d go back to my 10-year-old self in that moment of clarity, tell her to hold onto that feeling, to the awareness of humanity and connection and potential and hope.

Forgive, I’d say. When the time comes, forgive.

* * *

Caroline Catlin is a freelance writer, artist, and mental health worker based out of Seattle, Washington. She enjoys cats, sour candy, and empathy.

Editor: Sari Botton