How Speaking My Truth Helped Me Heal from Sexual Assault

                 By: Cierra Lockett

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.
— Zora Neale Hurston.

INTRODUCTION

 
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It has been three years since I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew. Someone I went to school with for years. Someone I considered a friend.

In that time, I have largely suffered in silence, only speaking to close family and friends about it. Many survivors of rape and sexual assault suffer this way because rape culture makes it nearly impossible to tell the truth without feeling shamed. Fortunately, over the last three years we have seen the growth of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. As much as I’ve tried to move on from my trauma, these brave women sharing their stories have encouraged me to tell my own. 

MEMPHIS, MAY 2015

In May of 2015 I was a recent college graduate, working in Memphis before applying to film school. Summer was still the prime time to get together with friends, especially because so many of our high school class lived nearby. My long-time friend *Wayne hosted one of his usual kickbacks at his parents’ home, where we played cards and drinking games.

Near the end of the night, everyone either left alone or paired off. I lived so close to Wayne’s house that I was one of the last to go. Before I could, Steven casually asked for a shoulder massage and then to cuddle on the living room couch. “All right, but at 3:00 I’m leaving,” I said, setting my phone on the coffee table.

In the midst of this, I asked, “Why did you want to cuddle with me?” To which he responded, “I don’t know... you’ve always been around. I had actually planned to talk to you earlier, but you had already chosen Chris.” Our friend Chris and I had flirted that night, but I didn’t leave with him specifically because I didn’t want to have sex.

Slowly but surely, as we made small talk and laid in silence, Steven made his way on top of me. As tipsy as we were, I didn’t realize how compromised I was until we were kissing. Then he was pulling my pants down, as I worked hard to keep them up.

“Steven, we are not doing this,” I said. “Why not?” he asked. 

“Because we’re on Wayne’s couch!” I said, this being all I could think of. Surely, he would come to his senses and see how ridiculous this was.

“It’s okay, I’ll clean the couch!”

“We could get caught!”
“Nobody is coming out here, I promise you.”

But that didn’t make me feel safe; it made me feel helpless. Wayne was in his room with his girlfriend, while his parents were asleep nearby. Yet some part of me told me not to scream for help, not to be dramatic. So I didn’t.

“It’s 3:00 – I have to go.”

“We could’ve been having sex for like an hour by now!”

“I know, but we can’t do that.”

“Do you want to have sex with me, Cierra?”

“I mean... yeah?” The question floated in the air between us, but he took that as the definitive answer, already towering over me and holding me down. “But not like this.”

As I tried to sit up and leave, he put one hand around my throat and forced me back down. Then, despite my efforts to keep my pants up, he had them down enough to force his fingers inside me.

I hissed out his name in protest, shocked and afraid. I let go of my pants with one hand to push his away from me, and used my other to claw at the one he had on my throat holding me down.

DING DONG.

“Shit. I know this n***a ain’t back.” Steven got up to answer the door, and I used this as the opportunity to put my pants and shoes back on. Our classmate *Abdul had returned to the party to crash. Steven saw that I had redressed, and told me not to, frustrated that we hadn’t hooked up.

I didn’t know what to do. How could I take control of this situation? How could I make sense of it? My next decision is the one that I still beat myself up over – I took Steven back with me for the night, and he proved too tired to try anything else. I thought surely that it had only been a bad hookup, even though I never wanted to hook up to begin with. The next day, we went to McDonald’s and I dropped him back off at Wayne’s house.

A couple of week’s later, my friend *Renee and I were hanging out in daylight hours at Wayne’s house while Steven was there, as usual. I told Renee what happened, and while she was appalled at how aggressive Steven was, she thought that maybe I just needed to hook up with him on my own terms. Maybe consensual sex between us would right the violent wrong. Terrible logic. But I was so in denial about having been assaulted that I thought it was a viable plan. Steven and I met to entertain the idea, but after foreplay did nothing for either of us, I decided to leave without sex. “All right, I’m leaving,” I said as I sat up to get dressed. I then heard, “No, you’re not,” and was choked back down as he attempted penetration. I struggled harder this time, barely able to speak, until he let me go. We never spoke again.

Over the next month, I attempted to tell the story to my best friends and line sisters using humor. No one laughed. I realize now that I was only laughing to keep from crying over the trauma.

Everyone saw it for what it was but me, because I didn’t want to believe that I had been assaulted, that someone I knew had violated me that way, or that I was a victim.

But it haunted me. Even when I began dating my boyfriend in October 2015, I met him with the defensiveness and distrust meant for my attacker. As I had told the story casually to my coworkers that summer, my boyfriend recognized that this was part of why I was so guarded. Not only did he believe me, but he patiently worked to help me feel trust and security again.

LOS ANGELES, OCTOBER 2016

The bliss of my healing didn’t last forever. One year and five months later, on October 2nd, 2016, I completed the “Think About It Module” on sexual assault education at Loyola Marymount University. As I read the definitions and statistics of acquaintance rape, the memories of my assault came flooding back like a tidal wave.

I broke down. I called my boyfriend and line sister Briana with tears free falling, confused about what to do and alone in Los Angeles. Briana encouraged me to go to LMU’s Student Psychological Services because I was so distraught and had never confided in a professional. There I met Dr. Wyatt, who changed everything. She was warm and understanding, yet honest and challenging over our two months of therapy sessions.

She helped me realize that there were many ways for survivors to respond to sexual violence, and that everyone brings their truth to light in their own time. I knew that some victims waited years to tell and that some never told, but I didn’t know how painful it was to keep it a secret. I felt confused because Steven and I were classmates from 6th to 12th grade and had mutual friends. I never thought he’d be capable of doing what he did. I felt ashamed because I thought I should’ve screamed for help, never seen him again after the first time, told my family. I felt helpless because I knew no matter how much therapy I got or if I ever got to confront him, there would be no legal justice for me.

Dr. Wyatt helped me to dissect what power Steven drew from the sexual assault, as it is power- based violence, not sexual. We talked through him being used to attention for his looks, but feeling inadequate over where he was in life compared to his peers. It probably didn’t help that we were both interested in film, but I was going to film school while he made YouTube skits. As he mentioned, I had no interest in him that night, but I was the last one there. I was the last body to exert control over, at the wrong place at the wrong time. Eventually, my therapy with Dr. Wyatt prepared me to speak with my mother, sister, Wayne, and Steven. I planned to do it all over Christmas break, no matter what reactions I received. 

MEMPHIS, DECEMBER 2016

My mother and sister believed me immediately, amid tense silence and sympathetic tears. It was December 20th, 2016 that I told Wayne at El Patron. We had just ordered our food, when he mentioned how long it had been since we hung out. “There’s a reason for that,” I replied. Anxiety is the only word for what I felt as I told him his best friend assaulted me in his home. He attentively and calmly listened as I caught him up on my trigger experience and therapy sessions. When I finished, he apologized.

“I’m sorry,” Wayne said, “and I’m sorry that happened on my watch.” I thanked him for this, but assured him it wasn’t his fault. I asked if everything made sense and what he thought. He said, “I’m kind of not surprised.”

He then told me that *Alicia, another high school classmate, told him that Steven assaulted her. My jaw hit the floor. I thought I was the only one, yet this cruel twist of fate proved otherwise. It hurt me to think that I may have been able to prevent Alicia’s attack had I spoken up sooner. The only silver lining was that she’d confronted him, and I told Wayne that I wanted to do the same. “I think you should. I think he needs to hear it,” Wayne said. He agreed to do anything he could to help, even when I told him I didn’t expect him to mediate or act without me.

“You know he has a baby now?” Wayne asked.
“Holy shit. You’re kidding,” I said, stunned at this revelation.

He pulled out his phone to produce a photo. “Is it a boy? I hope it’s a boy,” I said before I even thought. I was disturbed by the possibility of this man bringing a girl into the world after all this. Wayne confirmed it was a girl, proven by the photo of the one- or two-month old child. He said Steven having a daughter was helping him by making him work harder to care for someone else. I was unmoved and unconvinced.

Still, I felt relieved that so many steps were out of the way. I had done it! I never imagined it would be such a breath of fresh air not to carry that burden alone.

Unfortunately, I never got to confront Steven. Each time I went home to Memphis or returned to Los Angeles without doing it, I felt disturbed by this unfinished business. He was walking around thinking that what he’d done to me, Alicia, and whoever else was acceptable. At one point, I asked Wayne if I should reach out to Alicia to let her know she wasn’t alone. Wayne discouraged this because he believed Alicia had already moved on after her confrontation. Without the closure I desired, I had to do what I could to heal. 

LOS ANGELES, 2017 – 2018

From 2017 to present, I’ve practiced self-care. So often people rush survivors to take action that they forget about healing, which looks different for everyone and is a non-linear journey. Some days I’m an awareness warrior, and others I struggle with triggers.

On February 27th, 2017, I was triggered by a Facebook friend sharing Steven’s #HurtBae parody. I made sure to delete him from all social media to prevent this, but had forgotten how many mutual friends we had who didn’t know better. My stomach felt like it could drop out of my body, all because I had experienced this trauma and could be re-traumatized at any given time. I felt like I had to do something, even if I didn’t tell yet. In October of 2017, I donated my 25th birthday to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). It was so empowering to lend my voice and resources to survivors, but I would soon realize that they weren’t enough.

My second big trigger sparked a particularly bad spiral. On May 22nd, 2018, Chris unexpectedly reposted a photo of Steven with a woman. I decided to confront my trauma head-on by looking up his YouTube and Instagram. I thought I would finally look my attacker in the face and be shocked no more. His YouTube was full of videos in which he was the sexual aggressor and the receiver of sexual attention, as if it was ripped straight out of the toxic masculinity handbook. His Instagram legitimized a romantic relationship with this woman from the photo. All I could think about was that so many people didn’t know what he’d done. This young lady, whose own website spoke of women’s empowerment, had no clue who was riding her coattail. I felt angry, sick, and utterly powerless to help myself or anyone else.

I wrote out my feelings on my Tumblr blog. Briana sent me the Aura app to meditate. My line sisters gave me words of encouragement and scriptures. They reminded me that rape culture was what made processing my feelings and healing so complicated. It counts on survivors’ silence. Could I share my truth without going into an emotional breakdown, knowing that I would be publicly attacked? Would sharing the truth help or hurt my fellow survivors? Could I afford to suffer in silence any longer?

There are many reasons that survivors don’t speak up, and all of them have crossed my mind. Sexual violence destroys our sense of normalcy and trust. It ripples out to everyone around us. It makes us feel wrong for calling attention to who wronged us, especially if it was someone we knew and trusted. Chances are, you know a survivor, even if they haven’t told you.

After deep thought, I decided I was as ready as I’d ever be. It was time to speak the truth. 

CONCLUSION

So for my own freedom, healing, and peace, here it is.

My fellow survivors, I hope you know that you’re not alone and that healing is possible. For people who look perpetrators of sexual violence in the face at church, school, and the family cookout, know that these people aren’t worth protecting just to maintain the quiet in our lives. Educating ourselves and others, as well as holding one another accountable, means that we will create a safer world for everyone in it, where consensual sex in all its circumstances is the norm.