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This is how it feels to survive

| Monday, November 8, 2021

Editor’s note: This Letter includes discussions of sexual abuse and violence. A list of sexual assault reporting options and on-campus resources can be found on the Notre DameSaint Mary’s and Holy Cross websites. Additionally, per our Viewpoint policy, The Observer does not typically accept anonymous submissions. An exception was made in this case, owing to recent events and the importance of the Letter’s content to the campus conversation surrounding sexual assault.

I remember the exact moment when I lost a part of myself.

I was laying in the hospital bed, in a hastily fastened hospital gown, my clothes in a clear evidence bag. The lights were swimming above me, popping in and out of my vision. There was a nurse in the room, and I remember her pushing me on my side. A camera flash went off next to my eyes, momentarily stunning me, and I could only stare at the wall in front of me, an awfully dreary beige. I was so exhausted, and yet I knew right then and there that this day would stand as one of the worst in my memory. I didn’t know, however, how lost in the world I would feel afterward. 

In the past two months at Notre Dame, we have had seven reports of sex-related crimes, three occurring on one night. I remember reading the NDPD emails with a knife in my stomach, remembering what it felt like to lay in the hospital alone as they likely did, being probed and poked like a lab specimen, or to sit in front of a detective, trying their best to create a picture of their assaulter. To feel completely worthless. To know I’d hit rock bottom.

I was brand-spanking-new to the ND community; I’d only just gotten my matriculation medallion that week. Everything was so new and beautiful and sparkling bright. I was so excited for college; I was convinced it would be my happiest time. I’d read everything about ND I could get my hands on; I’d spent hours watching college-themed YouTube videos and picking my dorm decor. Earlier in the week, I’d attended the first-years’ Welcome Mass. I had never been to campus before, let alone the stadium, and I looked out at it with wonder from me and my family’s assigned seats, in a new dress I’d bought just for it. I was so happy and so proud of myself.

What no one tells you about sexual assault is the pure hatred you feel inside afterward. I hated the way I looked. I wanted nothing more than to scrape every layer of my skin off, to surgically alter my whole body, to rip my soul out with pliers and gut myself clean. I hated her. I hated the her that wouldn’t let go, that let men use her to feel in control again. I hated myself most on Valentines’ Day. I wanted the men in my life to kiss me because they meant it, not because they thought it would lead to more. I hid it all, because I never wanted anyone to know exactly how much I hurt inside. 

I hated men, too, because they all looked just like him. I hated the way they looked at me, like I was prime rib at Christmas dinner. I hated the way they always tried to touch me, make passes at me. If I let them touch me, it was to remind myself that I could reinvent what it meant to own my own body, to live within my body. I hated my body and soul with every inch of myself, and yet I so desperately wanted to control it. I cried afterward, when they fell asleep. I sobbed for the grief I felt for myself, for the me that was now me that I never wanted. 

I listened to them talk about other women. I heard them rip apart them too, tell each other who they thought was hot, who had the biggest ass, who was the most f*ckable. I heard them call women sl*ts and b*tches and wh*res, anything they could think of to degrade them. I watched them spread photos of desired women around their little groups, so they too could look at the meat the others had so gracefully offered up for consumption. I was disgusted at them all. I saw them as predators, waiting at any minute to snatch me up and devour me. I was truly afraid of them.

It took me so long to go to therapy. I was scared to tell someone else how much it had hurt, how deep my pain ran through me. It took so much emotional labor to sit and explore the way my assault had affected me. It took me so long to begin to trust anyone else again, to trust men again or to look in the mirror and really see myself whole again. Despite the growth I have experienced, I know that the experience will stay with me forever. My view of myself and others is permanently changed, and I have a bitterness buried deep inside me that bubbles up every time I read a new story of sexual assault.

26.4% of all female undergraduates and 9.7% of graduate female students will experience sexual assault or rape. One in three women will experience it at some point in their life.  All of those women, not just me, will feel the same pain and horror. They will wonder why it was them. Why anyone allowed it to happen. Why they reported it, or why they didn’t. They will have questions without answers and suffer in silence. And when they report it, the system will fail them. Only two rapists out of every 100 will ever see the inside of a cell. 

It is time we as a community united behind the survivors. We will never change the reports if we do not change the culture. I know stories like mine are painful to read, but that pain is necessary. Nothing will ever be done about sexual assault unless those with the power to stop it feel a personal drive to, and nothing will ever be done to encourage reporting unless we create an environment that empowers survivors rather than predators. Among college-age female students, only about 20% report their assault to police or their university, and 20% of non-reporters did not take action because they feared retaliation. It is time for us to speak up about sexual assault. 

Notre Dame’s mission statement says, “The aim [of Notre Dame] is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” The key word here is “human solidarity.” To end rape culture here and everywhere, the Notre Dame community must come together in solidarity. 

To Notre Dame’s survivors of rape and sexual assault: I love you. I believe in you. Please know that you are so brave. You are working so hard, and I know how much it hurts. I know how hard it is to keep going, and I know that some days it feels impossible. But you can’t give up. You can’t let them win. You will be better than them, and you will emerge greater and brighter than before. It was never your fault; it is theirs. You are so beautiful. You are worthy of everything good the world could give you. You are so incredibly loved, and you are worth time, effort, love and care. I am proud of you.

To the other Notre Dame students, faculty, alumni and staff: I will admit something greater to you than anything else I have said: I am scared. I am scared of the publication of this piece. I am afraid of the way people will look at me; I am afraid of what they will say. I know some of them will say I wrote this for attention. The thing is, they’re right, but the attention is not supposed to be solely on me. It is supposed to be about others just like me, and the stories we all could tell. I hope that by sharing my story with you all, it will inspire others to care about the others who can’t or are scared to tell theirs. My story isn’t any more special than theirs, and that’s the point of telling you my story. What is special about my story is that you know who wrote it. You know exactly who in your life has been hurt, who experienced it all. You know it is real. If you know someone else with a story like mine, please ask them if they are okay. Remind them that you love and care for them, so they too do not lose themselves. 


Nov. 7

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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