The Backlash Jubilee by Jeanann Verlee

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, November 12th, 2015

"You say you’ve never met a rapist, but I guarantee you have."

jeanann verlee essay on rape


The Backlash Jubilee
A Case Study in Silence, Consequence, and the Dismissive Right 

Two years have passed since I first learned this story. Two years since I began fighting on behalf of this woman. Where our national dialogue about defining rape continues to devolve, and victims everywhere continue to fear their own communities will not support them, this is a case some would surely categorize as “illegitimate.” There is nothing particularly unique in the details. It has happened to thousands. First, some facts: 1) A woman was raped. 2) By her lover. 3) In her own bed. 4) He attacked her in her sleep. 5) She shouted. 6) She said “no.” 7) Repeatedly. 8) She argued. 9) She fought. 10) She tried to push him off. 11) He pinned her down. 12) She tried to negotiate. 13) Resorted to begging. 14) He was unfazed, unstoppable. 15) She did not report the crime.

Most people cannot stop themselves from asking: Why didn’t she report!? Why not call the police (particularly as one who could actually identify her assailant)? The answers are multifaceted. Her attacker didn’t leave. He remained in her home and she was terrified of what he would do. If she ran from the apartment to call the police from outside, she would be stuck in the hall or on the street, nude and quaking—clueless where to go. Moreover, she feared she would not be believed. In his daily life he was charming, charismatic, and popular; she was convinced he could persuade the police or the court into believing something different (he’d done so with others in various circumstances and the police and court are not impervious to lies). 

With victims’ experiences continually undermined by dismissive statements such as Senator Chuck Winder questioning women’s capacity to decipher rape from normal marital relations (tucked, like Akin, neatly within the abortion debate) or Colorado DA Ken Buck’s refusal to try a rape case because prior sexual relations gave the appearance of consent, it is perfectly logical that this survivor would hesitate. These exact notions were the biggest deterrent—fearing no one would believe her. Even with a rape kit, the evidence was questionable. They were, after all, lovers. She was frightened and deeply confused. During the brief weeks of their dating, this man had been aggressively pursuing her for a committed relationship—for marriage and a family. She lay in shock until consumed with rage. She considered searching the apartment for a weapon, but couldn’t move. Finally, she spoke: I’ve been raped before. You know that. If you ever touch me like that again, I will cut you. I will kill you. 

In hearing her threats, the man leapt up in anger, called her a “crazy bitch.” He demeaned and threatened her. Fueled by her own rage, she argued with him. Despite her own doubts, she said she would call the police. This one statement changed his entire demeanor. He apologized, said he didn’t know what came over him, called himself a monster. He promised that he would do everything in his power to earn back her trust, to make things right. He said he still wanted to marry her and father her children, said he could never imagine hurting her. He claimed that he didn’t know why he did this, but he would spend his life working to repair the damage. He promised he would go to therapy, asked if she would come with him to help him through his “problems.” His deluge of apologies and promises left her utterly dismayed. She so desperately did not want to believe that what she had just endured was real—did not want to accept that it was perpetrated by her own lover, so she tried to forgive. 

This, too, is not unique. Survivors of marital or relationship rape often stay. Shock and disbelief are huge factors. To those who study and work to understand rape psychology, it is a clear matter of the mind. A physiological function wherein the mind works to protect itself from psychosis. In some cases, survivors enter into denial, where the mind wholly blocks the experience or reassigns it different meaning. This denial can last years. Eventually, the survivor experiences a “break” wherein the reality of the situation becomes clear and she is left to face not only the fact of the rape, but the seemingly bizarre and illogical modes of behavior that followed the incident. Others work to make things work. Work to forgive, work to reclaim the relationship—and the partner—they once knew. It is a very complex internal network involving both physiology and emotion—incredibly difficult to decipher and even more difficult to explain. Working through shame, denial, guilt, rage, disbelief, blame, anxiety, and terror takes a grave toll, and is truly confounding while simultaneously attempting forgiveness. 

While many frantically dismiss such cases with age-old jokes about rape as myth, as merely woman’s nature to change her mind, the mind of a rape survivor is working in overdrive. Ironically, doing exactly what Rick Santorum suggests, making “the best of a bad situation.” Ask any psychologist working rape trauma therapy, the survivor’s mind does its very best to survive. 

Later, after an ongoing period of night terrors, panic attacks, insomnia, rage, hypersensitivity to touch and sound, and difficulty with intimacy, the woman was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While she was somewhat relieved for the affirmation (as she thought at times she was losing her mind), being labeled with something so severe at PTSD served, in part, to give her more shame. She argued herself: That’s an affliction for soldiers, gang members, fire-fighters—people who come face-to-face with death in a real and often gruesome way—not just, ya know, rape.

By the time of the diagnosis, she had ended relations with the man, trying to move forward cordially without conflict or further trauma. He stalked her. Harassed her. Threatened her. He lied to her, and in turn, lied about her—attempting to shame her within her community. He further demeaned and berated her. This behavior only confirmed for her that her decision to leave was the right one. 

It was not until she finally recounted the rape to a friend that she was able to actualize it. Telling the moment-by-moment details aloud, outside her own head, forced her to accept it as real and to see it for what it was—to name it “rape.” Her mind could no longer deny or cloud the memories once they had been uttered. This, too, is common among trauma survivors who have been living in denial. 

She cut off communication with the man. He persisted. She felt it was too late for her to approach the police, and she further shamed herself over this. Now, months later, finally strong enough to face the situation, to name it rape, and to confront her assailant, it was far too late for a rape kit or a court order. She could do nothing. 

He continued his sporadic harassment and she knew she needed to block him from her life entirely. Again, she felt she didn’t have enough evidence to go to the police, feared she would be denied a restraining order, but she was battling the symptoms of PTSD at an alarming level and decided to take a stand on her own terms. After receiving a final threatening email, she reached out to an exclusive group of friends: Get him out of my inbox. Make him leave me alone. 

Her friends confronted him, making clear the point that she was never to be contacted again and that subsequent attempts would result in police involvement. As people had come to expect, he railed and denied, portrayed himself the victim. But they were no longer beguiled. Later, some of her friends decided to rally on her behalf—for her protection and that of others. She was incredibly wary of this because she feared backlash (counter-arguments, aggressive questioning, doubt, blame, and ostracism). In her vulnerable psychological state, she could risk neither harassment (from him, his friends, or uninvolved others) nor retraumatization in defending her choices (to anyone). She asked her friends not to use her name. 

While the woman remained nameless in the sporadic retellings of the story, her fears were realized. Many individuals backlashed. Immediately they rose to defend the man. Immediately, they suggested it was mere regret—not rape. They accused the nameless woman of lies, agreed she must be nothing more than a disgruntled ex. They questioned her every behavior and decision, found avenues to blame her. Much of this was kept from the woman, as her friends feared for her psychological health, but she heard enough to substantiate her fears. She turned inward, withdrew from her social circle and avoided public spaces. She began to internalize their claims. 

The conservative hate speech (yes, hate) aimed at delegitimizing the trauma of all rape directly feeds such backlash within local communities (consider the detrimental backlash in the Steubenville, Halifax, and Maryville cases), further undervaluing and silencing trauma survivors. In the mire of dismissive political statements, thousands of survivors are hearing, simply: “Shh, your story doesn’t count.” Where many of us work tirelessly to ensure survivors feel heard, to bring them to a place of security, and to encourage them to report, their stories are being deemed bogus in the mainstream press through the opinions of Republican leaders. The more lawmakers dismiss or attempt to redefine such cases, the more backlash is waged. More backlash = more silence.

Later still, the woman’s friends tried to convince her to tell her story. Suggesting that going public would assuage those fears, give her strength. However, the fact remained that she had no court order to back her. All she had was the truth of her experience to wage against his popularity and penchant for spinning truths. She had no order of protection, no rape kit, nothing in writing. Even his admission had been oral, and only on the night of the rape. All she had was a chronicle of unspecific apologies from him and his assertions about being a “monster”—convoluted at best. She knew that going public would cause her greater trauma than trying to privately heal and move on with her life. She also knew that putting names to the story could put her in danger. The man knew where she lived, had tried to hit her before, had raped her—she was fully aware of his capabilities. Further, she feared the threat of legal backlash: an attempt on his part to sue her for slander or libel if she revealed his name. While such a suit rests on truth of statements, and hers were indeed true, she feared the trauma of going through such a case. That degree of chaos, frustration, and even financial burden was more than she could bear. For her, it was too risky to make any public statement about the crime. She decided she had to face it alone, to navigate her PTSD symptoms, to keep herself safe, and to try to get past it. 

With all the complexities surrounding her silence, and the social compulsion we have to demand answers to “why” she made certain choices, it becomes increasingly easy to lose sight of the actual facts—to get swayed into finger-pointing and doubt. I ask you to return to the first fact listed: 1) A woman was raped. The circumstances, behaviors, and choices that surround it—while informative and important—are ultimately moot. Many would argue a number of “errors” on her part, but when you begin to understand rape psychology, and the logical thought process involved in keeping oneself safe, it becomes difficult to ally with anything other than that base fact: rape. 

What I ask you here to consider is the notion of silence. A rape survivor has been silent. She is deeply wounded psychologically and is working through issues of depression, rage, anxiety, psychosis, and suicide. She has made two suicide attempts. She is at continual risk of backlash, threat, and repeated assault. If she were to make her story public and name her assailant, as many would have her do, she would be at risk for massive retraumatization and potential financial undoing. Not to mention additional psychological damage were her assailant to attempt a law suit for defamation of character. What in that notion is safe or fair? She has the right—in fact, the need—to keep herself physically and psychologically safe. We are at risk of losing this woman. Whether at his hands or her own. I have made it my own cause to protect her (as have many others), to fight on her behalf so that she can remain safe. So she can heal. So she can return to us a whole woman. 

In reading this, you’ve asked yourself at least once, who is this woman and why are you bringing us this story? Of what real-world importance is her silence? And of what significance is she—this amorphous, unnamed (possibly fictional) woman?  

This woman is me.

Roughly a year ago, while struggling through the worst of the throes of PTSD, and living in continual anxiety and fear, I was registered to attend a conference and learned that the man who had raped me was also planning to attend. I immediately decided to cancel my registration and travel plans, but grew angry. I realized I was allowing myself to suffer ostracism by way of reclusiveness and avoidance. I decided I would not let him “have” the conference; that I had the right to be there, and would simply need to be cautious. Worried for my safety, I knew I had to put some protective measures in place in advance. I advised a select group of peers about the situation and the potential threat of aggression or repeated assault. I suggested merely that they remain observant of him, and advised that if they saw him speaking to me, it would be against my will and they should contact the police. During this process, I received some important advice: instead of holding so solidly to the persona of a “woman in control,” instead of continually feigning “normal”—that I needed to find a way to break, to release the pent-up trauma, anxiety, anger, and truth. By ending my silence here, I am (finally) doing just that.  

While a sociopath (and we are indeed examining one in this case) is armed with the capacity to spin truths and sway opinion in his/her favor for periods of time, what the sociopath cannot sustain for extended periods is behavior. Where his/her dialogue is controlled (continual lies, blame, and complex narratives), his/her behavior is compulsive; cannot be controlled over the long term. The behaviors will ultimately do the telling.

When I started learning about other transgressions—incidents outside those I had suffered at his hands—I found myself driven to protect others (the young woman whose life he threatened; the young woman who had been ostracized from another community after divulging that he had raped her; the revolving door of ex-girlfriends who left after deceit, betrayal, and abuse; the other young women with stories of “inappropriate behavior” or “scary interactions”). Learning all these other accounts helped me fully realize that the assault I had survived was not only intentional on his part, but indicative of a dangerous ongoing pattern. 

No one wants to believe malice is anyone’s true nature—let alone one of our closest friends. Of course we want to believe these offenses are mistakes. Of course we want to be understanding of our loved ones, to forgive them. This is what friends and family do—help each other through blunders, remind each other that we are well-intentioned and generally good at our core, despite our mistakes. It becomes terribly difficult to accept that a friend has made more than mere “mistakes.” We resist when we learn that friend is a criminal. A danger to his romantic partners. A sociopath. It is difficult to conceive that someone we love has committed acts that are unforgivable, irreconcilable, and warrant legal and community recourse. Yes, it is difficult to accept, but we must understand that backlash only damages the innocent. 

I find it most unfortunate that there are past victims here who still have no voice and no recourse of their own. Individuals who received vicious backlash, and—with no social support in place—retreated. These women exist. They are out there, still wounded and voiceless. While I understand my own actions, and the reasons this crime cannot be prosecuted, I cannot help but ache for those he hurt before me, and I dread future transgressions.  

This is where backlash is most damaging. We blame the survivor who didn’t report or whose lack of evidence rendered the crime non-prosecutable. We blame their silence—as if the silent victim somehow carries any amount of fault for future criminal behavior on the part of the perpetrator. This is inane. Each survivor handles healing differently. No survivor is at fault. Often survivors are not only blamed for the potential of future offenses, but also the consequences the perpetrator suffers—accused of being vindictive when taking simple protective measures. I ask here that you consider one simple notion: consequence. Where a predator has committed a nonprosecutable crime, where he was sure he would face no legal consequence, he has still been met with social and community consequences (whether it be terminations of post, probation, or fully prohibitive measures). Where his allies were either unaware of the depth of his violence, or unwilling to acknowledge it, they must now witness the consequences, and consider evidence of an ongoing pattern of behavior. 

What of patterns? Where I, too, needed to see his patterns before I recognized malicious intent, clearly we need to question this mode of thinking. What of the survivor who must sit and wait until other violations are committed before a group or organization will act? Where no singular crime should go without consequence, as a society, we tend to err on believing validity lies in numbers. Where “only” one claim of violent behavior is often dismissed, we react later, once a pattern emerges. Why do we only begin to take notice once there have been multiple offenses? Is the experience of any one survivor of less importance than others? By dismissing each singular incident, through backlash and/or avoidance, we are telling the survivors that they are of less value than the perpetrator. We are telling them that not only is their experience invalid, but their value as human beings is less. 

We’ve not come far in the 22 years since Clayton Williams’ failed quip, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it,” when our political state welcomes a Republican vice presidential candidate who considers rape merely a “method of conception.” Here, a clear case of non-consent, one of violence and deep traumatization, but one lacking the cut-and-dry Hollywood thriller ideal—no cloaked figure looming in the alley, no beaten-to-an-inch-of-her-life victim, no medical exam photos of bruises and lacerations, nothing caught on tape—not “legitimate” rape. The kind that comprises the vast majority of sexual assaults. The kind that would be dropped by attorneys such as Buck and omitted from Ryan’s new definition of rape. Less value, indeed. 

In light of this experience, I often wonder what I have missed. Who else has been hurt? Where I stayed in my organization, eventually returned to do work in the larger community, and fought on behalf of others—I wonder who vanished (feeling this perpetrator was too strong, too popular)? I have read of other communities wherein rapists have been invited into discussions and offered help toward therapy-based means of reform. While I am a proponent of both communication and therapy, I was outraged when others in my organization suggested we offer to pay for this predator’s therapy. No one suggested the same for his victims. No one offered to pay for my therapy, my medication, my hospital bills. Why do so many default to helping the predator first? Again, I am not against the notion of predators getting help (though in this case, the predator has continually claimed he would get psychological help but never has—a ruse to ensure people will stop asking). I am, however, dedicated to protecting my community from predators and helping the individuals who have been harmed by them. I am committed to establishing safety within public spaces to the best of my ability.  

I am not claiming that anything I have done is the right way to do things. By far. I revise the scenario in my head daily, wishing for alternate endings. I am asking that we work to eradicate backlash and victim blaming. I ask that we try to start understanding rape psychology—accept that every incident is unique, and survivors take different paths toward recovery. Do not misplace blame. Perpetrators, not survivors, bear responsibility. Yes, I am angry. I am angry at my assailant for his trickery, his mind games, his violence—and violation, his cries of innocence, his ruse. I am angry at members of my community who remain so desperate to have everyone “just get along” that they blame the victims of real-world crimes instead of accepting that consequences are the result of transgressions—not absent-minded punishments placed haphazardly on random individuals. I am angry at friends who balked out of fear of drama, those who remain friends with my rapist because they are afraid of damaging their careers or of being perceived differently by his allies.  

The harsh news for all of us is that nothing can ever be the same. No matter how strong a persona I wear, I am still broken and afraid. No matter how badly anyone wishes this had not happened—it did. No matter how desperately I wish I was not raped by this man—he did it. It is not my fault. It is not my fault for dating him. It is not my fault for the psychological denial my body went through. It is not my fault for addressing the rape later, once clarity set in. It is not my fault for seeking help. It is not my fault for putting protective measures in place. It is not my fault for alerting others to a violent predator. The blame rests solely on the perpetrator of the assault. The offenses were his alone, and he must navigate the consequences. 

For those of us ‘marginalized’ into such impossible-to-prove but deeply wounding categories of rape; those who have either left our communities out of fear and shame; attempted prosecution but lost due to lack of evidence; suffered harassment, backlash, or re-assault; those who have self-harmed or committed suicide; or who have fought to stay in our communities, I ask the ultra-conservatives who so steadfastly cling to archaic definitions of rape—what about us? We comprise the overwhelming majority of assault survivors in this country. You say you’ve never met a rapist, but I guarantee you have. You say you don’t personally know any victims, but you do. Our cultural climate—due to dismissive statements such as yours—keeps survivors silent, shamed, and terrified. What of us? The process of rape survival, reporting, and prosecution is already unimaginably difficult to endure for those who suffered according to antiquated storybook definitions. What about those of us whose experiences don’t fit your definition of legitimacy? We are here. We are hurt. We are angry. We number in the hundreds of thousands. And here’s one I know you care about: we vote.

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From Looking for the Enemy: The Eternal Internal Gender Wars of Our Sisters edited by Monique Ferrell and Julian Williams. Copyright ©2015 by Monique Ferrell and Julian Williams. Reprinted by permission of Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Header image courtesy of Bárbara Moura. To view a gallery of her drawings on NAILED, go here.

jeanann verleeJeanann Verlee is author of two books, Said the Manic to the Muse and Racing Hummingbirds, which earned the Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal in poetry. She has been awarded the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry. Her work has appeared in failbetter, Adroit, and The Journal, among others. Verlee wears polka dots and kisses Rottweilers. She believes in you. Find her online: here.



Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.