In the early 1980s, when I was in my first year in college, I was raped by a man who followed me to my dorm room after a party.
I understood that reporting it would have meant possibly engendering the wrath of my whole dorm, fellow students who had clandestine parties with lots of alcohol and illicit drugs. I was an underage freshman at the time. The cops and the school administration would have had to address that, and it would have been all my fault.
It was my fault anyway. I shouldn’t have been so drunk. I should have not walked back to my room alone. I should have taken a defensive stance when a person I just met unlocked my door. Even though the 1980s represented a feminist awakening when it came to exposing campus rape, the women who came forward then were still vilified for their behavior, and mostly blamed and disbelieved.
At the time, I knew what had happened to me wasn’t right, and I was devastated by it. But I struggled with believing it was a crime. I was raised by deeply Christian parents who thought men and women should conform to narrow gender roles, and for women, that often meant acquiescence, acceptance and silence. Despite the love of my parents, and a whole raft of friends and professionals I could have talked to, I kept quiet about “what had happened to me.” I couldn’t even face calling it rape.
All these years later, #MeToo experiences are in my social media feed and every news source every day. After all the time I spent being silent, I find the public outrage refreshing. Finally, finally, our society is taking rape culture seriously.
I first started writing and publishing about my rape experience in 2006 — after a period of recovery that supported the nerve to do it. It’s still hard, though. I also find myself feeling triggered by so many of the stories, thinking, don’t I know it, and God, I hope what happened to you doesn’t lead to the same lifetime of emotional fallout.
I particularly resonate with the gymnasts abused by Larry Nassar, young women robbed of their innocence, finding the courage to speak in ways I couldn’t when I was their age, overcoming the attempts to be bullied into silence by an association in extreme denial. Their recent $500 million settlement with Michigan State University pleases me, but it’s only one step in a process of rebuilding a life.
For me, healing was a long time coming. Rape is something I will never entirely get over, but it isn’t all there is to my identity. And perhaps my path to healing might be considered idiosyncratic.
I turned to belly dance to regain my pride, to feel control of my body and its purpose. It changed my life in myriad ways. Most of all it answered the need I felt deep down to find the courage to speak.
Maybe that isn’t so unusual after all, even if it strikes me as personally profound. My therapist had counseled that healing from trauma comes from embracing one’s body in physical movement. I’d resisted her advice, but once I went for it, I was able to intentionally unwind the past and be liberated from its negative impacts.
And yet. The media loves a victim, and how the stories are framed feels at times like old tropes about damsels in distress. What I want to focus on is surviving and healing. It’s what I’m hoping for most in this era of #MeToo.
We do need the expression of anger. We also need stories that go beyond the hurt, that provide a spark or an idea for how to live in ways that go beyond feeling like damaged goods. We shouldn’t have to be portrayed as eternally freaked out, vulnerable, self-punishing or righteously angry all the time.
My wish for the gymnasts, and all of us #MeToo sisters, is that we go inside the skin we are blessed to be in, and let our minds and muscles release the burden #MeToo holds within. Speaking out didn’t make me want to be an advocate. Finding the source of my power did.
Patricia Cumbie, of Minneapolis, is author of “Where People Like Us Live” (young adult fiction) and the forthcoming memoir “The Shape of a Hundred Hips.”