Kevin Sampsell struggles with the question of what to do when you know the person who did a very bad thing.
A dear friend of mine was raped in the summer of 2011. It was by a man she knew. They were at a bar together, though not on any kind of date. He had tried to kiss her there and she pushed him away. Sensing a shift in the mood, she told him she was going to leave. Her car was parked a few blocks away and the man said he would walk her to it. But then he grabbed her and pulled her into a church parking lot as she tried to fight him off.
She called me two days later and told me about the incident. I could tell that she was in pain, emotionally and physically. At the time, she would not tell me who it was because she was trying to take legal action. She only told me it was someone I knew.
I’m trying to remember the first time I knew about rape. I probably heard the word as a kid but couldn’t fully imagine it. Eventually, seeing movies like The Accused, Blue Velvet, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, and Man Bites Dog all gave me fictional yet visceral examples of what rape was. When I saw the rape scene from 1974’s Death Wish, where Charles Bronson’s wife and daughter are attacked by muggers, I remember feeling the same kind of rage that Bronson’s famous character, Paul Kersey, unleashes later in the film. Revenge is so sweet in the movies.
But those were not real of course, and luckily, I did not know about real life stories of rape. Perhaps I thought they were as common as four-leaf clovers.
One time I was in a relationship that seemed to be in a constant state of flux. We had both been in other relationships mere days before we became a couple. Our sex, which happened perhaps too early in our relationship, was good, but we still felt a little like strangers to each other in bed. Once, we were having sex and she froze up, stopped moving, and lost all expression in her face. I asked her if something was wrong and she asked me to stop. I stopped and rolled off of her and she told me that she felt like I was treating her like an object, that I wasn’t being in tune with her. It was frustrating for both of us, but I stopped when she said stop. A couple of weeks later, the same thing happened but this time she told me to “go ahead and finish.” I paused for a second and thought about what was being asked of me. It wasn’t “Stop” but rather “Finish.” I could not continue. So I stopped, and, after some awkward silence, we talked about what she needed me to do to feel more comfortable during sex. She told me about a time when she was raped by an older boy when she was a teenager. It was something that would disrupt her inner-peace for the rest of her life.
This “go ahead (or hurry up) and finish” scenario has been used as a joke in comedy for a long time, whether it’s the old married couple complaining about the sex act itself or an annoyed female character faking an orgasm to get her partner’s stamina to taper off. But if I had gone ahead and “finished,” what would that make me?
When my friend was raped last summer, it was the first time that I had experienced that kind of violation to someone close to me. I understand that “experienced” is probably not the right word. Language can be a weird and stupid instrument in this conversation.
Let me tell you a few things about my friend: She’s a single mother of a small boy. She’s the kind of person who goes to shows and readings and buys every CD and book on sale to show her support. She’ll buy you a drink before you even see her approaching, smiling with your fresh drink in her hand. She laughs easily at your jokes and will offer you a ride home or to run an errand with you if you’re ever in need. She has a soft spot for sentimental pop music, bawdy humor, and “old lady poetry.” She’s beautiful but doesn’t like her photo taken because a photographer once told her that her features were unbalanced. She once told me that she loved her boyfriend because she felt safe and he would never be violent with her.
It’s been over a year since the incident and justice for my friend has been slow. She did all she was supposed to do—she went to the hospital, she filed a police report, she took her clothes off so they could photograph the injuries, and she got a lawyer. She even went to the police station days after that horrible night and spoke with her rapist on the phone as detectives listened in. He wasn’t certain how to respond to her questions. At times, he was remorseful and said he knew he did something wrong. At other times, he said he thought they were “playing a game.”
The detectives on the case heard all of this phone conversation and yet didn’t, for some reason, feel like they had a solid case against the rapist. At the heart of this situation is the issue of consent, and since he wouldn’t admit that he committed a crime (perhaps in his mind, he thought he had consent, even though she said No and asked him while he was doing it what he was doing), it would become a case of He Said, She Said in court, which is not as winnable as other attacks of this nature. In fact, on the totem pole of rape, acquaintance rape ranks at least fourth on the priority list. The most winnable cases for victims usually are: if a stranger rapes you, if it’s a gang rape, if there is anal penetration, and if the attacker is a different race.
A few days after telling me about the rape, she told me the name of the guy. It was someone I knew only slightly, in a peripheral way—I had met him in person once or twice and we were “friends” on Facebook. She told me a few weeks before that he wanted to go out with her but she wasn’t interested in him as boyfriend material. I may have said something like, “He seems like a decent guy.”
I waited for days, weeks, and months after, to see if she would get any kind of justice at all. She was told not to block him on Facebook but he blocked her. I thought about blocking him on Facebook, but I wanted to keep an eye on him, so to speak. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t drive to his house and confront him, I couldn’t post fliers in his neighborhood (or where he worked) announcing what he had done, and I couldn’t contact his teenage daughter or his girlfriend (both of whom probably had no clue that he had committed rape). I checked in with his Facebook page occasionally, seeing if I could detect what his life was like. He didn’t seem to post on his page much, but he did post a Leonard Cohen song a few days after the rape. It was Bird On a Wire, and he said something about how his life was like the song. As passive aggressive as it sounds, I wanted so badly to post on his Facebook page: YOU ARE A RAPIST AND PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE SHOULD KNOW THAT. A couple of months after the rape, I noticed that he started to post on his Facebook page more often and joke around with friends there. He seemed okay, like he didn’t have a worry in the world. Like he got away with it.
But the case was still being considered. Even though every time I spoke with my friend about the legal side of the rape, it was excruciating and baffling. The sheer number of rape cases makes it hard to get into a court, I understand, but I feared that the passing of time would make her memory fade.
But if you’re a rape victim, how do you heal? Do you try to forget as quickly as possible or do you try to remember every little detail until justice is served. My friend didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter. She was haunted by the incident and would not leave her house. She was too frightened to be around other people and even paranoid when speaking on the phone. She could not go to work. She could barely read or write or watch movies. She cried every day. Her life shut down.
On top of the mental and physical trauma, she was also stuck with the hospital bill to pay. She had ruined her clothes and a $360 purse was torn off her shoulder during the attack. All of that stuff can’t even be cleaned or repaired—it’s locked up in police evidence. This is a situation where a designer bag becomes a drop in the ocean. Collateral damage.
My dad was a rapist. I did not know this until just four years ago. After his funeral in 2008, I learned some of the more shameful details of his life. The God-fearing Catholic that I grew up with, who hardly showed affection or pride in his children, had raped my twenty-four-year-old half-sister one night when I was three years old.
Contrary to some beliefs, my half-sister became pregnant. She was not in a good condition to have a baby. She had recently been released from a mental hospital where she had shock treatments. My mom took her to get an abortion.
This was something that my mom and dad kept from me and my four older brothers for the rest of his life. But looking back on it, even though I didn’t know about this rape, it was obvious that our family was poisoned by its aftermath. My mom accepted this violence for some reason and has carried it with her for over forty years. Again: collateral damage.
I was unsure about writing this. I wasn’t sure if being a man would make this story less relevant. How could I know what rape does, what it feels like, or how it looms like a threat over millions of women?
At a friend’s house with my wife recently, I found myself the only male in a room with four women. We talked about the subject of rape and its sudden politically-awkward spotlight in the media.
I listened to them as they talked about uncomfortable situations they’ve been in. One of them walks with her keys poking out of her fist. One of them would walk down the middle of her neighborhood street while walking home late in Boston because she didn’t want to walk by bushes or places where someone could be hiding. One of them crosses the street when she hears someone walking behind her at night. One time when she did this, the man behind her, whose features she couldn’t see, asked her if she was afraid of black men. She wasn’t. She was afraid of any men in the dark.
My friend waited over a year for her rapist to go to trial. The District Attorney wouldn’t take her case and it went from being a state case to a civil case. Investigators working for the rapist checked my friend’s background, contacting her ex-husband and an ex-boyfriend, most likely hoping to discredit her. In the end, there was a cash settlement. I’m not sure for how much because she can’t disclose details. In a civil case, the incident doesn’t go on the person’s record. My friend’s rapist doesn’t have to tell anyone that this happened. I’m still unsure if his girlfriend or his daughter knows anything about what he did. This settlement is basically hush money.
There were times in the past year when I spoke to my friend and she sounded on the verge of giving up and letting it go. “Maybe he’s an okay guy,” she said. “Maybe I’d be doing more damage to others.” After the settlement, she equated the monetary figure to being like an expensive prostitute. But of course, even prostitutes get raped.
Recently, I was out with friends and one of them mentioned that she had worked at the same place, a local college, that still employs the rapist. I asked her if she knew him and she exclaimed, “Oh, I love him.” When I frowned, she asked, “You don’t like him?” When I explained to her what had happened, she instantly became dark and angry and said she didn’t want to be friends with him anymore.
A few months prior to this conversation, I felt compelled to tell another friend who actually saw the rapist semi-regularly at work and in social settings, and was also friends with the victim. I was speaking to her on the phone and when I told her what had happened, she shouted out numerous times: No no no no! She was shocked but perhaps not entirely surprised. She told me that he had behaved aggressively with one of her friends too, someone whose physical attributes were nearly identical to my friend. We concluded that it was probably not his first (or last) time that he would attack someone.
These conversations (and the existence of this essay) may make it seem like I’m meddling in someone else’s business. Maybe I am. But this is someone’s life that has been affected—a good person who has had something horrible and irreversible done to her. No amount of cash can take erase the deepest trauma—the feeling that you’re not safe. If the police, the courts, or the lawyers, can’t help my friend (or other rape victims) find some justice or closure, maybe getting the word out about the rapist—warning people about him—is the best we can do.
photo by kasrak / flickr