On Thursday 9th October 2014, BBC Radio 5live’s Breakfast show hosted a phone-in asking for listeners’ opinions on whether convicted rapist Ched Evans should be permitted to rejoin professional football when he leaves prison in six weeks’ time. His case is currently under review and he has served two years of a five year sentence. The views given varied widely, but were mostly from men. I was riding in a taxi with a driver who listened to this show. And then something nearly happened. But not quite.
I got out of the taxi and stood waiting for the bus that was the second leg of my journey to work. It was 9.45am. I did something I had never done before. I texted in to a radio show, letting them know my opinion. I didn’t add my name or where I was from, but I decided that I would give them the truth, my truth, and they could use it how they wanted. This is what I told them:
Seven years ago this month I was raped. If Evans wanted to continue being a professional footballer maybe he should have considered that before he raped somebody. He has received two years imprisonment for a crime that will have a lifelong effect on his target….For the FA to allow him to play would be for them to condone his actions and utterly disrespect and dehumanise a woman who will right now be trying to rebuild her life after a devastating event.
About fifteen minutes after I sent this, on the 14A to Tower Hill, I got a call from a withheld number. To be totally honest, I assumed it was United Utilities. I ignored it. I got a voicemail a couple of minutes later – now, I know that United Utilities don’t leave voicemails. I listened to it. A woman named Lucinda, a researcher for the BBC, had left me a message telling me I had a “valued perspective” and she wanted to talk to me further. She said other things which were as sweet and as gentle as you would want the response to that text message to be. I made the instant decision that I did not want to discuss this on the bus, and resolved to call her as soon as I got to work, knowing that the show would most likely be over by then, but utterly sure that speaking my truth had indeed set me free in some minor way. So I called the number she had left, and was told by someone not quite as sweet and gentle as Lucinda that they were off-air. I wasn’t quite on the radio yesterday. By this point my body was bursting with adrenaline. I told someone in work what hadn’t quite happened, including that I am a survivor of rape.
In that funny way the universe has of dovetailing experiences that seem unconnected, I have been attending counselling for the issues surrounding my experience of rape for the last few weeks. Today was my fourth session. And I told my counsellor this little story, an amusing anecdote about missing being on the radio because the 14A has such a torturously long route. Yet she found something in my story that was quite remarkable. She didn’t say that to me straight away, but she drew me in, like she has this way of doing, forcing me to look closer and closer at individual parts of my story until I caught up with her.
“SURVIVOR. I said I am a survivor!”
I told someone – nay, I posted on FACEBOOK – that I am a survivor. I didn’t mean it in a general, Gloria Gaynor kind of way, you know, I’ve had bad boyfriends but I live to flirt another day kind of way. I am a survivor of rape. I am a survivor of rape.
This may or may not be a phrase you have heard before. This may or may not be a phrase that describes you. Whatever your relationship to this phrase is, I would ask that you, my treasured reader, humour me to expand a little on what it means to me. Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending.
Until very recently, my friends, I was a rape victim. This may be easier for those of you who haven’t experienced rape to understand. A terrible thing happened to me, which simultaneously crushed me under its weight and left me in emotional free fall. For a really long time. I will not describe the experience itself; I will talk about how it affected me as a person. I used to have a life built on simple truths. That red meant stop, green meant go. That smiling meant happy and frowning meant sad. And if you told somebody to stop, you had a perfect right to expect them to listen to you. Seven years ago this changed. I told somebody to stop and they did not listen. All of a sudden, no doesn’t mean no anymore. And just like that, as if by magic, the world falls apart under your feet. The best way I can describe it is probably to liken it to your house being burgled: someone being in there without your permission makes you feel unsafe in that place. That was how my body felt. Unsafe, insecure. I added other words to that list over time: dirty, shameful, abandoned. I felt like the ruins of an old house that had once been beautiful but was now falling apart, and had a sign on the door saying DANGER – DO NOT ENTER. I felt like the rock solid foundations of my life had exploded. Naomi Wolf discusses in her book “Vagina – A New Biography” that people who have experienced sexual violence are easier to push over – literally – than those who haven’t. I know in my body what this means. My core had disappeared and I felt like I could float away on the wind. I tried many things to ground me, to keep me whole and in one piece when everything seemed to be tearing apart. I put on a lot of weight, I tried to literally be heavier, and have more gravity, and be able to stick to the floor. I drank a lot. I spent a lot of time convincing myself of new truths, more complicated truths. That I was a bad person, that I had been punished in some way for some misdemeanour or other. This is what being a rape victim meant to me. To feel constantly like the ground I stand on shifts below me.
Being a survivor is different, though. I thought for a while that being a survivor would mean that I would get my rock solid foundation back. This hasn’t happened. I don’t think I’ll ever have a rock solid foundation again. But just for today I am totally okay with that, because what I have is more precious and harder-earned by far. That solid feeling, that core that was made of reinforced steel, today it feels like fire. I feel as if I have been burned but emerged purified and renewed. That fire, that I can almost feel when I put my hand on my tummy, is sometimes glowing embers that I neglect and worry over and poke at and think “I’m sure this used to be hotter, and brighter”. And some days, days like today, it is flames that shoot so far up my torso I am certain people can see them in my eyes. This is what happens to me when I have a really great conversation with someone, or when somebody pays me a compliment from their heart, or when I even think about writing. Those flames are dancing in my heart right now as I write this. In my manifesto for healing, more than a year ago now, I wrote that to heal you need to “feed the flames of your own magnificence”. I had no idea how true that would end up being for me. Every day I need to feed the flames of my magnificence. Fire can be destructive, but sometimes it can bring life and light and renewal and purity. And the certain belief that the shame of what happened does not belong to me. That shame is not mine but another’s. What I have today is pride, pride in surviving, pride in being the woman that I am, pride that I remain unafraid of openness and vulnerability and honesty, pride in my writing, pride in my love. I stand firm, ablaze with the truth that I have survived, I do survive, I will continue to survive.
There are so many people without whom this post would never have been possible, who have kept me alive til today, but right now there are four people I need to thank: my parents, for loving me consistently and fiercely through all of this and even when it must have been difficult to. Elloa Atkinson, for the best-timed message I’ve ever received. And of course, Lucinda, that gentle BBC researcher who gave me the courage to take more leaps of faith in 24 hours than I have in the past year. I’m going to tweet this to 5live and hope it finds her…