Monday, April 03, 2006

All That You Can't Leave Behind

A number of years back, well before the turn of the current century, I decided to move across the country. I was excited, and brimming with hope. It was a new adventure. I was putting my life as a slave to the New York City publishing world behind me. I was leaving a lot of other things that had grown tiresome or oppressive to me, too. I had a new significant other. I was starting fresh. Everything felt young, exciting, and full of promise--endless possibility lay ahead of me.

I packed up my car. I wanted to stock it full of everything that had meaning to me, so I would be able to surround myself with the things I loved when I arrived at my new home. Turned out a lot of things had meaning to me. My whole car was filled up, and then I had to attach one of those bubble things to the roof to add more. My family helped me pack. When I was done, I went happily on my way, watching them get smaller and smaller behind me as they waved goodbye.

I drove from daylight into evening, and then when it had been dark for a good number of hours and I'd started to get tired, I pulled into a budget motel for the night, in a place I'd never been before. I'd call it a big town, but the people who live there call it a city. I went to a chain restaurant next door for dinner. I grabbed my travel case and headed in to my room for a good sleep before heading out the next day.

I woke up in the morning, got dressed, and went down to the parking lot. I stood there for a minute, unbelieving. My car was gone. Everything I owned and loved was gone. Everything.

Try to imagine this. You're standing there in an empty parking lot, and all you now own are about four pieces of clothing, a pair of shoes, and a toothbrush.

ALL your clothes are gone. Your photographs. Your favorite music (hundreds and hundreds of cds), and your stereo to go with it. Your favorite books. Your favorite earrings, rings, or what have you.

I lost that, and more. All my favorite clothing, both the comfortable and the sexy. Letters from old friends and lovers. A stuffed animal I'd had since birth, that my family had chosen specially for me while I was still in the womb. Special gifts from friends that meant everything in the world to me. Keepsakes from family members who had passed on. Every single journal I'd written in from grade school through adulthood, documenting every memory and emotion I've ever experienced in my life. Every non-human thing I have ever loved, gone. Things I could never, ever get back or replace.

I couldn't even process it. I went blank. I started shaking uncontrollably. When I got that somewhat under control, I went to the front desk. I told the hotel manager what happened, and he laughed at me. He laughed. And he said, smirking, that he was sorry, but he had no control over what happened in his parking lot. It became more than evident from his attitude and responses that he was probably involved in some way. I suggested the least he could do was refund my money for my night's stay, given my inconvenience and my extreme financial loss which had occurred on his premises. It couldn't have been more than $30. It wouldn't have broken him. He laughed at me again and refused. When I got angry at his behavior, he called the police and had me forcibly removed from his property. When the police came, I told the them what had happened. They didn't care. They made me leave, and didn't say a word to the hotel manager. They protected him, not me. They treated me like I was the criminal.

The police couldn't have cared less about my theft, but they suggested I wait 24 hours in town after that, just in case the car showed up abandoned somewhere in town. I went to another hotel and sat there, with my four pieces of clothing and a toothbrush. I called home to let them know what had happened. And when I finally got someone, I found out my father had just been rushed to the hospital for an emergency quadruple bypass, and no one was sure whether he was going to make it or not.

What was your reaction when you just read that story? If you were going to say something back to me, what would you have said?

I've told this story numerous times over the years. It no longer affects me. It's just a story that's happened in my past. But it affects the people I tell it to, every time. Everyone is always instantly horrified. They tell me it's the worst thing they have ever heard. They tell me they can't imagine how I got through that day. They ask me how I ever got over it. They ask me if it still bothers me now. They often look like they want to hug me, even though I don't look upset anymore when I tell the story. Some do hug me. They shake their heads in disbelief and say they can't figure out how they would ever get over something like that. They spit venom out at whomever the person or people were who stole my belongings, and at that asshole of a hotel manager. They get extreme about it. They call them names, they suggest all kinds of cruel punishment for them. They ask me if I ever got any of my stuff back, if the theives ever got caught. And back when it had just happened, everyone asked me how they could help. They also ask me about my dad's surgery, if he survived (he did), and how I got through dealing with that when I was all alone, with nothing, in a strange state.

Was your imagined response similar to any of the above?

When I was a teenager, I was sexually assaulted.

What was your response to that?

Because it should have been the same. But I bet for some of you it wasn't.

When I tell random people about my car, they react as described above. When I tell people about my assault, they generally act nothing like this. They most often try to run away, or make me shut up about it. It's "too much information"--it's stepping out of the comfort zone. It's letting a dirty secret out into the light. You get the sense the person wants to say, "Why would you tell me this? What can I do about it now? What do you want from me, telling me this?"

I'm going to say this now for myself. And maybe I'll take a little liberty and assume I can say it for all sexual assault survivors. I'm saying it to any of you out there who have had or will have someone tell you they were sexually assaulted.

What do we assault survivors want from you when we tell you this information? Read carefully:

All I want is to be able to talk about my assault openly, the way I can about my car story. All I want is for you to respond to me about it the same way you would about my car story. Show sympathy for me. Show outrage for the crime committed. Ask if I'm okay, and if the crime has been very recent, ask if there's anything you can do to help. Ask how I managed to recover. Ask any of the things I listed above for the car story.

With the car story, people believe me right away. No one ever even stops for a second to wonder if I've possibly made it up. No one asks me pointedly why I stopped at the motel for the night in the first place. No one suggests I'm tellng the story to tarnish the reputation of the motel chain I stayed at. They never suggest that the fact that I walked into that motel of my own choice meant that I was asking to get robbed. They don't ask why I didn't yell a little louder at the hotel manager or the police officer. They don't ask me if I am sure my car was stolen, rather than merely misplaced. They don't ask for in-depth explanations of every item that was stolen and then question whether my theft "counted" as much as other thefts where more expensive cars and belongings had been taken. They don't ask if I had done something to deliberately piss the theives off, so that they stole my car over someone else's. They never push me to describe exactly what inflection the hotel manager used when speaking to me, or exactly how tightly the policeman put his hand around my arm when he escorted me off the property--it doesn't even occur to them that those details were necessary--it's simply enough for them to hear that it happened. They don't wonder if the way the car looked made it my fault that it got stolen. They'd never think to tell me that because I only got robbed once, it wasn't such a big deal, and that I shouldn't make such a big case out of it. They never say because it happened years ago that it shouldn't affect me anymore and I should just get over it and forget about it. They don't suggest that because I wasn't held at gun point when the car was stolen that it didn't count as a theft.

And certainly, whenever I walk up to someone and say, "A while back my car was stolen with all my stuff in it," they never look freaked out and don't want to talk about it. They never say or act like, "Whoa, too much information, there!" They're not at a loss for how to respond. They're not afraid it's something that's "too sensitive" to talk about.

So, again, when I tell you I've been sexually assaulted, let me. And just treat me the same as you would if I told you about the car.

Because when boiled down, they are both the same, you know. Some fucker took advantage of me, and committed a crime while doing so. Period.

So why is it my car story considered appropriate and acceptable to tell any time, anywhere, while my assault story is not? Why should the loss of my car receive more spontaneous expressions of sympathy than my assault? Why should it be so difficult for people to treat both the same way?

***April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

In recognition of that, I'm going to (probably) do a number of posts on the topic this month. I know it's not your standard sex talk, but it's relevant and it's important. I'm only just learning myself how relevant and important it is to have a voice on this issue.

So, despite it not being a "sexy" sex-related topic, I'm going to be talking about it. If that's not your thing, there's plenty of other good reading on my links lists on the right. But I hope some of you will stick around and read it.

If not, well, if it helps just one person who's been assaulted to deal with their own experience, or helps even one person learn how to step up when someone who has been assaulted confides in them, then that's all I care about.

And if you read any of these posts and find it brings up any upsetting memories of your own, please don't struggle with those alone. Go talk to someone--preferably a professional in your local area with expertise in working with assault survivors, but if not, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE. It's free, confidential, and open 24/7. (Sorry, that number is in the US only. I wish I knew ones for other countries, but maybe readers can share hotline numbers for their own countries.)***


Anonymous Tory said...

It is a tough situation to be in. To be the person listening to a horrific event that played a major role in that persons development is a serious thing. I never know what to say when people tell me that kind of stuff. It seems women being sexually assaulted or molested is becoming the norm which is sad. A lot of women i know have confessed to me that someone took advantage of them. Whether it was uncle bob when they were 10 or oh boi at a party when they were drinking. Everytime I never know what to say. Some women havent faced it as you have Syl. Some cant open up and talk about the details without bursting in tears. Others can talk about it because they dealt with it and have progressed forward.

I can remember telling a friend i was sorry that happened and telling her it shouldnt have happened. She freaked out and said dont pity her and dont feel bad for her. Every person handles it different. The only thing I have learned is just listen to everything that is being said and embrace that person.

That kind of stuff isnt tolerated at all with me and my friends. I have put myself in some really bad situations confronting the accused but most of the people who commit crimes like these are cowards. People who go to jail with sexual crimes on their jackets get theirs. Soon as it hits the yard whether they are in PC or GP, it will get handled. To me that is as close to justice as i can ask for.

4/03/2006 4:57 AM  
Blogger Aine said...

On the 8th of April I'm going to writing a post about my ex girlfriend. It'll have been 9 years since she died. When she was three years old her father raped her, and he continued to do so until she left the country as an adult to get away from him.

Nobody ever believed her. Well respected member of the community, etc. But even here in Scotland where no-one knew her father, if she told someone they'd change the subject, and some of them went around calling her a liar later.

Which is strange because many of the women I know and a couple of the men have been sexually assaulted in some way.

I'm sure the fact that no-one allowed her to talk about it contributed to her dying.

Miss Syl, your blog never fails to push me in some way.

Here are a couple of British helpline numbers:

Rape/Indecent Assault Crisis Counselling - 0800 735 0567

Samaritins - 08457 909090

Man2man (for male victims of abuse) - 0208 698 9649

Victim Supportline (Nationwide lo-call service, 9am–9pm Mon–Fri, 9am–7pm weekends and bank holidays from 9am–5pm; Provides information and support to victims of all reported and unreported crime, including sexual crimes, racial harassment and domestic violence) - 0845 30 30 900

4/03/2006 5:47 AM  
Blogger chelsea girl said...

As a trained story teller, you know that your question isn't fair. You give a long and detailed description of your car being packed, stolen and disregarded.

You toss off your sexual assault in one line.

I recognize your point is that people can handle the loss of stuff, the inhumanity to woman shown by callous powers that be, the family drama, but they can't handle the idea of a teen girl having her body hurt, her privacy intruded upon, her trust shattered, her illusions of safety rent apart.

However, if you want to make a comparison, you owe the comparers the equal fulness of narrative. Perhaps you yourself can wrap your head around the story telling of the car and not the assault, and that's fair, but to tell the stories unequally and ask us, "What was your response to that?" and then to suggest that we didn't have the same one to the assault story as to the car story isn't.

I'm very sorry you had your stuff stolen. I'm very sorry you were alone and treated badly and that someone you loved was in danger.

I'm very, very sorry you were assaulted. And I'm yet sorrier that you can't tell this truth without some people looking askance. But please don't accuse me of being one of them.

4/03/2006 7:47 AM  
Blogger Cherrie said...

Your post today is a very powerful one.

It's natural that people attracted to a journal called "Sexeteria" would tend to focus on the lighter, happier side of sexual relations. But you rightfully remind us there is a darker side too--a side where people use sex in a hurtful way.

There will always be people who prey on the weak, the inexperienced, the sick in order to satisfy their own urges (which may not all be sexual in nature). I believe sex, like everything else, should be based on honesty, respect and love, and when I hear about people being hurt when they are vulnerable, I get upset and angry.

I hope that discussing this subject with your faithful readers will help you cope with, and eventually overcome, the aftermath of this tragedy.

4/03/2006 8:32 AM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Tory: Yeah, I wrote the piece because so many people tell me they just don't know what to say. Or they get freaked out and don't say anything and try to make the person drop it, which couldn't be worse.

I think listening and being sympathetic, as you say you do, is exactly right. The responses people have may differ, but at the core people just want to be heard, believed, and shown some sympathy. They can dictate to you what type of sympathetic display they prefer.

Woman: I'm very sorry to hear about your girlfriend, both your loss and her abuse. I'm also very sorry no one believed her. The response you describe is all too common, and I've come to learn that the whole denial/change the subject thing is probably due to a the people who respond that way having unresolved or un-dealt-with abuse situations in their own lives. Because, as you mention, sexual abuse is rampant among both females and males, and is rarely talked about. US government stats show that every 2.5 minutes someone is abused in the US. And that's only the reported crimes. And the problem is certainly not just endemic to the US.

Thanks for sharing your story, and for the hotline numbers.

Hi Chelsea Girl:

Thanks for your thoughts. Perhaps my point was not articulated as well as it could be, but what I was trying to say is, if I say in one line that I was robbed, even without the details, almost everyone automatically respond with natural sympathy and concern, and they want to know my story. When I say that I was assaulted in one line, the majority of people don't respond this way.

Note I said majority of people don't respond similarly. I wasn't intending the post to be a blanket statement that everyone always responds inappropriately. In the post I say:

[Your response] should have been the same. But I bet for some of you it wasn't.

"Some of you" is the operative phrase there. The post was written for those who didn't respond in a similar way, or for those, like Tory mentions, who at some point felt they "just didn't know how to respond," or for those, like Woman mentioned, that try to ignore the person who brings it up.

Some do respond appropriately. If you are one of those--and I'm betting you are--the post wasn't written for you. And I'm glad there are people like you out there.

But in truth, the post is not intended to be an accusation of anyone. Any use of second person is general, not personal. And the point was to help suggest the right perspective and approach, so people are not so freaked out all the time in responding to it. It's okay to talk about these things. So I'll say right now to anyone else reading this, I'm sorry if anyone feels accused. That was not my intention.

4/03/2006 9:05 AM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Cherrie: Thanks for your comments. Yep, there's a lot going on related to sexual assault, not all of which is sexual in nature, but there is sex involved, and I personnaly feel it's important not to ignore that, or deny it and say the offense is only about other things (like power).

4/03/2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger AlwaysArousedGirl said...

Wow. I completely get your comparison between the robbery and the assault. And I am sorry that both happened to you, but especially the assault.

This sort of thing DOES belong in a sex-blog.

4/03/2006 9:44 AM  
Blogger Karl Elvis said...

Syl, you rock. I want to hug you. And I have a baseball bat here if there's smiting that needs to be done, just point me the way.

4/03/2006 1:39 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

AAG: Thanks. I'm glad you understand. Your Philip Larkin posts a while back really helped me get to the point where I could articulate my own thoughts on this topic, so I need to thank you very much for doing those, too.

Karl Elvis: You're very sweet. Though I probably could get you the information necessary to go smite this person, I don't want to continue the circle of violence he drew me into. I want to be able to say it ended with me. But it's actually very nice to hear someone offer, even if only symbolically. :) I don't think survivor's anger gets validated very often, and I think it deserves to be.

Did you ever see the Sopranos episode called "Employee of the Month?" Those last two minutes blew me away--where Tony Soprano asks Melfi if anything's wrong, and if there's anything he can do, and there's just this extreme closeup of her face and especially her eyes, for a long, long minute, until she just says, "No." She knows she could send the wild dog straight to the guy's throat, and she SO wants to on some primeval level, but she doesn't. Very powerful moment. I understand it completely.

4/03/2006 1:59 PM  
Anonymous Kochanie said...

Miss Syl:

Stiff fines and penalties should be levied for the utterance of the words, "Too much information." Why does a phrase of prepubescent sarcasm become elevated to the level of wit, and used by adults who should know better? Because emotionally these adults are prepubescent, and their number, legion.

To be an emotionally mature adult, you have to acknowledge that people who are traumatized heal by telling their stories. This is not mere touchy-feely protocol. It is based on the the two types of memory.

Semantic, or declarative, memory
is the storytelling capacity that allows us to verbalize our experiences. This reframed memory is stored in the hippocampus, and our ability to use this type of memory begins with our ability to speak, around age three. Prior to that age, memory is stored in the form of visual representations, or icons, in the amygdala. In addition to the memories of childhood, this section of the brain holds the icons or visual imagery for all emotionally charged events such as assault, and abuse. While semantic memory can fade over time, the images stored in iconic memory never fade and, when prompted by stressful events, emerge as nightmares and flasbacks.

Under normal circumstances (i.e., socializing with friends, running errands, or working in an emotionally nontoxic office), victims of abuse or assault can function quite well. However, these
victims do not respond as others will when under stress. The state of high arousal reactivates the icons, triggering distress far greater than would seem warranted by the current event. Thus the victim, who seemed to be "doing so well," crumbles under the stress and the ensuing emotional storm.

How is this cured? By talking, which is what victims of assault/ abuse want and need. By taking the vivid image out of iconic memory and verbalizing it, we make it less potent. To heal, we must speak, and we must be listened to.

When any victim, upon announcing her/his story, hears, "Too much information,' it's the same as though he/she was denied medical treatment following a severe car accident.

In answer to your question, Miss Syl, I would be horrified that your car and possessions were stolen. When you'd tell me about your father, I'd be speechless. When you'd tell me you were assaulted, I would probably begin to cry, but I wouldn't say much. It would be your turn to do the talking.


P.S. karl elvis
See, I said you were a hero! A blessing on you and your kilt.

4/04/2006 1:42 PM  
Blogger Karl Elvis said...

Hero, Kochanie? I'm a black-hat guy all the way.

4/04/2006 6:24 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Kochanie: Wow, now that *was* a lot of information. But not too much! It was very interesting, and explains a great many things. Thanks. Where did you learn all that?

I don't know how I'd respond if someone started crying when I told them. I think I'd end up trying to comfort them instead of talking about myself. I'm like that.

Karl: My guess is you actually have one of those reversible hats. Now the question is, what's your other color you've got hidden underneath?

4/05/2006 12:47 AM  
Anonymous Kochanie said...

It was very interesting, and explains a great many things. Thanks. Where did you learn all that?

Miss Syl:

I did not want to appear pedantic, but this information about trauma and memory was very helpful for me, and if your blog will be visited by other victims of abuse or assault, then I hope this will help them.

One of the best sources for understanding brain function from a layman's point of view are the books of Daniel G. Amen, M.D., such as Healing the Hardware of the Soul. Dr. Amen also has a website, which will explain his extensive use of brain SPECT studies (SPECT = single photon emission computed tomography) which can identify irregularities in brain function and their cure, e.g., how psychotherapy can calm excess activity in the areas of the brain affected by trauma.

Another great book is A Woman's Book of Life by Joan Boryshenko, PhD.

Thank you, Miss Syl, for sharing those memories with us.

4/05/2006 1:40 AM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

It depends on a listener's own experience of their life up to a certain point. For me, the car experience is something that sings to the tune of 'shit happens', chaos, that can't be controlled. Objects like cars, clothes can be replaced, and at the end of the day sentimental objects can't compare to a person's life.

Sure it's traumatic, but there are worse things in terms of degrees, and I don't think sexual assault and car theft are the same. The crime commited by the car thief is linked to you, targeted toward a personal object you own, but it doesn't creep into one's sexual psyche like sexual assault can. They're both different things.

I think the reason why people would find the car theft easier is because it is focused toward an inanimate object whereas sexual assault resurrects images of menace and horror, things that people find difficulty in discussing, especially if they haven't experienced them (in whatever degree).

4/05/2006 10:47 AM  
Blogger Shon Richards said...

I had a girlfriend who told me about her rape and it took me awhile to process it. Part of my problem with dealing with it was that she still loved the guy, but that's not an excuse. Since then, I have had a sister-in-law and a cousin raped as well as finding out about the pasts of other friends. People are suprised at how well I handle it now, but I think it is something that comes with exposure.

I suspect that there is a terror factor involved in how people react. Rape is the big nasty thing that can happen to anyone and it freaks people out. They want to think that it can't happen to them and when they hear it happens to you, their fear kicks in and they start looking for things you did wrong so they can assure themselves that they wouldn't make the same 'mistakes' as they see them.

I really like your post and the car story. I think it's a great point.

4/10/2006 10:19 AM  
Blogger Darkneuro said...

Finally got around to reading this, Syl... Reaction the same to both scenes... ***HUGS*** and "Anything I can do?" because really... that's what there is.

4/20/2006 1:11 PM  

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