I was a wild-eyed, fidgety four-year-old with tangled hair and boundless energy. I shifted, restless, one foot to the other as my mother put the finishing touches on my American Day History costume. A flowered dress, matching bonnet, simple shoes, and picket sign that read, simply, “Votes for Women,” I was the cutest little suffragette you’d ever seen. My mother took the chance to give me a little history lesson as she put the finishing touches on my ensemble. She explained that, not too long ago, the ruling narrative in our country said that women’s voices did not matter, and that our rightful place as women was in silent submission to their husbands and to other men. I learned that it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that women even had official legal status within a marriage – before that time, a woman was legally situated as an object of her husband’s property, akin to chattel. It wasn’t until 1920 that women received the right to vote in the United States.
We reflected together at how times had changed since then. Far from being silent and docile, my mother was a quick-thinking, sharp-tonged lawyer for the state. I was a precocious, chatty little girl who was encouraged and praised for my talkative and adventurous proclivities. She was a powerful woman and I was a bold, beautiful child – she could vote, and I could read, and we both were free to speak our minds. My heart cartwheeled in my chest with joyful anticipation as my mother told me that I, like her, could imagine and construct whatever path I wanted to as I continued to grow in the years ahead. I giggled happily as she put the finishing touches on my costume, viewing the vibrant horizon of possibility that sprawled ahead of me in my mind’s eye. I announced to her that I would be a doctor, so I could “help sick children get their medicine.” I smiled up at her. We rested together in a sacred moment of heart-filling optimism. The world was mine, and I was here to help it heal. I was a feminist, right from that moment. Three months later, in the sticky, hot glare of a Tennessee summer, I was raped.
Our North Carolina family, my uncle, aunt, and their three children, had come to pay their first and only visit to our home. Theirs was a world that both fascinated and terrified me. My uncle was a tall, towering man who loomed over me with massive presence. Stern and strict, he was a devoted Christian who worked as the principal of a middle school in their rural town. He frowned under his big dark beard at my big city manners (or lack thereof). He made it obvious that he disapproved of my sassiness. My uncle believed that wives, like children, should be seen and not heard.
Their son, Brandon, seemed less like a cousin and more like a monstrous beast to me. He was nine years older than me. I found myself both deathly afraid of him and desperate for his attention. We both enjoyed certain family advantages, him as the only boy in a crowd of girls and me the baby of the whole family. I was fascinated by his special privileges. He was, for example, permitted to speak at the table in a way that would have earned the rest of us a stern glare if not a sharp reprimand. His interest in hunting and weaponry was encouraged as rugged, manly, something to be desired in the fine husband he would make one day. He was a tall, dark eyed boy with a powerful presence. Fascinated by violence, he often created elaborate snares in the woods of our grandparents’ property, bringing home rabbits, deer, and once even a bobcat that he had killed all by himself. He was a destroyer of natural innocence. He raped me.
I will never forget the taste of dry dust in my mouth that first July day, which over the years would meld into that of pine straw, pond water, his blood, and my own as he expanded his repertoire of sadistic abuse. He was a criminal, even at thirteen, sixteen, twenty-two, cruel and inventive in his torture of my fragile and vulnerable body. No struggle or protest I mustered could stand up to the force of his muscles, or the various weapons that he used to threaten me with. Each brutal attack on me was followed by an eerie assurance from him that he would pray for forgiveness. On the worst days, my bathwater ran pink in the aftermath of his savage conquests. He was worse than any nightmare or ghost story I had ever imagined – heavy, immovable, unrelenting, cruel – he violated the most sacred spaces of my girlhood, and darkened previously dazzling corners of my mind. No string of words in the English language, no matter how carefully crafted, will ever be able to communicate the depth of the helplessness I felt during this time.
All of this happened in the nineties in Nashville, Tennessee. The word “rape” was not even in my vocabulary. Those kinds of things did not happen to nice girls in nice families. Those words did not apply to a God-fearing, church-going girl and her North Carolina cousin. I was not even given proper names for the parts of my body into which he forced himself until I was thirteen years old. So, I learned to stay quiet. I bit my tongue, swallowing the rivers of blood coursing down the back of my throat. I gulped down screams, stowing them beneath my rib cage. I was a feminist, yes, destined to be whatever I dreamed, but this had no bearing on what happened to me every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, and every blistering summer morning when he would find me in the woods and violate my spirit.
For many years, I did not understand the toll this took on my person. The viscous, unrelenting cycle of violence that my cousin forced upon me within the most fragile years of my development sat deep beneath my ribs for many years after his last assault on me. The unresolved trauma that coated my insides manifested in years of dangerous behavior and desperate attempts to temporarily escape my own flesh with whatever external numbing agent I could use. Eventually, after tremendous struggle and incredible suffering, I was able to forge my way to a path of healing. I found refuge in a spiritual path that allowed me to begin the process of finally cleaning out the years of tangled trauma, shame, silence, rage and violence that had been compacted in my belly for so many years. And so, began a new chapter in my life, sober, spiritually searching and safe in myself for the first time in many years.
I cast my first vote in a presidential election as a sober woman. A defiantly radicalized Democrat, I wept in the polling booth after casting my vote for the first Black president of the United States. The thrill of contributing to such a momentous, epic moment uplifted my whole spirit. I entered into 2016 with the same sparkling, expansive optimism. I was filled with excitement by the notion that I’d soon see either the first Jewish or female president, through the election of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, respectively. The idea that a real estate mogul with a bad toupee and no political experience might become the leader of the free world was laughable to me. I didn’t even consider it a remote possibility.
I watched the debates and interviews with a mildly sarcastic outrage, giggling with friends over SNL skits and YouTube montages of Trump repeating the word, “China,” in his peculiar way. I felt genuine pain when reports of his behavior toward women, children, and employees surfaced. My eyes welled briefly when I heard this man, by then the nominee of the Republican party, explain that his fame allowed him to do whatever he wanted to women, even to “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” As disturbing as it was, I was almost grateful when that scandal surfaced. I felt certain it was the last self-hammered nail Trump would need in his coffin. Surely, the American populace would not choose to elect a political amateur who just openly admitted to sexually assaulting women? Trump seemed so extreme in his offensiveness and lack of tact, rules or manners, that Hillary was almost certainly a shoo-in. An actual candidate would have required a lot more work to beat, I reasoned, and he would be gone soon, relegated back to his golden tower of Twitter attacks and apprentice firing. We would all have a good laugh, a deep cry, and move on with accomplishing the goals set out by our new fearless leaders.
I awoke on election day with gorgeous, emotionally charged anticipation for the results that would come that evening. I was prepared for a landslide victory of shattered glass ceilings and celebratory pantsuits. I attempted to do work for a couple hours, but failed to focus enough to get anything done. I surrendered to the rush of it all, scouring the internet for photos of the long lines at Susan B. Anthony’s grave, crying at images of immigrant women casting their first votes in this historic election, giggling at the delight of Anderson Cooper’s already slightly smug, twinkling eyes across my TV screen. The exhilaration mounted as I spoke with other women across the nation who shared my optimistic, history-witnessing sentiments. I called my mother and we quietly cried together, remembering the day when she first told me that women weren’t always allowed to vote, and marveling at the fact that we’d soon see our first female President. As the polls began to close and results trickled in, I was calm, almost imperious in my assuredness.
The light from another spectacular New Mexico sunset began to fade, and I started to feel the slightest hint of worried doubt creep in from my place on the couch. Something felt off about the amount of red I was seeing on CNN’s fabulously elaborate map of the country. I made some calls and demanded reassurance from politically savvy peers who could explain electoral processes to me. I found comfort in their words. They explained that this was normal — that smaller, rural counties votes were counted faster, that the states that were called early were traditionally conservative anyway, that once West Coast polls closed, things would even out and all would right itself. For the moment, I was placated.
At nine-thirty I got a text from my mother.
“Where are you right now?”
I quickly called to check in. Her voice was dull over the phone, almost dissociative. She said that things looked dire. That he might win. She recalled the stolen election of 2000, and told me that this felt eerily familiar. I think I laughed. The idea that a man so incompetent, so devoid of human compassion, a man actually being accused of raping a thirteen-year-old girl, could take this from us still did not enter my mind. It might be close, I conceded. Uncomfortably close. But we were fine.
I sat, silent, after hanging up my phone. The hair raised on the back of my neck. Something felt wrong. I couldn’t seem to feel my body; my breath kept getting stuck at the bottom of my throat, my heart beating on double time. I clung to hope with white knuckles. I sat, shaking with anxiety, chest tight with fear, watching as news anchors looked more defeated, as crowds thinned, as the smiles and excitement of observers turned to looks of horror and exhaustion. I stayed on that couch, frozen and frightened, in a state of desperate disbelief, until it was official.
Donald Trump claimed his victory around three in the morning mountain time. I bawled like a child as my own heart broke live on national television. I watched as a man whose disrespect for women is so palpable his own daughters recoil when he comes too close had just accepted leadership of the free world. I watched as a man who called Mexicans rapists and criminals, women, “Bimbos,” the Secretary of State a, “nasty woman,” was elected as our nation’s commander in chief. I could not move. I could not speak. I felt attacked. I felt an insidiously familiar sense of terror, helplessness, and fear creep into every corner of my body. Suddenly I was eight years old and paralyzed by fear of God and guns and men bearing down on me in the itchy dirt of North Carolina woods.
This is the heart of it for me. My body has been the torture chamber of a man who lacked compassion, humanity, sanity, and tolerance. My being is scarred with the remnants of an ideology that tells dominating men that our bodies are disposable and our voices are insignificant. I have lived through the most brutal, violent end stages of toxic misogyny and sexism. Trump’s words are not just headlines to me; they are stinging reminders of my own tender wounds. The fact that he won isn’t just a political disappointment. It was a confirmation of the fact that rape culture and fearful intolerance do pervade the minds of many of my fellow citizens. The first time someone, “grabbed me by the pussy,” I was in preschool. The night Donald Trump won, I felt like half of my fellow Americans had given a nod of approval to this kind of innocence-crushing, humanity-degrading violence towards women. I didn’t feel safe here anymore.
This is not, “locker room talk.” This is not, “just politics,” as I’ve heard so many of his supporters claim, as though anything is more important or more real than human rights and moral values. These policies he threatens to implement have real-life consequences to the people they are directed at. The women he degrades — on the Internet, to their faces, and behind closed bus doors – they have faces and names and hearts. Once they were four years old too, still ignorant of the ways in which being a girl would jeopardize their very lives. What I heard, what we heard, early that Wednesday morning, is that half the country does not care about us. I heard that I am disposable, and that the victory of frenzied white nationalism is more sacred, more valuable, and more precious than my inexorable right to be safe within my own body, within my own country.
Wednesday, November 9th arrives. I am deliriously tired and desperately sad. I call my mother as the sun comes up, mocking the darkness that has fallen upon my world. We sob. She apologizes to me. The woman who raised me to believe in justice and equality and fairness for everyone asks for my forgiveness. I tell her she didn’t do this. A boy I love calls. He apologizes too.
He says, “I can’t believe we would do this to you. I can’t believe we would tell you that you don’t matter.”
He tells me it feels like a terrorist attack happened. I tell him maybe one did. I certainly feel terrorized.
At noon, I drag myself to a meeting, disheveled and red-eyed from no sleep, no appetite, and a solid twelve hours of slow tears. I slip on my favorite sweater, fashionably covered in rips and holes, and head to the only place I think I might feel safe.
A man I have never seen before grabs my shoulder, loops his fingers through, and sneers quietly in my ear, “You might want to think about a different outfit. I can see right through everything you’re wearing.”
All I could do was sit there. Numb, exhausted, and defeated — I let his unrequested touch occur without dispute. I stayed silent as he told me how I should and should not clothe my own body. I let him put his vile mouth up to my ear. I didn’t even move chairs. I sunk deep into my chair, catatonic, cloaked with shame. I felt violated and sick with myself and I could not fight back. My fierce feminist voice felt squashed. The voice that has knocked so many cat-calling egos down to kitten size, the voice that gave testimony which lead to the deportation of a domestic violence offender, the voice that led a rally cry of hundreds against a rape apologist minister spouting hate speech on a public-school campus; I could not find that voice.
I have reclaimed my voice again today. Years ago, I made the decision to pursue healing and wellness to emancipate myself from the years of unresolved trauma and rape. I took back my power from a monster who almost extinguished my soul. Today, I reclaim my voice from an election that told me that my safety and my agency didn’t matter. I will not be silenced any longer. I am no longer willing to allow men like my cousin or Donald Trump or the creep who leers without invitation at my wardrobe to tell me who or what I can be. I am a survivor. I am a woman who has beaten the odds, who has refused to be another trampled-on statistic. I should not be alive to tell this story. I will not lie down and surrender. I am obligated and privileged to use this pen, these words, to forge the space for the voiceless to be amplified. For the women who are still locked in the cages of their suburban split-levels or rural farmhouses or concrete underpasses, too afraid to raise their eyes to a man let alone their voice, I will fight. Until we see a world where rape, racism, violence, and terror are not the status quo, I will stand my ground. I will battle in the trenches of misogyny and prejudice and fear until they are wiped out once and for all. I will give this movement my heart and hands and my very breath until we can Make America Great Again.