On rape and revenge: Becoming a ghost

May 17, 2022, 8:16 p.m.

Content warning: this article contains graphic details of sexual assault and mentions of suicide attempts. 

I am a child-rape survivor.

Typing these words, ten years later, feels eerie still. I can’t help but feel that I should never forget, no matter how much I want to. Now, at 19, I know what dissociative disorder is. I know that dissociative amnesia is why I don’t remember the whole years of my adolescence and childhood. I now understand that this is why when my friends asked “do you remember that time last year when we did that thing?” I definitely did not remember, not that “thing” or many other “things,” although at that point I didn’t understand why. I did not know that dissociation was the reason that I sometimes spend minutes, hours or days without being able to remember who I am, where I am or who the people around me are. 

When I dissociate, I’m transported to a different reality where nothing has any meaning for me. A white veil manipulates my reality and makes time go by ever so slowly. Everything is blurry. I remember spending the last decade asking people “do you know those moments when you completely leave your body and you have no idea who you are?” And when people told me they had no clue, I thought, “well, I must not be explaining it right.” I was convinced that everyone had felt like that, at least once every day like I have. That is until my roommate told me, “you know dissociation is a disorder, right?” and everything started making sense, bit by bit.

There are two people that have existed within me — there was the 10-year-old girl I was before that summer afternoon in December, and there was the 10-year-old girl living in my body after it happened. I used to be a happy child, despite everything. Over summer break, I woke up every day at 6 a.m. to walk to robotics practice. Each December morning felt joyful and filled with purpose. I was always jumping around in gleefulness. 

My first thought, when he asked me to go over there and sit down in the chair, was “surely his hand is not supposed to be there. He must’ve misplaced it.” Then, he started to rip my pants down. He was a mentor to me, someone I admired and someone I wanted to be when I grew up. That room was a safe space, where I was able to dream about a future for myself for the first time. It was a space to jump around happily and pretend I could tackle the world’s great challenges, being an agent of my intellectual journey for the first time. This space never existed to me again.

My strongest memory was of his laughter. I remember how much louder he laughed the more I begged him to stop. I remember his satisfaction in watching the fear in my eyes. I remember feeling fear like I never felt before. I remember how cold his hands felt and how paralyzed I was. I remember the things he forced inside of me. I remember his eyes. 

I couldn’t leave my bed for days. I couldn’t undress. I remember vomiting every time I looked at myself in the mirror. My image was repulsive, and I couldn’t stand it. Going to school didn’t sound exciting anymore, and nothing could get me out of bed, make me eat, take a shower or look in the mirror. I was too scared of going to school and seeing him there, and I was too scared to tell anyone. I tried killing myself in many different ways, and I would’ve done anything to disappear. 

In a way, I feel that I am now a ghost, detached, staring at the world’s happenings through the white veil as if I was a spirit. I am a mere glimpse of a person inside my own body, and I don’t think time can ever fix that. When I had consensual sex for the first time at 13, I realized sex and teleportation were the same things to me. I wasn’t there, and I had no idea who I was. I spent years having sex in dissociative states. 

Now, a decade later, even a brisk — but solicited — touch from someone I love can send me into a dissociative spiral. Sometimes it scares me to think about how easy it is for me to lose connection with the world. But, in a bittersweet way, my dissociative disorder is a superpower. Forgetting and teleporting allowed me to survive. If the real world had too many associations and too many fears, I did not need to be a part of it. It allowed me to cope, fall in love with learning again and grow up into the kind of person in whom Stanford saw some value. It allowed me to grow up into the type of person that, seven years after what happened, was able to forgive my rapist for what he did to me, and honestly wish him to be happy. 

Raping someone deprives the victim of a part of themselves they will never have again. Right now, I am everything at once: I am a ghost, I am a child-rape survivor, I am a college student, I am almost 20 and I am the 10-year-old that couldn’t leave her bed. I feel an ever-present duality of my consciousness, which intermingles every day between a person who knows where and who they are and a person who is identity-less, senseless and lost in their own thoughts. When I am the latter, English feels stranger and I forget how to speak it. I look at my friends and don’t know who they are. My dissociative self, however, is still me, and I spend my time internally striving for the unity of these two selves.

I know that this is the story of a girl being raped by a male in his late teenage years. But I hope the message you take from this isn’t reductionist. Rape is about power, and everyone can be a victim or perpetrator of it. Recently, I recalled reading my yellow copy of “Os Homens que Não Amavam as Mulheres” (or, in a worse title in English, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), where the main character goes through something similar to what I did as a child. The character then grows up and rapes her assaulter as revenge. I am not sure if my anger reading this book is justified, but I felt that a rape victim, more than anyone else in the world, would never wish that upon anyone else. Stories of “rape and revenge” miss the point catastrophically and come from a place of a profound misunderstanding of trauma. The one thing rape survivors do not lack is humanity. According to a study by the CDC in 2010, women who were raped as children or teenagers are twice more likely to be raped again in their adult lives than those who weren’t. A perhaps obvious point has to be made — rape victims are not violent, vengeful people. They are at risk and they wish rape on nobody. 

Rape victims have the whole world happening to them, repeatedly, for the rest of their lives. Balancing remembering and forgetting, being real and imaginary, here and there, made me into a tightrope walker who doesn’t know where she is going, but knows that kindness is the only possible weapon.

Alessandra is an international student from Brazil, a sophomore, and a mathematics major, passionate about the intersection between the social sciences and math. Contact Alessandra at arpm 'at' stanford.edu

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