By KENDALL GILFILLAN
I woke up this morning and opened my Facebook while still laying in bed.
I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled. And I began to cry. Here’s why:
In the fall semester of my sophomore year of undergrad, my best friend and I were leaving our philosophy exam together. We went back to my on-campus apartment, and she told me she had been sexually assaulted that weekend — by a friend. With the support of friends, she eventually decided to report the incident to the university.
In a miserable process that did more harm than good and took the remainder of the academic year to complete, I remember seeing pain, betrayal, injustice, and trauma for my friend whom I loved. I remember feeling angry, sad, helpless, sympathetic, and frustrated with the way society handled sexual assault and rape.
I remember thinking I needed to do something. I needed to do all I could to support my friend. I needed to speak out against rape culture and victim blaming. I needed to educate myself on campus sexual assault and bust the myth that sexual assaults and rapes were only crimes that happened when twisted criminals set out to harm others in alleys.
I don’t remember ever thinking that in a matter of three years, I would be able to say, “Me too” in reference to being sexually assaulted.
I was 22 years old. It was one of my good friends. I walked away from the experience quite literally covered in my own blood.
He attempted to apologize by gifting me my favorite candle. I said it was okay. It wasn’t.
I told next-to-no-one and hid my scars in more ways than one for over a year.
One of the few people who I did tell was my friend from college, whom I knew could understand. She wouldn’t berate me for not reporting. She wouldn’t question whether or not I was lying. She wouldn’t blame me or try to rationalize the event. She would listen. And she would understand.
After my phase of denial that lasted almost exactly a year, I came crashing down. Hard. Apparently that’s “normal.” I began to have panic attacks, stopped sleeping, lost my appetite, and couldn’t concentrate on my work, my degree, or my relationships.
PTSD. Night terrors recounting the experience. Major panic attacks in which my body was temporarily paralyzed — my hands locking up from tetany and my vision gone. Breathing into paper bags in therapy sessions right before having to go give presentations to a room full of only men. Ending relationships because I wasn’t ready to deal with it yet. Losing decade-long friendships in my hometown because I was in a group of friends with my assaulter.
There were nights when my housemates had to help me hold icepacks to my face because my face was so swollen from crying. I didn’t want to be a victim of sexual assault. I didn’t want to carry that with me. But I didn’t know how to carry it alone — not in addressing the magnitude of the trauma nor the way in which it affected my ability to be vulnerable with both friends and romantic partners.
At my lowest point—almost a year after to the date— I finally decided to call my mom and tell her. I needed her advice and I needed her support. Through one of the most teary-eyed conversations I’ve ever had — long-distance London to Nashville — I told my mom about what had happened to me a year before.
And then she said, “Me too.”
I froze. How powerful those two words were to me in that moment. I was immediately horrified and comforted all at the same time. But my mom listened and understood. And I listened to her story from when she was in high school, that even all these years later next-to-no-one knew. And I understood.
The past year of my life as I signed myself up for therapy and began to come to terms with the fact that I was sexually assaulted by someone I trusted, I have questioned myself, my worth, my ability to be loved, and my ability to ever really “get over it.”
But as I have come to terms with what happened to me, I have also learned the significance of breaking the cycle of being silenced. For too long I allowed the shame of what happened to me, my remaining compassion for the person who did it to me, and my fear of how everyone would react to trap me in a cycle of silence.
This morning, I woke up to the shattering of that cycle of silence. “Me too” after “me too” after “me too.” So many times I have thought about telling my story. But I felt alone. I felt ashamed. I felt afraid.
But not today. I have realized that there is beauty in standing up and saying “Me too” in response to the media coverage of celebrity sexual assault accusations.
There is power in the vulnerability of letting my friends and family hear those words and feel the weight of it.
There is community in voicing my part in the shared experiences of so many women and men who have been sexually assaulted.
As I have become increasingly more open about being a sexual assault victim and survivor, I have had so many powerful “Me too” moments with so many powerful women — moments in which I was surprised to hear myself saying “Me too” in response to someone bravely opening up to me or moments in which I was surprised to hear “Me too” in response to my own brave forthcoming.
Today I reached back out to several of those women and asked them to recount their experiences to include as part of my story. They are my “Me too” women whom I love and respect. These are some of their experiences:
“In what was a totally traumatizing experience, someone threatened me with violence because they thought I owed them some sort of access to my body. I didn’t but I was so scared I couldn’t react — it took years for me to come to terms with what had happened.”
“I’ll never forget my father’s first words after I broke down and told my family that one of my closest friends had raped me. ‘What did you learn?’ I learned so much, Dad. I learned that everyone knows ‘I just want to be friends’ really means ‘I’m not drunk enough yet.'”
“After reporting my rape, I learned that in order to ascertain whether or not I had legitimately been raped, faculty found it necessary to ask me about what I was wearing, about my sexual history, about my time in treatment for an eating disorder, and about exactly why I didn’t reciprocate my rapist’s romantic feelings. I learned that, in the end, my safety and my dignity mattered less than his reputation.”
“I learned that opening up to people wasn’t so straightforward as telling them what had happened; more often than not, each time I confided in a loved one, they would put me on trial and play judge all over again. I learned to be silent. I’ve spent the last five years unlearning, and I still have so much work to do.”
“Even though we were on a date, he couldn’t stop the taxi driver from taking advantage of me. I remember thinking ‘You couldn’t tell me what happened the next day because you were too drunk and said you thought I might have wanted it?’”
“My molestation is my earliest memory, it continued on until I was 16. He was my cousin.”
“[To my assaulter:] You were innocent and my best friend. It was my dream to kiss you but it was not my dream to lose control. And after repeatedly saying no, you continued. You locked my door. I was trapped. You acted like nothing was wrong the next day. You never apologized.”
“I was 18 and reconnected with someone who I thought was a friend. Someone I trusted. Every frantic ‘No!’ I shouted was ignored — or seemed to fuel his intentions to force himself on me.”
“I was drugged by my attacker. It took months for me to piece together everything that happened. Every new memory made me feel smaller, dirtier, and more guilty. I did not know how to act around this person that walked my high school’s halls. I just kept going forward and no one knew.”
“I lost a sense of myself that day. My courage to explore the world alone, my ambition to stand on my own at the end of every day, my desire for self sufficiency and self growth. I didn’t lose it all of course, I mean those things are innately me. But I came back down to earth in a big way… My confidence and my sense of security have taken a lot of roller-coaster rides since that day.”
“Having only shared my experience with sexual assault with a handful of people, sometimes I forget it happened to me. It’s like I have to remind myself of the facts, of what is true, what is concrete, in order to successfully justify how it has affected me. In order to give it worth and meaning. So here’s what true: He was young. A Norwegian. A total stranger. He assaulted me in a hostel in Paris, France. He assaulted me in my sleep. He broke every rule in the book. A book women have not yet gotten the right to publish.”
“I was 21. I thought we were going to start dating. We watched some horrible horror movie on Netflix and the volume was blasting. His mom was in the room next to us. I asked him to stop, and he didn’t. He flipped me over and pushed my head in the pillow and I cried the whole time.”
“I am a victim and I have also been with someone that’s assaulted and raped someone else (I didn’t know it at the time). Being the victim and being intimate with someone that’s done something like that to someone else is the worst feeling. But you can’t let it define you.”
None of these women owed me their “Me too.” Neither did any of the hundreds of thousands (at this point probably millions) of women posting today. We do not owe it to anyone to recount our experiences just to prove the widespread scope of sexual assault. But I think it is a victory that the cycle of being silenced is being broken on such a large scale today.
I’m 24 now. I’m still terrified to share my story with you. I am publishing this story through my tears.
But I want to thank all of the people who have listened to my story and all the people who have played a role in my story of figuring out life post-assault.
I want to thank all of the brave survivors who stopped me from feeling alone. I want to thank all of the men I know who take a stand against rape culture and take the time to understand the issue.
I want to say to all the survivors: You are not alone. Whether or not you’re ready to share your story, you are surviving and you’re doing a beautiful job. If you are scared, insecure, angry, or tired: “Me too.” You are heard by your fellow survivors even in your silence.
My own time of being silent ends today. This is my story and this is my voice. I hope you hear it.
Kendall Gilfillan is the Associate Editor of Style Home Page. A Nashville native recently returned from London, she is excited to explore and empower Nashville with a new eye. Follow along with her adventures at @kmgilfillan.