(When I’m about to go to a scary mental place, I visit the imaginary house in my head. Here’s a visual approximation, in case you need to pop in for tea while reading.)
(Trigger warning: this post describes two different sexual assaults a degree of non-graphic detail.)
I’m not really good at coming up with hot takes on current issues. As a writer, the amount of time I need to sit with my thoughts and offer conclusions generally exceeds a story’s lifetime in the 24 hour news cycle. But the recent commentary about the Brock Turner rape case in California made me realize that there is a discussion I have wanted to initiate about justice in rape cases, and how we deal with rapists as individuals, for a long while now. I just wasn’t sure how to do it without talking about things that have happened to me; and while normally I don’t hesitate to mine the insanity of my life for reflective essay material, this is one subject where my thoughts are permanently scattered.
I’m going to try to un-scatter them here, though.
I feel sorry for Brock Turner. I feel sorry for him even though, based on the evidence available to me, he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing rape. I don’t give him a pass for being drunk, because I have been drunk often enough to know that you don’t do anything while impaired that you didn’t want to do while you were sober. I don’t give him a pass for being young, or talented, or having his whole life ahead of him, or any of that. I want him to face justice.
Even so, I feel a stirring of pity for him, and here’s why.
Based on the tone of the defensive comments that those close to him are making, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in Turner’s personal life,who is going to help him face the kind of justice he needs for the good of his own soul. Certainly the legal system has let him down in that respect, although I’m not talking specifically about the inexcusably truncated jail sentence he’s facing.
The pity I feel for Turner is an empathy that comes from my having been a child in the power of abusive adults who inflicted arbitrary punishments on me without warning.Being “in trouble” is the most terrifying thing that can happen to a kid who grew up like I did. To this day, nothing triggers my panic faster than feeling that I’ve fucked up and no one will explain what I did wrong.
So I can’t help relating slightly to the terror of this young man, who is so clearly bewildered by the response his crime has generated. He knows he’s in trouble; it’s clear that he doesn’t really understand what he did. And though it seems that he’s surrounded by “supportive” people who are eager to give him a pass and help him move past this period in his life, the help they’re giving him isn’t the help he needs.
I know it’s weird to draw a parallel between growing up with abuse and being justly convicted of a crime. I suspect that some of my fellow survivors will understand where I’m coming from here, but that most people, survivors or otherwise, won’t. I have no desire to argue with anyone who feels only unalloyed rage towards Turner and men like him.
This is all I have to say: I got to grow up and come to the realization that I didn’t do anything wrong when I was a kid—that the adults who terrorized me were the wrong ones. Brock Turner, though, should he ever go on a successful quest for the truth inside himself, will have to face the fact that he violated another human being. This is a much harder destination for a person on a self-awareness journey to reach.
I am not sure if it will be harder for Turner to acknowledge that he’s guilty than it has been for me to acknowledge that I was innocent. I just know what it’s like to go through life keeping secrets of that magnitude from yourself. It’s no way to live.
Two and a half years ago, in February of 2014, I was raped by a man who lived down the street from me. I had just turned 32; he was 64. I was drunk at the time; he was sober. I entered his home willingly, because I was lonely and he was friendly; he was my father’s age, and it simply never occurred to me that he might have a sexual interest in me.
When he started ordering me to do things—to remove articles of my clothing, or touch parts of his body—I didn’t resist at first, because sometimes, when I’m drunk, I’m more or less an empty vessel. I didn’t realize that I was being raped until he penetrated me after I specifically told him not to. That was the only thing I managed to verbally say no to, and he did it anyway.
In a way, I am grateful that happened. I wrestle so much with all the self-blame I’ve internalized that I’m not sure I’d have had the nerve to call what happened to me rape if he hadn’t crossed that one clearly delineated line.
When I managed to get out of his house, about three hours after I entered it, I stumbled down the street to the house where I was staying and met my roommate at the front door. I don’t know if I would ever have told anyone what happened if I hadn’t been too drunk to keep my composure. (Since then, I have often regretted that I ever said anything to anyone; I shouldn’t regret it, but I do.) She took me inside, got me water, gave me a minute to catch my breath, and started asking the triage questions: Did I need or want to go to the hospital? (No.) Did I leave anything at his house? (Yes; my favorite pashmina scarf. I still miss it.) Did I want to call the police? (No.)
The people I’m closest to are all well-educated about sexual violence, so I didn’t have to find ways to explain or justify my decision not to report the rape. My roommate bought me the prohibitively expensive morning-after pill. My girlfriend patiently set her own problems aside and allowed me to be hysterical to the point of self-indulgence for the next few months. I was well taken care of, for the most part. But I spent a lot of time explaining my decision to myself—breaking down my choice not to go to the police, as if I was preparing to be cross-examined on the subject.
Here, roughly in order of importance, are the reasons I eventually identified out of the morass of confused emotion I was experiencing:
1.) About a year before it happened, a good friend of mine had been sexually assaulted in her sleep by a mutual friend. She dozed off, fully dressed, in his company; she woke up a few hours later with her dress hiked up and his fingers inside her. I put her in touch with some people I knew in the criminal justice system; I also told our friends who employed the assaulter and owned the establishment in which the assault took place. My friend was told by a sympathetic female police officer that, on the slim chance he was convicted, he would face, at most, probation and community service. Meanwhile, our friends sided with the assaulter, and made sure to point out how short my friend’s dress had been. I was stunned. I honestly thought her case would be open and shut, both in the legal arena and in the opinions of our friends.
My case, by comparison, seemed to me nowhere near open and shut. More like a nightmare cliche of he said/she said, with the bonus that I’d been drinking. I didn’t feel like there was any chance I’d be taken seriously.
2.) If I was taken seriously—if my rapist did get arrested, charged, tried, convicted—I knew that I would never stop wondering if the only reason was because this was the south, and I was white, while he was black. Maybe that shouldn’t have mattered to me, but it did, and it strongly influenced my decision.
3) Even if the other two factors hadn’t been relevant, there was one inescapable barrier in the way of my reporting: I didn’t want my rapist to go to prison. The American prison system is so fucked up that I very rarely want anyone to go there, regardless of their crime. I want damage limitation; I want reparative justice; I want lives to be examined and rebuilt. Yes, there is a strong argument for getting my rapist off the street, but I didn’t have the spoons to put the needs of hypothetical future victims ahead of my own. And even if I had…
4.) …I didn’t want to punish the man who raped me. I didn’t think punishing him would keep him from raping again. Let me clarify my language: I didn’t want to make him suffer. I wanted him to suffer, but I wanted those pangs and knives to come from inside him. I wanted him to understand why what he did to me was wrong. Because I know, in my heart of hearts, that the man who raped me doesn’t understand that he raped me.
The night that it happened, when I finally pulled myself together enough to get my clothes back on over his orders and protests, the man who raped me looked at me sadly and said, “I’m never going to see you again, am I?” I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what he meant by that. Did he see me as a romantic catch that was now slipping through his fingers? Or was it dawning on him that the way he’d treated me wasn’t something anyone would willingly subject themselves to twice? I think it might have been both. It might even have crossed his mind that I was going to unfairly accuse him of rape, because rape culture has indoctrinated men to think that women are vengeful sadists who cry rape any time they have a dissatisfying sexual encounter. But I don’t honestly think he understood that rape, was, in fact, what had just happened between us.
From everything that I’ve read, that seems to be true of most men who rape. They don’t see the rapes they commit because they don’t really understand what rape is. They’ve reached semantic satiation with that word. They don’t understand that it refers to much more than the physical act of non-consensual sex, that it encompass loss of power and a sense of violation that lingers long after bruises fade. They don’t empathize with loss of power or violation from the the victim’s perspective, though they are fast enough to guard their own sense of power from the faintest hint of threat.
So when I say that I feel a little bad for Brock Turner, because his life has become a nightmare and no one he knows can explain why—when I say that I’m angry about his truncated jail sentence because of the message it sends, but not because I think he needs to be in prison—it doesn’t mean that I don’t want him to pay. You cannot grasp the depths of my wanting him to pay. I want him to suffer as only empathy and a guilty conscience can make a person suffer . I want him to feel everything that his victim has endured because of him, and for him to suffer it without the important consolation that he is suffering in innocence. If I had the magical powers that I deserve to wield on account of my majesty, I would literally pry the two halves of his little blonde skull open and pour suffering, raw and thick, into his undefended cranium. I would make it so that every day, for the rest of his life, he remembered what he’d done, and what it meant in the deeper sense for his victim, his community, and his world.
If I was in charge of Brock Turner, I wouldn’t put him in an American prison—I would lock him inside his own mind with only a mirror to keep him company until he understood.
Justice is simple for some people. I envy them. Justice is something that I can only get by magic—the magic of grace, redemption, self-awareness, and repentance. May it flow down like water.