girlhood: the living aftermath of sexual assault

BY KITTY XIE

Girlhood (KX BMM piecec)

Kiss my mouth and tell me that femininity isn’t what you think. WOMAN, there is a plaster-like dead goddess quality expected of you, this tongue-biting and cheek-turning and buying of flat-bottomed shoes and how you must keep things together out of consideration for the fragile nature of sex. And then, after you yourself break, you must be appropriate in your expressions of pain and in the way scar tissue holds against your skin. Not too white/blunt/raised/bitchy.

Dear WOMAN, made to seem unable and sinister, you must be SUPERHUMAN.

Consider Aphrodite formed from ocean crests. Consider how her life arose from the sequentiality of male desire and the perfect fulfillment of that desire. Existence with narrowly defined purpose, like a baited fishhook. Consider getting raped. It was not, in and of itself, painful. I recall the fixedness of the aftermath, geometry, solid symmetry, pulling my skin back on and driving home. Coffee still tasted vile and I continued to bite my thumbnails until rough shaggy white half-moons formed as flesh. My body, though intact, was heavier, exhausted with some blank mass, a grease spot on an everyday item of clothing. I laughed too loud and too often, but I couldn’t speak above a whisper. Stomping from point to point in full view was an act of monumental disrespect.

There was no blood but I still checked behind my teeth and under my tongue. There was no blood but I still threw my favorite black lace underwear in the trash, folded between squares of toilet paper like a gift from the woman I would be. There was little shock factor left for a thing as common as the expropriation of the female sexual identity, so I tried something else, tried wearing less makeup and a more blasé approach. WHY WOULDN’T I BE OKAY? Of course I wasn’t okay, but I responded like I was supposed to, like the girl who remains palpable through the most hardening of trials, Ophelia submerged in white, etcetera. Anyway, I am often regarded with pity/affection when I mention that I was assaulted, as though it is I who should be ashamed for saying anything. The thinking is that it’s impolite to profess about bodies, bedrooms that lock from the inside. That’s too bad; if I’m BRAVE enough to be a rape survivor, I’m BRAVE enough to want to talk about it without letting it become all that I am.

About the hospital I will say this: It was a world that leaned, a worthwhile visit if you ever decide that you’re going to kill yourself before next week, as I did. It was a smudgy, soft-walled place with fanning corridors and a sense of sweetness and unbelonging, like a child’s shoes placed neatly by the door. I wore full off-blue surgery scrubs for eight whole days because I felt so dirty, a disgust that smacked around in my bones, like stepping into a public shower barefoot. My skin had the consistency of chewed pitch, tacky and gumming up my insides. My arms had a new topography, as though the veins had been glued on and flushed with milk. Actually, I wasn’t even close to dying. I was just starting to FEEL it.

WOMAN, you will relive that afternoon until it bursts open like day-old meat on the sidewalk and you must talk about it to affirm that it actually happened. Your words will be vivisected by men and by women. They will say that it could have been worse, much worse. They will ask why you went inside his house that day. They will ask if you ever gave him the word to touch you, to strike you swiftly, like that. They will want to know small, small things as if you were there in the bedroom, not a living part of the rape but merely an unseen witness, making note of every time he told her to RELAX. You must not think that they really want these details. They are just curious, like strangers who meet and touch hands on the brink of tragedy.

This, also: Self-harm is not about punctuation or impulse or propulsion or insects trapped underneath the skin. After I cut my arms and legs nerve-deep, I finally believed that outside and inside were in something of agreement again. I smoked filter cigarettes until I was all lung, pulled out my hair in red bookmark shavings. Felt that my body was still here with me, demanding my attention. There was, most likely, some intent of revenge. When the Greek ships landed at Troy, King Agamemnon claimed as his prize the priest’s daughter Chryseis. Enraged, Phoebus Apollo, who was a god, avenged her virginity with a plague —

he smote their mules and their hounds / he aimed his shafts at the people themselves / all day long the pyres of the dead were burning / for nine whole days he shot his arrows

In The Iliad, Chryseis is almost never called by name. Her capture is dishonor upon Chryses, her father. The torn robes and bruised stomach are not seen. But you can see how Chryseis the girl is both danger and salvation, like Helen, who stayed hidden deep within the old city for so long that the Greek bards composed epics about her tender and treacherous beauty. If not for them, Troy would have fallen like fists on an altar.

I grew my hair to my waist and ate sweet starchy foods until my thighs touched and turned soft, like oil. I know this will make some people upset, because I was violated, and why should I have to change? WOMAN is a constant, the bust of the Venus de Milo, draped in stone and shrugging. WOMAN is not a constant, and when I was cracked and mad with resentment, I became someone else. The Renaissance paintings of I Modi show Chryseis on her back, legs at thick right angles, missionary position. People say that this depiction diminishes her place in the mythology, but here she is post-war, fleshy and rebuilt, a lost Anatolian city given context. So to evolve is not necessarily an apologetic gesture; in order to reclaim ownership of my body, it was imperative that I grant it permission to mold its shape around this new plane of myself. I had to peel back my once-beliefs about femininity and choice and make my survival an obvious exterior. The body knows when it is ready to tell the truth.

Another, less apparent truth is this: I’ve been back to the hospital twice, and I’ve spoken to other women who made gracious soft-toothed excuses for their rapists and were content to continue as though nothing worse had happened, but I can’t reminisce about my own experience without turning silent and glass-eyed and wondering if I could have done more to save myself. It’s taken me a long time to understand that I have no basis to be sorry. Look: Being on emotional kamikaze has very little to do with sanity. Just because I was self-destructive does not mean that I ever forgot what was mine to share. I wish I could pass this realization onto my seventeen-year-old self, who was much too skinny, did almost everything in sequence, and was rarely very impressive or neurotic. Less sullen, more timid about cursing but unabashedly frank, blown about by harsh/improper remarks: a growing, beating-heart wisp of a girl.

Before I could recover, I had to learn not to be frightened by the men and women who would come up and touch my new tight skin and say that I look like someone else. But I am still afraid of hearing the words: You are not doing enough. Of those who take the post-assault entombment as weakness of heart rather than desperate love of self.

There’s nowhere to hide from those briefly focused people who see me holding my baked-brown arms against my chest and give me bristled glances that say they KNOW. They want to hear about days I slept sixteen-plus hours without stirring, shaved to the apex of my legs, and then mentally square the story without my involvement, imagine what they would have done in my place. TELL ME, I beg as they turn away and remain at a distance, static suspensions within themselves. TELL ME. I AM RIGHT HERE.

Kitty is a student at Cornell University. She is curiously passionate about baking, organic chemistry, the rat brain, and discovering new ways to consider mental illness.

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