How to Tell a Rape Story

by Liz Clift

"All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth."—Tim O'Brien, "How to Tell a True War Story"

Dear Little Sister,

The thing about rape stories is that sometimes it seems like no one will believe you. That no one believes you. The thing about rape stories is that they're not like other stories. They're not stories you tell over dinner, or while drinking with friends, the type that end in laughter or knowing nods—the types of stories most of us like telling, and hearing.

The thing about rape stories is you're supposed to tell the total Truth, as though only one truth exists. As though the Truth, whatever it looks like, will help everyone who hears your rape story decide if you were really raped. And if it is your fault.

The thing about rape stories is you even start to doubt yourself.

It is not your fault.

Get used to telling yourself this.

It is not your fault.

It is not your fault.

It. Is. Not. Your. Fault.

Write this on a sticky note and stick it to your bathroom mirror, if you need to. Or on the inside of your front door, at eye-level, so you can't help but see it whenever you go anywhere.

And you, dear Hope, are not alone.

You are not.

This, I promise.

Dear Hope,

This is the rape story people want to believe:

That he had me at gun point. Knife point, at the very least. That it was dark. That I was walking home alone. On the greenbelt. There are rules against that, they tell themselves—and me. There are reasons you're not supposed to walk on the greenbelt at night. They want to know what I wore, to hear that my clothes were tight. Low-cut everything. This way, they can think well, if you hadn't been wearing that. They want him to be a stranger. They want him to be a different race. They want to know what I did to lead him on, on the off chance he wasn't a stranger. They'll tell themselves—maybe even ask other people if—I flirted with him. They'll ask if I'd been drinking. More precisely they'll want to know if I was inebriated. They'll say that word to themselves again, and again, because they like the way it sounds. Inebriated. It rolls off the tongue.

For a real rape story, they'll want him to have beaten me. Strangled, maybe. Strangled would make for a good story in the break room. Bruises all around my neck. Passed out. Blacked out. They'll want me to have cuts in places we don't talk about in polite conversation. They'll want to know what position he used—though none of them will ever ask and learn that there was more than one position. Missionary, they'll decide, would keep me pinned. Or up against a wall. The railing of the rickety bridge over the wooded section of the river. They'll want to know how much I struggled, that I put up a good fight, because of course I could see it coming. They'll want to know if I reported it to the police.

If I report it, I'm making it up. If I don't report it, I'm making it up. Some girls rape easy. Even the politicians say so. They'll whisper among themselves I'm one of those women. They'll dismiss me.

They dismissed me.

Dear Hope,

I'm flying into Ithaca tonight, I'll be there by noon tomorrow, and I'm trying to figure out how to tell you that I understand. I'm sitting at PDX, watching the lights of the city blur in the rivulets of never-ending winter rains that race down the windows. I'm picturing you at the hospital, with the faceless man, Sean, who introduced himself as your advocate when he called. He'd said you asked him to call. That you asked me not to call our parents. I'm so proud of you for calling an advocate, which I didn't know to do. I'm so proud of you for letting a male advocate into your apartment. He apologized, twice, to me for being a man. Explained he was the only advocate available. That normally, they'd have sent a woman. He told me he was taking you to the hospital. That he wouldn't leave until I got there, because that's what you asked.

I'm trying to figure out how to tell you, not tonight or tomorrow, but soon, that I was raped too. I've been trying for two years to tell you my story, the one I wanted to shelter you from, the one I wanted to tell you so bad it almost spilled from my lips a half dozen times and I wouldn't let it because I was more afraid than anything how you'd react.

Remember the year you started high school? The girl who disappeared at the same time as her gymnastics coach over spring break? The day it was reported on the news, we went on a long walk together since I was home from college, and talked about the things that could have happened to her, whether she'd be found. You asked that day if I'd had sex, and I told you no. You were surprised by this answer. I remember the way your hair caught the light, the way you'd become this strikingly beautiful teenager while I was away at school—not that you weren't always pretty, because you were—but absolutely beautiful.

"Have you?" I asked. You'd been dating the same boy, a long-haired guy named Philip, since the previous June, a guy you'd met at the theme park. You took that part-time job so you could start saving money for a car, and because by the time I was fourteen, I'd started working ten hours a week. Or at least that's what you told our parents. We both know it was because they fought a lot.

You shook your head. "Almost." We were walking on that old cross-country trail we both sometimes ran, and you leaned against the large maple whose trunk was tattooed with pen knife scars. "Not with Philip."

I said nothing.

"Philip doesn't know," you said. "Gabs, I don't want to hurt him. I think I love him."

I nodded. "Who?"

You named a guy I knew, a guy in the class behind mine. A senior to your freshman. A guy who was almost nineteen and had fluffy, curly hair, and who played on the soccer team. One of the popular guys.

You plucked a leaf from the maple and twirled it between your fingers, as though thinking about whether to continue. You dropped the leaf and lifted yourself onto the lowest branch of the maple, the branch I used to use when I wanted to read outside. You made it look graceful. "I didn't because of Philip," you said finally. You started to make a crown of maple leaves, cutting thin holes in the stems with your fingernail like I did with the daisy chains I made for you when we were little.

"We were at a party." Your eyes got big. "You know he broke up with Helen of Troy?"

"I heard," I said. I climbed into the tree too, a branch near yours. Helen had graduated with my class and gone to one of the Big Ten universities. We called her Helen of Troy because guys had been tripping over themselves to ask her out since first grade, and because her real name was Helen Tory. Your hands continued to work the chain of maple leaves. "Well, we went together. To the party. He was one of my mentors from Fresh Start."

I nodded. We'd both gone to Fresh Start, because that's what everyone did the summer before ninth grade. When I went, I hated the whole thing-the confessional opening up to a bunch of strangers, the trust falls, the way people who didn't speak to me in 8th grade faked nice to me in front of the Fresh Start counselors. You, on the other hand, came back from Fresh Start week bubbly and confident about starting high school. You talked about how great it was that everyone was so open and honest, how people had cried for each other, how the old cliques fell apart.

The day you got home from Fresh Start, you talked about the guy from soccer team, but I didn't pay much attention. I was packing for college, trying to make sure I had everything I needed. I couldn't wait to move out. You sprawled on my bed, clutching my old comfort toy, that plush panda named Mr. Riddle.

You didn't explain how the party almost led to you having sex with the guy from the soccer team and I didn't ask. You'd tell me when you were ready,

I decided, like you always did.

They never found the girl or the gymnastics coach.

Sometimes I still google their names looking for answers.

I'm boarding the plane now. I layover in Phoenix and Philly. I'll see you soon.

Dear Sis,

You're sleeping now. I held you until you fell asleep, like I did when we were kids, when you'd crawl into my bed because Mom and Dad were arguing downstairs—back then, you always smelled of outside. Today, you smelled like antiseptic and roses. I called your property management company, and pretended to be you, and they're changing your locks later today. Just in case you gave him a key, because why wouldn't you? You'd been dating over a year.

You told the police you weren't ready to press charges. You told me this before we even got in the car at the Starbucks on Seneca, where I'd found you and Sean sitting at a sunny table. You both looked like you hadn't slept and I guess you hadn't.

I hugged you, and that's when you started crying. You didn't stop until you started talking, until we were halfway back to your place, and what could I do except keep driving because every time we stopped, even for a stop light, you stopped talking. We drove in my little red rental, a Chevy Aveo with manual windows you rolled down as soon as we got out of downtown, and I took the road we cruised last Thanksgiving when we both needed to escape Mom and Dad, the one that runs near Lake Cayuga, and when I reached my hand over for yours, you let me hold it.

Your boyfriend—I'm writing this down because this is what you said you didn't tell the police, and maybe one day you'll want to—the man I made pumpkin pie with the day before Thanksgiving because you love it and he wanted to surprise you when you got home from school, knocked on your door at about 9:30 pm, holding a bouquet of lilies. You'd fought the day before, over whether you'd move in together at the beginning of August. You didn't want to move in with him—too big a step, and maybe he didn't feel like the one. You'd been fighting more in general. I remember you called me after one fight over money and who was paying for more things. He didn't like that you'd been picking up more of the groceries when you cooked together, or helping him pay for gas. When you called that night, and told me, you explained it was the money we'd inherited when Gram died, how you didn't feel right just sitting on the money.

You let him in, because he was your boyfriend, and because he brought flowers, and because that looked like an apology. You told me you walked to the kitchen, and asked him if he wanted something to drink. He said he'd get it himself. He placed the lilies on the counter, and you went back to cutting brightly colored flower petals out of construction paper for your students. They were going to write things they wished for on the petals, and you'd paste them to the wall on long green stems. A garden of wishes.

You told me he got you on the ground, you didn't tell me how, and rammed an orange into your mouth so you couldn't scream, yanked your skirt down, and fucked you. When you said this, I pictured him in the green wool sweater he wore to Thanksgiving dinner with our parents, even though it's May now, and warm. You said he kept asking you how you liked it, and how he knew you didn't want to move in with him because you were seeing an urban planning grad student on the side—urban planning, you laughed as said this, the kind of laugh that says I won't cry, I won't—you don't even know any urban planners. He said he'd seen you talking to him at Moosewood when you went in to grab lunch on Thursdays. You told me you didn't know how he saw this, unless he was following you.

You said you'd made it too easy because you were wearing a skirt and a peasant blouse with no bra underneath.

You said when he left, he told you he'd see you for dinner on Saturday, because no matter what you made dinner together on Saturdays. He took the orange out of your mouth, then kissed you on the forehead, like he had so many times before, like that would make it okay. You said he wiped the tears from your cheeks with his thumb, and tucked a loose strand of your hair behind your ear. He told you he loved you.

You said you couldn't scream at him or cry then, because you couldn't believe what he was doing, after what he'd done. You said he walked out the door and you started shaking. You said an hour passed, maybe a little more. You sat on your couch, and Ragdoll sat on your lap and purred. You waited until you stopped shaking. You waited until you were sure you could say the word rape without throwing up. That's when you called the hotline, that's when you asked for an advocate. It was almost 11 pm.

You showed me the bruises on your breasts and ribs from his fingers. The purple streaks on your upper arms. This is when I started crying, and then you started crying again too.

You said you should have known.

You didn't say why.

You said you should have struggled more.

Don't blame yourself.

I cannot stress this enough.

After you fell asleep, I knocked on the door of the widower who lives in the apartment right above you, and handed him the lilies. "Because today is sunny," is all I said, and he smiled and touched my shoulder and whispered, thank you, these were my wife's favorites. I put the six oranges you had in your refrigerator in a bowl on the sidewalk in front of your apartment, with a cardboard sign that said "Free Oranges." They were gone in ten minutes. I figured you wouldn't want any, any time soon.

Dear Hope,

Some days will be easier than others.

Some days you'll have nightmares where you can feel him pressing against you.

Maybe you'll eat oranges again someday. Maybe you won't.

Some days, the news will repeat the word rape again and again without trigger warnings. They will not censor details. They'll tell you the bus driver was in on it. They'll tell you about teenage boys who put a video of an unconscious rape victim on YouTube, after carting her to three different football parties. They'll say the victim was wearing clothes that were too old for her age, or that the victim was trans or the victim had a history. Some politicians will say you can't get pregnant from legitimate rape, and that if you do, it's a gift from God.

When someone blames the victim, what they're really saying is that for men just walking down the street is an act of extreme willpower. That they struggle every day not to rape. Do not accept this for yourself. Do not accept this for the men you care about.

Maybe you'll protest topless one day, with your sign written on your body: I'm still not asking for it.

Maybe you'll join a support group.

Maybe you'll listen to rape jokes in a comedy club. You'll have to decide whether to laugh.

Maybe you'll never watch scary movies again because there's always a rape scene, or a woman being choked, or someone fingering a dead person on an operating table.

Some days, for no reason at all, rape might be the top thing on your mind.

Some days, you won't think about it at all.

Maybe you'll have trouble meeting the eyes of men, or letting your next lover into your house, or maybe you won't.

You'll have to find strength in this, whatever the specifics look like for you. All of it. This is what I mean when I say some days will be easier than others.

Dear Hope,

Before you were born, Mom said this thing to me. She was napping, and I wanted to keep playing, and so I tried to open her eyes. I tried three or four times, and she finally got mad at me. Someday, she said, I hope some boy is going to do things to you that you don't want him to and you're going to tell him to stop and he's not going to.

I'd last seen him mid-October, before he headed for the southwest. We had a mutual friend, who introduced us. We made out after a charity carnival. We stopped it at making out. He needed a place to crash. I thought he was probably safe enough. He'd passed background checks for his government job. I offered up my place.

When I felt like he wanted things to go further than making out, I asked him how many partners he'd had. Just in case. "Doesn't matter," he said.

I let him get away with that answer.

I told him I didn't want to have sex.

He grumbled about this.

"Are you lesbian?" he asked, as though the only reason someone wouldn't have sex with him was because they had no interest in his gender.

"No," I said.

"Just checking," he replied. I like to imagine he picked up on the venom in my voice, because he didn't ask any more questions. He slept in my bed.

You're probably trying to picture him. He's Nordic and hails from a place that ends too many sentences in "you know?" He's built like a wrestler—not the fake pro-wrestling, more like a college wrestler.

It felt nice to have someone in the same room as me, to have someone wrap their arm around me. He left early the next morning, when I left for work, to visit family.

We exchanged a few texts, became Facebook friends, didn't talk on the phone.

Six months later, he was back in town. Sent me a text the day before, looking for a place to crash. Just for a night or two, the text said. He was on his way to someplace else, this time for work.

Why not, I thought. He'd seemed nice enough. Maybe a bit forceful. Mostly he'd seemed lonely, unrooted.

We had dinner with a handful of my friends that night. A potluck.

After dinner, after a board game, we went to bed.

We made out, because why not.

We made out, because I felt lonely.

We made out, because that was the most physical contact I'd had with anyone since he left.

We made out, because I hated that he'd been eyeing my roommate.

We made out, because that was what he so clearly seemed to think I expected, or what he wanted. I'm not sure which.

He asked, "Do you want me to fuck you?"

"No," I said.

I stopped kissing him then, but he didn't stop kissing me.

He wanted me to suck him off. When I told him no, he wrapped his hands around my throat and used just the pressure from his thumbs to tell me that wasn't the right answer. He brought my head toward his penis.

"You like having cock in your mouth, don't you?"

No. No. No.

I was too much in shock to struggle against him. He carried a gun. He was stronger than me. I'd seen the muscles in his arms and back. I thought maybe I deserved it. After all, I'd let him back into my home. I'd let him into my room. I'd made out with him.

He asked me to go deeper, and forced himself in further, until I started to gag.

He spread my knees and stuck his finger in, just to test, he said, though I think now that it was his version of foreplay. "You're wet. You want it, don't you?"

"Not really." I tried to slide away from him.

"You don't know what you want." His hands moved to my throat again.

When he stuck his dick in, I went limp.

I wanted it to be over.

He used his hands to shove my knees up toward my ears. He braced himself using my shoulders.

When it was over, he told me he thought my roommate was cute, and asked if I could set him up with her. He fell asleep within five minutes, and I curled onto my side and waited for morning. I was afraid to leave my bed. I think I fell asleep for a little while. I got up before dawn and went for a walk.

I spotted for three days afterward. I could feel that he'd torn me some. It didn't occur to me to go to the hospital. I went to Planned Parenthood for emergency contraceptive. I scheduled a follow-up appointment for two weeks later, to make sure I wasn't pregnant, and to get tested for STDs. You've already done the things I should've done, and the man who raped you called himself your boyfriend. You're strong and smart and beautiful.

The man in my story got my roommate drunk the next day, and tried to fuck her in the neighbor's hot tub. I know because I stayed with them, because I believed my presence would protect her. I stayed, until I felt lightheaded from heat. I plunged into a pool that was maybe fifty degrees and I knew my heart might stop. I felt my heart race, and I couldn't decide if that was a relief. I went home, because I knew I couldn't help her, and almost passed on the way there—only across the alley—from heat exhaustion, or maybe the shock of too-hot/too-cold.

He stayed for three more days, sleeping in my roommate's room, and I didn't report it until he left. The detective wanted to know what I'd worn, what he'd said, what I'd said, what he wore. The detective wanted to know if I'd call him and confront him. The detective wanted to know if I'd explicitly said no, if we'd been drinking, if my roommate could corroborate my story. The detective wanted to know why I hadn't reported it sooner.

I unfriended him, and changed his name in my phone to "Do Not Answer." When he called and texted, I ignored them. I let the calls and texts pile up. Eventually, I deleted his phone number altogether. I never had his email address. But, this didn't stop me from worrying he'd come back. Three of his texts, and one message on Facebook—in that sneaky "Other" folder most people don't know about—said he didn't know what he'd done wrong, had thought I was okay with everything, wanted to know why we couldn't be friends, if I could tell him anything.

Six months later, I moved so I could avoid my attacker. So I could stop tensing every time I saw a black pickup with a cargo cover. So I could stop worrying that he'd just show up at work one day, or somehow get back into my apartment. I was too afraid to pursue a conviction with just his word against mine.

Conviction. Hope, only 3 in every hundred rapists will ever spend a day behind bars. Those aren't good odds.

Every time over the past two years that I've thought about how to tell you my story, I've thought about whether it was my fault. I've thought about if I brought it on myself, because I so craved just feeling attractive to someone again, being touched. I've tried to figure out why I froze instead of fighting. I've tried to figure out how to tell you about the fear I feel when I meet some men, but not others, how sometimes I avert my eyes, how I can't explain what causes me to react these ways. I've thought about those words Mom said to me so long ago that I'd forgotten them, until I was raped.

And I've thought thank god it was me, not Hope, because I never wanted you to go through this. The thing about rape stories is that you never want it to happen to the people you love. The thing about rape stories is that if we just blame the victim, we pretend we can remove ourselves—and the people we love, people like you—from danger.

I'm angry, Hope, that this happened to you. That I couldn't protect you. But the thing about rape stories is that we can't protect ourselves, or the ones we love through acts of imagination. Hope, now that you've been raped, I don't know what to do. I don't know what to say, other than I understand and explain, at last, the ways I understand and be honest about the ways I don't. I don't know what to do, except try to remove potential triggers from your home while you sleep, and change the locks, and hold you when you fall asleep, until I go back home to the West Coast.

And to say: I love you. You are not alone. It's not your fault.

Liz N. Clift holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Iowa State University. Her work has appeared in Tulane Review, Hunger Mountain, Green Mountains Review, Booth, qarrtsiluni, and previously in JMWW. She lives in Colorado. .


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