When Paul Kidwell’s girlfriend was raped years ago, the devastation of her trauma extended to their relationship, and though they have both moved on, that memory remains part of their lives.
The six or so weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s are a time when many of us feel the urge to reconnect with old friends, estranged family members, or old flames. We sometimes give in to the emotional sway of the season and dial a once-familiar phone number. Some calls are welcomed; others do little to reignite past enthusiasm or passion and perhaps should have been left undialed.
This past holiday season the voice on the other end of the phone line was vaguely familiar, and as soon I fully recognized it I knew the reason for the call. It was my ex-girlfriend Janice (not her real name), and as we said our hellos my eyes were drawn to the desk calendar and the date staring back at me. Next week was the anniversary—I have lost track of the number of years—of the most defining date in our history together, the date when our loving relationship began to unravel. All those years ago, on a cold December evening that was eerily similar to this night, Janice was raped.
The impact on Janice was devastating. It transformed her from warm and passionate to fearful, angry, untrusting, sometimes paranoid, and eventually distant. The emotional suffering often consumed her, and weeks after the rape it was not unusual for me to come home and find her sitting alone in the dark in our bedroom, giving in to the inescapable freefall of anguish.
Reliving a rape, I was told by a psychologist whom I sought out to help me navigate my feelings about the incident, is unavoidable. I learned that no matter the victim’s inner strength, the hours spent in counseling, or the unwavering support of loved ones, a rape forever shapes a woman’s existence. Years after the rape, the attack continued to haunt Janice. In a smaller, far less severe way, I, too, never fully recovered.
Although it’s rarely discussed, the impact of rape on a male partner can be significant. When a woman is raped, understandably all concern and care are focused on her as she endures an unimaginable pain. Men, like me, may never understand the depth of our partners’ trauma, but we do realize the importance of our support. In my case, I felt it was important to offer Janice the safety of a home, to do my best not to judge her emotional swings, and to attempt to keep our lives grounded in some sense of normalcy during a very unpredictable time—to give her that soft place to fall while she dealt with the paralyzing aftermath of rape.
It became clear early on, however, that the hold this event had on our lives might never let go. Our once-vibrant and promising life together was reduced to one of neglected plans, broken dates, and long hours spent in solitude. It also became clear that I was losing Janice, which, I suppose, was inevitable when I couldn’t penetrate her grief and move through this tragedy with her.
Eight months after the rape, she left, forever. And now, after all these years, came this phone call.
I’m not sure what I should have said to Janice. Reliving the past and seeking answers to my many questions seemed out of place at this time. I was glad to hear her voice, but I was puzzled why she called. Was this part of her ongoing grieving process?
I also was struck by how two people who were once galvanized by love could become detached with the passage of time. We have become familiar strangers who are bound and separated by our past.
During the call, I heard the sound of children’s voices in the background, and I smiled as I imagined Janice as a mother. Perhaps the love of a family has helped soften the pain that we were unable to overcome.
The rape, although a part of our history, is still with us, and this phone call brought a fresh hurt to the surface. Neither of us mentioned the rape, but it was there, in the dark reaches of this conversation, gripping us as we tried to move across time and tragedy.