Warning: This article discusses potentially triggering topics, including sexual assault.
I have long kept a secret, one I never thought I would admit publicly. I was raped. I thought that would always be an undisclosed occurrence in my life. I didn’t think it was something that anyone needed to know about.
I could not have been more wrong.
In my final year of high school, I’ve had to complete a senior project — one that requires students to spend eight months studying a topic about which they are passionate and to create a product based on that research. It was this project that forced me out of hiding, to voice my secret. I decided I wanted to start a nonprofit — In My Shoes, Inc. — that provides educational tools to teach about and prevent sexual violence. I decided I could not create this project without exposing my past. So I bared my soul. And it was the best decision of my life.
I was 15 years old and living in Gorizia, Italy. I had decided to study abroad my sophomore year of high school, tired of my uneventful small-town life. One night, I attended a carnival in a neighboring town with a group of friends. I had never visited this village before, and I wanted to try anything and everything during my Italian experience. My friends and I danced under the starlit sky, gorged on local treats, and chased each other through the maze of brightly lit carnival rides.
After a while, however, I found myself alone with only one male friend. I asked him the whereabouts of the rest of our friends, as it was getting late. He said that he would take me to them. I was lost in the village, so I had no choice but to follow him to where he claimed my friends had disappeared to. He was someone I thought I could trust.
Countless times on our 15-minute walk, I suggested that we turn around, noticing that something felt amiss. My words did not seem to exit my mouth in the right way. I had not consumed anything strange that would have caused me to feel like this; I had only had one drink early on in the night, before all my friends seemed to have vanished. He laughed each time I spoke, seemingly at my confusion. He grabbed me forcefully by the hand, leading me farther. I blindly followed. He led me to what seemed like the edge of civilization.
Finally, we stopped walking. Standing before us were the remains of an ancient church. An iron clock, which read 11:57 p.m., ticked beneath a menacing cross. As he pulled me into the church courtyard, I stumbled. The contents of my purse spilled out onto the wet grass, so I dropped to the ground to collect them.
I remember screaming before he covered my mouth with calloused hands. He ripped my jeans from my body, thrust his hand between my legs. I bit down on his fingers and he slapped me hard across the face. I heard footsteps in the distance. He turned me over and covered me with his body, saying that he would kill me if I screamed again. I felt his heavy form weighing on my back and an unwelcome organ trying to find its way inside me from behind. He was a wrestler, at least 50 pounds of muscle heavier than I was. I counted the seconds. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I pleaded for him to stop over and over again. He did not seem to hear me. My words were ineffective against the abuse.
Three minutes later, I heard the church clock chime midnight, 12 strikes of pain to finish me off. When the clock stopped, so did he, pulling up his pants and offering me a hand. I recoiled in terror, fearing another attack if he so much as grazed my fingers. I stood up, feeling numb. I pulled up my pants, ignoring the blood between my thighs. My whole body ached.
He asked me if I was ready to go back to the carnival, and I had no choice but to blindly follow: I was still lost. I looked around the Catholic church. I was Jewish but was certain that some god had failed to protect me in this place of His own worship. It seemed that there was nothing worth believing in anymore.
Those three minutes changed my life forever. Afterward, I could not be touched. I could not sleep without imagining his face and hands all over me. I could not walk on the street without the fear of seeing his dark, harsh smile. I could not breathe without feeling as if his hands were around my neck, shoving my face into the ground. I could not eat without tasting his lips. I could hear the sound of my own screams echoing in my ears every time I heard laughter, happiness warped into the sound of fear. I could not speak without remembering how my words had once been meaningless. I was paralyzed by fear. My life had become a series of fragmented memories of pain. I walked through every day in a haze.
I often thought about how that night could have been different: how I could have refused to accept a drink from him, how I could have avoided getting separated from my friends, how I could have not gone to the carnival at all. These what-ifs, this blame, plagued my existence.
My parents forced me into therapy as soon as I stepped off the plane and onto American soil. I’d told them what had happened, and they already knew that I was a master at bottling up my emotions. They knew that I would not be the same person I was before if I didn’t talk to someone about my experience.
At first, I reluctantly agreed to go, if only to appease my parents, but I was certain that therapy would not help. I believed that it was my burden, and mine alone, to deal with, and that no one else could ever make it better, even someone with professional experience.
So I sat through a few hour-long sessions in silence while simultaneously building a wall and attempting to repair myself. I desperately tried to reshape my life into what it had been before Italy, back when I was still an innocent 15-year-old. My naïveté was my mind’s shield, and that shield had cracked right down the center, unveiling the shattered pieces of the being who wielded it. I went through the motions of life and cast aside the healing process. I bottled up my fears and my anger, saving those poisonous thoughts for a future day when I would be able to deal with them properly. I thought I could block my emotions from my life the same way I had blocked my attacker from it.
But my fake smiles and deep unhappiness ruined relationships with my friends, with my significant other, with other boys. I was a block of ice and bitterness under a façade of pleasantry. I did not want to feel. I did anything and everything to escape confronting the disruption of all that I had known. My nightmares only became worse, and I could feel myself retreating further inward. I thought that my life no longer had a purpose. The pain was inexorable — and that was a feeling with which I couldn’t live.
Eventually, I recognized that I could no longer be the shell of a person that I had become. Two months into therapy, I decided to finally speak about my past, to actually talk about what happened. I had to be strong.
Therapy helped me realize that I didn’t have to be the same person I was before my rape. In fact, I couldn’t be the same person, because life had taken me down an alternate path. I realized I had to find the determination to be myself, this new self, and to release myself from the anguish that festered within me.
For a while during this self-exploration, I still didn’t share the intimate details of my rape with anyone. I felt insecure about and afraid to describe it, worried that the details were too gruesome for others to handle. Then, when I started my senior project, I realized I had a choice to make: to hide my past and create something false, or to create a phenomenally authentic project by opening myself up.
I chose the latter. When I founded In My Shoes, I bared my soul. I didn’t share as many details with those involved in my project as I have here, and there are still some details that are best not remembered. But I’ve realized that words are my strength and my power. By writing and talking about rape — as an issue that plagues society as well as one that has plagued me — I have freed myself. I have healed.
While I know I have left much of the old Amanda behind, there are still parts of her that I carry with me. One is her ability to bring joy and light to sorrowful situations. That’s something I’m not willing to ever let go of; it’s a part of me that makes me who I am, and one that I bring to this work, too. I will continue to educate people about assault, to open their eyes to the severity of this problem. I have started to accomplish this mission, and above all, I have learned this: Freedom from pain is terrifyingly beautiful.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673) or visit RAINN.
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