‘Thank goodness I’ve never been raped.” This is often my first thought when confronted with a news item about the prevalence of sexual assault on our nation’s college and university campuses.
Yet I was sexually assaulted when I was 22. It just wasn’t called that in the 1960s. My experience would now fall into the category of “date rape,” another term yet to be invented. He was an international student at the university where I was taking a course in German to prepare for my graduate language exams. I thought he was gallant and exotic. Perhaps he regarded me as one of those “easy” American girls.
He did not penetrate me, but I came away from our struggle with deep bruises on my neck, arms and legs that alarmed my mother (fearing the worst) and took several weeks to fade. Of course, I assumed I’d been foolish to trust him. I assumed it was my fault.
Fifty years later, with two marriages and many love affairs behind me, I am still able to say that I’ve never been forcibly penetrated. Yet many of my young students are not so fortunate.
I discover this painful news when I teach a course on memoir, which includes Patricia Weaver Francisco’s book “Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery.” Francisco was raped in 1981 in the city where I live by a man who broke into her apartment, blindfolded her and held her hostage for several hours. Wielding a knife, he threatened to return and “cut off her nose” if she called the police. She did.
When I first taught this class, I offered students the option of writing a critical essay on one of the readings or a memoir of their own. All chose to write memoir. I was unprepared for one of my students’ submissions — a graphic account of her being raised by a drug-addicted mother and raped at age 14 by the boyfriend of her older sister. Her narrative was gripping in its details and powerfully written. She was one of the first students to present her work to the class, and I worried about how the other students might respond. I needn’t have; they were all insightful and empathic.
The next time I taught this class, I added a writing exercise to precede our discussion. I asked: “Was this book hard for you to read? If so, how?” This group consisted of 11 freshmen (nine women and two men), none of whom shared Francisco’s experience. The consensus was: “I didn’t enjoy reading this book, but I’m glad that I did.”
The following year, I received an e-mail from a female student who did not attend the first class meeting, saying that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that she was apprehensive about reading Francisco’s “Telling.” Could I find a way to accommodate her? Thinking she wanted me to suggest an alternate assignment, I said I was sorry but the reading was required. I didn’t hear from her again.
Another student asked to talk with me about her participation in class. She worried about her ability to contribute to discussions, due to anxiety. I assured her that I would not call on her unless she raised her hand. This student did not miss a single class and contributed substantially to discussions. When it came time to discuss “Telling,” she wrote that she was not sure she could come to class. I urged her to do so, and she did — making several incisive comments.
Yet another student asked to speak to me in person about her final memoir project. She revealed a history of PTSD and asked for my advice about writing. The gist of my response was: “If you feel ready to do this, writing will help.” When I asked my class to comment on whether “Telling” had been difficult for them to read, she said the book had been hard for her, because she had been raped and had experienced many of the PTSD responses that Francisco describes. Other students, emboldened by her courage and candor, spoke more freely about their own responses to the book.
There is power, as I have learned, in both telling and writing.
Looking back now at my e-mail message to the student who did not come to the first class meeting, I regret that I did not request to meet with her in person to discuss her difficulty (as I did later in the semester with the other two students who sought me out) and to encourage her to address her fear by reading the book in the company of empathic others. Francisco’s book is about rape, yes; but its focus is on recovery. I wish I could tell her now that she may have more resources than she thinks she does, which might be strengthened by a caring environment.
Would a “trigger warning” have helped? Perhaps, as a first step in a more complex engagement — as it did with the two students I have described.
As for me? I had no one to talk to about my experience (except my older brother, who inquired on behalf of my frantic mother) and did not mention it to anyone for years.
The guy who wanted so badly to get inside me refrained, I think, because there were others nearby who might have intervened if I had screamed — which I threatened to do but didn’t, mainly from embarrassment. I managed to get away, but not before hearing him tell me that I was a “witch” and that women like me “get their heads chopped off.” Before this, I’d not seen him as crazy or feared for my life.
His words haunted me for a long time after.
Madelon Sprengnether is a professor of English at the University of Minnesota and the author of the forthcoming “Great River Road: Memoir and Memory,” which will be released by New Rivers Press in April 2015.