As a victim of sexual assault, my first impulse is to make nice. Some of that is the survival instinct: Don’t invite any further violence. Slip away and disappear.
But recently, I learned again that making nice has its own price. Rage, like grief, has its own season, and recovery cannot be rushed.
I learned — relearned — this lesson when I received an e-mail from a college classmate who was the roommate of the man who raped me our freshman year. He was writing after 40 years of silence with an offer to talk. His roommate had told him “distressing” things about a “night” with me at the time, he said. “I regret never having discussed it before,” he wrote.
To say this e-mail shook me would be an understatement. Although I’ve healed considerably through therapy, and I’ve written extensively in both fiction and nonfiction about how sexual trauma can play out in a woman’s life, this awakened something. As other survivors know, we often cling a little bit to denial: It wasn’t that bad. We had some role, and therefore some control. Maybe it didn’t happen at all. This e-mail was proof, once again, that it did.
Several friends advised me not to respond. But once the strange vertigo of denial passed, I realized I had questions. The first was for him: Why now? The answer boiled down to his awareness of #MeToo and a reappraisal of his own past.
I then moved onto the specific queries that had long bothered me. No, his roommate didn’t use drugs, just a bottle of over-proof rum, which he kept solely to push on vulnerable women. Yes, there were other women. No, he was never prosecuted, as far as his former roommate knew. These answers were disturbing but ultimately useful. Old questions answered. Throughout, he kept reassuring me that he didn’t participate and that he didn’t like this roommate.
But his e-mails also signified that he still didn’t get it. For one, even though I called what happened rape, he didn’t. Instead, he talked about how his roommate would use alcohol “to try to have sex with women.” At one point, he said he thought I might want to “let bygones be bygones.” He also noted that I never reached out to talk to him, as if contact with someone who lived with the man who assaulted me was something I would seek.
He also was not, I came to believe, candid about what he really wanted. Absolution. Points for being a good guy, all these years later.
That’s when I realized why my friends had cautioned me about replying. That this was about him, not me, and by responding to his prompt, I was giving him something. I was entering into some kind of cooperative agreement or relationship — on his terms and on his timetable.
And I don’t have to. I don’t owe him any particular reaction — or a response at all. In her memoir, “Know My Name,” Chanel Miller talks about reclaiming power after being cast purely as the victim of assault. For me, this is part of that reclamation.
This e-mail out of the blue shook me. It sparked a lot of feelings, including anger. I’m trying to be OK with that. What I’m not OK with is for anyone else — particularly a man who was at least passively complicit — seeking reconciliation or some resolution now that he wants one.
Too often, making nice made us vulnerable to abuse. We didn’t protest, we played along. I’m now trying to fight that impulse. I’m pushing back. My anger is my own, and I — we — will let go of it when our time is right.