Warning: This post is about the author’s experience with sexual assault, and may contain triggers for other survivors. Please read with discretion. Additionally, this story is one of public record.
There’s a red mark on my left arm, just north of my elbow. The difference in color isn’t too drastic, but unfortunately it’s noticeable – though it can be covered up fairly nicely with a meticulous spray tan. Every now and then, someone will ask me what happened to my arm, and in the interest of saving time from what is a very long story, I say what everyone says.
“Oh, I fell down the stairs.”
And they get it. And they move on.
I’ve been speaking this unique code for ten years now. Ten years today.
It happened on February 28. I remember this, because for the most part, I wish that it happened on February 29. Then, I would only have to remember it every four years, instead of annually. But nevertheless, since it happened, the day has come and gone ten times. Each year is different, but the memory is the same.
We had been together, on and off, for about a year and a half. When you’re in college, that’s basically an eternity. I met him—which is what I call him, as I refuse to say his name—one night at a fraternity party I probably shouldn’t have been at in the first place considering the fact I was a senior in high school. Nevertheless, I was, and the second he looked my way, I was hooked.
In many ways, he was the ideal boyfriend. My friends loved him. My family loved him. I loved him. He was awesome. He skipped his formal pledging ceremony to be my date for my last homecoming. The day of my eighteenth birthday, he called me at 7am to tell me he was on his way to my house to make me breakfast. The pancakes were that awesome, my mom looked the other way when I decided to skip school that day to hang out with him.
“Well, I guess you ARE an adult now,” she said.
He was amazing, and when I finally got to University of New Mexico, and pledged Kappa, I thought things would be even more perfect. They were for a while, and we spent many nights sitting on the swing on the front porch of my sorority house, laughing in the breeze. But his senior year became demanding, and I was just trying to learn how to swim in a very big pond.
I was young. I was naïve. And on Halloween in 2002, I walked in on him cheating on me. That was the end of things for a while, obviously. I took a Sig Ep to fall formal, and spent Christmas break focusing on the Atkins diet in preparation for national pageant competition. But once school was back in session for the spring semester, he started calling again.
We hung out on a few occasions, and tried to figure out what we were going to do. He was graduating in May, and presumably heading to medical school, and I was going to be heading to Nationals. We both had pretty big goals, though his were admittedly more important. But we tried not to worry about it too much, and that Valentine’s Day, we snuggled and watched Sweet Home Alabama like everything was fine.
Then came February 28.
He called late that night, at around 1am. “I want to see you,” he said.
“I’m coming over to get you, we need to talk.”
“Yes, now. Please?”
I crawled out of bed and changed into jeans and a University of New Mexico baseball tee-shirt. I had my own room that semester, so there was no one to tell that I was leaving. Everyone on my floor was asleep. For a split second as I my door closed on the way out, I had the brief thought to write where I was going on my whiteboard.
Later, a detective would stand in the living room of my sorority house, and ask me why I even went with him that night in the first place.
“Because I didn’t have a reason not to,” I replied.
Needless to say, I didn’t write on the board. I figured that I’d be safe with him, and that in the event of say, a late-night fire drill, when I didn’t answer when called, everyone would have just naturally have assumed that we had gotten back together, and that I was down the street.
I locked the door, and looked down at my key ring. Earlier that day, I had registered for a class on Kirtland Air Force Base, where a military police officer confiscated my pepper spray. My father had given it to me in preparation for college to fend off the masked men who would inevitably be hiding behind bushes on campus, but apparently I wasn’t allowed to have it on a military base. But it didn’t matter. I felt safe at UNM, and certainly with him.
I dashed downstairs where his car was waiting. I opened the door and climbed inside.
He didn’t say anything to me. He didn’t even look at me. He drove across the street—in the wrong direction down a one way —to his fraternity house. It was late, and there wasn’t any traffic, so I didn’t think it was that big of an issue. But when we got to his fraternity house, he parked his car in the back of the house.
That was the moment I knew something was wrong—his room was the first one inside the front door.
“Why are you parking back here?”
He wouldn’t answer me.
At this point, I should have just left. I should have demanded he take me home, or walked back on my own. I still, to this day, wonder what I could have done differently that night. I have been told, over and over again, that it wasn’t my fault, but I will always walk the line between actually being a victim, and wanting to take accountability of my own behavior.
He opened the basement door, and I stepped inside only to be met with a wall of doubt. It wasn’t just a gut feeling, it was an overwhelming, heavy, force of resistance that knocked the breath right out of me. I was warm, and flushed, and absolutely terrified. And despite every physical, or even paranormal, entity pulling me back, I let him lead me up the stairs and to his room.
When I heard the door lock behind me, I knew I was done. I was trapped in the proverbial “second location.”
“Sit down,” he muttered, the first words he had said since picking me up.
“No. I want to go home.”
“Sweetie, just come sit down.” He creepily reached for my arm, and pulled me toward the bed. I fought back.
“We can talk tomorrow, just take me back.”
He pulled harder, and I found myself sitting next to him, in tears. I thought for sure he’d see how upset I was and stop being such an asshole, but that didn’t happen. Then I thought “No” would stop him, but that didn’t happen either. And when I tried to fight back, that’s when he grabbed my arms and forced me.
That’s how I got the mark.
Because he grabbed me so hard that morning, the bruise never completely healed.
After that, I completely shut down. I went completely numb. You’d think my self-defense training would have kicked in.
Punch him there.
Kick him there.
And yet, I couldn’t do anything. I was paralyzed in my own shock.
I don’t remember too much about what specifically took place after that, because my mind wandered someplace else. But I do remember a brief moment when I looked in his eyes. The warmth, charismatic, loving person I had known was gone. It was almost as if he had been possessed, because I wasn’t looking at him anymore.
It was the only time in my entire life that I stared straight into pure evil.
He took me home when the sun came up. We drove in silence.
I went upstairs to my room, climbed into bed, and didn’t come out for a very, very long time as I contemplated what it was that had just happened. I do believe I stayed in my room for pretty much the whole weekend.
Sunday, I got out of the shower, wrapped myself in a towel, and was walking back to my room when one of my sorority sisters saw me.
“What the HELL happened to your arm?”
I just looked at her. I started to tear up.
“Seriously, what happened?”
She tried to hug me, but I cowered away. That’s when she knew.
“I’m going to fucking kill him.” She marched out of the bathroom and came back with another one of our sisters who had incidentally—thank God—started working at the Rape Crisis Center as an advocate. She saw my arm.
“Oh my god.”
I started crying again.
“Gibby, we need to take you to the hospital.”
“No, no, please, don’t. I’m okay.”
“No, you’re not okay. He physically hurt you.”
“But if we go do that, he’s going to get arrested, and he’s not going to get into medical school.”
“Well, I’m going to leave the reporting up to you, but I think we should at least go and get this on record. Then you can decide if you want to press charges later.”
Before I knew it, we were sitting in an emergency room waiting for a SANE nurse.
“Are you going to tell your parents?” my sister asked.
“Are you fucking kidding? Hell no. My mom’s worried enough about my math grades.”
The nurse finally came out. “We’re ready for you.”
Now, I have gone through many humiliating experiences in my life, but having to go through an actual rape examination is the absolute worst. Literally being evidence for an actual criminal investigation isn’t fun. I sat there as a stranger took pictures of my physical injuries thinking my glittered collegiate life had gone from Legally Blonde to an episode of Law & Order.
I told the hospital I wasn’t going to report the case, and they respected that.
I didn’t go to school again that Monday, nor did I leave my room since word was starting to make its way through the house. Around 5pm, my brother called me, as I was skipping formal dinner. I tried my best not to tell him what had happened, but he knew something was wrong.
“Tell me, I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
I swear to God, it was no more than 15 minutes after I got off the phone with my brother, the house mom was knocking on my door.
“Your father and brother are downstairs.”
I stumbled down the stairs and made my way to the foyer. I could see the lights flashing outside.
“I’m taking you to the police station, NOW.”
“Dad, you can’t, this is going to ruin everything.”
“I don’t care. And if you’d like to be wearing shoes at the police station—which I highly encourage—I suggest you go put some on. Otherwise, I’m taking you like this.”
My brother just kept looking at the ground. But he had been crying.
Then my Dad caught a glimpse on the bruise on my arm.
“Did he do that to you?!”
I just sat there.
“Get in the car. NOW.”
The house mom offered to go up and get me some flip flops, which she did as I walked to my Dad’s squad car praying that he had somehow, in the panic, forgotten his gun. We ran code down Greek Row and to the campus police station.
They had been waiting for me.
A nice female officer took me into a room and asked me to tell her what happened. I told her the whole story over the course of what felt like hours. And then I said, “But I don’t want to press charges.”
“That’s why we’re going to.”
Our relationship started flashing before my eyes—the first night we met, our first date, our first kiss, our first Christmas, that basketball game… —much like I imagine it does right before you die. Everything was over.
Including our lives.
“We have an obligation.”
And that was it. A criminal investigation was launched the next day. With warrants. And no contact orders. And a moron of a detective who made me feel like I had been asking for it.
“Well had you had sex with him before?”
“What do you think?”
The media caught wind of the situation and before I knew it news stations were camped out on the street broadcasting live. Then the campus paper covered it. Then EVERYONE knew there had been an incident.
And as soon as he was named, EVERYONE knew I was the victim.
And that’s when it got really bad.
I stopped going to class that semester because everyone talked about me during class. Most of the time they acted like I couldn’t hear them. “Oh, yeah, that’s the bitch who accused him of rape,” “She’s probably trying to get back at him because they broke up,” “She’s doing it for attention, there’s no way he would do something like that.”
Right. Because the only way I could make myself popular at the University of New Mexico—as a public relations student, mind you—was to accuse someone of sexual assault.
When May came, I couldn’t have been happier to see him graduate. Even though I was amazed he wasn’t expelled. Of course, the bigger issue was my grades—related to my lack of attendance and I was put on notice that I was losing my scholarship.
I tried petitioning to have it reinstated based on the situation, but my petition was denied. I spent the summer taking classes to bring my GPA back up high enough to have it reinstated, which—miraculously—I was able to do.
But in the midst of that, my Dad and I traveled up to Pennsylvania, returning to the sleepy college town that had been our home, and met with the admissions office to talk about a transfer.
I wasn’t happy about it. Indiana University of Pennsylvania did not have a Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter, and now that I was initiated, I wasn’t eligible to join another house. I’d have to spend the rest of my collegiate experience as a GDI (God Damn Independent, for those of you outside the Greek system). Additionally, I was in the middle of my reign as Miss Teen New Mexico—not a huge deal, but something I had worked for years to achieve. Moving in the middle of it just seemed so incredibly unfair.
After talking about it with my parents for many weeks, we finally decided that it was probably best to stay at UNM, which I did. I regretted it in August when I learned he had been readmitted to graduate school, and would be back on campus.
So, that was fun to deal with.
In the spring of 2004, I testified in front of a grand jury about what happened on that night ten years ago, while my family and about 30 Kappas waited outside. He was indicted on felony charges and arraigned shortly after. We were set for trial.
Until I got a nice little letter from Socorro County informing me that my case had been moved (apparently my father being a police officer in Albuquerque was a “conflict of interest”), and that the charges were being dropped due to a lack of evidence.
“What do you mean a lack of evidence?” I asked the District Attorney.
“Well, the DNA evidence was inconclusive,” he said. I knew that would happen, since I had waited three days to get the evidence collected. “And without that, there’s nothing.”
“But what about the pictures?”
“We don’t have those.”
“Umm, excuse me?”
Right about this time, the Albuquerque Police Department had a scandal with their evidence room not being properly organized. My DNA evidence had immediately gone to the state crime lab after it was collected, but everything else in the kit apparently went to APD.
And it got lost.
Long story short, no one EVER found the rest of my rape kit. The case against my ex-boyfriend was dropped. And he was never prosecuted. Which means he was never convicted.
So, for the past ten years, I’ve had to find closure without finding justice.
Which has been hard.
But over the past decade, I’ve became really involved in the fight against sexual assault. I just figured that since everyone was talking about me anyway, I might as well have been a part of that discussion. I have told this story to groups around the country, and to media outlets that range from Marie Claire to Cosmopolitan and the Washington Post. I have been involved in efforts to pass legislation to end the backlog of untested rape kits, to require DNA submission for felony arrests, and to change policies on university campuses nationwide. Last year, through the help of the Rape and Incest National Network, I was able to share this story with the Vice President’s Office so that plans can be made on the federal level to address this issue that affects 1 in 4 women.
Being involved in advocacy for violence against women has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to use this experience to help others.
In the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about my desire to write, and to be so open about my life. But reflecting on this experience has helped me remember how that event shaped me, and the person I am because of it.
The truth is my life—my sex life, actually—was made very public when I was only 19 years old. And I learned that semester to have a very thick skin, and that the impressions of others are irrelevant when I know the truth. And I learned that I shouldn’t be afraid of my voice, but empowered by it.
There will always be results of that day that I can’t deal with. I still need Valium to go to the dentist—even for cleanings—because the act of being under that light is too reminiscent of that humiliating exam. At work, I can’t have my back to the door of my office. I get incredibly upset when people try to pass legislation or judgment on what constitutes “legitimate rape.”
But I’m proud of the progress I’ve made over this last decade, and what I’ve had to overcome throughout the course of it.
To this day, this tenth February 28th, there are still those people who believe it never happened. Worse, there are still people that think that it didn’t count because we had been in a relationship for so long, and the people who think I made it up.
I have tried to be forgiving, because there are times when I don’t even believe it happened myself.
But then again, I have the mark to prove it.
This post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog, Girl In Beta, and can be found here.