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.