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Why Rape Survivors Forget Important Details
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The recollection of trauma does not happen in the clear, linear way in which we are used to thinking about memory. Sometimes, sexual assault can be a blink in reality.
By Anjali Nayar
The trauma caused by sexual assault can affect the mind in peculiar ways, influencing the perceptions and memories of survivors. This article follows the stories of three survivors as they come to grips with their experiences. All names have been changed for privacy. Trigger warning: graphic depiction of sexual abuse.
In the living room of a Harlem apartment, Jordan Marie was slowly waking up. Sunlight filtered in through the window, confusing her. Where was she? She tried to sit up, but her body was wrapped in bedcovers — she was on the floor of someone else’s living room. As she kicked herself out of the sheets, she found she was naked. Her vagina throbbed with a sharp pain.
Slowly, memories of the night came back. She’d come over to her friend’s apartment for drinks. ‘What did you do?’ she chided herself, pulling on her green top and orange shorts, which she found in a corner. She stumbled out of the apartment and into the muggy August heat. ‘You’re so stupid,’ she scolded herself. As she rushed toward the subway, she felt a sharp pain in her foot, perhaps from stubbing it in a metal grate. As fresh blood oozed from her big toe, she collapsed onto the sidewalk and began to sob.
Jordan was 23, athletic with brown hair. It was 2014 and she had returned to New York City only three weeks prior, after spending a year working in Europe. The previous evening, she’d met her friend Samantha at a bar. They’d gone to Samantha’s apartment after, where they settled onto her couch for wine and conversation. They were the only ones at home. But hadn’t Samantha mentioned that her boyfriend might be coming over later? Jordan wasn’t sure though. A breeze carried a whiff of incense from a candle shop across the street. She got up from the sidewalk. She was suddenly craving incense.
She walked into the store and took in the rows of candles, oils, incense, and soaps. Gingerly, she lifted the boxes and sniffed them, one after another. Lavender. Sandalwood. Orange blossom. She chose Dragon’s Blood. She stopped at a department store for coat hangers before catching the D Train to her Brooklyn neighborhood. She made a pit stop at her favorite Dominican bakery for breakfast but when she got there, her stomach lurched uncomfortably, and she decided she wasn’t hungry. Instead, she grabbed a six pack of Budweiser from a 7–Eleven.
Jordan lived in a dark, bleak basement that had been haphazardly turned into a living space. She was renting it from a guy who eventually planned to turn it into a recording studio: exposed wires dangled from the ceiling, giant stage speakers were shoved into one corner, and a discarded car seat served as a couch. Using her cellphone’s flashlight, she made her way down a narrow staircase.
Dumping her shopping bags on the floor, she opened a beer and slugged down mouthfuls. Christmas lights strung across the wall cast ghostly circles of light. She noticed a dull throbbing on the back of her head and, when she touched it, winced in pain. There was a bump on the back of her head.
For several hours, Jordan lay on her bed, drinking her six-pack. The day passed outside but she couldn’t tell; there weren’t windows or even cracks that let in light. Jordan texted Samantha to ask if she knew what had happened. Samantha replied that she didn’t.
Suddenly, Jordan couldn’t sit still and dashed up the narrow staircase to go for a walk. It was already night.
She wasn’t sober for a moment over the next four days. She wandered through Brooklyn for hours, wearing sunglasses to hide her tears. She kept chiding herself: if she hadn’t gone to Samantha’s apartment, nothing terrible would have happened.
In those days, Jordan was working remotely on a research project that didn’t require her to report regularly. She would shop for vegetables and spend hours chopping them in her tiny kitchen, finding comfort in the rhythmic activity. When she had trouble sleeping, she worked her way through huge quantities of peppers, tomatoes, and onions, cooking them into salsas. They began to pile up in the fridge so she decided to throw her friends a barbecue the coming Saturday.
But her pelvic area was still inflamed, and it bothered her. Even wiping herself was painful. “My vagina hurts like a motherf*****,” she messaged her friend Lisa on Google Chat.
“What happened?” Lisa replied. “I have no idea. Literally no memory.” She then told Lisa about the night at Samantha’s, describing for the first time the parts she did remember.
“Omg Jordan. Is this like a rape situation? I mean, how would you classify this?”
“I have no memory,” Jordan repeated. “But I’m glad at least beer has calories,” she joked, making an effort to lighten the mood. She hadn’t really been able to eat since the incident, although she forced herself to eat two boiled eggs every day, aware that she needed some kind of nutrition.
The day before the barbecue, Jordan busied herself with preparations, staying up all night drinking and cooking. By the time her friends began to arrive the next afternoon, she had passed out. When she finally woke up it was nighttime. She carried a bottle of wine up a ladder at the back of the basement. It led to a tiny nook of an alleyway behind a video rental store and she sat there all night drinking and crying. It had been almost a week since the incident at Samantha’s. When morning came, the shop assistant arrived and noticed Jordan, wine bottle to her side.
“What’s up, what’s wrong?” he said when he noticed her crying.
Jordan told him that she was pretty sure she had been assaulted, the first time she had used that word to describe what happened. “And I’m basically using alcohol to deal with it,” she finished.
“But can’t you see that alcohol is the problem?” the man finally responded, sitting down next to her and sharing the story of his own teenage alcoholism before he quit drinking.
As Jordan listened to him, she had a vision of a dark field where her dead body was stashed. In her imagination, it had lain there for several days and no one had found it. The vision sent a shudder down her spine. She had been sexually abused a few months ago too, and now it had happened again. She told herself that if she wasn’t careful, she was going to end up dead.
Jordan has not touched a drop of alcohol since that day. But sobriety broke open a deluge of traumatic feelings that the alcohol had been suppressing. “My body was sending me all these signals, but I didn’t want to believe I’d been raped,” she recalled of the days that followed the assault.
She started seeing black shadows flash in the corners of her eyes, making her feel like she was being followed or watched. She couldn’t fall asleep, even when her body felt like it was breaking under exhaustion. Whenever she tried to sleep her body would spasm and jolt her awake, as though afraid that if Jordan let her guard down she would be assaulted again.
Jordan’s initial attempt to suppress her feelings is a common reaction among survivors of sexual abuse, says psychologist Suraiya Baluch. “Lots of people try to forget,” she says. “They just try to push it away and act like nothing happened.” Trauma specialists refer to this as “post-traumatic amnesia,” which keeps painful memories at bay as the field of consciousness constricts itself for protection. Sometimes, a fragment of a memory might appear — a certain image, smell, or sound, according to Abram Kardiner, another trauma researcher.
“Because reliving a traumatic experience provokes such intense emotional distress, traumatized people go to great lengths to avoid it,” writes Judith Herman. She explains that most survivors dread the experience of remembering the traumatic event. Because it lies outside the range of ordinary experience, it causes a sense of numbing or blocking of feelings among survivors.
Soon after she had quit drinking, Jordan began to practice yoga. “Practicing yoga regularly was a big part of how I recovered,” Jordan says. “I used to softly cry during ‘shavasana’ because there are so many emotions that come up when you’re doing that kind of intense body work and you’re dealing with trauma. And then eventually, I didn’t cry anymore.” Yoga not only helped Jordan with releasing her pain, but it helped her regain a sense of control over her body. Even though she intellectually understood that the assault wasn’t her fault, she was still blaming herself, she says. As she found a reconnection with her body, she became aware of how central her body was to her being, and this felt very empowering.
She even began to piece back the events of that fateful night: that Samantha’s boyfriend did in fact come to the apartment in Harlem and rape her.
Two years after the assault, Jordan completed a yoga teacher-training program and earned her master’s degree. She went on to co-author and publish a book. She even reached back out to Samantha, with whom she had cut off contact.
It’s been four years now. “I’m doing really well actually,” she says, “but healing takes time.”
Riya was shooting hoops in the basketball court of her college in India in 2010, where she was a first year student, when a hefty older guy walked up and introduced himself. She blushed. Pranav was in his fourth year. He challenged her to a game of 21 and as they played together, he struck up a conversation, explaining how to score the perfect basket. He smelled of cologne and wore his hair in spikes.
Riya was 18 and fresh out of an overprotective home and all-girls’ school where she had had absolutely no contact with boys. Now in college, Pranav’s sudden interest flattered her. He began to invite her out for coffee and then for walks at night, and Riya looked forward to these meetings. He flirted with her, sometimes brushing his knuckles across her cheek or tucking strands of hair behind her ear. This excited her but also confused and upset her. One evening, hesitantly, she asked him to stop.
He acted offended and cracked jokes about her being “simple” and “naïve.” She didn’t want to come across as uncool so she stopped saying anything, even when he made her uncomfortable.
“He said he loved me,” she recalled later. “I’d never heard those words before, not even from my parents. He made me feel wanted.” He began to press her to stay out late and she would give in, even when she was bone tired. One such night, around 4 or 5 a.m., she had dozed off as they sat in chairs in the basketball court. Suddenly, she awoke to find him rubbing his nose against hers. Seeing his face loom so close sent her heart racing and she leaned in and kissed him before jumping back in disgust at what she’d done.
A few nights later, he led her to a dark corner and tried to force his hands under the belt of her jeans, but she grasped his fingers. He struggled with her belt and she grew frightened. “I wasn’t ready,” she says, “I’d never even thought about sex.” When he continued to shove his hands under her clothes over the next few nights, she blamed herself. How could she tell him she’d meant nothing by the kiss? She decided she had to break up with him, and one night, she asked him to meet her.
His reaction was to collapse into a chair, throw his head in his hands, and begin to weep. “I never expected you to be so cruel,” he whimpered. “I thought you were the nicest person in this college, like an angel.”
She waited for the fit to be over but his next words frightened her. “I’m afraid I might do something to myself tonight. Could you come up to my room and put me to sleep?” he begged. “It’s the last favor I’ll ask of you, I promise.”
So she went to his room and sat on his bed while he put his head in her lap; tears dripped from the corners of his eyes. He whispered how much he had loved her and she was overwhelmed by guilt. ‘If you didn’t want to date him, why did you lead him on?’ she chided herself, beginning to cry as well. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she whispered as she brushed his hair gently, willing him to sleep. But her gaze was fixed on the black sky outside the window, through which drifted a balmy wind. Soon, she was going to be free of him.
He fell asleep, or so she thought. She began to doze sitting up, so she slipped his head off her lap and pulled herself away. Suddenly, his hand clutched at her wrist. “Where are you going?” he said anxiously, beginning to sit up. “Just sleep here tonight, please?”
Worried that he might start crying again, Riya chose to lie down on the floor. “No, come sleep on the bed,” Pranav pleaded. She said she liked sleeping on the floor. He grew silent. Thinking he had fallen asleep, she closed her eyes. But just as she had begun to drift off, she felt him wrap himself around her from behind. He must have waited for her to fall asleep to come down from the bed, she thought to herself. One hand clutched her breasts while the other struggled with her pants. Shocked and frightened, she grabbed his wrists and tried to pull them away, but he was strong. “Stop it,” she begged, beginning to cry.
“Just wanna see you once,” he kept saying over and over again. “Just wanna see your body once, please. I’ve been waiting so desperately.”
She grew still and squeezed her eyes shut, letting him take off her clothing. Her body was so limp that he had no trouble. When he pulled off her underwear her foot flopped to the side like a log. She felt his tongue jab her clitoris in one swift movement before something slithery rolled along her inner thigh and stabbed her deep in her being. She doesn’t remember what happened next because her mind went to a sentence she had read in a Cosmopolitan article a few months earlier. It went something like: “If your man pleasures you with his tongue, it can be the most beautiful thing.” She had been in the waiting room of a hair salon where she’d taken her niece for a haircut after a morning at the playground.
When Riya became aware that Pranav had left her body, she pulled on her clothes and stumbled down the boys’ hostel staircase. Blue light fell from the pre-dawn sky, filling the campus with an eerie blue haze. When she reached her own room, she pulled her journal from under her mattress and wrote the date on a fresh page. “Dear Diary,” she began, “I lost my virginity today.” As she wrote, she even felt a hint of pride. But when she put her pen to the page to continue her thought, her hand began to tremble and the pen veered off the page. She pressed herself back against the wall and drew her legs up, letting her journal slip from her lap.
A half formed ‘c’ or ‘o’ remained, her diary entry never completed. She sat frozen until the sky brightened and the students filled the hallway of her hostel, their voices rising and falling. She talked herself into the cold rush of a shower, washed and combed her hair, brushed her teeth, threw on the red-and-white plaid shirt that she wore on days she needed comfort, and went off to her morning classes. She was late and the professor paused his lecture as she entered. Her classmates looked up at her and their looks felt accusatory and hateful. She lowered her gaze and rushed to the back of the classroom, feeling the heat rush into her cheeks. She pretended not to notice the empty seat next to her best friend and sat down by herself.
All day long, she attended her lectures and seminars, willing into oblivion the heavy feeling in the center of her chest. During the late-afternoon tea break, when her classmates went to the cafeteria, she sat by herself on a park bench, watching wispy white clouds drifting in a cobalt blue sky. A few birds soared above, and watching them sent a flood of relief through her body — at least Pranav would leave her alone now. She had paid the price of breaking up with him, and he would finally stop hounding her. At least he’d be so ashamed at what he’d done that he’d never try to see her again.
So when he showed up outside her evening class, smiling and asking if she wanted to go get something to eat, she was shocked. Had she misunderstood everything? After all, she’d never had sex so she didn’t really know what it was supposed to feel like.
Two years later, Riya was studying to the sounds of the radio when a song came on and she felt herself go still. She was still dating Pranav under pressure from him, and had been subjugated to similar coercion on numerous occasions.
“Though the marks on your dress had been neatly repressed, I knew that something was wrong…” sang the male voice, which belonged to the lead singer of The Offspring. “Can you stay strong, can you go on, Kristy are you doing ok?”
The song was about the rape of a girl called Kristy, and as Riya listened, she found that unwitting tears began to pour from her eyes. “It felt like somebody finally understood,” Riya recalls, “like somebody cared. Like I wasn’t alone anymore.” She Googled the song and listened to it again and again, and as she read the story behind creation of the song, she started to hunt for information on rape. As the reality of her experience dawned on her, she experienced an onslaught of terrible flashbacks. The flood of suppressed memories would keep her writhing on the floor of her dorm room in incredible pain night after night.
For a long time, Riya blamed herself. She couldn’t understand why she hadn’t fought back. But researchers and psychologists say that it is in fact quite common for survivors to give in to a sense of passive detachment during a traumatic event. “In a way, I was leading a double life back then,” Riya would later surmise. “The morning-me was the one that went to college and forgot everything, and the night-me was the one suffering.”
“There can be so much suffering when we know what we went through,” says Gwenn Nusbaum, a psychologist who specializes in trauma and sexual abuse. In an attempt to protect themselves, survivors of traumatic experiences often dissociate or lose awareness of the moment.
Jennifer Lepke, a psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma says, “In terms of memory, there’s usually the moment before the trauma, followed by a blink and then the after-memory.” There’s a sense of “blanking out,” agrees Nusbaum, where “things just sort of get blurred out” or the mind stops focusing on what’s going on because it’s so intense and overwhelming.
Judith Herman refers to this state of altered consciousness as “one of nature’s small mercies, a protection against unbearable pain.” Memories are even formed and encoded differently during a moment of trauma. This is because when someone faces danger, the body goes into “survival mode,” where several physiological changes occur as preparation for the fight, flight, or freeze response. In this state of heightened physiological arousal, certain non-essential processes are suspended until the danger is averted. One of those is the limbic system, which is responsible for language and memory. This leaves the traumatized person with perplexing emotions without “verbal narrative and context,” or a memory of “vivid sensations and images” without emotional or cognitive understanding.
“Before it happened to me, I used to judge other women for putting themselves in dangerous situations,” Riya says. “But I never realized how insidious rape is. Only when I saw how it affected my mind did I finally understand it’s way more complicated.” With time, Riya began to feel a strong sense of compassion and camaraderie for other survivors. Now, she wants to build her life around work that can help them.
“At some point I realized I could either give my life up to depression and rage, or I could do something productive with my anger. And I hope I can contribute in some way.” The ‘Me Too’ movement this past year has resonated strongly with her, especially because she was shocked that so many people in her circle had also experienced abuse. No one had talked about it before, including herself.
A few years after she graduated from college, in 2015, Riya moved to New York to study for her master’s degree. One afternoon, a nervous-looking woman approached her and asked if Riya had an extra cigarette. When Riya held one out, the stranger slumped down on the bench next to Riya. She looked familiar, Riya thought. Perhaps she went to the same school.
Lighting the cigarette with shaky fingers, the young woman took a deep drag. “I’ve never told this to anyone,” she burst out, “but I was sexually assaulted and I don’t know what to do.”
Riya was stunned to hear this from a complete stranger, but she stopped herself from making any sudden reactions. She simply turned to face the woman to show that she was listening. “I haven’t been able to focus on work,” she continued. “I’m having trouble sleeping at night. It happened so many years ago. Three and a half, actually. You’d think I’d be over it by now. But it’s suddenly all beginning to come back.”
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Riya asked softly.
The stranger who asked for the cigarette was Elena Johnson. Three years earlier, in 2012, she was a 21-year-old college senior in Connecticut. At a college-wide celebration marking 100 days to graduation, she went to a bar with her classmates. She was drinking and having a good time until a disagreement between her friends caused her to head home.
Back at her dorm, some students had drunkenly decided to explore the campus chapel. She slipped out of her heels and followed them. As the group entered the darkened place of worship, their voices grew hushed.
Ever since she was a child, Elena had been fond of chapels. The marble was cold under her bare feet. She saw one of the guys, Josh, climb up the ledge behind the organ and disappear into a gap in the wall. She was curious about where he’d vanished — she didn’t know there was any space in the wall behind the organ — so she climbed in after him.
As she stepped into the tiny, dark cavity, a figure came at her suddenly and kissed her. The sound of his heavy breathing rang in the narrow space. The darkness felt intense. The next thing she knew, he was pushing himself on her. Then he forced her head down, trying to make her perform oral sex on him. She tried to stand but he pushed her head down again.
She was so surprised she could barely move. Her body froze, and she doesn’t remember much until Josh was helping her back onto the chapel floor below them. She staggered as she put her feet on the ground, trying to regain her balance.
She stumbled around the organ in a daze and met the eyes of a guy staring at her. “He had this really sad expression on his face,” she remembers, “as though he knew something had happened.”
The next morning, she awoke to sounds of laughter in the hallway. Josh was telling some people that he had made out with her last night. She squirmed. Even so, when she met her own friends later, she jokingly said, “Guess who I hooked up with last night?” When she said Josh’s name, there was more laughter. Elena laughed along, though she “felt real shitty” inside.
Elena stayed with her parents after she graduated. Then, the anxiety attacks began. She chalked it up to the stress of being a new graduate, but when the sudden bouts of panic hit her, she ran into her mother’s room, begging to stay until the attack had passed. She had heavy, uncontrollable feelings, but didn’t understand what was happening. “I didn’t want to accept that I had been assaulted,” she says. “I guess I was angry with myself for not protecting myself.”
Her mother insisted she see a therapist, to whom Elena often confessed her mistrust of men and her fear of being alone with them. But when her therapist asked if she had been assaulted, Elena denied it. It wasn’t until three years after the incident, when Elena started graduate school and took the mandatory course on the meaning of consent and abuse, that she realized what she’d experienced was assault.
The summer after she got her master’s degree, Elena began dating a guy she met through a common friend. Although previously afraid of men, attaching this fear to her sexual assault helped her commit to a relationship.
Sometimes there’s an “immense gulf” between a survivor’s actual experience and her notion of what sexual assault means, Judith Herman writes. People believe that “somebody coming out of an alley with a knife or a gun is assault, but anything out of that isn’t,” adds psychotherapist Jennifer Lepke.
Survivors are sometimes unable to call it “assault until months or even years later,” Lepke explains. “For some people, they will be assaulted and they literally may not remember or be able to categorize their experience as assault, until months, even years later, because they’ve had to repress memories.”
Family, friends, and partners often mirror the same doubtful responses, disbelieving the stories of survivors. But an empathetic response can make all the difference in the healing process. When Elena blurted out her entire story to Riya, she found that Riya validated her fears and feelings, listening to her without judgment. Experts say that an empathetic first response makes a huge difference in overcoming trauma.
“It can often take a long time for a person to open up to somebody and say they’ve been assaulted,” says psychologist Suraiya Baluch. “The first response really sets the tone for their recovery and if they’ll ever tell anyone else.”
A few months later, Elena finally told her mother what had happened. Her mother responded by saying, “I want to kill him,” finally understanding Elena’s anxiety attacks. She said Elena ought to report the guy, but Elena didn’t want to. She didn’t believe she could prove it had been assault — after all, she hadn’t believed it herself for a long time. “It has taken me a long time to learn to say the word ‘rape,” she explains.
“What I’ve seen is, in the immediate aftermath, often survivors are more deeply impacted by the response of their friends and family than the actual trauma,” says Baluch. “It actually becomes a secondary trauma if the response of their community is not supportive.”
The recollection of trauma does not happen in the clear, linear way in which we are used to thinking about memory. In fact, memory is fallible in the best of circumstances. It’s a survival mechanism: there’s too much data in the world to process all of it and still be able to make the decisions vital to survival. So we take shortcuts; we remember only certain things. When memories are traumatic, they are further scrambled, fragmented, repressed, and convoluted.
As the “Me Too” movement makes the universality of sexual assault increasingly apparent—globally, as many as one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence—the question of how to support survivors like Jordan, Elena, and Riya has grown in prominence.
The simplest step may be the most important: believing them, even though their memories may be flawed and broken. After all, they are just trying to survive.
If you have experienced rape, domestic violence, or sexual harassment, you are not alone. If you are in India, please call 1-800–233–2244, affiliated with the Gauravi Center.If you are in the U.S., please call 1-800–656–4673, run by RAINN. Both of these numbers are toll-free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also connect with a RAINN trained staff member through their online chat line.
In Kenya there are a number of organizations who offer support to the vulnerable and fight for the well-being of abused victims. They include but are not limited to:
Childline Kenya – The helpline (116) is operational round the clock while their email is active during working hours. It provides a 24-hour toll-free helpline for any Kenyan child to report abuse and receive counselling. Helpline: 0722116116
Wangu Kanja Foundation– Restore dignity to the survivors of Sexual Violence. Helpline: +254-722 790 404
Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC- Kenya)– This is a charitable trust that provides free medical care and psychological support to victims of gender-based violence. Helpline: 0719638006
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