Trigger Warning: This essay mentions rape.
By Lynn K Hall
I wasn’t afraid, but I should have been. I was at the start line of an ultra-marathon, and before me lay 65 miles of Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains. I’d have 24 hours to cover them, to summit multiple peaks, to traverse long stretches of alpine ridges high above trees. If we were lucky, we wouldn’t hit thunderstorms. There wouldn’t be cheering crowds like found alongside a road marathon, but instead moose, elk, bears, or mountain lions. The race director warned us to pay attention to the pink flags marking the course which may or may not follow obvious trails. A missed turn could result in being lost miles from a nearest road without cell reception, maybe in the dark and frigid night.
I squished in a gaggle of runners as the skyline above the far mountains lightened to navy blue. Some breathed warmth into their curled fingers. Others re-organized their gear and food in their running vests. I crossed my arms across my chest and squeezed my biceps. I was numb. Apathetic. I smiled and chatted with my friends but the excitement was an act. I didn’t care about the race. I didn’t have room in my psyche to worry about mountain lions, lightning, or hypothermia.
Ultra-marathons are Rorschach tests. Tribulations in the mountains’ extreme environments – the exhaustion and vulnerability – elicit a depth of feelings not typically dwelled upon by your consciousness. The emptiness of miles upon miles becomes the canvas on which you project your deepest state of mind.
Nobody signs up for a 65-mile race because they want it to be easy.
I had woken up at two a.m. that morning, thoughts unstoppable. I wasn’t dwelling on the race. I was perseverating on my book, a memoir, a hypothetical, pie-in-the-sky dream I’d been chasing for the better part of a decade. It was a story of having been sexually abused as a teenager and raped again while a cadet at the Air Force Academy. The story contained many heroes, but most notably, it was a testimony brimming with accusations. Against multiple perpetrators. Against the institutions which protected them. Against the doctor who failed me. Against the squadron that ostracized me and told me they’d let me die in combat. Against the family members who didn’t believe me.
My memoir was an admission of my weaknesses. My failures to protect myself, to help myself, to be strong.
After years of writing and re-writing, I had a draft I was proud of. I had landed a New York literary agent who told me my memoir was wonderful. I was one publisher’s “yes” away from a book deal.
Years ago I had lost my dream of becoming an Air Force pilot, but now I had a new dream, a better dream, and one “yes” would transform that dream into a reality.
Brav*er*y /brey-vuh-ree/ n. Courageous behavior or character
Cou*rage /kerij/ n. The quality of mind or spirt that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear
A mile into the race, a man’s voice causes me to lift my head from my shoes. “Hey!” Alan shouts. “I didn’t know you’d be here.” Alan is a friend I only know from the trail. He’s far stronger; he runs at least three or four 100-mile ultra-marathons every summer. For a while we jog together. The path is still wide and nearly level, but we go slowly, conserving for the hours to come.
“How was Hardrock?” I ask. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since the notoriously brutal 101-mile race through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. I’ve never attempted a 100, but I will soon, and I dream of eventually tackling Hardrock too. So I want to know the details of the race as much as Alan wants to recount them. He launches into a two-mile monologue, passion radiating from his voice. His energy awakens me. As he talks, I look at my surroundings for the first time. Two moose feast in the bog just below. The sun begins to lighten the tree tops. The vigor with which Alan talks about Hardrock pushes me up a 2,000-foot climb. The trees vanish at the top of the grass-covered mountain and the horizons open to reveal high peaks in every direction – some jagged, some mellow – valleys still dark with night, and slivers of snow hiding in crevasses. Everyone in the Conga Line stops, stares, becomes lost in the wonder.
At 20-years-old, I was hospitalized for the eighth, ninth, tenth time in two years. From the rape I had contracted a sexually transmitted virus, herpes, which went untreated and spread to the tissue of my brain. I would never fully recover.
In the Air Force Academy hospital, a doctor prepared to give me steroid injections in my neck. A chaplain watched from a chair several feet away. With a sheet, I hid my eyes from the blinding sunlight streaming through the windows. The doctor drove half a dozen syringes into my tender neck, lighting my skin ablaze. I unwittingly curled into the fetal position.
Once the doctor left, the chaplain scooted closer. In a voice that sounded far too kind he noted, “You aren’t brave.”
In a culture where strength and stoicism were everything, somehow in that moment I had failed. What was it I did? I hadn’t cried. I never cried. But did I let my face show the pain? Had I furrowed my eyebrows?
I shouldn’t have squeezed my own hand.
At mile nine, the trail heads up, but the elevation profile I have stenciled in marker on my arm says we are supposed to be running down. “We’re not supposed to be climbing,” I whine to the guy in front of me. The trail becomes rockier and the hiking slower. I think, “Fuck this.”
Then the trees thin and we cross into a basin. We’re in a shadow here but up above the sun strikes the dramatic cliffs of the 13,000-foot mountains. The lake we run by is perfectly still and reflects an image of the sunlit peaks. Ponderosa pine trees cover the tiny island in the center. The pain of the climb leaves me as soon as I focus on the magnificence. Without the climb, I wouldn’t have seen this secluded place. I think, “This is why I do this.”
At the far end of the lake there is a small group of people ringing cow bells. I don’t recognize them until I hear my name being shouted. “You’re doing awesome!” a friend says, and she hugs me.
The next time the trail steepens, I remember what came from this this last climb, this beauty and friendship. Without an ordeal, there can’t be a prize.
The rejections from editors at the publishing houses were duplicated Mad Libs:
“Lynn is ________ (brave, courageous, inspiring) and her story is ____________ (harrowing, compelling, powerful) but there isn’t a market for this book.”
Even if I could have, I wouldn’t care to argue with someone who reduced my memoir to a “harrowing story.”
Being called brave upset me as much as being marked not brave. The label felt like a command. If I was to go forward with a story some would consider shameful – some would consider an overshare – I was to be stoic. I was not to force others to witness my pain anywhere else than on the page.
Invariably when an author shares a particularly raw account, a reader will call it brave. The response has a way of pointing out the rarity of such vulnerability. When I hear, “brave,” sometimes I hear, “I wouldn’t have shared that if I were you.” In this way, “brave” reinforces social expectation that we keep certain types of stories to ourselves. “Brave” works against the movement to share stories of sexual abuse without a stigma.
Brave, Google proclaims, is to be without fear.
Would the editors still call me brave if they knew I once wrote an entire essay enumerating the reasons publishing my memoir would be bad for me? Would they call me brave if they knew about my insomnia? Or that some days I was so paralyzed by terror I couldn’t move from my couch?
The long-awaited email from my agent came. An editor from the most ideal publishing house was interested. I spoke on the phone with her on a Friday. She was kind, smart, and didn’t use the word “brave.” She said she was enthralled with my story. She wanted it. In a few weeks she’d present the proposal to her team. If they agreed on the project’s merits, I’d get my book deal.
I would be the first writer to place a memoir about military sexual assault with a publisher.
At mile 21, I summit the course high point, a mountain 11,852 feet above sea level. I exchange names with the woman I’ve stayed with for a few hours. Together we run a two-mile, rolling, grassy alpine ridge. I turn around and take a picture of Alexis, her wide smile, her arms outstretched. She’s basking in the splendor. Her passion is contagious just like Alan’s.
When you are trying to secure a book deal, you agree to all publicity opportunities, so I said “yes” to an interview which would air on cable TV.
The other women I knew from the Air Force Academy who had also been raped had long since stopped speaking to media. In 2003, their interviews instigated what was at that time the worst scandal ever faced by the military. After their appearance on Oprah, they received so many death threats a few of them hid. One of my friends legally changed her name – twice. I didn’t have the benefit of naiveté. I knew what happened to women who went up against the Air Force Academy.
During the interview, my hands and knees trembled. Between questions, I kept my fingers tucked under my thighs.
On the plane ride home that night, the flight attendant asked if I wanted a beverage. We hadn’t even left the gate yet. I looked at the other first-class passengers and pointed to someone’s glass of white wine. I wasn’t supposed to drink. Because of damage to my digestive system brought about by the infection, I could only indulge in one stomach-punishing activity in a short time period: ultra-running or alcohol. I was days from the 65-mile race in the Never Summer mountains. I thought, “Fuck it.”
I downed the glass of wine before we taxied to the runway. Woozy, I tucked my knees into my chest and wrapped my arms around my legs, squeezing my own hands.
What if the dream publisher said no?
What if they said yes?
At mile 30, I realize I’ve made a grave mistake. I left the aid station a mile back with only a liter of water. I should be carrying two at least. My partner, Nick, who had met me with fresh shoes, Chipotle, and kisses, asked me twice if I was sure one liter was all I needed, but I had waved him off.
It’s mid-afternoon now, and I’m climbing a mountain that points me straight into the glaring sun, its intensity unforgiving at this altitude. These are the Never Summer Mountains, but it sure feels like July. I’m covered in salt and my mouth becomes dry and sticky. I have nine more miles and two big climbs to the next aid station. Which is worse: stretching out my water to last or quenching my thirst with the remaining water immediately? I limit myself to a sip every several minutes. It takes all my self-control not to stick my head in a creek and drink until my belly is full. Giardia and parasites are real risks, worthy of fear.
The only part of me that isn’t parched is my feet. I’ve tromped through so much mud my brand new shoes were drenched within a mile. My feet have been wet all day. Later I’ll count 16 blisters.
I’m only half way to the finish line. I can already anticipate how tonight, after the sun sets, it will be so cold I’ll wish on anything that I could be back in this heat.
I can’t keep running. I can’t even keep walking. I sit on a log in the shade, think better of it, and peel myself up, only to go only two more minutes before sitting again. I don’t think “I can’t make it.” I don’t have a choice but to make it. There’s no way to call for help, no helicopter to rescue me. I will make it.
“Are you okay?” a man asks as he approaches. A woman is right behind him. I’m sitting on pine needles. They’re the only runners I’ve seen for a while. I nod, force myself to stand, and follow the woman’s heels. We climb, climb, climb to the tundra where the trees vanish again. I don’t look up.
I told a friend about my book publishing fears: harassment, threats, retaliation. Those were possibilities which would only come true if my book was a success, but I had worries even if it wasn’t. I worried about my acquaintances having access to such a vulnerable account. I wondered if, for the rest of my life, I’d regret future contacts being able to read it. Most of all I was afraid those I thought supported me would be displeased by my opinions. What if they turned on me?
“You’ll just have to grow thicker skin,” she answered.
When you train 40, 50, 70 miles in a week, the skin on the balls of your feet and your heels grow into thick callouses. Layers upon layers of dead, unfeeling skin. If the callouses get too thick, the dead skin will peel off in sheets. The skin underneath is red, raw, underdeveloped, far more sensitive than if the callouses had never formed. To grow thick skin is to risk losing all of your protection entirely. .
At mile 35, my throat is so dry I can hardly swallow. I crest the pass behind the couple and we head down. Over the crunching of their feet slamming into rock, I hear voices. Just as we reenter the forest, I see the aid station – three women chatting by a vat of water. The water isn’t a mirage. This aid station is a bonus; the race director hadn’t promised it to us because he couldn’t be sure he’d find volunteers generous enough to hike this far and then hand pump and filter water from the alpine lake.
I sit on a boulder while a volunteer refills my flasks. I guzzle the cold water and it immediately cools my throat and stomach. I tell them they’re life savers, but they already know; they’re ultra-runners too.
I head down the trail, running again. I’m alone but glad for it for now. In a few miles I’ll pick up a pacer, a friend who accompanies me to help me stay safe in the dark. I coach myself not to think about those 30 miles I have remaining, or what it will be like to move through these mountains in the dead of night.
Bad things will come. In this race and with my memoir. Good will come too. It’s impossible to feel one extreme without immersing yourself in the other.
In a valley below, I run a smooth trail through aspens. They smell fresh from a rain. Without warning, I stop, sit in the middle of the trail, and sob. The tears feel like they came from nowhere. I overflow with a thousand contradictory feelings. I’m tired. I’m energized. I’m afraid. I’m undaunted. I’m angry. I’m grateful. I’m triumphant. I’m proud. I’m so very proud.
There are many runners in front of me on the trail, a few still behind me, and even more who will drop instead of reaching the finish line. But in my book publishing process, I’m creating my own path, one I will journey alone. There are many writers who have risked vulnerable disclosures before me; I channel them often. But no one who has published a memoir about rape in the military. No one who has set this bravery standard any higher.
So I will fucking cry if I want to.
If being brave means being without fear, then I don’t want to be brave. I don’t want thick skin. I want to be the kind of person who sporadically sobs on the side of a trail. Who feels. I want to be the kind of person who sometimes holds her own hand.
Lynn’s memoir is forthcoming from Beacon Press in the spring of 2017. Her writing has previously appeared in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, The Sexual Assault Report, and Hippocampus Magazine. She’d love to connect with you via twitter (@LynnKHall) or on her blog (www.lynnkhall.com).