“I won’t stay quiet because staying silent is the same as dying.” – Dua Lipa
*Trigger warning: Sexual assault*
It has taken years for me to sit down and write what you are about to read.
There is no perfect time to write this rendition of events. I am already part of the percentage of women who will be asked why they didn’t go to the police. A therapist once asked me if I had thought about filing a complaint because it could potentially bring some kind of peace and resolution… a formal “closing of the chapter” so to speak… My heart starts to race whenever I think about the possibility of facing the judgement plastered on strangers’ faces if it went to trial. Having to look him in the eye and explain to him how he ruined a certain number of my years. I am already agitated when I have to give a presentation in front of my university peers in French, a foreign language to me… how could I ever explain what transpired in clear terms in front of the French law? How can I be reassured that what I say won’t be misinterpreted or taken out of context? How can I be reassured that nothing will get lost or warped in translation? For me, the formal resolution is taking control of my narrative, one that I feel that for years has been controlled by others around me. The best way for me to take control is by writing.
I have a hard time saying the word but the more I say it, the more I feel a weight being lifted. The pressure I have felt for years on my shoulders, lungs and heart are being released.
In May of 2018, a few days before my 23rd birthday , I was raped.
It was done by someone whom I considered a close friend of mine.
I honestly do not know how to put into words the ensuing emotional turbulence. You know those montages in movies where they put a collage of events happening one after the other for dramatic effect? My memories from that night are exactly like that. Snapshots of moments, confusion about the missing pieces.
I was wearing my favorite dress. It was a deep burgundy color with flowers. It was V-shaped. It pressed against my body in a sophisticated way that made me feel sexy. There was a zipper on the back, so any time I put it on it was a fight to zip up alone but it was worth it. It looked vintage. I felt good.
I had gotten into a fight with my boyfriend that day. I can’t remember about what, but I decided to text Aurelien*. We had been invited to a mutual friend’s birthday party, and I had debated about going after the fight. But ultimately, I needed a friend.
“Are you going tonight?” I texted. “Yes and you? The timing sucks, because I have a final tomorrow but oh well…” he replied. “Can I tell you something without you telling anyone?” I asked. “Yes, of course. I am listening.” I went into a monologue about my relationship, complaining about our compatibility, how I was tired of the fighting, and yet how I couldn’t see my life without him. Aurelien insisted that I should go to the party to get my mind off of things. He told me that I was young, almost 23, and that I had my studies and whole life ahead of me. Staying home alone wasn’t going to help. “Alright, I am going to go buy a bottle of wine then. What do you like?” I asked. He told me not to worry… seeing as he had a final the next morning, he wasn’t going to go too hard that night.
I arrived before him. I was happy to see a fellow American friend at the party, but other than that, I only really knew the birthday friend and Aurelien. When he walked into the room, holding his pack of beer, I was so happy to see him. I was stressed, and knowing that at least someone there at the party knew I was “faking it” made me feel better, especially it being someone I trusted. He sat next to me on the couch and I was drinking my wine. I know I talked about soccer with someone, specifically about Real Madrid, because I remember the conversation being about Cristiano Ronaldo and how I wasn’t really a fan of his. I talked about Sciences Po and their journalism major with someone else. I gave some girls who had come dressed up in costumes my guacamole recipe. During all this, I know I had a second glass of wine and then… blank.
I am in a dark room. There are lips on mine, and I am thinking they are my boyfriend’s. I touch his face and realize that there is something wrong. This isn’t who I think it is. His hair… it’s long and rough to the touch. This isn’t the hair I know. There’s something wrong here. The smell and taste are not familiar either. Suddenly, I realize who it is. I realize what is going on. I open my eyes and there is just a silhouette on top of me. He’s trying to lead my hands. I can feel what he is trying to do. “It’s not working, s’il-te-plaît arrête°,” I say. Now I can feel the wall against my knuckles, his hands holding mine down. The white light from the moon is coming in from the window behind him, but I can’t see anything.
I didn’t know where I was when I woke up. Everything hurt. I turned to see who was sleeping next to me, but his back was turned to me, and I got a feeling that something happened. There is a recollection of his weight on me, but that couldn’t have happened. I realized that my underwear was missing and I felt a chill run down my spine. I silently started searching for them, finding them under the bed. I put them on, and realized that my bra straps were hanging under my arms, but my dress was still perfectly on. To me that was odd and was an indication that someone had redressed me at some point in the night. I got up and walked to the kitchen. I knew the apartment, I had been there once before. I grabbed a mug and poured myself some water, thinking the whole time “I can’t believe what I am thinking. My boyfriend… what am I going to say? How the hell am I going to explain this? I can’t even explain this to myself.” There was an inkling in my stomach. I knew there was something wrong.
I walked back into the room, where Aurelien was already awake on his phone. I didn’t know what to say, so I layed back down. My name on his screen caught my eye and I realized he was texting someone from the party. I looked away quickly, embarrassed. He asked how I felt. “Like shit.” He laughed and said he wasn’t surprised. He told me that when we left I was having a blast, dancing on the streets. “Can you walk me through yesterday? Because I only remember being at the party.” He told me that I started getting a bit sad at the party and that I wanted to go home. He could see I wasn’t doing well so he decided to take care of me. Apparently, I was dancing on the streets and singing Bella Ciao as we crossed paths with one of his friends who was headed to the party. Afterwards, when we were alone, I gave him a kiss but then stepped away, saying, “you deserve better. I am such a bad person.” Then we got back to his apartment and I ran to the balcony to see the Eiffel Tower and I laid down and he had a hard time convincing me to go to bed. Voilà.
“And what about when we were in bed?” I asked.
“Oh, we kissed.”
“We didn’t do anything more?”
“No, not really… we tried.”
Oh, ok, so technically… I didn’t cheat? I wondered. In all honesty, I was worried about how I was going to explain things to my boyfriend.
The story felt off though, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around how.
I got an Uber and went back to my apartment, where I spent the morning trying my best not to puke. I had a hairdressers appointment that I cancelled. I texted Aurelien, “I am so sorry about what happened last night… it stays between us right?”
“Really Veronica, don’t be sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong, and I don’t mind that you came to my apartment.”
I had to ask him if anything serious happened between us. I asked him if we had only kissed and touched each other. He told me he believed so but that he was in the same state as I had been and didn’t remember much, and that it wasn’t important. Right. It wasn’t important.
Lying in bed, I felt sick. Not in a nauseated way, rather a foreboding sense of disgust. My body felt off. I was in it but at the same time, I felt detached. I ordered a burger and fries from a delivery app; greasy food always helps when hungover. An hour later, I didn’t reach the bathroom on time. I puked all over the entrance to the bathroom and I started to cry. I remember cleaning it up and just crying at the filth, and at one point, I just stared at my hands with tears streaming from my eyes, watching how they trembled. I needed to know what was missing.
I asked him what time his final was over and if we could meet up that day. I didn’t want to be annoying, I just needed some clarification and afterwards wanted to forget about it and keep our friendship. He told me he didn’t understand why I was so worried and didn’t understand why our friendship would be over, but told me we could meet up after his final. I couldn’t remember ANYTHING, so I told him I just wanted him to explain some stuff to me, things that he remembered. He repeated that he was in the same state, etc. I added that all I could remember was being at the party and then his apartment.
“As I told you, we kissed the first time on the street, then we went back to my house to sleep, and we slept together¨ and you kissed me and then I went along with it.”
I asked if anyone had seen me kiss him and he tried reassuring me that it wasn’t like we had killed someone, and that it really wasn’t that big of a deal.
In this long chain of messages he finished by telling me it would stay between us and that he really hadn’t told anyone. “Trust me.”
“Yes, I trust you.”
I was in denial. We met up for dinner and he explained the same story again. The scene in my head of him on top of me just wouldn’t disappear. He did confess that we tried having sex, but it didn’t really work. That night, we had dinner and then went our separate ways. That was the last we would ever talk about it in depth.
I was so stressed with finals. Everything was a blur. I didn’t even want to celebrate my birthday. I had to continue seeing him. It was inevitable. I just wanted things to be normal and there was no way around it.
That summer was one of the worst of my life. I felt so detached. I still didn’t understand what had happened. When people hugged me or touched me, my body would tense up. My boyfriend and I were fighting a lot. When I was alone, if I ever felt a panic attack come on, I would often eat to the point of sickness just to feel something and come back to reality. This didn’t help with the body image issues I have had since I was 10. I was going out and drinking too much. I wanted to forget my life. Anytime my boyfriend and I were intimate, I felt uncomfortable. I felt dirty, and I felt like I could contaminate him with my filth. I was paranoid for months that I was pregnant. I took multiple home tests, hiding them from my boyfriend.
In October, I started freaking out during an intimate session with my boyfriend. There was something in the way it was happening that sent me back to that night, and images just started flooding my mind. I wasn’t with my boyfriend anymore, I was with Aurelien in his room.
That was the moment I knew.
I had been seeing a new therapist over the course of the summer. When I went after that flashback, I left the session having whispered the word. I couldn’t even look her in the eyes.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel anything. I left in a second wave of shock.
The next morning I was sitting in class, but I wasn’t in class. I started writing out how I felt. I couldn’t believe this was true, but it WAS true. I knew it, deep in my soul. It was driving me insane. Looking in the mirror, I often didn’t recognize the person that was staring back. I started having lots of panic attacks, sometimes blacking out. There were times when I would come back to reality after an attack lying in my bathroom, scratch marks all over my body, not knowing how I had gotten there. I was scared. I ended up going to the emergency room, which sent me to a place between a hospital and a psychiatric ward. I spent one night there before my dad flew to France and picked me up. I couldn’t stop analyzing what happened to me. I felt so guilty. Maybe if I hadn’t worn that dress, my favorite dress. Maybe if I hadn’t talked to him about the fight with my partner. Maybe if I hadn’t… what if I had… I felt like I couldn’t stop thinking about it nor feeling guilty. I felt bad that this event had hurt my family and loved ones.
I was so close to quitting school and moving back to the United States, giving up on everything I had worked for. Whenever I would cross paths with him in my daily life, I would force a smile even though my legs were buckling. I didn’t feel like I could tell our friends what happened that night and the aftermath because they would choose sides, and even tell him about what I had lived. I didn’t want to start anything, I just wanted to figure out how to live with something like that without wanting to scream. At some points, when I knew I was going to have to see him, I would take a sedative beforehand so I would feel nothing. What would throw me off was crossing paths without being prepared, which happened twice. Each time, we chatted but I always found an excuse two-minutes in about why I had to go. Apparently, he knew something was up. He was asking around if I was mad at him. He did keep his word though, at least with our mutual friends, because when I opened up about what happened, no one knew anything. I do have doubts about a certain friend of his, the one he was texting the morning I woke up next to him. I saw this friend once, when I was with a group of friends, and he said hi to everyone except me (which I didn’t mind, I was happy to be invisible).
How can one night turn into hours, weeks, months and years of doubt and anxiety?
It has been two years now since my sexual assault. I have learned to live with it, but I will never be the person I was before. There will never be a clear resolution. I still don’t remember what happened between the moment of giving my guacamole recipe to those girls and those snapshots of being in his bed. I don’t know what happened after the few seconds of what I remember. I have my doubts, specifically due to my bra straps hanging below my arms with my dress perfectly intact. I also know how I woke up, and the pain that I felt. My therapist explained that between the alcohol and the traumatic event, my brain could be rejecting those memories to protect myself. My American friend who was at that party told me about how I was at the brink of tears, and how at one point I was suddenly headed towards the door, saying that I just wanted to go home. He offered to take me back to my place, but Aurelien told him he would take care of me and not to worry. I know how I am when I am at that point of drunkness (crying and tired). I become difficult, not wanting to move and I can fall asleep just about anywhere and refuse to budge. That’s why those two versions, my American friend’s and Aurelien’s, don’t match up for me. I remember Aurelien saying the night we had dinner, “how would you have done it without me? You would have probably slept on the streets!” I don’t know what I would have preferred, but I remember wondering if sleeping on the streets would have been the better option.
I battled a lot, and still do, with my reality. I have a lot of doubts and have a hard time trusting my memory. A lot of people question the authenticity of stories like these, leading survivors who have lived these experiences to doubt themselves even more. I need to accept what happened to me. During the course of that whole night, where was my consent?
I have a hard time with the debate of going legal or not. I don’t feel like it would be a “formal ending” to the story. It would just add more trauma to something already so difficult. Who would believe me? If it goes to trial, am I the only woman he has done this to? What if he has done it to others? I will feel guilty that I did not expose him sooner, that I didn’t protect them. All I really want to do is help others in this situation. For me, retaliation on this man will make me go through a humiliating process in front of strangers who will break down every single piece of my story from that night. My actions after. Why I tried to continue our friendship and act like everything was normal. My sex life. My partners. The way I dress. In Italy in the 1970’s, women in the Libreria delle Donne in Milan (Milan Women’s Bookstore established in 1975) were against reporting sexual violence. Why? Because women are forced to use the patriarchal institution established and controlled by men. “Rape is the political crime against women – as one correctly observed at the time – infanticide is the political crime of women: rejection of the unjust law that imposes on women an interpretation of an unfree, anatomical of their human destiny… Its cause is in the fact that men consider the female body as something they can dispose of, with no other conditions than those derived from the state of relations between men. In consequence, to face their causes, to obtain authentic reparation, a woman cannot count on the institutions conceived by men to ensure justice in the relationships between them.” (No creas tener derechos: La generación de la libertad femenina en las ideas y vivencias de un grupo de mujeres p. 103-104). Reading this, I couldn’t help but agree. We still see this in the XXI century. The easiest example to give and the most obvious is the Brock Turner case. Look at what is happening to the singer Kesha. What did the Italian women of the 1970’s propose? Abandon the institutions created by and for men, and make our own. We need confidence in other women to truly beat the patriarchal system. We are now starting to see it, thanks to movements like #MeToo or the French version, #BalanceTonPorc.
What is now important to me is how I am moving forward.
It stripped me of my identity. It stripped me of my sense of self-worth. It made me feel exposed and helpless. It ruined relationships.
I don’t know if I will ever be ok.
I do not want this event to define who I am.
What I hope is to be seen as is a survivor. What I hope to do, by sharing my story, is to help others feel more comfortable in sharing theirs. From the moment I started opening up about that awful night, I heard stories from friends who never opened up about their own events to me. It made me feel less alone but made me realize that sadly enough, this is something that happens too often, and it seems like these events are almost a normality.
This event doesn’t make me who I am, but it has now and forever will be a part of my history. In telling this story, I have felt a strength in me I haven’t felt in years and a control over my life that had slipped through my fingers from the moment the event occurred. Our stories tell us who we were, who we are and the person that we can become tomorrow. In sharing my story and breaking it down piece by piece, the before, during and after, it helped me reflect a lot on myself as a person and as a woman. For the longest time I believed I was dirty, pathetic and an awful human-being. When I first realized what he had done to me, I believed that it was due to the nature of our relationship and my fault for potentially having led him on, not due to his nature as a person. It took a lot of reflection to realize that what happened to me was not, and will never be, my fault.
Sitting down to put myself back at that moment, all I want to do is hug that Veronica, the one that was so confused and trying to rationalize things out. Of course he couldn’t have done something like this. He was my friend.
I still have the dress. I wore it multiple times during those five months between the assault and my realization. Now I have a hard time thinking about wearing it again, and it’s such a shame because I love it. I still have it, always packed away with my out of season clothes. I will wear it this summer, drinking wine by the Seine with my friends, the family I have made who have loved me through every anxiety episode and who have seen me start to laugh with freedom roaring from the bottom of my heart again. It will be the final step in taking back my narrative.
* Names in this article have been changed.
° Please stop.
¨ Not the same undertone as it can have in English. The phrase he used was literally to sleep, to fall asleep. (Dormir)
I want to thank Anais, Colleen, Kelly, Silvia, Tess and Victoria. Without these women, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to write this. Thank you for being a helping hand in this story, for listening to me rant for days, weeks and years about the way I have wanted to move forward with my life… thank you from the bottom of my heart.
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