(TW) There are many of us who have learned to forget to remember. To speak with mouths closed, burying the resurrections of the past.
Only when the space feels safe, and rarely even so, do we reveal the hideousness that lies behind our eyes in those darkest of rooms. We have been called liars, drunk, careless, told that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or more often that it was our fault (or at least partially so). In our official records (where they exist) we are often nameless victims, our identities concealed from roving eyes.
As we drove the other night, bubbling with the excitement of all the things we had left untold after more than a year apart, she had said it casually, "You know, something happened at a party in college."
I knew sullenly what she meant. The head beams bouncing off the bumpy road as I added a tally mark against The Uncounted.
Hands in my lap, I listened quietly as she told me about the party and the not knowing and knowing that happens in the hours and days after. The "not-knowing" mostly a blanket you want to wrap tightly around you to hide the nakedness of the "knowing." How do you admit to yourself that that the very thing you have been taught to guard against since you became a pubescent teen did happen? In her voice lay the gravity of the last 4 years since "something" had "happened," altering her irreparably.
When I sensed she was done, I had thanked her. "I know it's hard to share that," I added, leaving the table open in case there was more she needed to say.
I had learned that from the Women's Center at my alma mater; the thanking whenever another person offered to you their deeply wound trauma, unravelling it like a tightly wound spool to sit on your lap. There was no need to claim understanding or offer intervention: only the sincerest of gratitudes, giving them control over their narrative.
It was at that same Women's Center that the statistic "1 in 4 college women will be sexually assaulted," had first appeared before my eyes. It had sat there in its certainty and roundness; not "may be sexually assaulted" but "will be" sexually assaulted. It seemed hard to believe. Until I began to collect stories like these, sitting in somber group therapy circles, shared over lunch breaks, and laid bare in the statistics we collected from the Seventh Judicial District courthouse and the on-campus sexual assault victims whom we offered support to.
What that "1 in 4" statistic leaves out is that there are many more women who never report their rapes, who never open their mouths to reveal their perpetrators names sitting heavy on their tongues. Because even when they do, the system often times fails to protect them or in some cases, inflicts more damage on them.
"Something happened to me in college too," I could have told her that night, licking each other's wounds in the wee hours of the morning. But the Oppression Olympics are never a fun game to play (or watch). Like her, I had lived in the "not knowing" in the days after, convincing myself that perhaps I had misplaced a step, a word, a verb, a noun and it had all been a silly mistake. After all, that's what he'd tried to explain to me that night, right? But one thing had nagged at me in sharp clarity where everything else seemed a blur.
On the night it happened, I had insisted on calling a cab home. It was more morning than night by then and I must have been crying. Quite a lot in fact. Enough to cause concern. I remember the worried look on his face, his friends in the living room, the taxi driver on his way to pick up this sobbing young woman.
"They'll think I did something wrong to you if you're crying like this," he told me. Already more concerned with what they would think of him than what I thought of him. I had tried to compose myself, but instead left behind a trail of tears that soaked into the cabbies floor mats as he drove into the darkness.
I was drunk and felt safe; sure I'd drink with them and pass out in my boyfriend's empty bed.
The other statistic I had become familiar with at the Women's Center was that most rapes were committed by someone their victim knows; "About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim."
It had been my then-boyfriend's roommate.
There are few things more traumatic than coming to the realization that your body can be taken from you without your consent... while you are still in it. What is safety in a world where there are not enough doors, locks, alarms or safety measures to protect you from the person sitting next to you? The trauma that rape inflicts on a person can be crippling and the curtain of silence that falls over us as victims is a lifetime of small deaths: we are required to forget many times over, quelling the demons that sit within us.
Today, I remembered as news article after news article shared details of rape accusations levied against Birth of A Nation producer, director, and actor, Nate Parker, in a 1999 case involving a fellow Penn State student– a young as yet unnamed woman. Parker's then roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin (who receives writing credits for the film), was convicted of sexual assault in the incident where Parker was acquitted. But acquittal does not mean innocence. The details of the incident; an intoxicated young woman and two predatory young men on a college campus was many small resurrections of incidents past and heard.
I felt heavy, muddied by the seedy underbelly of men I barely knew, one of whom had modelled Black Artistic Excellence. Since his Birth of A Nation project had taken flight at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker had been a creative Uncle, inspiring me from the sidelines and giving resurgence to the telling of our own stories and on our own terms. But I knew I had to hold him accountable for the perpetuation of a Rape Culture that fills my hands with the personal stories of women that I love and have loved who have been its victims.
A Rape Culture that has left me both a victim of rape and attempted rape before I could make it out of my 20's. One that maims deeply victims like his and those of convicted serial rapist and former police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw. Rape Culture that gives both convicted rapist, Brock Turner and accused rapist, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa leniency in their cases because their reputations and ambitions matter more than the sexual dignity of either of their victims. To brush aside the actions of Celestin and Parker, who never admitted to any wrongdoing and in fact, according to the victim, launched a campaign of harassment against her, is to give them an undue pass. Whether 17 years ago or 17 hours ago their actions matter.
But what does holding Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin accountable mean? For me, this answer lays in the words of their victim's brother, “I don’t think a rapist should be celebrated. It’s really a cultural decision we’re making as a society to go to the theater and speak with our dollars and reward a sexual predator.” I refuse to reward sexual predators.
It is the same reason I don't buy R. Kelly albums, or tickets to his shows and the same reason I had to rescind my rabid Woody Allen fandom. But more than not showing up with my dollars, holding Celestin and Parker accountable is about remembering that the story at the heart of Birth of A Nation is not about either of them, but instead about Nat Turner. And that is a story worth returning to and finding ways to honor: