I was nineteen. Innocent. Arrogant. Thought I was invincible. Impervious.
I could choke down cheap whiskey on Thursday nights and show up on time for my 10 am Friday class. I could blow my then-boyfriend at 7 pm and hit the town with my girlfriends by 8 pm. I could inhale an entire Chipotle burrito before crushing the treadmill.
Nineteen: resilient, ravenous. The sky was limitless.
It was 2003, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. Many of my friends from high school were still in town, either on summer break or deciding not to go to college at all. Courtney was in the latter group; we’d known each other since fifth grade. We hung out because we liked the same music and laughed at the same things. We had gone to separate high schools, and Courtney introduced me to her friends there. I’d become close with a couple of them, but considered most acquaintances, whom I saw at parties.
We went to parties often.
That night, we were going to one at a house I had never been to before. I had never met the person who lived there – he was a coworker of my acquaintance Safina. Safina was a year older than us, had been drinking since she was 15, and was mottled with tattoos. As far as I could tell, we had nothing in common. All Courtney and I knew about her coworker was that his name was Jamie and he was 21, so there would be plenty of liquor.
In a short dress and overdone eye makeup, I rushed out of my parents’ house to meet Courtney, locking the door amidst humming cicadas and dancing fireflies. I have no idea where the house was or what time we arrived; I wasn’t paying attention since I wasn’t the one driving. As we sang along at the top of our lungs to a Smashing Pumpkins song, Courtney told me Safina and her boyfriend were already there along with a bunch of other people.
Maybe I could hook up at this party.
Jamie had spikey blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He was accommodating and charming, darting through the house to ensure that everyone had enough booze and snacks and was enjoying the music. He’ll do, I thought.
I didn’t know if Jamie lived here with his parents or rented it with roommates, though my guess was the latter due to the décor. Drunken partygoers splayed out on tattered green sofas in the living room. Some people sat cross-legged on a fraying rug on the floor. The bowing coffee table teemed with Red Solo cups and overflowing ashtrays. The kitchen was bereft of a kettle and coffee maker; instead, the counters were bursting with nearly empty liquor bottles and half-eaten bags of chips.
I surreptitiously followed Jamie, making excuses to talk to him, to flutter my eyes and giggle at his jokes, to ensure my glass was never full so that he’d have to pour me more. But Jamie was a perfect gentleman. I was becoming discouraged. And drunk. I heard spurts of conversation between Courtney, Safina, and others: “Oh my God, that was so funny!” “Their new album is so good!” “Yo, he was the bomb on The Daily Show last night.” I couldn’t follow any of it and felt lost.
A boy named Sean – rude, loud, and astonishingly drunk – kept falling over me and the people I was with. I couldn’t tell if it was deliberate, but it was annoying. He seemed to find his way into every room I was in.
Suddenly the liquor hit me. Music pulsed in my ears. People were blurry. I wanted to go home. I wandered around hazily, looking for Courtney. She and Sean spotted me. She suggested I lie down for a while. I did not protest. I followed Sean into an empty bedroom. I collapsed face-first onto the bed. I heard the door close. It took a few seconds for me to register that Sean was still on this side of it.
I was underwater, watching the dizzying world do whatever it wanted to me.
With my nose pressed into the comforter, I was very aware of its white flowers. Then I felt a draft on my bottom. Something stiff brushed up against me. Shit, it’s Sean. He’s horny and hard. But I couldn’t move. He had pinned me to the bed. I felt him climb on top of me. When it was over, I laid still.
I did not watch Sean leave. I slowly inhaled the scent of the flowered comforter – the sweat, the soap, the sex – as I waited for him to shut the door.
I felt numb. And completely sober. I was trapped in a surrealist novel. I wanted a long, cold shower.
I sat up on the bed. I fixed my hair as best I could without a mirror. I straightened my clothes. I waited a beat. Was anyone else coming in? No. I stood up, I took a deep breath, I opened the door.
I could see the conversation play out like I was spying on my own dream. If only this were a dream.
Courtney accosted me immediately. She did not say what I expected – Are you okay? Are you hurt? Or even, Damn, girl, that was intense. Instead, in a serious, calm voice, she stated, “Um, you know Safina is fucking Sean, right?”
My mind exploded. “Safina is dating Mike.” A fact. Not a question.
“Yeah, she cheats on him.” So nonchalant.
What the hell. How was I supposed to know that?
Courtney continued: “Safina heard you guys. The whole house did. She is pissed.” So am I! What right does Safina have to be pissed?
But I was too shocked and too humiliated to argue. “I want to go now,” I said. Courtney agreed. She drove me home.
I slammed the car door and didn’t tell her goodbye. I unlocked the house surrounded by silence, darkness: no humming cicadas, no dancing fireflies.
I slept late and took a long shower the next morning. I changed my sheets.
I did not use the R-word That Night. I did not want to will it so.
And for the rest of the summer, I avoided Courtney and Safina.
I did not go to any more parties.
I tried to write about That Night. I’ve tried to for the past fifteen years.
A few weeks later, my classes started. I was relieved since I could make up excuses about school work as a way to avoid them on weekends. They were no longer my friends. They were traitors.
I got involved in the campus Women’s Initiative – perhaps in an attempt to find a community, a sense of purpose. The group’s goal was to inform the public about women’s issues. In the first semester, I designed some infographics. In the second semester, we prepped for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We were supposed to hang up posters with information.
Were you RAPED? Tell us your story.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Are you aware that one in five women is sexually assaulted?
If you are a victim of RAPE, call the RAPE hotline. Operators are standing by to help.
I said I couldn’t hang up posters because I needed to study; I had a huge research project; I had rehearsal. All this was true, but all this was, nevertheless, an excuse. A pretext.
Despite my lack of help, the student lounge and the classrooms were littered with these posters. I saw the R-word everywhere I went. It was pleading, prodding, poking me: Were you RAPED? One in five women. Call the RAPE hotline.
No. What happened to me wasn’t that.
Rape implies an unwanted pregnancy, an STD, or getting so injured you need to be hospitalized. Rape happens in dark alleys. Rape ruins your life.
What happened to me was something else. Merely an inconvenient sexual encounter. Yeah, that’s it. I’d wanted to have sex That Night anyway – just with a different person. It was an insult to rape victims to call what happened to me rape, I reasoned.
By my junior year, I stopped going to Women’s Initiative meetings. I clearly wasn’t much help, I rationalized.
Eventually, I started speaking to Courtney again, but only at mutual meetups. I went to fewer and fewer parties as college progressed. We never discussed That Night. If we did, that would mean I’d have to bring up… the R-word. Which of course didn’t happen. Safina avoided me like poison if we wound up at the same party. Just as well. I wanted nothing to do with her. Safina the cheater. The betrayer.
Besides, look how great my life was turning out. I had made lifelong friendships through college and was about to graduate with honors. I had a job lined up. I was healthy.
Life went on.
Many years later, I married a thoughtful, kind man, and we had children. My college years were long behind me. I never mentioned the names Courtney, Safina, or Sean to my husband. Never mentioned That Night. There was no need. My life was normal.
Then in 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed to be the next Supreme Court Justice.
On September 16, 2018, The Washington Post reported allegations of Kavanaugh sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford, a professor from California, when they were both in high school. I did not doubt the veracity of these allegations, but my first thought was Oh boy, here we go again.
This was about a year after #MeToo had blown up on social media. It reached an apex when several women accused Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, in February 2018. Two months later, “America’s Dad” Bill Cosby was found guilty on multiple counts of sexual abuse. As a communications professional, I needed to keep abreast of the latest news, including what was “trending” on Twitter, so I was inundated with #MeToo. Between Weinstein and Cosby, there was no respite. I was sick of hearing about #MeToo. This did not mean in any way that I didn’t believe them or thought their abusers should not have come forward.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I didn’t want to hear about it because I didn’t want to relive it.
On September 27, Dr. Ford testified before Congress that she was “100% certain” Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her.
Many media outlets lauded Dr. Ford as a hero for standing up for women, for being brave enough to come forward, while others lambasted her, calling her a liar. She had waited so long to come out of the woodwork, they claimed. Why now? If you were really abused, why didn’t you do anything about it? Surely you don’t remember something that clearly if it happened thirty years ago.
But I believed her. She was me.
I held it together at work, except when I had to follow the news. Those times, I just shut the door to my office. I held it together at home, with children and chores to distract me. I played loud music. Practiced yoga. Cooked lavish meals. Anything to shut it out. The worst part was falling asleep: when thoughts crept into my head, whether I wanted them to or not. I tried to push them out, but that just made them rage harder, penetrating deeper into me. Constantly nibbling at my brain. Those nights, I cried myself to sleep.
I usually went to bed early, due to the sheer exhaustion of carrying this weight. But also, because that meant I would fall asleep before my husband came to bed, so he wouldn’t see me cry. If he saw me cry, I would have to tell him why. I would have to admit my victimhood.
On the third or fourth night after Ford’s testimony, he came into the bedroom earlier than usual. I was turned away from his side of the bed, feigning sleep. But he saw me heaving.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
And fifteen years after burying That Night into darkened crevasses of my mind, it all came gushing out.
At first, there were no words. I was babbling. Blubbering. He hugged me tightly. He brought me tissues. I breathed in his scent: Wood chips and shampoo.
When I was able to collect myself again, I told him everything. I forced my voice to remain level, stoic.
“When I was nineteen, I was raped,” I told him – the first time I’d said the R-word out loud to describe That Night. The tears spewed out faster. I felt wet. Hot.
He was patient, soothing me when I needed to be calmed and letting me talk when I needed to be heard. “Why is this suddenly bothering you?” he asked.
I could barely spit out his name. “Kavanaugh.” It sounded like a curse. Like a wicked witch who had cast a spell on my once-safe kingdom.
He didn’t follow the news as closely as I did, and asked me to explain. I did. I focused on Dr. Ford’s testimony. Her description of his assault – his hands all over her body, being too afraid and too ashamed to tell anyone the details, not wanting her parents to know she was in a house with no parents, drinking underage with boys – had inescapable parallels to my own experience. It forced me to reckon with That Night. While Dr. Ford escaped her perpetrator, her experience was terrifying, still haunting. She was still reliving it 30 years later. She made me relive it too.
But for this, I did not hate her. In fact, I admired her: her courage, her strength, her sense of justice. She had become my hero. She was an ordinary woman, a professional woman, a family woman, who had come forward about a very private matter from which she was still reeling. She had made me realize I was not alone in my experience or – perhaps most importantly – in my reaction. She had stood up for all victims.
In explaining this to my husband, my tears dried up. I could endure.
But on October 6, Kavanaugh was confirmed by a narrow margin to be the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United StatesOnce again, I broke.
I felt nauseous for weeks. Food tasted like ash. My husband’s touch was sandpaper. Dr. Ford had risked her career, her family’s well-being, her emotional state, to do that brave thing. And it had all been for naught.
I wanted to do something, wanted to provide a salve for all her pain, all my pain, all women’s pain. What could I do? I found a site on the internet that explained where to send in postcards to her. But that seemed less than useless. What could I possibly say that would fit on a postcard? What comfort would that possibly provide her? Provide me? Besides, I distrusted the authenticity of this claim. Would they really publish her address online?
Eventually, I gave up trying. The world went on.
So why now? You may ask. Why write this now, years after the Dr. Ford incident?
In her testimony, Dr. Ford stated she came forward because it was her “civic duty to relay the information.” She convinced me that I have an obligation to, also. Why? Because it just keeps happening. To our daughters, sisters, mothers, friends. How many names will be added to the Rolodex of victims? How many perpetrators will go unpunished?
Until the number of victims is zero, we must continue to talk about this. We must continue to needle, to condemn, to write.
Elaine Ferrell lives in Silver Spring, MD. She is a Communications Specialist at a non-profit organization. Elaine also enjoys Pilates, baking, and spending time outdoors.
Elaine has also been published in ellipsis… literature & art out of Westminster College.
Follow Elaine on Twitter @FerrellWithAnE and visit her website elaineferrell.com