Reliving the trauma
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” “100% certain.” “As sure as I am talking to you now.” These statements, from a victim of sexual assault, will be forever remembered as the words of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Watching her testimony, and that of her abuser, on television last week meant reliving our own traumas as survivors of sexual assault. One out of three women, six out of 10 men. Sixty percent unreported. Someone in your family, someone at work, or in your classroom has been sexually assaulted. Some, more than once. Some have not survived.
I remember being shocked, many years ago, at my first meeting of an AA group, Adult Children of Alcoholics, when a young woman spoke about incestuous abuse by her father. I was shocked not that it happened, but that she could speak of it. Her testimony gave me a window on how to recover from trauma. Still, it would be many years before I told the story of my own most memorable assault. Perhaps it was because the first person I told—my friend, employer and mentor—begged me not to tell. She convinced me it would harm the rapist, hurt his family, destroy his career. And it would have.
I had been asleep in the Marin County home in which I worked as a mother’s helper. Asleep in my room with the door closed. I was 19 and sexually active. My employers had out-of-town guests for the weekend: a friend from New York City and her husband, a young lawyer aspiring to Congress. There had been drinking that night. I may have been drinking. I don’t remember because that would not have been unusual. I went to bed before everyone else, I do recall.
I woke from what I thought was a dream to find a man on top of me engaged in intercourse. I touched his head expecting to find the coarse curls of my lover. But seared in my memory, “indelible in the hippocampus,” was the thin fine texture of the hair of my rapist. I was horrified and afraid. I didn’t think to scream. I pushed him away and said “You better leave,” in a hushed but urgent tone. I didn’t want to offend him. Can you imagine? What lesson did I have to learn, and how early, not to want to offend the man who took my body to be his right? He left.
The next morning I told the woman who had been a mentor since I was 12 what had happened. She was sympathetic. We talked for hours it seemed, drinking coffee in her kitchen. Her husband had taken the children somewhere. The friends were gone.
She implored me not to say anything. She did not take me to the hospital or to a doctor. I did not tell my mother, not ever. I told my best friend in confidence. Years later, I told my husband and my therapist. When I wrote about rape culture in TRR in 2016, I openly revealed my experience and told my daughter privately.
Last week, watching Dr. Ford testify, I was drawn back to the trauma and the subsequent anguish it caused me; depression and anxiety that were immobilizing at times. Also anger.
One in three, six in 10. Americans went through a collective trauma last week. Those of us who lived through something similar heard the truth in Dr. Ford’s testimony. Hard as it was to hear, we thank her for it.