I understand the importance of trigger warnings for people. I really do. We owe it to survivors of traumatic situations to put a trigger warning on things, but as someone who has experienced some traumatic situations, I need the debate to be less about an attempt to sensor material and more about sensitivity to those who maybe have some work to do before they are ready to watch a movie or read a book without a fair warning—and I do believe many of the people who fight that battle do so out of censorship.
I hate that some topics are so easy to talk about while others are not. I recently listened to the Most Embarrassing Stories episode on the We Can Do Hard Things Podcast. Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach, and Amanda Doyle shared several of their most embarrassing stories, and it seemed many of those were bathroom stories. I was reflecting on shame and shared with my therapist that it seems some topics are just off-limits. We can talk with humor about how we pooped our pants but can’t tell someone what happened in a sexual assault. I understand the importance of telling the right person, but even that seems to invoke a two-hands-up, back-away response from people. Or is it just me?
With that said, I will put a trigger warning on this blog post. I want to share my own thoughts on Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll.
Not that school shootings or murders aren’t awful, but they have not hit so close to home for me that I would feel especially triggered by them. It just isn’t something that sets off my sympathetic nervous system though it does sadden me. The part of the book I assumed would trigger me was Knoll’s description of TifAni’s (main character) rape—or the attempted rape. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard to read, but it didn’t make my head spin or make me dizzy. I didn’t experience derealization or depersonalization as I often do when triggered. I wasn’t overwhelmed by flashbacks nor did I fade away into a dissociated state. I felt compassion for TifAni but struggled with the grown-up version of her (Ani), so I felt separated from the story.
The flashbacks, shame, derealization, and dissociation started when I read about the aftermath of TifAny’s rape.
“Did I have AIDS? Was I going to get pregnant? I was racked with this feeling like I needed water, only I wasn’t thirsty, had drank an entire pitcher of water at the diner trying to quench a thirst that wasn’t really physical. Years later, I still experience this same sensation. I’ll slam water, liters of it, my agitation swelling along with my bladder as relief isn’t found at the bottom of the Fiji bottle.” (Chapter 6, page 95)
I was young. I did not understand much at all, and the fear tormented me. “Did I have AIDS?” It wasn’t long after my experience that the AIDS epidemic was on every Prime Time special. For some reason, my parents wanted my siblings and me to watch those. The dread I would have in anticipation of sitting down to watch those specials would make me sick for days. I remember making boxed macaroni and cheese one night when one of those specials was on the television. I turned the burner down low so the water would take forever to boil.
“Was I going to get pregnant?” At what age does a child figure out the exact ins and outs of getting pregnant? Not at seven. I remember feeling so much shame when the announcement came that our 5th grade class was going to attend sex education for two full days. I was horrified by the idea of sitting there with my classmates. I knew my face would turn red, I might throw up, and the world would spin out of control. Would I even hear what the teachers were saying? My parents didn’t sign the release, and I was the only 5th grader who sat in the office doing extra schoolwork to pass the time. I was relieved and felt excessive shame and fear. I still didn’t know the details of how a baby was made, and I was still convinced I must be carrying some tiny thing inside of me that would eventually grow and show everyone how awful I was.
The unquenchable thirst was something else. I would drink so much in school that I would feel sick. I think the massive amount of water I drank also gave me acid reflux. Or was that just the anxiety? Sometimes I would ask the office to call home because I didn’t feel well, and other times I would swallow nausea down. Eventually, I turned my thirst for water into a thirst for books, running, and success (escape). No matter what I tried to quench my thirst with, it was still not filling the unmet need.
The morning after TifAni was raped, she sat on the curb by a diner and waited for her mom to pick her up. She was hungover (Let me note right here that her drinking, being drunk, or blacking out is not the reason why she was raped. Let’s just get that stereotype of what happened to her somehow being her fault.). Her mom recognized she was drunk and grounded her on the spot. “’Grounded?’ I laughed sarcastically. “I’m so sick of this shit attitude! You are so ungrateful. Do you even know how much this school is costing me? She slapped the steering wheel with an open hand on the word ‘know’…I emptied the contents of my stomach right there in the parking lot of Staples. The beer, the whiskey, Dean’s salty semen—I couldn’t get it out fast enough.” (Chapter 6, page 96)
I am NOT throwing blame out here. I was grounded too. I hadn’t been drinking. I was little and just didn’t know. But being grounded after something like that happens sends a really confusing message—one that stays with you. I thought of the above paragraph as a metaphor: I didn’t have any semen in my stomach. I had a mouthful/stomach full of confusion. I needed to throw it up—talk about it—to understand what happened and feel like I was finally going to be okay. Instead, I kept “the beer, the whiskey, Dean’s salty semen” in me, and it made me sicker and sicker.
“By Monday morning, there was nothing in my stomach but acid, scalding my innards like surprise whiskey in that late-night round of quarters. I’d been up since 3:00 A.M., when my own heartbeat, pounding like an angry parent’s fist on his teenager’s locked door, woke me.” (Chapter 6, page 97)
Some days I still feel the acid in my stomach. Especially on days when something happens to remind me of any of the experiences I have had. Just today, I saw someone at the gym wearing a pair of pants that matched the color and material of someone I knew. I did a triple-take before reassuring myself it wasn’t who I thought it was. But there it was, the stomach acid. It burned and made me immediately nauseous.
I think it is possible most people have experienced the heart-pounding, gasping for breath, launch into wakefulness. I know I have. It still happens all too frequently. It isn’t that my heart is beating fast, but sometimes it is keeping a pretty steady rhythm of around 120 when I wake like that. No, most of the time it is hovering around 80 beats per minute. The thing is, at 80 beats per minute, it is trying to break out of my rib cage to run away from whatever it is that I was dreaming about. Whether at 120 beats per minute or 80 beats per minute, it is most often too difficult to calm myself enough to get back to sleep. (That isn’t entirely true now that I am on a different medication to help with sleep).
“She [a doctor at planned parenthood] finished examining me, told me to hang tight. There had been a question burning in my throat for the last ten minutes, but it was her reaching for the handle of the door that forced me to say it. ‘Is it rape if you can’t remember what happened?’ The doctor opened her mouth, as though she was about to gasp ‘Oh no.’ Instead she said, so quietly I almost didn’t hear it, ‘I’m not qualified to answer that question.’ She slipped out of the room soundlessly.” (Chapter 6, page 106)
Can someone please tell me who is qualified to answer that question? Or something similar to it? In every experience I have had, I STILL want to ask that question. I still want to understand what it was that actually happened each time. But, as I said today, “It just isn’t black and white.” If I can’t answer the question for myself, who could.
“’Wait.’ I dipped my head low, my forehead against Dean’s chest, anything to avoid his mouth, the angle at which it was coming at me. Dean wiggled his finger into the crevice between my chin and my neck, applying an upward pressure. ‘I’m really cold,’ I protested even as I gave in to it. I swallowed when I felt Dean’s wet lips on mine. Just for a little while, I thought. You only have to do this for a little bit. Don’t be rude. I toyed with Dean’s fat tongue, realizing my palms were on his chest, still pushing him away, I wrapped them around the back of his hairy neck obediently. Dean’s fingers were stumbling over the button of my khakis. It was too soon to stop, Dean wouldn’t believe me if I put an end to it now. As calmly as I could, I broke the kiss. ‘Let’s go inside.’ I tried to make it sound breathy, seductive, but we both knew there was nowhere go make good on my promise inside the house. Too late, I realized my play was dangerously transparent, that I’d fatally miscalculated Dean.” (Chapter 8, page 132)
I just said it isn’t “black and white.” Was TifAny leading Dean on? Or was she trying to survive? What was I doing each time? Was I into it? Was I afraid to say no? Was I appeasing? Was I just trying to survive? This isn’t my story, but the basic premise is right on. TifAny kissed Dean. She wanted him to think she wanted to kiss him. If Dean genuinely believed it (and any other action that came with or after that), was Dean really at fault? I wish it was simpler. It sure would make it easier for me if there was a universal and resounding definition to sexual assault and rape. But take any story to a court of law and let them decide. Nope, definitely not “black and white.”
“The memory that I had apologized to my own rapist, and he had laughed at me. You think you’re happy? You think you have anything to be proud of?—it always taunts—Ha! Remember this? This usually sets me right. Reminds me what a piece of shit I am. (Chapter 6, page 95)
I apologized—over and over. If I still had contact with the person who hurt me in graduate school, I’d probably still be apologizing. I don’t even know why. I do know that voice in TifAni’s head though: “You think you’re happy? You think have anything to be proud of?” and “what a piece of shit I am.” That kind of shame makes you try to set things right for as long as it takes. As I write this, I am not thinking those awful thoughts though. I am thinking how sad it is that I understand the words in this book so well. I am sad for the little girl I used to be, I am sad for the girl who endured so much over the years, and I am sad for the graduate school student. I am sad for me because I am trying to navigate the ocean in the middle of a storm.
Also, I once asked for answers and an apology. What I received was a few questions—each of them equally accusing. If they don’t see a need to apologize, or they think it was me, maybe I was the one who should have apologized.
“That first month after Bradley resumed, I dry-heaved every morning before school. But I needed to build up my loneliness tolerance, was all. The loneliness became like a friend, my constant companion. I could depend on it, and only it.” (Chapter 14, page 287)
Once people know what happened, or think they know, life gets lonely. When I was younger, I tried to avoid the people who knew my “secret.” When that didn’t work, I tried being their friend. Unfortunately, that set me up for a whole different mess. I was bullied, a target for future incidences, and eventually split in two. I figured out how to become a social butterfly and make everyone like me while in public or at school, but I was lonely. I was the only one who knew the truth, and I had to keep it a secret. The other half of the social butterfly was a depressed, suicidal, young woman who wanted nothing more than to know everything was going to be okay. I used to fantasize about someone hugging me and telling me that.
Loneliness isn’t a friend, but it is my constant companion. I am still a social butterfly, but I still hold that secret (and more now than back then) close to my chest. My loneliness is a direct result of shame—lots of it. And as I mentioned above, it is easier to talk about pooping your pants than it is to talk about the stuff I have been through. A friend of mine from college told the most hilarious story of pooping her pants (that I entertained people with for years). Listeners laugh every time (and so did she). People don’t laugh when they hear stories like mine—or TifAni’s.
“’I have this thing in my head’—I brought my fingers to my temple and tapped—‘no one can hurt me if I’m Ani Harrison. TifAni FaNelli is the type of girl who gets squashed, maybe, but not an Ani Harrison.’ Andrew hunched down so that he was eye to eye with me. ‘I don’t remember anyone squashing TifAni FaNelli.’ I held my thumb and index finger an inch apart. ‘But they did. To this small.’” (Chapter 13, Pages 230-231).
I don’t go by Becks because only Becky gets squashed, but Becks sounds much more powerful than Becky does, at least to me.
This was the point in the book that I cried. I know what it is like to feel squashed “to this small.” I feel like the smallest person alive. Sometimes I make myself larger than life, but I am in charge of that. I don’t want to be small and weak, but if I am small, I feel safer. Just like the social butterfly vs. the depressed Becks, this is the small vs. the powerful Becks. I want to be powerful because I am Becks, not in spite of myself.
I struggled to relate to the grown Ani vs. the wounded TifAni. Ani was this successful, powerful woman who seemed to put herself above everyone. I hated her. But the above excerpt was the one that put it all together for me. She was never going to be small or weak again. While I don’t trample people or take advantage of them, I understand the fear and doing whatever I can to not feel that way again. A few years ago I quietly slipped into the gym and did my best to hide while working out. In a week, I am going to be standing on the powerlifting platform in front of way too many people (live stream on YouTube too) in the brightest freakin’ singlet. Of all the singlets my friend Jim could hand me, he gave me a bright red, silver, and blue (shiny) one—as opposed to a plain, flat black one I could hide in the shadows with. I am going to embrace that as much as I can because a flat black singlet feeds into my desire to hide and be small while the bright, shiny singlet will give me the opportunity to practice power as myself.
Finally, I read a small section in the back of the book—the part after “About the Author”—entitled “What I Know.” In that section, Jessica Knoll, the author, discusses the rape that informed the book. I am sad that much of that story was hers, but if I am honest, I am grateful for the detail she put into the book. I didn’t need a trigger warning for the things I read or the feelings I felt. I needed to read a fiction book that normalized everything I have thought, felt, and been through…and then I needed to know that it wasn’t complete fiction. Those things aren’t made-up details. They are real. They were someone else’s experiences, and they must be NORMAL. I closed the book after reading that small section and let the tears quietly and calmly roll down my face before I stood up, changed into my gym clothes, and walked out the door.