When Nowhere Is Safe

When Nowhere Is Safe

When I was eight years old, I stopped sleeping.

As many times as I've tried to figure out what made me stop, I've never managed to put my finger on anything specific. I spent months sneaking out of my bed at night, when the rest of my family was asleep, and going to the TV room where I watched Nick at Night until it turned back to Nickelodeon. Mr. Wizard was my cue that the sun was on its way up, and that in an hour my father would wake up and rouse my me and my sister from our beds in the bedroom we shared.

I usually managed to grab about twenty minutes of sleep between the teaser for Mr. Wizard and my father throwing open my bedroom door and singing off-key show tunes at top volume. He was a tenor in a Barbershop Quartet, so he could really milk those horrible sharps at 7am. If I didn't watch sitcoms until dawn, I read. Stephen King, Bram Stoker, JRR Tolkien, Ray Bradbury. I read, and sometimes I wrote. I still have nearly every journal I ever filled, dated, filed, a catalog of my life from my childhood to the present.

At twelve years old, I stopped watching TV at night. Not entirely. It was the age of Liquid Television and Insomniac Music Theater, so my viewing options were infinitely more interesting. This was also when Comedy Central launched, and I watched my first stand-up specials during the infomercial hours- but only if it was particularly cold. Rain, wind, moonlit or starry nights, I walked.

I walked from my house to the Denny's a mile up the road, then back the other way to the Big House. I walked every winding lane in the neighborhood, up to the synagogue, the gas station, the middle school, downtown. I learned every street corner, every landmark, every rosebush and trampoline. I memorized the locations of my friends' houses, and on my walks I would often pick the choicest flowers from strangers' gardens and leave them on the doorsteps of people I cared about, for them to find when they left for school in the morning. I also learned where my bullies lived, where irritating neighbors lived, where my teachers lived. I learned which parking garages closed for the night, but where you could still climb the stairs to the top. I learned the sweet spots for the acoustics- not at the top of the stairs, but a flight below, where I would sing for hours and listen to the roundness of my arias reverberating in the air.

My favorite destinations were playgrounds. Once I arrived at a playground I would park myself on the swingset, and swing in the dark until the lightness of dropping through the air spread into my mind.

The world was mine from 11pm until 4am, a dark, vast, solitary playground. I would bring my journal and draw or write poetry or swing or sing. I swept through the city, long skirts flowing under my sweeping black cloak, and I felt free.

I was assaulted when I was fourteen, and my walks began to change. No matter how long I swung, the lightness inside my belly, the flutter of falling and rising, didn't empty me of my sadness or anger. I was already empty. When I went looking for freedom, what I found was fear.

At sixteen, I was flashed on one of those walks. Knowing the streets as well as I knew my own home, I walked straight into the police station. When they did nothing, I hurried home along the fastest, best-lit route. Not long after, I took my last walk through the neighborhood at night. I suffered my first crippling panic attack, and collapsed at the base of a huge oak tree. I had a friend with me on that walk, and he ran to my house to get my parents to retrieve me. A few weeks later I had a similar collapse while walking home from school.

At the time, I had no idea these were panic attacks. I thought I was dying. I hadn't told anyone about my assault, and the idea that they could be related didn't cross my mind.

When I moved to Chicago, the very center of the Chicago grid, I began walking again. Living at State and Madison in downtown Chicago, your whole neighborhood becomes silent after business hours. I walked to the lake, to the sculpture garden outside the Art Institute, to the river. Usually, I walked with friends. College students are notorious night owls, and none of us seemed concerned about the dangers of the city.

Until the evening I walked home a homeless man I'd seen on many of my night journeys began to follow me. I walked faster and faster as he gained on me, muttering under his breath. I barged through my dormitory doors and ran for the elevator, and the man followed. The security officer at the desk, himself a large man, stood aggressively as the man entered the building, and the man muttered incoherently again and left.

I moved to Lincoln Park, where the nightlife never stops. No matter where I walked, I was in a crowd. A drunk, hormone-fueled crowd.

I moved to Edgewater. I knew it was a shitty part of town (it's not anymore, it's great, I'd love to live there again), but still, I went on walks after the city went to sleep. I walked to and from open destinations, twenty-four-hour diners and grocery stores. I gave myself excuses to walk, if not to explore. Then one night I found myself on Hollywood Beach, unbeknownst to me a favorite location for streetwalking prostitutes, and as I realized I might have made a mistake two strange men began following me, even as I ran from the beach.

That was two months before I was assaulted again, in my own home. My assailant began stalking me, and my daytime walking ended. I took one more nighttime walk, to a therapist I wanted to see for my rape-related trauma. During our first session I told her I had been raped and wanted to talk about it, and she told me, "We don't talk about that. Tell me about your mom." I walked home, and did not wander the streets on my own at night again.

Until last night.

Last night I was so distraught, so upset, so agitated and frustrated, and I felt locked inside my own skin. Brett Kavanaugh is accused of participating in gang rapes now, along with assaulting two women individual in high school and college, and my brain didn't seem able to move outside of my own fear. PTSD is fun that way. You don't know exactly what's going to bring you back to that time and place, but it does.

Mike was amazing, at first. He has had twelve years of practice taking care of me when I'm in the throes of PTSD, and he's gotten very good at it. But then I asked him about justice for fraternities. You see, before we began dating, there was one thing that made me hesitant. He was in a fraternity, at a prestigious private university. Not Ivy League, but close.

Even before my first assault, I knew where the frat houses were in Ann Arbor. I never walked near them.

I asked my husband if he knew about any frats who did what the new claims say Kavanaugh and his friends did. He told me there was one fraternity where one of the brothers convinced his "girlfriend" to have sex with him in the library. While they were having sex, his frat brothers ran in and began photographing them. This is sexual assault, in fact, if the man who convinced the woman to go into that library hadn't already stopped, that was most likely rape. My husband told me some of the responsible partied went on academic suspension.

Then he told me how another fraternity had a formal party at the aquarium, and after the party, the aquarium employees found flasks in some of the tanks. That fraternity was ejected from campus for a number of years.

Twenty years after Kavanaugh and his friends may have used frat-party tactics to gang rape girls they got intentionally drunk for the purpose, universities still punished minor vandalism more seriously, significantly more seriously than sexual assault.

Twenty years after Kavanaugh and his friends made what certainly looks like a pattern of assaulting girls just like me at parties, I was assaulted at a party just like that, just like I knew was happening at the fraternities eight blocks to the north of my home, just as happened on college campuses all over the country.

And still, the "boys will be boys" mentality, the protection of spaces that exclude women and dehumanize women and that even men know full well are toxic, that is more important than the protection of non-male human beings.

Sometimes, you don't know what to do. Sometimes you find yourself sitting on the bed in your clothes, popping sedatives and fingering your sewing scissors not because you have an interest in cutting something, but because the metal is cold and sharp and you can feel it even though you can't feel anything else. Sometimes your voice fails you and no matter how often you tell your story and no matter how many ways you try to explain the ingrained fact of rape culture into our collective consciousness, it does nothing. Sometimes twenty years have passed and you are still broken, and you are still afraid, and you are still incapable of fixing either of those things.

So I took a walk.

It might not seem like much, but stepping outside my house alone, after dark, feels like a tiny revolution. I live in a safe little suburb now, I've lived here for two years, and this is the first time I've ever walked my neighborhood alone.

I walked to a playground, sat on the swings, and pumped my legs until I felt the lightness in my stomach begin to spread.

It's been twenty years since I was able to walk the streets of my own neighborhood without fear. It's been fifteen years since I even tried. I still flinched at noises. I still looked over my shoulder. I still watched every other human being on the street with suspicion and fear.

But I took a walk late at night, alone.

To be alone, in public, is something I think men take for granted. It is something women are robbed of, and young. When I am in public, I am not safe. There is always, always, a tension in my spine that reaches out for anything suspect- someone walking too close behind me in a grocery store, parking too close to me in an empty lot, watching me with their hand in their pocket. There is never an assumption of safety.

I may take more long, late-night walks. I might not again for another fifteen years.

But while there are men all over our federal government who assault, harass, or nearly kill the women near them, I will still need to get out. I will still need to escape. I will still need to find a way to capture the emptiness inside me as the swing raises into the air, and drops again.

I will still have to walk outside of my house into a world where I have never been safe.

 


 

Read more about rapists in the news here: Poor Little Rapist - Josh Duggar Edition

Read my most recent post here: What I Know About Being Raped by a 17yo Boy

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