1 in 4 North American women will experience rape or sexual assault during their lifetime ¹
Rape, sexual assault, closely linked to eating disorders²
The minimization and denial of trauma is nothing new, and people working with individuals who have been sexually abused or assaulted know this from sad experience. I was sexually assaulted in the fall of 1966, but it took me almost forty years to confront what had happened.
In the interim, if it came to mind at all, I’d simply brush it off as too embarrassing and inconsequential. As a Gestalt psychotherapist, I know we don’t become ready to deal with something until other, seemingly unrelated experiences have been more fully processed.
Here’s what happened in November 1966. I know the weather was cold since I wore my long black winter coat with the fur collar. As l got off the bus and began the two-block walk home, I felt some foreboding. It was a dark and stormy night. (And yes, I’ve wanted to write that corny line for a long time.) But it really was. No moon, no stars. Only a glimpse of thick, shadowy cloud shapes hovering across a darkened sky. The wind howled as it tossed odd bits of litter and loose leaves into the air. And blew drops of rain mixed with snow into my face.
As I turned the corner onto my street, I spotted a man following slightly behind on the other side. Medium height and build. Shoulder-length dark hair. Dark pants and a black leather bomber jacket. I decided to ignore him.
I didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings
Here’s the crazy part. Instead of speeding up and walking more quickly to my house at the end of the block (like they teach in any decent self-defence class), I actually slowed down. I began to balance on the cement curb lining the road, carefully placing one foot directly in front of the other, as if measuring the curb by foot-lengths. I didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings. (I sigh even now as I write this.) I didn’t want him to think I was afraid of him or worried about him (which I was). And I didn’t want him to think I saw him as a creep (which I did, and he was).
I didn’t want him to think I was concerned he might attack or rape me
And here’s the kicker. I didn’t want him to think I was concerned he might attack or rape me, because I was too fatandugly to be raped. Yes, that’s what I believed. I saw rape as a sexual offence, a view held by much of 1960s society. And given that I was fatandugly, especially after regaining a ton of weight after a very successful diet, I believed no one would want to touch me or have anything to do with me sexually, including rape. To manage my fear, I softly sang an old Disney tune:
“Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect. And whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect, I’m afraid.”
The punchline is at the end of the verse. “For when I fool, the people I see, I fool myself as well.” Message received: don’t show your fear — pretend. I was pretty good at pretending. This also fit right in with my mother’s approach, whenever feeling scared came up. She’d say, “Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to be afraid of!” Lesson: don’t trust your feelings. Don’t trust your god-given intuition and evolution’s instinctive gift.
So I dawdled, hummed and balanced my way along the curb. The guy suddenly ducked into a driveway across the street, headed towards the back of one of the residences. Whew! He was gone. Again, instead of picking up the pace and hurrying home past the few remaining houses, I continued my unafraid act.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt a hand from behind reach across the right side of my face, covering my mouth. For an instant, I thought it was my old friend Jerry playing a “guess who” joke. But in a flash, I knew it wasn’t Jerry as the hand yanked my head backward, and the rest of me with it. As I was pulled back, I felt another hand grasping under my coat, roughly moving up my legs, fingers stretched out and reaching to get inside me. By this time, I’d started screeching. I heard strange noises come out of my mouth.
Still shrieking, I fell all the way back until I hit my head on the curb. The guy’s hand was still grappling under my coat, poking and prodding. But he was having a lot of trouble because I wore the ultimate anti-rape protection: several heavily elasticized panty-girdles (which kept my excess layers of fat contained and restrained). He’d gone as far as he could, and had given it the old college try, but with all the noise I was making, he took off quickly into the night.
I managed to stand up, quite shaky but still screaming. In aftershock, I shrieked my way to the side entrance and the relative safety of my little basement apartment.
That night, two young male officers sat in my wood-paneled basement room asking questions. I felt as if I was making a big production out of nothing. After all, the guy didn’t rape me, so what was the big deal? I imagined the police might wonder why anyone would want to rape someone like me in the first place. Maybe the pervert realized how fatandugly I was and changed his mind.
The officers asked me to describe exactly what happened. And I did. Except I left out the part about the panty-girdles. I’d rather have died than tell them that. And I didn’t mention how I dawdled home, an aspect that bothered me. Because in my mind, my slowness made me partly responsible for the attack. I should have hurried. That seems like such an absurd thought now, but back then, that’s how I saw things.
After the police left, I phoned a woman from the Toronto ad agency where I semi-functioned as a junior clerk typist. She was one of the people who deigned to speak to me, albeit with somewhat benevolent condescension. I told her what happened, only this time I mentioned the girdles. She laughed, which encouraged me to develop the funny side of the story. So I said all the guy did was goose me.
When I got off the phone, I binged my brains out for days on end, ravenously devouring whatever I could find to eat. This is how I managed to minimize and take the blame for a traumatic experience, turning it into a self-demeaning, humiliating episode best forgotten as quickly as possible. With the help of food, my drug of choice.
One more thing. During the assault and my loud screeching, no one on my street opened a door to see what the noise was about. I soon found another little basement apartment.
¹ SexAssault.ca link
² Trauma, Sexual Assault and Eating Disorders, National Eating Disorder Association NEDA