:: “Can I shut the door?” asks the pencil. “Sure,” I say. I don’t want anyone to see me here in this place, so shutting the door is a good idea. Then I repeat what I said in the lobby. “I don’t know what I’m doing here. Really. This is a waste of time.”
In December of 2019, I delivered the words below as the keynote talk at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center Annual Holiday Auction, the most important fundraiser of the year for the organization. Last year (2020), and now this year, the auction continues to be virtual, which has hurt its fundraising. I’m posting my speech here as not only a way to share the story of how the Center helped save my life, but also as a call to everyone to donate, if you can, to your own local rape crisis center.
I’m so glad to see you all here tonight.
I have two things to say by way of preface.
I frequently give talks, and I give talks on the subject of sexual assault and harassment. Despite all of my experience, I am 100% of the time surprised by my emotional reactions to giving talks on this subject. It’s like having babies. You just forget what is was like last time—that’s why you’re willing to keep doing it.
So, the first thing I want to say is this: If I cry, or take a moment, thank you for your understanding.
The second thing I want to say is this: If you need to cry, or take a moment, or run to the bathroom, or leave the room, or text someone you love, or do anything at all because YOU are surprised by YOUR emotional reactions, please do so.
You’re not being impolite or disrespectful, not to me, and not to anyone else here.
Thank you for listening to my story.
I’m in law school at UNC. It’s 2002, and I’m in my mid-twenties.
Earlier in the day, I finished classes, and after, I headed to my regular job on the west side of town.
All day I’ve tried to ignore how tired I am, but now, as I drive home in the late afternoon, I’m so exhausted that I’m on autopilot. I didn’t sleep well all weekend. In fact, I couldn’t sleep at all.
Now, at four in the afternoon, I’m basically the walking dead. Except I’m driving.
On Estes Drive, I cross MLK Boulevard toward Franklin Street, passing familiar buildings along the way. On my right, there’s the church.
After the church, there’s the small brick house tucked far from the road, with its long, gravel driveway stretching out to the street.
Suddenly, my hands on the steering wheel turn right into the driveway. Because I’m the driving dead, I’m just watching my hands turn.
I cock my head to the side, watching them. Hands, my friends, what are you doing?
My brain has nothing to do with this decision to turn into the driveway. And this late in the day I’m too exhausted to argue with myself.
I pull all the way up to the little brick house with the low hipped roof. It looks a little run down, and suddenly I’m feeling skeptical about being at this place.
Actually, I’m feeling riotously skeptical, and I don’t turn off my car. I just sit there with the engine running, like the getaway driver at a bank robbery.
I shouldn’t be here, I think. I shouldn’t be here at all.
After a few minutes arguing with myself, I turn off the engine and open the door to my little red car. The car has been the one constant in my life over the past decade, as I’ve traveled all over the country for work and for school. This car is safe, familiar.
Stepping out of the car, leaving it behind—I’m leaving the last bit of safety I have left in order to enter the small brick house
I walk purposefully to the door, telling myself, I’ll just go inside and see.
I open the white door, and step inside.
Inside, there’s a small waiting room. Behind a desk sits a diminutive woman who can’t be more than fifteen years old. She’s the size of a pencil. I could lift her with one arm.
This is a terrible idea, I think. I have to leave.
Before I can reach for the door, she speaks. “Can I help you?”
The pencil is a white woman with brown hair. Her voice is oddly calm. Especially compared to the riot currently going on inside my head.
“This is a mistake,” I say. “I really think I should leave. I have no idea what I’m doing here.”
“Okay,” she says, standing. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
The day before I went to the little brick house was a Sunday. Sunday morning, I was in my apartment, sitting on my couch. I couldn’t move.
The thought of going to my bedroom to sleep—I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do anything but sit on my couch, wrapped in a blanket, and I could barely do that.
I looked over to my desk. My phone. I needed my phone to call for help. But it was so far. I was on the couch, wrapped in a blanket.
I stared at the phone for a while. I made plans about the phone. I’m not sure how long it took me to reach the phone.
I called a friend. “I didn’t sleep last night. I can’t sleep. I’m not sure what to do. I can’t explain.”
I couldn’t explain, what was there to explain? To say?
She understood anyway. “Come sleep here.”
I don’t remember driving to her house, but I must have. I don’t remember the words we spoke, but we must have spoken. Or maybe we didn’t.
She offered me a bed in her house, but I was afraid to lie down. So I slept in a chair in her living room, sitting up, sunlight pouring through the windows.
I was uncomfortable, but I was safe.
I woke with a start. Unfamiliar. Where? A deep breath. Safe. Groggy. But I must go. I have school. Work.
I thanked my friend for letting me stay with her.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
I tried to explain. The problem was, she understood more than I wanted her to.
I didn’t want her sympathy. I didn’t want anything. I wanted nothing.
Time passed. Too soon, it was Monday.
I got dressed, packed my books into my red car, and drove to Chapel Hill.
I’m standing in the waiting room with the pencil, and I feel torn down the middle.
Half of me is already back in my familiar red car, turning the ignition key.
Half of me is still standing there, facing her, wondering if I will absolutely crush her to pieces not only with my oversized body, but with my oversized personality as well.
Surely this pencil is unprepared for someone like me.
“No, really. I should go,” I say.
“Okay,” says the pencil.
She has really pretty hair, I think. Shiny, lovely. I think maybe I should dye my hair brown. I’ve been blond my whole life. Brown would be a nice change. Something different.
“Do you want to sit down?” she asks.
I don’t know whether I want to sit down, but sitting is probably better than standing awkwardly in the tiny waiting room. And what if someone else walks through the door?
What if it were someone I knew? That would be mortifying.
I follow the pencil into a small room, barely big enough for the chair and love seat, for the side table and lamp.
For the box of tissues.
I eye the tissues. I don’t need tissues, I think. Why are there tissues? The tissue box is a grenade, and I want to toss it from the room before it goes off.
“Can I shut the door?” asks the pencil.
“Sure,” I say. I don’t want anyone to see me here in this place, so shutting the door is a good idea. Then I repeat what I said in the lobby. “I don’t know what I’m doing here. Really. This is a waste of time.”
“Okay,” says the pencil. “Do you want to tell my why you came?”
I blurt out the first reason that comes to mind. “I slept in a chair.”
“I’m really tired,” I say.
Nodding again, she says, “Do you want to take a nap?”
I shake my head, horrified. “No.”
I think, Why would I nap here? How weird. But then I think about it more. I imagine curling up on the small sofa. And there, a worn quilt. The light through the small window. Inside me, a feeling: safe.
I feel the tears in my eyes.
“This is a waste of time,” I say, angry now. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“Okay,” she says.
“Stop saying okay!”
“I’m just really tired. I had to sleep in a chair.”
“Do you want to tell me why?” she says.
“The bed,” I say, the words tumbling. “I couldn’t sleep in my bed. I had to, something. A friend’s house. But her bed. And then, a chair.”
“A chair,” she says.
“Yes, a chair,” I say.
“That makes sense,” she says.
Friends: It made no sense.
“Do you want to tell me anything else?” she asks.
Suddenly, I do. I want to explain about the chair. “I was drinking. And, at first, I wanted to. And then, I don’t know. I threw up. And, then, he turned…mean. And it was awful. So…awful.” I stop talking. “I don’t know why I’m here.”
She waits, silent.
I look at her while she looks at me.
Suddenly, she’s obviously not fifteen years old.
I don’t know how old she is, but she’s old enough.
And she’s not a pencil either. She’s strong. Strong enough for both of us.
Until last week, I’d told only two people in the world about that Saturday night in 2002. My sister, who is here tonight, and the woman at Orange County Rape Crisis Center who helped me that afternoon.
I don’t even know her name. She might be here tonight, too. If you are, you might not remember me. But I remember you.
I’ve been raped three times in my life. Once as a child—1990. Once as an adult—2006. And once more, as an adult—2002.
But I only talk about two of them because only two of them are clearly rape—to other people.
I talk about 1990 because no one would blame a child. 1990 is clearly rape—to other people.
I talk about 2006 because I did what we’re taught we’re supposed to do: I said No. I tried to stop him, but he pinned me down. Because I fought and said no, 2006 is clearly rape—to other people.
But the third time—2002—I’ve never talked about publicly before tonight. That’s because 2002 isn’t clearly rape to other people; it’s fuzzy. It’s too easy for a listener to doubt whether it is rape at all.
But my mind, and my body, knew just what had happened to me.
To me, 2002 isn’t fuzzy at all.
And because 2002 would be fuzzy to other people, I was afraid to talk to anyone about it. That’s why, in 2002, I needed Orange County Rape Crisis Center the most. They knew what happened, and they knew to call it rape.
For the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, 2002 was as clear to them as it was to me.
Back in November of this year, while visiting friends who work at the Center, I told the story of my 2002 visit. We laughed at the words I repeated: “I don’t know why I’m here.”
But then my friends told me something interesting: a large percentage of calls and visits they receive start just like mine did.
Clients start with: “I don’t know if this counts.” Or, “I’m probably wasting your time.” Clients start off thinking that the Center is for only the most desperate. Or for only a certain kind of victim. Or that the help the Center offers isn’t for them, for one reason or another.
In short: They’re afraid to ask for help, just like I was.
The little house I went to in 2002 was the Orange County Rape Crisis Center’s original location. At the time, the Center had only a handful of employees.
Nevertheless, when I walked in on a weekday afternoon, unexpected, traumatized, unable to speak coherently—the well-trained woman at the desk performed her job with expertise, sensitivity, and patience.
She had no idea who would walk through her door that day, but she was ready.
Maybe people like me walked through the Center’s door every day.
In fact, people like me do walk through the Center’s door every day, and seek services on the helpline.
That’s why we’re all here tonight, to make sure that people like me have the life-saving support we need.
I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t pulled into that long gravel driveway.
If I hadn’t worked on the side of town that required me to drive down Estes.
If I hadn’t seen the sign for the Center on my drive home multiple times a week, enough times that my subconscious knew it was there, and knew to take me there when I was desperate.
Or if the Orange County Rape Crisis Center hadn’t been there at all.
That is too many “ifs.”
I want everyone in Orange County to have what I had, what saved me that day: knowledge.
I want them to know that the Center is there for them—for all of them, for every kind of victim and survivor.
I want everyone to know where the Center is located, what services they offer, and how to reach them.
Therefore, I want the Center to have the resources—resources that they need right now—for outreach to every community group in our area.
I was lucky in my moment of desperation.
I don’t want anyone to have to count on luck, ever.
Sometimes I wonder, Would I even be here if I hadn’t been lucky that day?
We can’t count on luck to save the next person like me.
We’re all here to help the Orange County Rape Crisis Center widen access and proactively reach as many people as possible.
All of us in this room must make sure the Center has the resources they need.
The Orange County Rape Crisis Center is a life-changing, life-saving organization.
I’m a witness, and a living testimony.
If you enjoyed this post, you will enjoy my IPPY-gold-medal-winning EVEN IF YOU’RE BROKEN: Essays on Sexual Assault and #MeToo.
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