I remember the first time a boy kissed me. I was in second grade and we were standing in line at school. The boy turned and planted one on me. I was so shocked I started crying. The teacher asked me what was wrong and I told her. She told me to get over it.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that when I was sexually assaulted at 13, I told no one but my diary. When I was raped at 16, I told no one but my diary. It took nearly a decade for me to admit to close friends and my future husband what had happened to me. I still don’t think I’ve told my parents outright, but I’m sure they know something is up given my recent social media posts, especially in the wake of the Stanford student’s weak sentencing.
At the time, I didn’t even know what happened to me wasn’t my fault.
It’s a strange thing to be in your 30s and read your own words about these incidents. I had picked up my diaries while writing the first draft of my debut novel The Wilding. I wanted to remember what it was like to be 13 and 14 years old. I found a girl that needed that teacher back in second grade to have told her that no boy should have kissed her without her permission. I found a girl that, when she was 13, had a witness intervene and ask if she was OK (because she really wasn’t).
These assaults have a way of snowballing. No one seems to tell you that. Well, maybe they would have if I had felt I could talk about them. I recently told a man about the first, the second and … He stopped me. He said, “So you started attention seeking and putting yourself in those situations?” I actually felt myself start to agree with him. I wanted to say yes. But no, that would make it my fault. That would be me accepting some of the blame for what was done to me. And I refuse to admit guilt. It was not my fault for not telling someone. It was not my fault for not kicking the guy in the balls. It was not my fault for being alone and separated from my friends.
I brought my assaults into a scene in my book to break the isolating feeling I have felt for so long. I wanted young girls to read it and see that it happens to a strong, fierce person.
In Part 1, protagonist Aideen’s childhood friend forces himself on her before the race begins. Afterward, Aideen wonders why she let him do that to her. Did she actually want it? What was wrong with her? That self-blame came straight from my diary entries.
The truth is that for Aideen, for myself, and for many girls (much more than statistics will reveal because my assaults went unreported) this happened and they don’t know how to make sense of it all. And they will often blame themselves because they should have been smarter. They should have known what to say. They shouldn’t have put themselves in that situation. They shouldn’t have flirted.
What takes forever to learn — if it’s learned at all — is that it isn’t your fault. You did nothing wrong.
I have said before that The Wilding’s Eachann has feminist qualities to its society. Women have equal stature to men and there isn’t a dominating patriarchy. But that doesn’t mean Eachann is problem-free. There is slavery. There is subjugation. There are separate classes and an evident wealth disparity. And rape culture thrives when there is power and when there is a separation of community. (More on this in the sequel The Faming, due out some time before I die, hopefully.)
What happens to Aideen is more than an individual moment. It’s more than an internal struggle for Aideen. It’s a reflection of the society in which Aideen lives that this happens and she tells no one. Maybe if she was back home she could tell her mother or tell her close friends. But in North, after leaving her family behind, she has no community and no way to deal with what has happened to her. She’s all alone for the first time in her life, and that’s where these things fester.
Later, Aideen reacts with a resiliency I’m sure others have but have never had myself.
A few months back, I was the victim of a road rage incident. The man chased me through traffic and tried to run me off the road. Panic seized me and I couldn’t think straight for days afterward. I cried spontaneously and found myself unable to breathe. When my husband was holding me and I was sobbing endlessly, I said: “I can’t believe I let him scare me so much.”
Because it felt like my fault. Why couldn’t I do anything to stop the situation? Why didn’t I think to stop at the police station? Why didn’t I brandish the gun, stowed in my glove compartment box, and tell him not to mess with me?
But as time went on, the line changed to, “Even if I cut him off (which I didn’t), he had no right to come after me the way he did. He had no right to scare me and try to attack me.” And that stuck. Not because I kept saying it, but because my husband listened and said I did nothing wrong. And because the cops listened and said I did nothing wrong. And because my friends listened and said I did nothing wrong.
Aideen might have been able to overcome her feeling of blame without the help of close friends, but I’m not made of such strong stuff and I’m willing to bet that most of us just need to have someone listen and say we did nothing wrong.