on moving forward

Despite my introductory post, the first entry in this blog is only slightly about religion, and is political as far as the personal is always political. Sometimes you just need to write. And today, I’m going to write about seeing the man who sexually assaulted me on the street.

It began nearly a year ago, during a bitter Midwestern winter that sucked the emotional fortitude out of everything living. He was my boyfriend for one destructive, chaotic month. It’s strange that the human mind, capable of so much beauty and innovation, can deteriorate over four weeks. But that’s what happened for both of us. He spiraled slowly into the grip of his mental illness, and he dragged me down with him. The events will be familiar to anyone who has survived an abusive relationship. You’ll know, perhaps without being told, that every fight was always my fault. That I was a bad girlfriend, a bad person, and a burden. And when the assault occurred, he was only giving me what he knew I wanted, and that I should stop being such a diva. And I shoved it away to the back of my mind. He was right; I was overreacting. It was a misunderstanding. And God knows why I wanted to take a week’s worth of showers, and why I felt that even if I did I’d never feel clean again.

I went on antidepressants the week of the assault. Two weeks later, he told me he didn’t love me anymore. I snapped. The depression got the better of me, and I spent the night in an ICU with a belly full of charcoal. He came to see me in the hospital, and later he told me I’d said things to him that hurt his feelings. I don’t remember anything I said. Maybe I finally told him the truth: he’d assaulted me, and psychologically abused me, and that I’d finally believed everything he’d ever told me about myself. And I left the hospital and tried to move on with my life. I attended classes, I went to therapy. Picking up the pieces of my life felt as precarious as learning how to walk.

The insults escalated into threats, and a month after I walked out of the hospital, I found the strength to go to the police. But there’s a catch to this story: my abuser is the son of my university’s president. That university is a conservative Southern Baptist institution, situated in the Midwestern tail of the Bible Belt, and sex is forbidden for unmarried students. Admitting the assault meant admitting an otherwise consensual relationship. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure how to explain what had happened. So my personal adventure with the great exercise in futility that is reporting partner abuse in America remained limited to the threats and psychological harassment. Nothing got done. The man who’d nearly raped me got a job on campus and a front row seat at my graduation, courtesy of his father. The closest I’ve ever come to justice occurred when I looked him straight in eye after the ceremony, and he looked away first. It’s the only admission of guilt I have ever received from him.

It’s been seven months since that graduation. I’ve moved to a new town, which though not far from my university is still far enough down the road to give me a needed change of pace. Then I saw him two days ago, walking down the street with a girl I know, with not a care in his face. He saw me, I saw him. Cue panic. I gathered my things and fled.

But I’ve had some time to think since then and I’ve arrived at an important conclusion. He has taken enough of my life, and it ends here. It ended when he kept walking down the street. And although the scars of what he’s done will never disappear, the pain can fade. It’s time to take my life back. So I’m writing this at the same coffee shop table I was occupying when he swaggered down the street. If he’s back, he’s back. I’ll be here, and I’m not leaving.

The reason I’m baring my soul on this blog is simple: I know my story isn’t unique. Partner abuse already carries a stigma within American society, but it is especially rampant in American Christian circles. As I was preparing to visit the police over my ex-boyfriend, I attended a Bible class during which three of my female classmates insisted that abuse is never a reason to divorce. That attitude needs to die. Abuse should never be tolerated for any reason. And I wish that instead of sermons on abstinence, America’s youth group leaders would at least occasionally include one on identifying and resisting abusive partners. Religious women who have survived partner abuse often have nowhere to turn, particularly in denominations like my university’s that adhere to a doctrine of men as the leaders of women. If telling my story can spur women to demand a safe space within their religions, I’ll repeat it as many times as I can.

Maybe, out of all the pain this one man has caused me, something good can be constructed.

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19 thoughts on “on moving forward

  1. Ugh! I feel for you and understand. A couple of months ago my abuser finally found me online and left a message on my blog and do I need to describe how I felt, eek? I wanted to quit my blog because I didn’t want him reading about it, about my life but like you I thought I can’t let this stop me from my journey, my life and the joy in it.
    Nice to find your blog 🙂

  2. Hi Sarah,

    I also clicked the link from Feministing. I’m really excited about your blog!

    Here are a few topics I’d love to see you post on:

    -Christian missions
    -International Christian service or “development” work
    -Constructive relationship building across cultures

    Each of these topics is dynamite-packed with power issues, of courses.

    Best!

  3. Hi Sarah. I also learned of your blog from feministing.
    I have a friends from high school who attends that school. I visited her for a few days last March. It’s definitely a different place up there than my East TN liberal arts college, but everyone was pretty nice to me and I even had some very good conversations with my friend regarding my sexuality and disbelief in God that before college I could never imagine her handling so well. Anyways, we were walking around campus one night and I asked her about rape and sexual assault on campus. She said she was unaware if anyone had ever been raped or assaulted on campus. When I questioned her about the accuracy of that she was very adamant that if something were to happen everyone would know about it. She then went on to talk about how the male students were always very respectful of women and blah blah blah. I didn’t yet define myself as a feminist so I didn’t really know what to say to her about the gender inequality I witnessed there. After all, her friends male and female were extremely nice to me. But I remember being confused by the thought of a college campus with 0 rape cases. I wanted to be excited about it, but somehow couldn’t wrap my head around it (my own campus puts forth an extensive amount of effort to deal with assault yet we still have around 30 reported cases a year…we also have fewer students than Cedarville). I hadn’t given it much thought until reading your blog, but now I wonder how many stories like yours there are at Cedarville. It’s pretty clear that you didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone of power on your campus so it would reason that no one else feels like they can talk either. I can’t really offer a solution because if the administration doesn’t want to talk about it they won’t, but I hope that Cedarville students can find a way to discuss these things more openly.

    • Hi Lucy,

      Your friend sounds pretty typical of students at my school. I think that attitude can be attributed to several factors, one of which is the total lack of discussion about partner abuse. As a student, I’ve overheard a few conversations between couples that I would classify as abusive. The one I remember most clearly occurred in Subway: a couple had just attended church, and the girl was attempting to state her preference for a different pastor. And her boyfriend tore her down for it, all in the name of doctrinal truth. As for male students I’ve found the majority to be highly disrespectful in that their expectations for their female classmates are so narrow. We are to submit, dress modestly, and embody their perceptions of femininity. If a woman fails at any of those three things, she quickly discovers just how disrespectful many of the male students can be.

      Abuse happens. People just don’t recognize. I would love to see women at Cedarville demand a conversation about healthy relationships and the issue of consent.

      • I remember her talking about how the guys there didn’t feel a need to prove their masculinity like other places but I really don’t recall them acting like that. Most of her friends were girls though the guys I hung out with were in fact nice. I do remember one group of guys we ate dinner with being very dominant in conversation while the girls just kind of sat there discussing Vera Bradley wristlets, but it didn’t seem weird to me at the time. I’m really tempted to bring it back up with her and maybe encourage her to talk about healthy relationships with her friends. She hasn’t dated anyone in college but her main high school relationship was really messed up so she’s aware of what’s right and wrong. I honestly have no idea how I’d bring it up to her though, but your story and the comment below mine make me really want to. It’s ridiculous for a woman to not feel safe on her own college campus and definitely within her own relationship.

    • You should know that the woman who runs this blog has disillusioned herself into believing she was assaulted. Yes, the person she dated was in fact an asshole but she’s the one that berated him after he tried to peacefully break the relationship. This story has grown and expanded ever since to suite her needs.

      Admin edit: I emailed this individual a detailed description of the assault. I have received no reply.

      • you should not title yourself as “someone who knows” because clearly you don’t. You admit that the abuser is ‘an assshole’ and you are right on that point, but wrong on the rest. Your opinion is based on information from one side. This is certainly not the amount of information on which to base an opinion. Sarah is not dillusional and does not make up stories to suit her needs. She is telling the truth so that she may grow and move on instead of feeling victimized forever.

      • I believe her. Even if that’s so, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other sexual assault victims at her school who deserve respect and an environment that takes them seriously and will actually help them.

      • Hey, don’t you think maybe she wouldn’t have berated him if he hadn’t raped her?
        A little logic with you coffee?
        Admin edit: Just to be clear, I’m not accusing him of rape, just of sexual assault. I suppose what happened could qualify as attempted rape, but it wasn’t completed.

      • Yes, sorry, I thought the word “rape” in English indicated the two as a same unit.
        So, sorry.
        Also after rereading it my message was a bit aggressive…

      • Don’t worry about it. I just don’t want to accused of making a false accusation any more than I already have been. And I suppose I should have expected those sorts of accusations anyway.

  4. I had a friend at that school who confessed to me that she was raped. I say “confessed” because that’s the attitude with which she relayed it to me. Sadly, she’s married to the guy now. It’s a shame.

    She only mentioned it once; then it was like it never happened. One semester later, she’s got a ring. So bizarre.

  5. This is a very powerful piece. Thank you so much for writing about an experience so personal and painful. I followed the link from feministing and am so happy to have found this blog. You express the complicated aspects of religion and feminism very well.

  6. I agree, it’s a conversation that needs to happen onmy campus. Especially since my abuser happens to be the son of someone in power. If my abuse got covered up, imagine how many more women he’s harmed. It’s frightening to consider how many cases of abuse at that school that have either gone unreported or redirected to counseling instead of treated like the criminal offenses that they really are. And I should mention that I did try to involve the police, and unsurprisingly, they told me there was nothing they could do–even though the police chief informed I was lucky the relationship ended when it did, or he would have put me in the hospital.

      • Yeah, they said there was nothing they could do. But I have no idea whether he’s assaulted anyone else; my point is that nobody would, if the way school handled my situation is any indication of their behavior toward him.

        And I don’t think this attitude is unique to my school. Check out the case of Lizzy Seeburg at Note Dame, for example.

  7. I graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 2002, and in truth I have no idea what the school’s response was or would have been to reported sexual assaults. My suspicion is that partner assaults would have gone unreported because the report would almost always include a “context” of prior consensual sexual involvement, which would be considered a serious breech of the code of conduct. In retrospect it alarms me that I spent four years there blissfully convinced that that sort of thing did not happen on our tiny campus, and now I realize that I was very naive.

    I entered that school a hyperconservative who was more fundamentalist than the school itself, became an egalitarian while I was there, and now am an agnostic (pragmatically an atheist) and hard core feminist. I credit the school with speeding me on my way to these views. This is not because Moody was an awful place, but because it was in many way a great place, the best Evangelicalism has to offer, and was still extraordinarily rife with unthinking male entitlement. These were the men who were often genuinely trying to not be assholes about their conservative gender beliefs, and I learned that no amount of good intention truly ameliorates gender inequality. As you said in your Feministing post, separate-but-equal cannot work with gender any more than it can with race.

  8. Sarah,

    You should’ve confronted me about this “attack” personally before you posted it on the internet. It’s honestly hard to say whether you actually believe what you wrote or if you’re still trying to exact revenge. In any case, you can say whatever you want about me, but keep my family out of it. I have pages and pages of facebook messages in which you are completely unafraid to tell me everything that’s wrong with me, yet no mention of this supposed incident. I’ll admit the breakup went badly, but this isn’t how you get what you want.

    The email address attached is a disposable, but you can contact me there regardless. I’m genuinely asking you to talk to me about this. No matter what contempt you may have for me, I’m humbly requesting a minuscule modicum of decency. We’re both adults. At least pay yourself the respect you deserve by taking it up with me.

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