BY JULIA BOHM
Finalist for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose
1. Brenda is your trauma therapist issued by the state of New York, good for 12 free sessions, no need for insurance. She works out of Family Services in Poughkeepsie which is a forty minute drive from the liberal arts campus. You arrive at her warm office and sit in the red chair across from her where she asks you to begin by telling her about the event in question. She uses the words sexual trauma. How should you describe the event?
- With specific details — horrifying, violent (e.g. “He held me down.” “I fought back.” etc.).
- With certainty about what he looked like (e.g. blond, tall, athletic, etc.).
- With uncertainty about your memory of the event (e.g. “I was drunk.” “It was late” etc.).
- With certainty of the event but not of your memory of the event (e.g. “I don’t want to use the word ‘rape.’”).
2. Brenda says Trauma (capital T) is both the event and the symptoms (though she doesn’t like the word symptoms). Do you have trouble sleeping? Are you angrier now? Do you have intrusive thoughts?
- I hate that I see him in the cafeteria, the gym, the hallway, etc.
- I hate him so much I dream about him.
- I hate him so much I throw up after seeing him.
- I hate him so much I am so angry I throw up he waves at me I feel sick I lose sleep I think about him etc.
3. Your Psychology professor is young, in his first semester of teaching and loves his job. He defines learning as what “Enables us to understand probabilities and contingencies as we perceive and interact with our environment, with the goal of minimizing prediction error (i.e. “surprise”)” Is learning a reaction to trauma? A symptom?
- I am allowed to fear the dog that bit me and to avoid dogs.
- I am a terrible student because I am afraid of nothing, not even men.
- I am allowed to fear him so long as I tell no one not even myself.
- I am a terrible student because after everything he hit me up and I let him, he kissed me and I let him, I sucked his dick, I didn’t scream.
4. Brenda wants to hear about the not sleeping. Is it interrupted sleep? Is it insomnia? Is it nightmares?
- After he fucked me he grabbed me by the waist and held me down until I fell asleep.
- I’ve never slept well with other people in my bed. They’re always too loud, too restless, too warm.
- When he fucked me he held me down when we slept he held me down when I woke up he was on top of me holding me down.
- I don’t know what happened in between his waking up and my waking up. It could be any number of things, none of which I could have consented to because I was asleep but nonetheless occurred while I was sleeping.
5. Let’s backtrack a bit says Brenda. Let’s talk about the hospital. What was it that prompted you to get a rape kit if you don’t want to use to word rape? (That’s not an accusation, by the way. She’s just interested in language.)
- I never would have gone to the hospital if I’d know it was 15 envelopes including a cervical swab and vaginal exam. (They kept my underwear in a plastic bag. They called it all evidence.)
- The nurse asked me for his name which I gave and which I knew how to spell perfectly.
- The nurse spoke of the proverbial “him.” What he did. Whether or not it was violent.
Where did that bruise come from? She had never seen his face before which made it
easier to ask these questions, I suppose.
- I never would have gone to the hospital if it weren’t for this great, terrible hatred I had for him. It was level and calm inside me. It grew and breathed and was alive. It was terrifying.
6. Psychologist Dr. Loftus (female) researches memory, primarily false memory. She determined not only was it possible for people to alter one’s own internal memories, but it was also possible to implant false memories. In Intro Psych we watched a TED talk in which she spoke of one specific case of false memory where a man was accused of rape by a woman was initially uncertain he was the rapist, but after prompting from the judge and the police, claimed with certainty, in court, that he was the man who raped her. How did she go from being uncertain to certain? What can be said of false memory?
- When the nurse asked if I would like to open an investigation I said no. When the director of Title IX asked if I would like to open an investigation I said no. When my mother said why not open an investigation? I said I love you, talk later, goodbye.
- It is possible to believe very deeply in a thing that never happened (e.g. When I first spoke of him to a friend I laughed about it. I used the word “sex.” I didn’t use the words “unwanted” “assault” or “violence.” He said he was going to use a condom but didn’t. I slept really well in his bed. It sounded like a joke I was telling myself.)
- First I said, “We hooked up.” Then I said, “It was bad sex.” Then I said, “I can’t remember.” None of which I believed while speaking, but felt it could be the truth if I tried hard enough to make it the truth.
- The girl in this case study makes me very sad. To go through the courts. To testify about trauma. Only to find out later it was a different man entirely. I cannot imagine living that. To have the event played out for a judge who may or may not call you a liar. I already see the holes in my story. I have questions, most for myself.
7. Let’s talk practicality says Brenda. What do you do when you see him on campus?
- Well he lives in my building so I see him all the time.
- Well he smiles and says what’s up so I smile back.
- Well I feel obligated to smile at him which makes me feel like throwing up.
- Once he got into the elevator with me, sweaty, straight from lacrosse practice, and I felt an attraction to him I hadn’t felt since sleeping in his bed. It disgusted me. I was disgusted by myself.
8. Brenda wants you to know that social contracts are a form of social imprisonment. And what she means by that is that sometimes the things we do in order to appear friendly and sociable can be used against us. When he smiles and says “What’s up?” to you he is expecting a certain response, and when you give him that response, you are allowing him to imprison you. Does that make sense?
- So should I stop smiling back?
- Is it dangerous to stop smiling — like, will he think something’s wrong? Will he ask
questions? Will he ask if everything’s okay?
- And what would I even say to that? If I say “Oh it’s just been a long day” what if he tries to comfort me? If I say nothing, what if he gets angry?
- I mean, he’s a big guy. He’s not opposed to violence.
9. Your Psychology professor is covering a lot when it comes to memory because there are so many different types of memory. Because you go to a liberal arts school where classes are small and have discussion built into them you have a ridiculous, intense, long discussion of the relationship between emotional trauma and memory. How trauma can strengthen memory, make it more specific. And this one, annoying girl is dominating the conversation with her own personal baggage. She keeps talking and talking and no one will shut her up and she’s really oversharing — I mean come on this is a classroom. And it makes you doubt her. You wonder if this story she is telling about her life is real at all or just for attention. Because she has no problem speaking about the event and here you are sitting so quietly thinking well: “If I could just figure out what happened between him waking up and me waking up, if I could fill in the absences, if I could say he did this and it hurt, well I may be able to forget the whole thing.” Given this classmate and her deep desire to speak about what happened to her in a classroom setting, how can we connect memory to learning?
- What does it mean for me if I call my classmate a liar?
- If I say she just wants attention?
- Did I want her to shut up because she made me think of him again? Or because I had been thinking about him all along and she made me give him his face back? His arms back? The legs held my legs apart? The hands that held my hands down? These are details I never would have brought up in a classroom —
- –except, of course for those times when I get bored, or zone out, or lose control of my brain (the quiet, calculated thoughts I allow) and I see him: the helpless face he made on top of me, the pleasure he received from me, his short, little breaths, the saliva on his hand. I think about his dick inside me. How it might have even felt good if not for the circumstances.
10. Brenda calls her sort of therapy “homeopathic” meaning before you come to the “healing” there will be a “flare up” of symptoms. You think she is just exaggerating until you begin to behave in unrecognizable ways. What might this unrecognizable behavior look like?
- I’ve been having a lot of sex.
- I’ve been having a lot of sex with men who treat me like shit or pretend to care about me or fuck me good and hard and then kick me out. Anyone, really, who’ll give me attention, or comfort, or pain.
- I’ve been having sex with men who slap me in the face.
- Men who slap me again, and again, and again.
11. Have you had any more sexual encounters with your assailant?
- I mean, he just keeps hitting me up on Snapchat.
- I mean, I shouldn’t have gotten so drunk again and that’s on me and the thing is, he lives in my hall and like I said he’s beautiful and I was drunk and he was persistent.
- And I understand it’s not my fault. But I was drunk and he invited me into his room and I thought I would get something like closure from it — and he kissed me like he meant it, and the kiss felt like an apology because I wanted and apology and of course it wasn’t an apology because how stupid did I have to be to be drunk again and alone again and in his room again?
- In the interest of honestly, he fucked me a total of three times.
12a. And each of those times when you had a sexual encounter with him, were they all violent? Was he forceful? Did he coerce you?
- I want to make an excuse for him.
- I am inclined to make it my fault.
- I want to call him oblivious, or stupid, or thoughtless.
- I tell Brenda I let him. I use those words. “I let him do what he wanted to me.”
12b. Using the information from 12a, can you tell me if the sexual encounter was violent?
- He held me down which was violent.
- I left with bruises which were violent.
- He fucked me dry which hurt which I guess was therefore violent.
- Well I guess what I’m trying to say is once when I was fourteen I was walking downtown wearing these nice new shorts and a pink tank top which I was so excited about because I thought I looked a little like Avril Lavigne and I was going to my mom’s office to meet her for lunch which felt adult and important and I’m walking and walking and this guy, maybe 30, 40, yells at me from the corner says, “Hey, beautiful,” and I don’t respond and he calls me a bitch and he comes up real close to me and asks me if I’m gonna respond to him, and me, fourteen, I say nothing which really sets him off like this goddamn, high- horse, aloof, motherfucking bitch — and he never, ever lay a hand on me, but yes, I suppose, thinking about it now, it was a pretty violent encounter.
13. It was actually the liberal arts school that told you to go to the hospital. Since the event occurred on their campus they were trying to cover their own asses. But truthfully, if the school hadn’t called a car to take you to the hospital forty minutes away in Poughkeepsie, you might not have ever gone. There might be no evidence of the fucking, the rape, the sex, whatever. Unfortunately for him, the nurse took your statement. She asked you so kindly: Can you tell me what happened to you?
- The first time I saw him I knew he was beautiful.
- I was flattered when he hit on me.
- I was wasted, absolutely wasted, I mean, cognitively not all there…
- It’s possible I had this fantasy about him, okay. It was a silly crush. I thought he was a
good guy. I thought he was too good of a person to be the person that he was.
14. In Dr. Loftus’ studies, she determined that the language used to describe an event could alter the person’s memory of that event. For example, if researchers described two cars as “smashing” into each other, people were more likely to conclude that the cars were moving at faster speeds than a collision in which two cars simply “hit” each other. What can then be said about the influence of language over memory?
- When I called it “bad sex” it still felt violent.
- When I called it “sexual assault” it still felt violent.
- When I called it “rape” it still felt violent.
- When I said nothing, when I gave it no name, when it was just “the event” which brought me to the trauma therapist’s office every Friday for twelve Fridays, it still felt violent.
15. What can then be said about violence?
- Some survivors write their testimonies as letters to be read to their attacker in court. This doesn’t apply to me because I’m not taking him to court.
- If I were to write him a letter I would have to use his name and since I’m not opening an investigation there’s no point in using his name.
- I know it’s idealizing him to say that if he knew all of this, if he knew his sexual advances were unwanted/predatory/violent/rape/etc., that he would apologize to me, that he might admit his guilt and thereby remove my blame from me, that he would try to make me “feel better”; all of which, I suppose, is fantasy.
- Each time he fucked me I asked him to stop and he didn’t. I remember my language clearly. I remember language didn’t matter to him. Not coming from me: the sad drunk girl underneath him, pulling away, and not kissing back, completely dry. I can’t imagine I ever looked beautiful to him.
16. Brenda’s interested in what you’re saying about beauty. Do you think you’re unattractive? Are you an insecure person?
- I’ve been having a lot of sex so I know there are men who find me attractive.
- When I was younger, sure, I had insecurities.
- Most teenage girls think they’re too fat, too tall, too boring, too loud.
- Most teenage girls worry about sex. What the person in bed with them will see if they look hard enough.
17. Do you think you’re more sexually active because of those insecurities? Are you worried about men still wanting you?
- Look, I know I’m not damaged or anything.
- I know, realistically, if I wanted a boyfriend, if I chose to be a little more outgoing or friendly or kind, I could find someone to love me, or be loyal to me, or support me, or whatever.
- Everyone worries about being chosen. I’m not alone in that.
- It isn’t the men or the fucking that’s messing me up. There’s just this space in between the man and the fucking. The no-mans-land of sex — the event, the act, the verb, the action. There’s peace in it. It doesn’t require thinking or talking or even breathing. I can relax for a moment.
18. Your Intro Psych professor has put this image on the screen:
It is a depiction of a WWII airplane returned from the war. Imagine you are an engineer and it is your job to reinforce the plane in areas that receive critical damage in order to make more planes return from war safely. Which areas of the planes should be reinforced?
- We learned about this already.
- I know most people say “Oh, you should reinforce all the areas with the most bullet
- Some girl in my psych class was so confident in that answer. She raised her hand all the way up in the air before the professor was even done asking the question.
- The problem with that answer is that it is an example of survival bias. The only plane we see here is the one that came back. That means that the damage it sustained wasn’t severe enough to cause it to crash. We can infer, then, that the places that need reinforcement aren’t the ones with the bullet holes, but the ones without.
19. As it turns out, you can no longer hack it in upstate New York. Campus makes you sick. Your dorm makes you sick. The library, the cafeteria, anywhere you may see him. You tell Brenda you have to stop seeing her because you are going home to Michigan. We should talk about your sex life before you go, she says. We should talk about coping strategies and methods for dealing with coercion and we should talk about how you view sex and what it means to have healthy, consensual sex. Are you satisfied with the sex you’ve been having since your assault?
- The easy answer is “no.”
- The even easier answer would be to leave Brenda’s office forever and fly back to Ann
- What she probably wanted me to tell her is that the sex I was having was mostly born out of a fear that I would become horribly depressed or suicidal or psychotic, and so my primary reaction to my rape was to replace the event with a different event – to have sex, however dissatisfying, with anyone I found attractive.
- What I actually say to Brenda is that I am just so tired of talking about it. That talking about it makes me want to vomit.
20. What can then be said about sex?
- When I arrived at Hew’s apartment off the University of Michigan campus he was surprised I actually showed up. “Most girls on Tinder like to meet in a public space.”
- I knew he was the sort of man I could fall in love with if given the option. That there was a world in which we knew each other’s coffee orders and slept in the same bed. It’s why I wouldn’t let him give me head and why I refused to drink wine or sleep over.
- And I know to attribute any kindness or love to this encounter would be a romanticization of what was essentially a consensual hook-up between two people who found each other mutually attractive. But I am inclined to call him a good man. I want to use the word ‘lover.’ I want to call it the best sex I’ve had.
- It’s a false memory. It’s built on false language and on assumptions I made about a man who I only know for certain is a 6’2 computer science major from Chicago. But it is so peaceful to think that he may ask to see me again, that we may have sex again, that he may want me to sleep in his bed again, and that I may say yes.