As a lesbian, I know how powerful coming out is – both personally and culturally. It’s easy for others to make baseless assumptions about groups of people when those people stay hidden out of fear and/or shame.
Today, I feel compelled to ‘come out’ about rape.
All of this political talk about ‘legitimate’ rape and whether raped women can get pregnant has me thinking about my own history with rape. Coming out about rape in our culture is vital. There’s so much victim-blaming, so much rhetoric that treats rape as a myth, as something women fabricate. Most of the women I know well have their own rape stories – from being raped by family members to being raped by friends of the family to date rape to violent rape by strangers.
This is my rape story – a story written over nearly a decade of my childhood – a story that continues to be recited in my brain despite the safety brought with time and distance.
I was raped by one of my older brothers beginning when I was only 7 years old until I was nearly 16. I vividly recall the night he broke my hymen. I was 7 years old, in the first grade. He was only 12. My grandfather had just died. My grandfather was brought home to my parents’ house for his wake and funeral. Family and friends were at the house around the clock, so my brother and I were sent across the road to sleep in what had been my grandfather’s house. I was on the couch under the big picture window, and he was in a roll-away bed in the middle of the room. I remember crying on the couch out of grief about my grandfather’s passing when my brother told me I could get in bed with him. I remember him getting out of bed then coming back with a jar of Vaseline that he sat nearby. I remember the pain between my legs, the blood, my crying, and me begging him to take me back home. I remember the blood stain on my underwear. I remember watching my grandfather being lowered in to the ground two days later and my overwhelming desire to crawl in the ground with him.
That rape was only the first of hundreds.
My brother raped me regularly over the next several years, even after he was older and having sex with his girlfriends. On a few occasions when I was 8 or 9, he even watched as another male cousin raped me. When I was in the third grade, I remember resisting him once, and him threatening to try it on one of my friends who sometimes spent the night with me if I didn’t do what he wanted. He liked to rape me in my parents’ bed when they weren’t home.
The rapes themselves typically were not physically violent, although he was definitely violent with me at other times. I feared him, but I had no way to escape him. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything unless he was with me. Even as I got older, I wasn’t allowed to stay home alone; I could only stay home when he was with me, which almost always included him raping me. Once, out of desperation, I tried to sneak up on him with a knife, but he saw my shadow. He took the knife from me, held me down, and told me he would slice my throat open if I ever tried it again.
Once I reached the age of menarche – when I was 12 years old – I experienced an entirely new level of horror. On a handful of occasions after I began menstruating, I feared my brother had impregnated me through rape. Take a moment and let that sink in. Imagine being 13 years old in an extremely religious household. Imagine that your very own brother has been raping you regularly for the past 6 years and continues to do so. Imagine then realizing that you didn’t get your period this month. Can you imagine that terror, that sense of hopelessness? I still live with those feelings. I remember being alone in the bathroom – which was about the only place I was allowed to be alone in my house – and pounding my lower abdomen with my fists as hard as I could, hoping that I could dislodge any part of him that might have taken root. I knew that if I was pregnant, my only escape would be my own death. I remember sneaking outside of the house in the middle of the night with a knife wondering if I could muster the courage to do it if my period didn’t eventually come. I would press the knife to the skin on my wrist and forearm – just enough to break the skin – wondering if I could press harder if I had to.
The last time my brother raped me was two days before Christmas when I was almost 16. At that point, he was nearly 21 and had apparently decided he should wear a condom when he raped me to minimize the risk of pregnancy. I remember that he bent me over the arm of the sofa and I stared at the Christmas tree while he raped me. Then I heard him curse because he realized the condom broke. My period didn’t come in January, and the whole cycle of planning my own suicide started in my head again. But something was also changing in me. Despite my inner terror, I was an excellent student, and teachers were starting to seriously talk to me about college. For the first time in my life, I began to think there might be a way out. When my period finally returned in February, I decided that I would do my best to lay low and avoid being alone with my brother until I could finish high school and escape to college.
My brother never raped me again, but I wasn’t able to tough it out to finish high school at home. About a year later as I began to talk more seriously about going to college, my mother made it clear to me that I would not be allowed to go to college unless my rapist brother went with me. Her plan was this: He and I could live together while I went to school. He could get a job, and I could take care of the house. I felt completely, utterly, blackest-pit-of-despair hopeless. I had a breakdown at school the next day, which led me to tell a trusted teacher, who helped me get out of my home and into a safer environment.
I spent a lot of years blaming myself for my own victimization, asking myself what I could have and should have done to prevent it all. Through the years of abuse and rape, nearly every other member of my immediate family became aware of what was happening or had happened. Once, when I was about 8 years old, our older sister caught my brother raping me. I remember her taking him to the other room and yelling at him. I remember it was the first time I had heard the word ‘incest’. When I was about 9 or 10, I remember being with my father in his pick-up truck and him asking what my brother and I had been doing. When I told him, he told me he would talk to my brother and make it stop. He also told me that he wasn’t going to tell my mother, because she would just whoop us both. My other brother also knew about it, and even admitted that my rapist brother had told him that he also wanted to have sex with our sister and even our mother. Despite this knowledge, my family sided with my rapist brother time after time over the years, accusing me of lying, making up their own versions of reality. I suppose it’s easier for them to scapegoat me, to blame the victim, than to accept and examine bigger systemic problems in our family.
If you know my family of origin and are finding this shocking and unimaginable, I really wish I could tell you that this story isn’t true. I wish, for my own sake, that none of this ever happened. But it did, and not talking about it only makes it worse.
For years, I resisted calling what my brother did to me rape. But it was rape. This is my rape story. And I wish I could tell you that my rape story ended staring at the Christmas tree 18 years ago. But rape stays with you forever. It haunts you in your waking hours and in your sleep. I have struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life because of those repeated rapes. I still, on occasion, have flashbacks that interfere with intimacy in my relationship. I still have horrible nightmares that my wife tries to wake me from them when she hears me whimpering in my sleep.
The worst part about having a rape story is that the story never really ends. And hearing people in positions of power imply that only some rapes are ‘legitimate’ and that women who get pregnant as a result of rape weren’t really raped just adds to the shame, horror, guilt, and hopelessness that so many of us survivors of rape continue to face.
I am a survivor of rape. But survival never comes easily.