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How Do You React to Your Rapist?

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On October 23rd I had the honor of speaking on a panel at Harvard's Graduate School of Education about Title IX in Higher Education and the effect of sexual assault on students. The panel itself was interesting, all the people were great, but halfway through I broke down into hysterical sobbing that continued, intermittently, for several hours.

It wasn't the questions or the nature of the discussion or the memories that were being rekindled -- it was the innocuous presence of a former Amherst College dean.

A dean, just a dean.

Not even one who I dealt with that often or who treated me terribly.

Seeing an Amherst dean who I knew from my too short college years, made me break down in hysterics in front of strangers at Harvard.

When I first met her that night, I honestly didn't remember who she was: She introduced herself and made it clear that we had met before. I had that horrible moment of awkwardly trying to remember who she was, failing, and moving on. It wasn't until the panel started that the gears in my brain made the connection back to Amherst. Suddenly this torrent of Amherst-era memories, the good and the bad, flopped on top of me.

Then the crying started.

For the first time in a year I couldn't compose myself; no matter how hard I tried to ground myself or focus on "happy thoughts," I couldn't stop crying. I eventually had to walk off the panel and exit the room.

In the aftermath of the panel, I've been thinking a lot about what happened. I saw one dean from Amherst and had a breakdown. What if, one day, my rapist walks into a room with me? What would I do? How would I react?

When I was at Amherst I was terrified of seeing my rapist. I exited buildings when he walked in, I avoided the area around the science building where he had most of his classes, and I once hid in a janitor's closet for twenty minutes because he was loitering by an exit.

That was over a year ago though, so what would I do now?

When I was struggling at Amherst, I began going to a group therapy session in town that was open to any survivor in Hampshire Valley. There were about six women; I was the youngest by roughly fifteen years. The women there were in their thirties to late seventies and had been raped when they were children or teenagers. They were still struggling with their rapes, fifty years later.

They had all suppressed their rapes for decades. Most of them had been so traumatized as children that they had literally forgotten what happened, until, years later, their defenses fell and it came flooding back. They had all been raped by male relatives -- fathers, uncles, brothers, etc. -- most of them still had to see these people on a regular basis.

None of them had ever confronted their relatives about what had happened.

I spent about six weeks going to the group therapy before I withdrew from Amherst and moved to Wyoming. Thinking back on these therapy sessions helps me make sense of how I would react to my rapist. My therapy-mates had thousands of opportunities to confront their rapists, but they never did, and they were some of the strongest women I have ever met.

One of them said something that still rings with me, I will always be the child who was raped, but I know now that I can protect her and comfort her. I can show her that she's strong and beautiful and that what happened to her shouldn't have happened, but did happen. The people who hurt her don't deserve her time and thought, because she's so much better than them in every way.

So how would I react to my rapist?

There is the revenge-fantasy part of me that would nonchalantly throw him across a room and tell him that he's a disgusting human. There's the hurt, petrified part of me that would curl into a ball under a chair and sob. There's the educated, activist part of me who would go up to him and sternly tell him about sexual assault, it's repercussions, and how I firmly believe he should be in jail.

What I genuinely hope though, if I ever see my rapist again, is to look at him with contempt and be able to walk up to him and say, You don't define me.

And then just walk away.

I know that my rape will never fully go away. There may be days when my rape is unbelievably raw and painful, even fifty years later, but there will be other days when I can laugh, love, and smile and completely forget that I was raped. Those are the days when I realize how strong and beautiful every Survivor is, even after being raped. Those are the days that Survivors live for, and that I fight for.