Rape, Suppressed Memory, and the Hope of Forgiveness

“I wronged you in the past,” came the LinkedIn message notification on my phone. It was late on a Friday afternoon. I was at work, plowing through as much as I could before the weekend.

I did not recognize the name on the message. Whoever it was, he wanted to apologize.

For what? Who was he?

About an hour later, my brain miraculously coughed up a possible answer to the second of those questions. My friend Molly and I had once rented a house in Charlottesville from someone whose son also lived there. Could that guy be this guy? We used a nickname for him—one that seemed to align with his adult, LinkedIn name. This is an example of a brain doing something remarkable, because that is literally the only thing it has offered up to me from the locked vault since I received that message.

It turns out my brain’s suggestion was correct. That guy was this guy.

And at that moment, I had to face a hard fact. I had virtually no memory of the entire year. The only thing from that year that has been in my active memory files in the 40 years since is that I was living in that house when John Lennon was killed. That sliver is what allowed me to figure out what year it was. I Googled it. 1980. Got it.

That’s it. No actual memory of the house, my room, the street, any events from the year either at work, school, or home. I have subsequently learned that there were two other housemates, who lived in the basement. In a late-night Messenger conversation, Molly texted me numerous specific memories of all the roommates, the house, stuff we talked about and did— that I cannot conjure no matter how I try. An entire year—gone.

Including the rape that took place in my bedroom one night. I eventually listened to my rapist tell the story. It was not the story of a shared memory, where my brain provided images and feelings to fill in the edges. It was a brand-new story he told me, and the main characters were named “You” and “I.”

Let me back up a bit. Why did I ask for a call with my self-professed rapist?

  1. I wanted my questions answered.
  2. I wanted at least one black hole in my mind to be filled in.
  3. I wanted to control the conversation—no more surprising messages on LinkedIn or an apology via letter or email where he got to spin the narrative.

I asked him to talk the following Sunday. He agreed.

Friday afternoon—I was numb… like, kind of fine, actually, for a few hours. I called my sister and told her about the messages. “Are you okay?” was her first question. And I said, “I think so.”

Friday night into Saturday… definitely not okay. I have no clear explanation for the mental and emotional processes of the next several days. Rollercoaster, though painfully trite, gets close to being descriptive. Information overload. Brain overdrive. Heartache.

I had been raped a second time—a little over a year after the first one. And I had erased it, and all the months around it.

I felt as if he had just raped me, because until that Friday afternoon, I did not know he had.

The complete blank in my brain resulted in massive uneasiness and anxiety.

What happened?

I forget things. My brain learned the trick when I was very young. I forget so I can be strong. I forget so I can live as if it didn’t happen. I erase huge swaths of my life so I can feel better about my life.

So much forgotten time. Entire years, it turns out. That fact is a punch in my gut almost as heartbreaking as realizing I’d been raped not just once, but twice.

My housemate rapist looked for me, forty years later. He sought me out, found me on LinkedIn, and assumed I’d remember, just as he did, the events that took place. Also that I’d likely welcome his request to apologize. How could he have known that the event that has been with him for 40 years was only introduced into my consciousness by him?

His first messages were clumsy, unintentionally hurtful because rather clueless, and made me nervous about speaking to him. But I knew I needed to. Wanted to.

I processed the shit out of the whole situation all day Saturday. I spoke to my sister and my daughter, on the phone. My friends Mary (by chance she was in town) and Beth came over to sit with me that afternoon. We made a plan. I wrote my notes, my script, to help me get through the call. I got mad. At him: “How dare he contact me!” At myself. For forgetting. I sobbed intermittently with utter helplessness—once again I had to face my own vulnerability at the whim/hands/intentions of a man. I raged with fierce strength: “This does not define me.” I was exhausted.

The next day, Beth returned, to be by my side while I was on the phone.

I tapped in the number he’d given me. I vibrated all over as floods of adrenaline and cortisol had their way with my central nervous system. My voice shook when he answered the phone and I said hello.

Here’s the thing. I knew he wanted to apologize. That seemed, on the face of it, good. But I was not at all sure if he wanted to take responsibility—which was the only kind of apology that would actually help me. If his apology was for his own sake alone, I would know it. And it would hurt.

But it wasn’t.

Nothing can change what he did. He will have to live with that self-knowledge forever. But his actions on that Sunday afternoon on the phone were everything I could have hoped for, but had not hoped for.

He wanted the call to be healing. I did not think it could be.

But it was.

I led, he followed. I asked, he answered—with brutal honesty and full ownership of the awfulness of his choices and actions. He said the correct words: “I raped you.” He offered no excuses, and lay no blame or responsibility at my feet, as happens all too often.

I am not the only woman he is trying to find. There are two others. And for their sake, at the very end of our phone call, I offered him some suggestions about how he might do it differently next time. He thanked me.

He told me he had read my Me Too blog before he reached out to me—found my blog link on LinkedIn and then typed the words Me Too in the search bar. He thought he might find himself there—but it was someone else. When he messaged me, he already knew he was not the only man to violate me.

His wife was raped in college too, he told me. When she shared that information with him, when they were dating, he told her, “I did that.” He confessed the truth, that there are women out there, like her, because of him. He told me that their ability to work through those brutal facts, and every emotion on both sides, made all the difference to them. It took a long time and I don’t think it was easy. In the end, I had to respect him for that honesty with the woman he loved, and whom he could have lost.

It turns out we were housemates, not close, not friends, but friendly. He said he wasn’t the best housemate. I had to remind him to do his dishes.

After he told me what happened, I asked, “Why did you do it?”

“I was a privileged little shit.” Like so many upper-middle class white boys on college campuses, he imagined himself to be entitled to whatever he wanted. He thought he had magical powers to make women want his penis inside them. However it got there. The fact that he recognizes that now, and owns it, and refuses to be that guy anymore—well, it made an impression on me. As my heart broke for 20-year-old me, I recognized the growth and humility in him that makes him a human on a path, just as I am.

As for forgiveness, I’m not there yet, but I want to be. And I hope I’ll find my way to that place. I usually do.

The night he raped me, he knocked on my door. “I was lonely,” he said. “I asked if I could get in bed with you.”

His words triggered no memory. Still a blank. I sat in my sunny Sunday living room, tears dripping from my chin as I listened

He went on. “You were surprised, but you said, okay. Just to sleep.”

So he got in next to me.

I fell asleep. He didn’t.

 

 

Three Bad First Dates

He asked the bartender for a taste of a particular wine to see if he liked it. Common enough; no biggie. He wanted a sweetish white. Well, he did not like it, so he tried another one. Nope. The bartender tried to chat with him about the wines, explaining that the Reisling they pour is quite dry, that they don’t have too many truly sweet whites, that such-and-such was the most “fruit forward.” My date was pretty determined to know more about wine than the bartender, so he waved his words away and asked for a taste of yet another bottle. Still no luck (as was anticipated by everyone within five feet). After the third reject, he ordered the same red wine I was drinking, but only after asking for a taste—he refused to taste mine, though I offered.

So this was the start. Then he needed to interview the chef about the menu. She obligingly came out to the bar to talk about this and that. I sipped my wine, nodding. I know a bit about food too, but saw that the wisdom in this moment was to just smile and seem impressed. I was impressed—with the chef—but my date did not need to know that he wasn’t the one earning my approbation.

I’ve been very lucky with my forays into the world of dating, thanks to the following: I am very selective, and do my homework. I don’t have a ton of unscheduled time to drive around the Hudson Valley and meet people so when I do I want them to be—at least—interesting. I have met about a score of men since last fall, most of them truly lovely—various versions of smart, kind, interesting, interested, thoughtful, sexy, funny. But this guy was a mistake from the get-go. To make it even more interesting, two friends of mine happened to be sitting at the other end of the bar no doubt giggling into their martinis.

After he had his wine, and was eating his calamari or whatever it was, he began to tell me the story of his lovely wife and how she died. I actually was relieved when he started down this road as it gave me a chance to simply see him as a man who has gone through a tough time. But somehow, his narrative was full of sex. The sex he used to have with her, and that they didn’t have while she was dying (yeah, and that is important to his story why?), and then the tangent about his mother and how she was such a fan of his stories of sexual exploits now that he’s single. She must be very proud. Actually, I think the word he used was “sexual prowess.” Oy. (This same mother, I also learned, got pregnant with her husband at the age of 17 back in the old country, without knowing how that worked—like, what made a woman pregnant exactly? I could write a book about this guy, his mother, and dead wife….)

The story of the wife was quite moving, actually. I think part of my reaction was on her behalf, wondering if she was now spinning in her grave as her widower tried to use his grief over her loss to get into other women’s pants. But she sounded pretty great, and unless he was lying completely, he may have been a good husband to her. I am willing to assume: yes. It helps me to believe that.

I had talked very little at this point (a definite theme in the three bad dates), but I said something sympathetic and he said, “Now don’t start crying.” I said, “Not planning to…” wondering if perhaps that was and continues to be his end-game with first dates, to get them to cry over his dead wife.

His next rant was about the dating site on which we met and how they “obviously put filters on the photos.” Excuse me? Pretty sure they don’t do that, and I said as much. He whipped out his phone and called up my profile. There were my carefully selected unfiltered photos on his phone, his big thumb flipping through them. Yup, regular old pictures, my most flattering of course, but as I am not a baby any more, they show the reality of wrinkles and the like.

Somehow the poor guy felt like he’d been sold a bill of goods, and did not mind telling me. I laughed right (at him) and asked, “Am I not looking my very best tonight?” (I looked really hot, BTW.)

But then, he flipped to a full-length photo of me and said, avoiding the question, “Oh, this is my favorite.”

I commented, “Oh look, I’m wearing those same pants now.” (It was something to say.)

He said, “I know,” and proceeded to jam his entire hand between the thighs of my crossed legs. I batted him away and inched closer to the woman sitting to my right.

Why didn’t I leave then?

Meanwhile, the bartender, Jim, was giving me sympathetic looks every time he came down to that end of the bar. I felt free to make eye contact with Jim because literally any time he was not actively talking, my date was looking over my shoulder at the TV set above the bar.

When my date launched into a story about how he gets hit on by ministers on all the dating sites, and his weird fantasy of the awkwardness of taking off a minister’s clerical collar to get at her boobs, while demonstrating on me, including a “turn the knob hard to the right” gesture mere inches from my own breasts, I turned to the bartender and said, “Could we have the check please?”

My date threw down his card the minute the check arrived. I thanked him and said I had to get going, as we’d met a distance from me. He walked me to my car and said, during the very unwelcome full body hug he pressed upon me, “If you want to see me again, it’ll be on you,” I had to wonder about that mama of his, and what she taught him, exactly, as a child.

The other two “bad dates” were similarly themed. One guy was the epitome of the mansplainer. He pursued me very hard on the dating site and I had a few pre-date phone conversations with him. So I have only myself to blame as the writing was on the wall. But, I was lured by the words, “You interest me,” though they were belied by his actions. (It is rare that a man will admit to being interested in me, as opposed to how sexy I look or the fact that I might be interested in him.)

So I met this guy in my town. He drove the 40 minutes (normal procedure is to meet halfway) which was a nice touch. He wanted to greet me with a kiss. To clarify: he wanted to meet for the first time with a kiss on the mouth. I demurred.

So this is the summation: he talked, he held forth, and he knew more about everything than anyone, especially me, could ever know. One topic covered: cooking and food—I managed to slip in that I had once cooked professionally. He blew past that to launch into All the Knowledge about All Cooking as well as All the Kitchen Exploits—his. Not interested in my input. I did try to start a few sentences. This is how many times he interrupted me: all of the times.

He brought up independent education because he went to a private school in 8th grade. I slipped in (by talking very fast) that I had attended private schools too, and have worked in independent education for 30 years. He gave me a level look that seemed to say, “Oh you poor ignorant woman,” and proceeded to mansplain the hell out of education, private education, including teaching, fundraising, finances, child development, private vs. public, and on and on. He got a lot of things wrong. I started a few sentences along the way. This is how many times he interrupted me: all of the times.

At one point during this ghastly hour I figured, what the hell. I’m going to have fun and try an experiment. Next time I try to talk and he (invariably) interrupts me, I will—instead of stopping talking to let his interruption go unchallenged—continue with my sentence until it is over. Or even my paragraph. Let’s see what happens.

Maybe you’ve guessed? Yup. I continued to talk after the next interruption and he kept talking so that we had two adult humans facing each other both saying different sentences. If this were a traffic situation, it would look like this: I had the right of way, he pulled into my lane and then refused to stop, instead literally driving over my car and probably my dead body.

I was truly amused by the fact that he was 100% oblivious. I went to the bathroom and texted my daughter: “CALL ME IN TEN MINUTES WITH AN EMERGENCY.”

She did it, bless her. As soon as the call came through and I explained the “emergency” to my date (who clearly knew what was happening as it probably happened on all his first dates), I hustled to find the waiter for the check. The waiter and his colleague were in a little alcove out of my date’s line of sight. I asked for the check. Both men gave me looks of such unutterable sympathy that I almost cried and laughed. Instead, I rolled my eyes and grinned. The check came fast. I threw down cash and bolted. My date did not object.

The most recent bad date was probably the least bad, really. Nothing aggressive or menacing, no rude assumptions or veiled insults. Just another well-meaning, obliviously privileged white male who thinks a first date is a chance to dazzle, monopolize, hold forth, audition, dominate, prove-something….

This is what I learned about him in one hour: how many times he was married, what kind of alcohol he likes, how he came to be introduced to port, and sherry, and his recent trip to the Middle East, and that his sister paid for it, and that they stayed at great places, and what airline they used, and what airlines he prefers typically, and that he used to drink one beer a day, and that he doesn’t now but he drinks wine (and port and sherry) and that he goes to the gym daily, loves Zumba…. I learned how he found out about Zumba, in detail, and how he got involved, and how he got good at it because he’s not a natural dancer, and how it reminds him of some great free form dance events he used to go to, and how his girlfriends never went with him, and exactly what those events were like, and how he organized a Zumba flashmob at his gym, but that he did not know what one was till he heard it mentioned, and that the flashmob he organized made him a hero at the gym and how everyone loves him. And he has a bad knee, and I know about the medical interventions he has sought, oh and I know what kinds of shoes he wears for each kind of activity he does at the gym. I heard about the errands he did on his way to meet me, and about his career, and about a conference he is about to go to in Oregon, and I learned so much more that has leaked out of my brain. Realize that each of these single items was part of a detailed narrative with tangents, side-notes, and usually accompanied by the words, “I’ll keep this short.”

This is what he learned about me: my son lives in Oregon, I had knee surgery once. (Slipped those suckers right in there!)

The funny thing is, all three of these men understood instinctively that there would be no second date. So they all pulled the plug on their own, making excuses or shutting the door, managing the situation so I did not get to reject them. Understandable. Their privilege comes with a certain undercurrent of uncertainty perhaps, or vulnerability when faced with a very clearly unimpressed female with a mind of her own, long legs, and a loving heart—none of which they’ll ever get to touch.