I am here to tell you what I have been most ashamed of. The first man I fell in love with when I was only 15 raped me, not just once but many times. I loved a man who didn’t love me back the way he was supposed to. No, he loved me by humiliating me, and I wonder now if it was all a test to see how far my love could stretch. But I am also here to say that I am determined to pass through and beyond it. I want you to know that I am not ashamed anymore.
In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson talks about desire and love. “As Socrates tells it,” she says, “your story begins the moment Eros enters you. That incursion is the biggest risk of your life.” Yes, it is indeed a risk, but Carson doesn’t talk about what happens when the gamble goes bad. How do we rebuild ourselves when we have given ourselves up to someone, trusted them, and been violated? Carson doesn’t talk about fear.
I don’t know if I would feel afraid if I saw him again. We haven’t met for at least 15 years and there is so much I find hard to remember. But some things I recall like yesterday: moments of pain and humiliation. I have woken up with a shock at night remembering, or there have been times when in a normal day, I flash back, come over dizzy like I want to cry.
Somehow despite all that, Eros still strikes me, what Anne Carson translating Sappho calls the “limb loosener …/ sweet bitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up”. It comes over me in cycles like changing seasons. I look for it in nature: in the lush, hot wind that passes over the flat Ohio land where I live. Some nights I doze sitting out on the patio, only a slight breeze moving among the trees, in my hair, across closed eyelids, my skin sensitive as a seismometer to the sensuousness of things.
I am so tired of answering the question: why did you stay with him for so long? Why does anyone stay with a person who abuses them? I could begin with me at 15 with body dysmorphia, how I doodled myself as a monster, loathed my physical appearance, and most of the time lapsed into silence. I was so thin that my teachers were worried that I had anorexia: no match for a boy, let alone a large man. I could begin with him at 20, a student studying geology; with the two of us meeting and how he told me that though I wasn’t pretty or beautiful, I had a light that shone out of me that only he noticed. Already I was becoming dependent on him: the only person who would ever, could ever love someone like me, I thought at the time.
I have learned since not to regard myself, or to care about my appearance, but to look out at the world, at the beauty out there. Like one morning, an Ohio squall passes through, and under the storm-light, the pumpkin flowers open up to the rain. The male flowers have been blooming for weeks, but the female flowers are new, and only open themselves up for a few hours in the morning. They are luminous yellow, incandescent. The petals are open, pressed back, and submissive somehow like a wild creature folding back its ears: the stigma in the middle of the flower like a nipple. The pumpkin flowers stand engorged without shame or fear.
It was a terrible shock: he had given himself up to my pleasure until we had penetrative sex – then everything changed. That first time, I thought he would stop when I told him how terrified I was. I know that I said no. After the first rape, I rang up a friend, told her how painful it had been, and she told me it was normal. I struggled to understand, went into denial. The second time he raped me was after he told me he was dumping me. We were walking home from the pub, and when he said the words, my legs collapsed under me. He carried me back to the house, proceeded to take off my clothes while I cried hysterically. What kind of a person sees a teenager beside herself with grief and decides they want to violently fuck her? Of course, he didn’t actually break up with me.
Sometimes I still feel afraid, especially when I am in the house alone at night, or walking during the day. I have a regular walk through the woods by the railroad track. One day I am walking there by myself among the trees when a sound startles me. A creaking, like a door opening on its hinges, and I’m overcome with fear. Logically, I know it’s just a creaking branch in the wind, but it seems too human, like a door opening, and someone might step through it, someone unwelcome. Is this what memory feels like after trauma?
For years, I puzzle over the why of what he did. Eventually, somehow, I manage to get his email, and we make smalltalk at first. He says he can imagine me walking a dog in the fall leaves. He tells me that he read my first book, and calls me his “friend – nudge nudge wink wink”. Then I send him a poem about the second time he raped me. He writes back saying he had no idea I was crying, that he wants to hold me and make sure I am ok. Do I want to meet for a drink? I write that another of his exes told me that the first time they had sex, she had no choice. He tells me he doesn’t feel very nice. He says he is trying to remember what happened. I ask him, what do you think happened?
Is it possible for someone to be an abuser and not know what they are? Can you fuck someone who is crying or begging you not to, and still feel in the right? Is he gaslighting me, or trying to maintain plausible deniability? Is he afraid and guilty now? Does he wonder who I will tell?
What is the cost of all this violence? Some things that he did are unspeakable. Some things I have forgotten or want to forget. I could tell every humiliating thing that I remember, but who is to say that someone reading this wouldn’t be turned on? Even now I feel shame: a sharp voice repeating: it’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s you, it’s you.
But something was left behind that has kept me alive: the girl I was before the rapes – she’s still here. A girl who daydreamed about Eros, was never ashamed of desire, but felt it running through her like electricity or blood. Recently I dreamed of a man who could change himself into a butterfly: a great black swallowtail. You can do it too, he told me, and before long, I could.
I have found my own pleasure before. I will again, but it’s not easy to escape the fear. How to find the balance between the loving I need, and the risk and danger, the violence even of Eros: sweet bitter, limb loosener. But who can resist the gorgeousness of the world, the pull of the heart, the sensuous nature of things? Like the luminous pumpkin flowers opening and closing, opening and closing their narrow buds.
Zoë Brigley, originally from Wales, is Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University. She has three poetry collections all published by Bloodaxe, one of the UK’s best poetry presses, as well as a collection of nonfiction essays, Notes from a Swing State (Parthian, 2019). You can find her writing in Chicago Review, Australian Book Review, Copper Nickel, and Orion. She also runs an anti-violence advocacy podcast, Sinister Myth.