This week, I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw that a friend is having a book published.
“Congratulations!” I messaged her. “You’ve worked so hard. I can’t wait to read it!”
And I meant those words. I’m proud of her. She’s brilliant, and she deserves all the success she’s had. She worked hard to get a tenured position in a field that’s openly hostile to women. She built her success increments at a time, and she’s finally being rewarded with the spoils of all that hard work.
But my celebration of her success was tinged with a sense of shame in myself.
There was a time when I’d planned to publish too. There was a time when I’d chased a tenure track career and the respect of a difficult field. There was a time when I’d hoped to travel the world and give talks and organize lectures.
There was a time when I thought I could control the way my life turned out.
The first time I strayed from my chosen path, I was 20 years old. I was dating my high school sweetheart, and we were planning to marry after college graduation, just like my parents had done. We would attend graduate school together in the same town, and we would become an academic power couple.
Then one night when we were talking about our plans, he mentioned his dream of academic stardom, of rising quickly in the ranks and one day chairing a department. “And it would be so great,” he said, “when I host department parties, to have someone like you on my arm – to have a wife who’s smart and can keep up with my colleagues.”
And in that moment, I turned from that path and looked for a new one – one that didn’t require me to be someone’s arm candy, a woman whose intellect was valued only for the ways it served my husband’s image.
The next time I turned from my path, I had completed my M.A. in English and was beginning my first year of the PhD program. I had fought my way from unfunded status to a full time TA position. After entering the program as the young, naive hayseed from the South, I felt like I was finally earning the respect of my colleagues.
And then I was raped.
I won’t tell the full story of that night here, although I don’t mind telling it. I understand that it has value. But this story isn’t about that night. It’s about what happened to me afterwards.
Specifically, it’s about the Type A girl who thought she could keep going. It’s about the competitive spirit who only told one person, who assumed she’d just keep plugging away, going to work, ignoring the scratch scratch scratch, the way the memory scraped at me from the back of my mind like a branch scraping against a window during a storm.
scrape scrape scrape scratch
And then I snapped. I was riding the bus to work when suddenly my feet felt like lead, and I found myself unable to get up from my seat. I rode all the way across town, past my stop, and all the way back to my starting point. And then back again. And then home. And then back again. I sat there for 3 complete routes until finally the driver – a gruff giant of a man who normally didn’t speak to the passengers – walked to the back and asked if I was okay. I stared up at him in terror, because everyone and everything was terrifying. I finally managed to squeak out that I would be okay, before bursting past him and running all the mile and a half back to my house. Once I was safe inside my apartment, I called my mother and told her I needed to come home. I had given up. I was quitting. I couldn’t do this anymore.
scratch scratch scrape
The feeling remained. It kept scratching at me, at everything I was, for the next three years. I would return home to Louisiana and try to set myself back on a path. But everything ended in disaster. I took a job teaching composition, but some days I barely made it to class. I was on autopilot, foggy from the Xanax my therapist had prescribed me when I tried to tell him my story. He didn’t want to hear from me. He didn’t want to handle the story I was telling. He just wanted me to go to sleep.
I was terrified of my students. I was terrified of everyone around me.
I wasn’t going to make it.
And so when someone came along who promised to love and take care of me, I jumped at the chance to follow him. Because I believed I was broken. I believed there was no way I could survive in the world on my own. I believed that everything I ever was had been destroyed.
I hate thinking about this next part.
In fact, when I started writing this, I told myself I’d leave this part out. I was planning on telling a different story – a happier story. But apparently this is the one that wanted to be told.
I was looking for a soft place to land. I was looking for safety. But I didn’t know what that looked like anymore – didn’t believe in my own ability to choose the right path. And so I got involved with someone who promised to make those choices for me.
What I didn’t realize was that abusers wait in the shadows, looking for women who believe they’ve lost the ability to make choices.
For the next two years, I was terrorized by the person I’d asked to love me. He made demands I couldn’t fulfill, then shouted me down when I inevitably failed. He asked me to follow him from town to town for his career, with no thought as to how it might affect my own. He demanded that I change the way I looked, the way I dressed. He constantly moved the goal posts of his affection, leaving me chasing the safety I’d so desperately desired.
scrape scrape scratch
The feeling was still there, though, still reminding me that I’d been defeated, that I couldn’t trust myself anymore. And so I stayed.
One night, I was cooking dinner for us, as I did every night. It’s important to note that I am not a good cook. I never have been. I told him as much, but he was raised in a strictly gendered household where the women cooked and the men got whatever they demanded. And so I tried, time and again, never realizing that my continual failure was exactly what he desired.
On this particular night, he was unhappy with the way I was chopping vegetables. He walked into the tiny kitchen and began yelling, throwing things around. He picked the hot skillet off the stove – probably burning his own hand in the process – and swung it at me.
I have never told anyone this. I’ve told the story about the man who raped me many times. But I have never told anyone about the pan.
I ducked out of the way and begged him to calm down. I followed his instructions, chopped onions the way he wanted to, and assured him everything would be okay.
And then, after he’d fallen asleep, I left. I threw what I could into a bag, hopped in my car, and drove the three hours home.
And on that long, dark drive in the dead of night, I began to take back control of my life.
Between the town where I lived with the man and the town where my parents live, there is a body of water called Whiskey Bay. I had always hated driving over those waters on visits to my parents – because in my home state, Whiskey Bay is the place where women are tossed when the men of Louisiana find them lacking. It has buried the bodies of many a domestic violence victim, murdered wives and daughters and girlfriends. It has even helped to cover up the crimes of a serial killer. When I was a college student, a man named Derrick Todd Lee terrorized the town where I lived, murdering several local women – many of them college students like me – and dumping their bodies into the waters of the bay. Driving over that bridge had always felt dangerous, as though the waters below might know that I was a woman, that I was weak, and that I deserved to drown.
That night – the night that I drove home to escape the man who’d tried to take me down, tried to finish the work my rapist had begun – I was not afraid. I rolled down my window and shouted into the wind and the dark of the night “You can’t drown me! I don’t belong to you!”
I thought about all those women lying in the bay, the ones who had been found, and the ones who likely still languished there.
And then I realized that the scratchscratchscratch at the back of my mind had ceased.
I had made it through the storm alive.
When I started typing this story, I hadn’t planned to tell you this. I had planned a much simpler story – one about coming out to my family and changing careers.
Instead, as I followed my own words, I realized that there’s a different narrative that I needed to tell first. Because before I could make the choices that would make me the woman I am today, I had to escape from all the men who tried to wrest my narrative away from me.
My story is about making the journey over Whiskey Bay, and recognizing I did not have to be afraid.