NBC recently aired a program called “The Game of Silence” in which 4 best friends who once served time in a juvenile detention center as a result of a well-intentioned but reckless caper are reunited by a traumatic occurrence. Now grown men with fully realized lives, one of them by chance encounters a tormentor from those days and snaps, nearly beating the man to death. What unfolds from there is a deeply layered and nuanced exploration of how we cope with trauma as individuals and in groups and how unhealed abuse can assert itself even after many years.
I was most struck by the fact that these men had not shared what happened to them while incarcerated even with their significant others. Shame is such a powerful motivator in the game of silence survivors of abuse play. Even and perhaps especially when you are victimized as a child the idea that you were somehow complicit in your own exploitation wreaks havoc on your sense of self. If only I was smarter, braver, quicker, less trusting, more savvy, this would never have happened to me.
Recently a dear friend of so many years that I have lost count shared her story of sexual assault with me. I have gone through a lot with this person and she has been a source of endless encouragement and support, but I never knew about this horrible, frightening event in her life. In her case, the predator used her open, friendly nature as a weapon against her, luring her away from the safety of her friends. Of course at the time she blamed herself for being so trusting and naïve.
Most women I know, myself included, have been the target of unwanted, aggressive sexual attention. Even when that attention does not culminate in an assault, it is threatening and scary. We all understand intellectually that there is never any justification for rape, but even in 2016 smart, sophisticated women can experience sexual assault as a personal failure. I failed to see the signs, I failed to protect myself, I failed to be invulnerable. If there was no assault, we tell ourselves we were overreacting. If there is, we tell ourselves we underreacted or “should have known better”.
For these reasons and many others, we often keep our stories to ourselves. My mother recently told me that the young relative of a close family friend was date raped at her prep school. She had two articles about the incident and showed them to me in a deliberate order; the first one featured the predominant reason victims of date rape don’t report: slut shaming. It told a story of two teenagers both using bad judgment that culminated in an unnecessary trial ruining the boy’s life.
The second article painted a very different picture. The young man in question was in fact not a hapless kid who made a terrible mistake but instead a deliberate and sociopathic serial predator. His e-mails revealed a person with no respect for women whatsoever; he was participating in a contest to see which senior could lure the most underclass students into having a sexual relations. The words he used to describe the girls he tricked into believing he was a credible suitor were vicious and sickening.
I was shocked that the first article failed to disclose this, instead depicting a courtship gone wrong. A young girl with second thoughts after-the-fact. Blaming the victim instead of the flagrant aggressor. I was very impressed by her willingness to come forward and “take the heat” of pressing charges. Friendly e-mails she exchanged with her attacker now used as weapons against her. The scrutiny and judgment she was facing for not playing the game of silence like a good little girl. She stood up not only for herself, but for other the other girls this predator had “bagged” in his attempt to win a craven, amoral contest.
My mother was very understandably upset by the whole ordeal and bemoaned the fact that such a young girl’s life had been “ruined.” When I reassured Mom that this would not be the case and that her strength proved she would be a survivor, my mother’s response was that I didn’t know because I had never been raped. I knew in that moment I had to tell her the truth.
He seemed like the quintessential gentleman. Older and wiser than me; well-educated, well-raised and well-mannered. He was polite and funny and I enjoyed his company, so we dated for a few months. One night we were out late at a party and he said I should stay at his place because he didn’t want me riding the subway alone at that hour. I told him on the street I wasn’t ready to have sex with him and I didn’t have protection. He said he completely understood and would respect that.
I told him “no” two more times that night; once before it happened and once while it was happening. I have no memory of when or how I left his place. I do remember that I processed it as my fault. I shouldn’t have gone up to his apartment, I shouldn’t have been kissing him, I shouldn’t have trusted him. I never told my mother what had happened because I didn’t see the point. I wanted to protect her from feeling bad about something she couldn’t do anything about.
I played the game of silence because I believed sharing my pain was selfish. I also believed that others would share my view that I was at fault. I thought the fact that he stopped when I physically pushed him off of me was proof that it wasn’t assault, just a misunderstanding. I told myself I was lucky because other women have experienced so much worse.
It took me years to accept that his behavior was predatory, selfish and undermining. It took me years to understand that what happened caused me to push a lot of nice men away, often in a rude and defensive manner. It took me years to accept the fact that I am a survivor.
When my friend shared her sexual assault story with me, of course I experienced pain in knowing that she had been so badly abused. But I also experienced a deep compassion for her, for myself, for all women who have these kinds of experiences and walk on in the world with strength and dignity. We are all survivors of something and sharing our traumas is akin to grace…we move on because we have to, but we are ever mindful of each other’s pain. If you have an unspoken hurt, don’t play the game of silence. Open that wound to the air and let it fully heal in the sunlight of acceptance.