The Works of Catherine Berendsohn


What Is It Like? Being a Rape Survivor in Trump's America

What is it Like?

What is it like? My friend asks me on the phone, two days after Donald Trump was elected to office. My friend is a lovely homosexual man, one of the best people I've ever known, with a great capacity for compassion and standing up for what he believe's in, and an artist's mastery with design sense. His southern charm adds a flair to his accent, as he tells me about what it is like living back in the Carolinas with the KKK celebrating the accent of "their" President.

He wants me to explain my end of how it feels being a survivor of rape in this time of regime change in one or two words. We have been talking survivor tactics, getting in shape, getting pepper spray for all our friends. The closest I come up with I don't fit into a couple words. "It is like being a Jew at the start of Hitler's Germany, instead it is about sexual assault and being a woman".  Since that is too long, I try "terrifying" and "hollow".

What is it like? Seeing the rape culture dancing on full display after my own brutal end to life happened just over a year ago in 2015, and what I have found out happens when an American citizen fights to do all they can to report and prosecute a third class felony in this country? 

The truth is, the onslaught of all it does to me, asking that question, is so loaded and full of so much to answer it stuns my throat. All I would really have in answer is a very scratchy, heady silence. I have taken such a beating in my own mind it seems closer to the movie "Concussion" about what happens to the NFL players' brains with traumatic impact after traumatic impact to the mind.

So here I am. In this "terrifying" moment, because I am doing something very dangerous, and very inflaming, and very rebellious and revolutionary. I am writing down an honest answer. I am telling the truth. And I am making myself a martyr to more abuse by an invisible wall of strangers who will attack me in response. I already know it is pulling the trigger because I have had the utterly horrifying experience of witnessing and living what "you" all do to people who come forward with the most devastating thing a person could ever admit. And I have had to re-live it, again and again, shared deaths by friendships, as all the people around me suddenly get very honest, and my friends, and the last woman I talked to for any length of time in a joint work effort, and the one before her, and sometimes one of my friends who are a gay man, and a man I dated, begin to tell me when it was done to them. When they were children, my age, or older. When they were gang raped, raped by their father, their cousin, their brother, when they were in college, when it processes in their mind as we are talking that the impact ringing in the suppressed backdrop of their life, those MORE THAN ONCE! times in college, they can now recognize that their friend since childhood raped them that night...

And the thing is, I am drowning, I am BLOWN AWAY, by all these stories building up around me. It is like a wall of bodies slowly growing a wall on all fronts. Another casualty, another murdered life forced to walk in the oppression of "normalcy" every day. Like reversed zombies. Here is my shell. I walk around and no one blinks, no one sees that I am dead. The color drained from all life around me, a mockery of my daily joys, to parade in a macabre dance, it feels like Day of the Dead, without the respect of it. And I want to scream for each one, scream and scream and never stop for the injustice, for my love of them, these people who open up because I am a buffer against the storm just to know what it is like too.

Don't tell me you understand, by the way, if you have not gone through this. People say that, meaning to be nice or supportive at times. But usually I see quite clearly how much they don't. No, you don't, and it is not something to wish for. This is not a judgement. It is an acknowledgment of a discovered reality. Lady Gaga said it best, "'Til It Happens to You, you won't know, no it won't be real." There has never been a truer statement.

And that, this very devastating reality, is the heart of the rape culture. That someone who has never lost their life and had to stand broken in its remains without acknowledgment of the sentence to a living hell of undeserved pain, that is continuously, viciously added to, often most viciously because of a disturbing level of complete unawareness of those perpetrating it around you, is the hardest thing to ever talk about. And even when you do, even when you come forward, about the most personal, devastating experience possible, the brutal further cruelties continue a snowball of abuses, until you feel completely swallowed up, and silenced as a need for continued survival.

I have always been active in organizing people to stand up against oppressive forces in society. I have organized for better city planning with the Hold The Line movement in Miami-Dade County when I was in high school, to avoid urban sprawl into rural areas that buffer the Everglades and create a danger for hurricane evacuations with overpopulation and overburdened hurricane evacuation routes. I was hugely active at the start of March Against Monsanto Miami in 2013, fighting for our right for health after losing my uncle to diabetes and having all my family face it as well as other food related illnesses. I walked with the Miccosukee organizers this past March to stop the further damning of water flow and destruction of the Everglades and Big Cypress preserves with the expansion of Tamiami Trail, a road that cuts across the natural system, for the River of Grass Greenway project, a green washed million dollar construction project to expand the road in the name of a bike trail. Really interesting how it also serves to help oil companies get access to oil in the biggest oil grab in the history of our national parks that is taking place within one of our most fragile landscapes, and adding some icing to that cake, it was erupting on the national parks celebration year, a hundred years of our national parks, and here is how we celebrate that-by destroying it for big oil.

 And now I am organizing to raise awareness to stop the Sabal Trail Pipeline, just like Standing Rock it is decimating our water system and cutting across our landscape and it seems no one who lives here in Florida knows about it because it goes unreported in the news. 

And yet, with all that, what I am the most qualified to speak to, this dark and nasty cultural petri dish that I have been forced to find out all the devastating details to, has rendered me silent. The reality of what it has meant to find out I am sentenced to by being born a woman in this world. I have never found out an uglier, more devastating, and even more shockingly, so far reaching, cultural wrong to fight against. It is so ugly, the truth is I just feel shock that it has become so real. I cannot believe what I have just experienced, and how many people I am finding out are silently living in an underground Dark Ages. It just makes me feel like not getting up in the morning. I feel like my life has been washed away by tears. Carried off in a current, and like one of my closest girlfriends said after it happened, "welcome to the secret club of crying women across America."

The ironic thing about being oppressed, is how I wanted to deal with this problem. When I was earning my BA at Florida State University, my college room mates were working with the Baptist collegiate ministry to end sex trafficking. And me, on this one I wanted to say "no thank you" because I had already been drenched in the Special Victims Unit cop shows for years in family living rooms, I had been trained to be afraid of my inherited mantra of fear from everyone around me, be careful or you will be "raped and murdered."

"Park under a light", "Park near the entrance", "Have your keys out before going to your car", "Never talk to strangers", "Never put your drink down", "Don't run with your headphones on", "Never go alone", "Practice saying 'NO'", "S.I.N.G.", "doorknob", "arms distance away"...

The way I wanted to be feminist, was to live the life I chose. I have always been a competitive over achiever. Top class ranks, honors, extra curriculars, a propensity for developing difficult skills. I wanted to get my degree, and that was my feminism. To be the dynamic human being I had decided to become in the world. I wanted to get my BA in Studio Art, minor in Creative Writing, develop my singing, write down my stories, develop my awareness of psychology to make characters grounded in reality, practice acting to get to live out the stories in an exciting way in real life and engage their ways of thinking first hand. I wanted to make my books, direct their films, a way to use all my skills in one place, the very well rounded world of film making. I couldn't go wrong with researching, costume development, history, artwork, music, speaking, it was the Renaissance girl's answer to everything. And then I thought, once I have done that youth sensitive job, my adventure, physically demanding  scenes, beauty hungry industry, then I can get brainy again, go back to degree seeking, become a sustainable design architect, move from activist in my wise older decades into being politically involved to "be the change I want to see in the world" as Gandhi said.

See the problem with this idea, is that is not how oppression works. Oppression means you don't get a choice. It means your life gets taken away from you, that you do not get to continue to really belong to yourself in your experience. It means forced against your will. 

I was born into this mess. And then I get shoved with the blame. The shame. The guilt of others and their sexual abuses. Something that is no one else's business becomes an excuse for taking. For taking everything from me.

See, it started to dawn on me in college. With the line of blue lights, stretching into the distance. So when running, you can hit one. With the drunken culture of fraternities and sororities like a culturally enforced brand of "Lord of the Flies" that is indulged in dorm hall corridors.

But see me, my friends called me "the lucky one". Because I had been studious and sheltered as an only child, I was thriving into myself. But time would make me see what they really were referring to. When growing older made "18" a free for all, and the pieces of myself started to be more and more noticeably chipped away. Sadly, the highest level of abuse is what made me recognize trauma, and after college I began unpacking the load of damaged self concepts I didn't know I was carrying around because I was a "girl". It started when I began to fully comprehend that this trauma, was a sensation I recognized. When I followed the memories, I began to realize how much I had invalidated before because I was not one of the "unlucky" ones, because I had not been raped as a child, I had a loving family growing up. Protection Status