This past Sunday, I was lucky enough to be in a show called Beast Women Rising. If you’ve never seen it, then I recommend that you find a way to get to their next show. It’s a show filled with bright, beautiful, and talented women who can sing, dance, and balance swords on their heads. The mission is to be daring, they are, and it is delightful.
When I stepped off stage, I was pulled aside by an audience member. Sweating and shaking from my piece and completely unprepared for what was to follow, I let the woman lead me by my arm into the lobby. As we stood there, my dress clinging to my body from the heat and anxiety of what I had done taking over, this sincerely enthusiastic woman began to tell me her rape story. She didn’t randomly decide that I would be the person for her to bear her soul, rather, I had just told my own rape story. I told my story, alone, on stage, in front of 30 strangers.
They were all strangers because I never told anyone that I was going to talk to about my experience on this night because I was ashamed. I was ashamed not only of the choices I had made that created my story, I was ashamed to tell my story. Now, in this hot box of wood and vintage couches, sweat running down my red cheeks and the feeling of my hair curling on itself again, I stood listening to a stranger telling me her past experience of violence and abuse.
I won’t go into her situation, as it’s not my story to tell, but I will tell you why this conversation felt so wrong. It wasn’t our location, the circumstances that brought us together, nor was it the fact that she had never met me. It was that every time she told me a little about what had happened to her, she would stop and say, “But, it wasn’t as bad as what happened to you.”
And there it was. The training. The reminders of what our mothers and fathers told us as “good girls” and “hormonal teenagers” – be humble, don’t be dramatic, no one wants to hear your problems. “But, it wasn’t as bad as what happened to you.” A quick recognition that she wanted to show respect toward me because her rape “wasn’t as bad as what happened to you.”
That is how I ended up in a theater lobby listening to a shining, brown haired, vintage glasses wearing, white smiled woman mouth the words, “But, it wasn’t as bad as what happened to you,” and comparing the intensity of whose rape was worse. “Yours was worse,” she said. I know she’s referring to the fact that it was multiple times over a short period, including beatings. But, was my rape worse? Why was she talking about it this way? More importantly, why did either of us ever have to talk about it at all because it simply should never have happened to anyone.
My regret actually isn’t about this moment in that room. It isn’t even about staying with an abusive boyfriend for as long as did. It is about the fact that it took me almost two decades to talk about, to tell my story. I regret not shouting it from the mountains the moment he first hit my face. I regret that when I finally walked away from that relationship that I didn’t warn every woman I know or share my story with every man I met. I regret not saying a word and keeping it so deeply locked in the depths of my soul, eating away at me with shame and darkness, that I could never show that I was broken; instead, I struggled for years to regain my faith in humanity, to reclaim my sexuality, and to rid myself of a self hate that was close to killing me.
If I could change my past, I would stop the shame that I have each time I tell anyone my rape story, when I have nothing to be ashamed of now or then, to let go of feeling “dramatic”. Even today, my stomach turns in fear of the thought of ever having to spill out the words, “I was abused, raped, and had an abortion,” to my daughters. I wonder if there’s any deeper feeling of shame and I wonder if it will ever stop. If I could change my past, I wouldn’t call it my “rape story”; I’d call it my “victory story” because I am more alive than I ever have been and more woman that I ever thought I could be.
My biggest regret isn’t the decision I made to stay as long as I did or date him in the first place. My biggest regret is that, while standing in the lobby, listening to this woman sharing her tale, that I didn’t say, “We cannot measure the insanity of what happened. My rape is no worse than yours. You have the right, you get the right to be sad, angry, and righteous. This is your right. Tell everyone.”
If I could go back and change one thing about my past, it would be to have invited all my friends and family to watch me tell my story because I have the right to be heard and loved for telling my truth.