When A Rape Ends, Its Echoes Never Do
Three months after I was raped, I fractured two of my molars from grinding my teeth while I was sleeping. I woke up every night to the sound of a door breaking open, wood splintering: a sound that existed entirely in my memory.
Before that, I’d served in Burkina Faso in West Africa with the United States Peace Corps. I was raped, and because I did everything “right” afterwards—I talked to the Peace Corps, talked to the Embassy, completed a rape kit—I didn’t understand the nausea that came over me whenever I did anything aside from hide in my bed. Soon after, I was evacuated from the country with a canvas backpack and a change of clothes. I stayed home, in Seattle, for three months, while the Peace Corps did a full investigation.
In this investigation, the Peace Corps noted the three broken locks on my front door, the signs of forced entry, the mess that had been made when I tried to fight. There were photos of my body displaying fingernail cuts across my chest, bruises on my thighs, tearing up and down my vaginal wall. They found blood. They asked me if I wanted to press charges.
I have big opinions, and pride in them. Do you want to press charges? Yes, of course. Yes, always. Let’s do it twice. Okay, the Peace Corps told me. Well, you can’t finish your service. What little autonomy I had left felt like it was slipping further and further away.
So I survived by being indignant. Anger protected me from feeling those more elusive things: paranoia, hyper-vigilance, a pervasive fear of men. I saw that I had to stop drinking, because when I drank, every man looked like a threat to me. I would fight them, trying to get some sense of power back. Being violent felt better than being afraid; being aggressive and being hated for it seemed better than being a victim and vulnerable. Inside me grew a deep antagonism, perhaps misplaced, for the Peace Corps: an organization that could train me to work with others and somehow not protect me from those I was working with.
On March 3, 2013, I made the 30-hour flight back to Burkina Faso. I interviewed with the police, who spoke in rapid French and occasionally local dialects. I was lost in the technical dialogue as well as the system that I didn’t understand. I was accused of lying, asked to draw maps to justify the path I took home every day, asked why I didn’t take the more direct route, asked to describe what I was wearing.
“I wore a dress my mother Bebe made me,” I said. My mother was my neighbor; that’s what I called her. “I wore a dress anyone would wear. Yes, I can show it to you. Yes, you can examine it.” They wrote what I said in pencil. I kept going: “Yes, you saw me wearing a wedding ring because the Peace Corps recommended it. Yes, I told you before that I was married to a man. I told you that to protect myself and look at what it did.”
They nodded. They pointed to the photos, to the cuts across my chest, pointed to the photo evidence and asked me if I had a cat. They were smiling.
I should have known, then, that the police were friends with the man who raped me; they had already gotten his side of the story over a beer. They would never believe anything I could say. They saw me only as a body built out of desperation, embarrassment, and shame. She is ashamed that she had sex with a man, and ashamed that she enjoyed it, and ashamed that he was married. She seduced him and sought him out. They didn’t say this outright, just with their eyes and their laughter; with their mouths they asked questions, sometimes laughed.
What they didn’t know, and what I could never tell them, was that I’m gay: a femme, a proud, out, queer at home. But in Burkina, I had to hide my identity in a safe space with my passport. In Burkina, it’s a common belief that only prostitutes are gay, or women that haven’t met a good man—and the latter aren’t even really gay, just inexperienced. Had I told them this, I would have hurt my case. Maybe the man would have been seen as doing me a favor: educating me.
Before we left, they had one last question: “Why did you not report to the police? Why did you only tell the Peace Corps?” My safety and security officer was with me, and he could have told them that it was policy, but he didn’t. Instead, he said, “She is ashamed. She is deeply ashamed and that is why she didn’t tell anyone but the Peace Corps.”
I told him, in English, that I wasn’t ashamed. That I could only feel ashamed of something I’d done wrong. He told me they wouldn’t see the difference.
I thought I was finished that day. The interview was terrible, but it was over. I thought I could make the statement, return home, call it done. But this was the first step in a circuitous judicial path. There is no right to a speedy trial in Burkina, and my first of many trials didn’t happen until a full year later.
I returned to the country on March 15, 2014. The night before the trial, I sat down to review the police reports both the man and I had filed the year prior. I hadn’t seen his version, and more appalling than the lies were the many truths that had been left out.
Here’s what really happened. It was New Year’s Eve, and I had biked to a work party that was at a bar owned by my boss, who owned the only car in the entire village, and had promised to drive me home. Because of this, I stayed out later that night than any other night during my time in country. At 10:30, I asked for the ride, and my boss asked me to stay until midnight: it was the New Year, after all. At 12:15 he was too drunk to drive and this man I worked with designing a special education curriculum offered to give me a ride home on his moped. There was no electricity in my village, and it was a dark night, not suitable for biking.
The man’s report included all of this, but then a staggering difference: In his story, he dropped me off and I asked him in and he declined and went home.
Nowhere did he mention following me inside my yard, or about grabbing me, about the cause of the bruising up and down my arms and legs. There was nothing about me fighting him off, about screaming for help that no one heard because it was New Year’s Eve and everyone was at a café, a bar, or a party. There was nothing about when he pinned me down. Nothing about how I fought, hard, after I pleaded and begged and asked and finally tried to be kind enough that he’d see me as a person.
There was nothing about how I escaped with a ripped dress and fought my way inside my house, staggering, fumbling with keys, locks. How I locked the door three times and hid in my bedroom, crouched behind my mosquito net, afraid to breathe. How he made the door break, one persistent but clumsy shove after another, metal and bits of wood falling to the floor in sickening, paralyzing thuds. How, once he entered, he told me my door was pas bien fermée,not closed well. “It’s broken,” he said. He found me in my bedroom, and that part wasn’t in there either.
The day after I read his false report, I sat just two chairs away from this man in a small room that could hold just five of us. I tried to stay still while he told the judge a third, different version: no talking, no invitation, just a kiss. There was no acknowledgement of his year-prior police statement, the rape kit or the investigation or the proof of breaking and entering. The judge threatened to hold him in contempt for lying. When the judge saw that I was scared, he said to me, “Stay strong. There are no women that do this. Right now, he’s afraid of you.” I asked my translator to repeat it. I thought I’d mistaken something. It was the first time in over a year that I felt that someone in the government was listening to me.
But through that window of hope came shame again: burdensome, apologetic. When the judge asked why I was scared, why I was shaking, my translator didn’t say “She has been diagnosed with PTSD and is actually afraid of her medication” or “This is the first time she has seen her rapist since he came by to check on her and apologize the next day” or “This is fucking terrifying, obviously.”
My translator instead said to the judge that I was shaking because I was—again—ashamed. “She felt great shame that she was forced to leave her friends and family. That this happened to her and she had to return to the United States and start her life over again. She felt great shame that she could not complete her service; she had to break her contract and her agreement to serve our country for twenty seven months.”
At the end the judge asked the man why he felt I would be motivated to lie. Why would I choose that? He said nothing; had no response. The judge asked me the same and I explained, “I have no reason to lie. I have no reason at all. I lost everything. I’d been dreaming of being a volunteer since I was seven years old and now I have lost friends that had become family and my plans and my job. I lost my village that I love. I had to return back to the United States with nothing.”
He then asked me why I’d report it at all, and all I could say is that the man was a high school principal, and I wasn’t much older than the girls he worked with every day.
That night we stayed in a hotel. There was electricity there and running water. I lay in bed until dinner and when I gathered around the table I found myself seated next to my translator. We spoke about the day and the process. I asked her about earlier, this same question again—about why I needed to admit to shame when I didn’t do anything, and she said, “We don’t talk about rape in any other terms.”
Everyone spoke about law for a long time. My lawyer had been hired by the Peace Corps. They had gone through a long list of local lawyers before they found him. He explained that he was one of the only lawyers in the country that have ever had any experience with a rape case, although this was still his first rape trial. He had only ever been a part of indecent exposure trials, which happen much more frequently. He explained that some women who have been raped will ask for an indecent exposure trial so their families, friends, village, couldn’t assess what had really happened. These men serve just two months in prison, the lawyer said—but the trial is faster. He told me I still had that option open to me.
I told them how I couldn’t believe this system. “Just be glad they didn’t ask you to do a re-enactment,” he said. “Sometimes the facts are so different they ask the man and the woman to recreate the scene, on site.”
And then he told me that I would not be going home with a verdict. As a matter of fact, I would know nothing of a verdict for a very, very long time.
I write this knowing that the trial will take 10 years, at least. I will be 10 years older when this is finished. I will maybe be married, maybe have children, maybe I’ll be tenured at the college I teach at. There is nothing I know for sure except that I will be seeing this man every year for the next 10 years, 12 years, maybe 15 years.
People often ask me why it takes so long, what the steps are. First, the police interrogation. Then, a process called a “confrontation,” where we sit together and compare stories and a judge is present to check our facts. If the judge feels the incident is worth ruling on, they pass it off to a series of three judges who determine whether the first judge did their job right. They have us repeat our stories, look again at the police report, at the investigation, at the confrontation. They make a ruling and perhaps they assign jail time, perhaps not—it may go on to another, final judge and jury. In short, time served for rape is less than time spent on the trial. On average, convicted rapists serve five to 10 years; on average, a trial against a rapist takes 10 to 15 years.
This time commitment also reflects the staggering inaccuracies or reporting rape. In the United States, 34.4 percent of women report sexual assault. In Burkina Faso, 0.24 percent report. This surely cannot represent the actual incidence of rape: I spoke to more women that were survivors in my village than would be indicated in the whole country by that statistic. But I understand why women are so afraid. Maybe they know what their families will say, or how the police will treat them. Maybe they have a friend or neighbor who was quickly, quietly married off to their rapist. Maybe in a country where 71.6 percent of women are subjected to genital mutilation or cutting at ages old enough to remember the experience (some as babies, others at seven, at 10, at 12 years old) they grow up knowing that bodily autonomy is a myth.
I’ve tried finding substantial research, statistics, any information that would indicate why these trials happen so infrequently and take so long. No one can give me a good explanation. I wrote to my Safety and Security Officer yesterday. He wrote back saying, “I have pressured our lawyer to make the case move forward but we face exceptional circumstances.”
He means the fact that the courthouse was recently burned down in a riot. My court documents, handwritten and nearly two years worth, are safe, only because no one had bothered to move them from the village courtroom to the larger courts of the city.
When I came back to Seattle, I spoke about my rape openly, imagining that I could find better closure in America, surely much more progressive. I was seeing a fantastic therapist for PTSD, who told me that the more I talk about it, the more power I take from it. I didn’t talk about it every day, but I definitely thought about it every day. I definitely dealt with it in some way, every single day. Every hour. There is some part of it that is on my mind at every moment. I am tired.
But soon I realized I was starting to feel embarrassed for thinking about it so much—ashamed that I wasn’t feeling relief at so much of it being over. For talking about it. For needing so much help and empathy.
I was an American, so privileged, getting flights and accommodations paid for, getting a lawyer and a translator for free, having access to health care and therapy and still. And yet. There were so many, many women I had left behind who had no outlet and the guilt was suffocating. So I was ashamed that I didn’t feel grateful.
I was ashamed of talking about it, of admitting how deeply the experience had altered my life. I was ashamed that I was frightened by a knock at the door. The sound of metal hitting the floor threw me into a crouched position more than once. I had anxiety attacks in my sleep, would wake panting as though I’d run several miles and the sweat to show for it.
I had fractured molars and a jaw clenched so tight that I had what my dentist called “remarkable gum recession,” because of the pounds per square inch of pressure my skull felt each night. I would experience flashbacks: there he was, in my kitchen, or right behind me, or walking by my bathroom. I was ashamed at my fragility. How was I living in a place that expounded freedom and choice and I was afraid of acting too much like a woman? Why was I told I was no longer kind, or forgiving, or gracious, that I’d become crazy and shrill and a man-hater?
Many of my friends were not equipped to listen; they had never been given the tools. I was not equipped to talk about it, really; I simply didn’t know how. Gradually, my social circle began to shrink. I was afraid to go out, afraid to get in fights, afraid to drink, afraid of men, afraid of everything. And so, the shame I thought I’d left behind was alive and well and what scared me was that I am not the only one that feels it.
When I first began the Peace Corps, there were 33 of us in my swear-in group. 18 of us were women. And in 27 months, six of us have been raped.
One by one, they called me. They wrote to me on Facebook, they pulled me aside while I was still in Burkina and told me that they didn’t know what to do. Oh no I couldn’t report, couldn’t possibly report, I’ve done too much work and am too tied to my community and couldn’t leave but what if? What if I get replaced by a female volunteer? What if this happens to her, too? What if I find out and I want to die because it would be my fault and what do I do, Yaara?
Some of us reported. I am the only one that pressed charges. We all have our reasons for choosing to and choosing not to. Everyone does that part differently. But we all shared one thing: we were all deeply afraid to talk about it.
I’m writing this not because I want to criticize the Peace Corps, although I have my criticisms. I’m not writing this because I want to advocate for choosing to press charges or enforcing harsher punishments for rapists or providing better aftercare for survivors, although in a different conversation I would advocate for all of that. I’m writing this because I want to know why we don’t want to talk about rape when it happens to us. Why my best friend of 22 years only told me a few months ago that she was raped in high school. Why do we feel shame? Do we fear for the comfort of our listener, or is it fear for our own selves?
Dan Savage says that it’s important, as a queer person, to come out all the time. The more straight people that can say they have a gay friend, the more likely they are to vote for our rights. Can we apply this to rape culture? Am I asking too much of women that have probably just experienced the single worst moment in their lives? I have big opinions. I have a big voice. I’ve got a lot to say. But this leaves me to speak only in questions and shrugs and in plaintive tones that beg answers, that crave explanations. There are no answers, not yet.
And no matter what, I have ten years to ask these questions. I got an email this past Tuesday telling me that, although I had been told in September that I’d be returning soon, it looks like I won’t be going back until 2016.
I’m tired. I want to let go. I think about what might it be like to let go, and move on, and walk away. But then what? When it’s over, will I be done with it? Will I still be awake at night counting each woman I called my friend and that I left behind, abandoned?
The women that are not just from impoverished communities but right here, in Seattle, ashamed of what was done to them? Will I forget things? Will I be surprised by the thought of it one day? Will it ever feel like it happened years ago, will I leave parts out, will I forget the sounds of him breaking in, the smell of his breath, the feel of him, the weight of him, the blood? Will I get to leave this behind? Will all the women I know ever get to truly move on?
I will never have answers. I will not really get to let go. I will finish this trial, but it’ll never be finished with me.
Yaara Zaslow is a teacher, writer and feminist from Seattle, Washington.