CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.
By Teri Carter
Monday afternoon, I got blackout drunk.
I did not intend to get blackout drunk. I did not intend to drink at all, but I emerged from my home office to see Beverly Young Nelson telling her Roy Moore story and holding up her high school yearbook.
I poured a glass of wine. It was 4:00 in the afternoon.
By 5:30, I’d re-watched Ms. Nelson’s presser several times, tossed the first bottle in the recycling bin and opened another. I don’t remember much after that. I vaguely remember breaking my wine glass and being pissed that my husband was trying to clean up the glass before my dogs, including our 4 month-old, black lab puppy, got into it and got hurt.
I remember my husband leaving for his school board meeting, angrily saying, “I’m afraid to leave you here by yourself, maybe I should stay home,” and me being defiant, belligerent. “Oh my god, I’m fine, go!” I remember being relieved to see his car pull out of the driveway so I could keep re-watching that press conference, and keep drinking.
Looking back, it was the way Ms. Nelson talked about her neck — the way she described Mr. Moore putting his hands on her head and her neck, the force and the fear she felt from him — trying to push her face into his crotch.
The same thing happened to me right after I turned 16. I did not tell a soul for 34 years.
I told on the weekend of my 50th birthday. I was on a trip with my high school girlfriends in Breckenridge, Colorado. We had been hiking on one of those perfect, sunny, spectacular summer days, having a great time laughing and our telling our same old stories the way old friends do.
Then, we were coming down the mountain in a gondola when one of the women mentioned his name. She was telling a joke. Everyone laughed, but I felt a wave of panic, an intense, physical wave like the kind you feel when you dream you’re falling, and it seemed like I was watching this scene from outside myself, from outside the gondola even, like I was dangling from the cables, struggling to hang on, altogether invisible to the women who’ve known me longest, and the best.
On the ten minute walk from the gondola to our condo, I played in my head what to say. I knew if I did not start talking, start telling, the instant we were inside, that fear would win. I would change my mind.
“Everybody grab a drink,” I half-heard myself saying. “I’ve got a story to tell you about him.”
There was a low, murmuring clatter as the women mixed their cocktails and gathered around the dining room table — my sheet-cake with its blue icing, our high school colors spelling out “Happy Birthday Teri!” as the centerpiece — but the only words I heard were, “Oh god, there’s a story.”
I sat separate from them, high on a counter stool, and stared into their horrified faces. I told every last detail and they told me what I’d always known: that it was a good thing I’d never told back then, because no one would have believed me.
Over the years I have listened to many friends tell their secrets, A woman whose father was an abusive horror when she was growing up, but was such a great grandfather to her kids that she can never tell her family lest she ruin him for them. A woman who grew up behind a literal white picket fence whose father often laughed while holding her mother at knifepoint or gunpoint. A man who told me he’d been raped repeatedly as a teen and preteen by his parish pastor, only to realize the same pastor was having an affair with his mother.
I have listened and I have felt shock and compassion and amazement. I have hugged them and cried with them and thanked them for trusting me with their stories, for being brave. And I have naively encouraged them to name names and tell their stories to the greater public — “Tell everybody! Expose the bastard!” — and been incredulous at their expressed regret in telling me, at their decision to go on maintaining their secrets.
What I know now is this: after I told, I only felt more guilt (no matter how unreasonable) and fear. Fear that the few I’d told would tell others and that I would be talked about with pity behind my back. That I would have to deal — like the women now accusing Judge Roy Moore — with the tsunami of repercussions that can come from telling.
I also know that telling does not equal healing.
Telling does not mean feeling better or lighter or relieved.
Telling is simply an additional burden to bear, an extra, overwhelming weight of being forever linked, publicly, by body and by name, to the person who abused you.
When I got home from my big birthday celebration in Breckenridge, I knew I had to tell one more person. My husband of 20 years. But unlike the long, detailed account I gave my childhood girlfriends, I only had enough energy left for the basics. “I have to tell you something,” I said, defeated. “I’ve been keeping a secret for 34 years. When I was 16, a man made me give him a blow job. I told my friends this weekend. He groomed me, I know now, for a good year before he did it, but still.”
I promised I would tell him the whole story later, but it’s been two years. Later may never come. And now feel guilty about that, too.
This additional guilt is what I feel every time I hear someone ask with rolling-eyed disbelief, “Why did she wait decades to tell this story?”
Thankfully, my husband came home early from the school board meeting. He found me passed out in my chair with the remote control still in my hand, cable news still playing Roy Moore stories on the TV, my dogs running wild through the house. He’d been worried, he told me the next morning, about the puppy, that I would either not have let him out and there would be a big mess in the house, or that I would have let him out in the dark, off-leash, and our new baby would be gone, forever lost.
I once spotted my abuser, 20 years later, at St. Louis airport baggage claim. I was watching the carousel go ‘round and ‘round; he was waiting in line at a nearby car rental counter; we locked eyes; I grabbed my bag and ran.
A few days later, I was sitting at my desk when his name appeared in my email box. “I got your email address from C__, and wanted to say hi. Was that you I saw the other day at the airport?”
I wrote back four words — never contact me again — and blocked his address.
I am not someone who gets blackout drunk at home in front of the TV, so I woke up both hungover and ashamed. Oh god, what I had I done last night? What had I said?
In my kitchen, I poured a cup of coffee and, with my back to my husband, said, “I’m sorry. I think me and wine need a vacation from each other.”
“It’s okay,” he said, leashing the puppy to take him outside. “It was that whole Roy Moore story, I know, don’t worry about it.”
“Still,” I said.
I heard the front door click shut, and through the window I watched my bouncing black lab puppy pulling and biting on his leash, twisting his head side to side, trying to break free.
I opened the recycle bin and spotted my forgotten, broken wine glass and, feeling the same falling wave I’d felt in the gondola, carefully shoved the biggest shards under an egg carton so I would never have to look at it again.
Teri Carter’s work can be found in The Washington Post, New York Times, the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper, and other publications.
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Dear Teri, I feel a cold stone in my gut, waves of knowing and of understanding. I’m sorry for the terrible weight of the experiences we have had to carry. The betrayal of our souls and selves is not ours to bear. And yet.
It’s amazing and yet not surprising to realize the reality of numbers of women who are shouldering this weight. A hard thing I find now is to wonder whether it will ever change. I find myself down a million rabbit holes listening to the public discussion. Thinking the way things are going is why women never say anything — it’s a never-fail trap. Say something and the violation begins again, and sometimes maybe even most of the time, feels worse than the original experience. I can somehow grapple with one person causing me pain, but when I find that the public at large will also betray me? What then?.
I worry and wonder these things for my now grown children, my grandchildren and any children yet to be born.
I have no answers. But I have told my stories. And I feel the weight still.
The memories of this shoved down and “forgotten” are rising.
I have been sober for almost 10 years and am being very careful to hold on to that as all these stories come out. Thank you for your bravery and excellent story.
Why didn’t we tell? No one would believe us OR nothing would happen to the men!
I was told 1) it was a dream (no, it was my uncle) 2) he is too important (my office was moved to another place in the office as they didn’t want to lose me 3) he is too important (I found another job and they were SO sad to see me leave 4) he is too important (I found another job and they were PISSED that I left) Other women complained and were fired, demoted, or otherwise “punished” for speaking up.
Why are women so unimportant that we can be mistreated but nothing EVER happens to the man??