Do I look like a woman who has been raped? I wonder as I come to the realization that I’ve dressed myself like the manager of a punk rock band. I’m wearing all black with vivid red lipstick. My jeans are tight; my boots are shining black Texan leather. I have done everything I can to look like I’ve got it all under control, that I’m successful, and confident not a unemployed, uninsured woman who is newly in love, but still racked by fits of sobbing that tear up the fabric of otherwise happy nights, haunted by the lack of a memory. I am unable to form my lips around the word “rape” or around the word “victim.”
At the front of the center I am forced to speak my name into a box by the door hinge. People tell truths here. People need to feel safe. I hear a locking mechanism pop open. Inside the air conditioning is arctic cold and I shiver although my face is slick with sweat. Cars, and big trucks speed by on the road outside the darkened bulletproof glass. Sitting on the couch I flip through a Spanish language edition of People Magazine; even though I can’t read Spanish well the words look like I should be able to understand them but I can’t.
It’s a lack of something that I’ve been searching out. A hole. I will never been able to know exactly what sort of drugs I was given that night. In the morning I wanted time to speed up, like zipping through a DVD at 4x the normal pace, I didn’t want to drag through a hospital visit, blood tests. I didn’t even think of doing those things. I was already so focused on forgetting and moving on. Because of the drugs and maybe even, I think hurtfully, because of my own willingness to forget, there’s a place in my memory’s time when there’s nothing. I dig around at the edges of this nothing, hoping to find some scrap. I relive the bookends of that memory until I’m sure the neural pathways are as worn as old records, skipping and warped. I’ve read that memories can actually change this way, by being traveled again and again. I don’t want them to change; they need to be police-report accurate. They need to be facts. Some victims are haunted by memories. I am haunted by forgetting.
In an office crowded with books and files, thank you cards and fake flowers, a female social worker about my age opens up a case file for me. There are two requirements to receiving services here. One is that I have suffered abuse or been assaulted and two that I am not in need of more intensive care. For instance, I can’t be suicidal or self-harming. I have to be right where I am, on the border between totally screwed up and kind of functional. I don’t tell her that recently I’ve been staring into darker caverns.
Sometimes at night when Daniel has finally fallen asleep after trying to help me calm down, I go outside and sit on the front porch and weep. Daniel is starting his intern year at a local hospital where he is training to become a physiatrist. One of our earliest promises was that he would not be my shrink and while his intern duties takes him through general rotations (ED, PEDS, NEURO) and not yet into the Psych. Ward he seems to me exhausted by illness, both physical and mental and I hate myself for needing his care, even if it is the care of a lover, not a physician. When he promised not to be my shrink I promised to work at getting better but I’m not getting better.
Our neighborhood at night is filled with the wandering bodies of drug addicts and homeless people, stumbling like zombies along the sidewalks and weaving through our front yard. It’s not a place to sit and watch the night sky; it’s dangerous. Daniel has asked me to not jog in the dark or walk the dogs after sunset. Sometimes we wake to the shuttering of gunshots or a scream that knifes through our sleep. But I find myself in my thin pajamas crumbled on the front steps, crying out of a dry place, a sob that is more like an asthmatic wheeze and just as painful. I’ve watched cars speed through the intersection where our street meets the main road, and wondered if I might not just run out in front of the next set of headlights that comes racing by.
Most days I wake late, hours after Daniel has gone to the hospital. I work out at the gym. I make us a dinner, and hopefully, if he’s lucky, he’s home early enough to eat it warm. I write. I read. I’m not like the zombie’s on the streets at night. There’s a picture of Wonder Woman on my laptop screen. She reminds me that I am incredibly powerful, at least my mind is. I was raped 8 years ago, and I didn’t think once about it until one day, after my divorce, just as I was falling in love with Daniel he asked me what was wrong, and the words fell out my mouth, like a cyanide pill I had been concealing under my tongue for nearly a decade.
At the Julie B Valentine Center, the social worker asks me questions. I have always loved the certainly of filling out forms, of knowing all the right answers. Birth date, address (although I stumble over our new zip code), height, weight, level of education, employer, insurance. I knock these off with ease. She flips the page to a new document, a great white snowfield of a page, cut with black lines. Tell me, she asks kindly with the gentle tone of a nurse, your story.
I look down at my boots, my expensive Texan leather boots, my designer bag, all relicts of another life when I could convince myself that things like bags and shoes stood for something more. I hadn’t expected her to be the first to ask. I’d hoped that that step would take place on my next appointment with the therapist. I’ve painted my nails fire engine red; the color is actually called “I’m Not Really A Waitress.” I’m not really a victim. The carpet in the room is old, and I can see the worn spots under the chairs where other women have sat and shuffled like I’m shuffling, looking for words. This place is barely scraping by. I don’t belong here I think, instinctually a New England snob, a child of an Ivy League town. I’ve existed for so long under the impression that I’m doing all right that I’m pretty convinced of it. My mom likes to say that the cure for depression is having something to do. I wasn’t raised to ask for help. I wasn’t raised to be a victim.
I need to record your story so the therapists can decide on your best course of treatment, the woman reminds me, tapping her pen’s tip at the start of an empty line.
All I remember, I say, is taking a drink from someone I knew, a guy I worked with. I was on the porch of my house. I was hosting a party and had been running around making sure everyone had food and that the badminton net was up and there were enough logs by the campfire. He gave me this drink and that’s it. I woke up and felt wrong, sick, and not hung-over. I’d never felt like that before. I was naked. My dress was folded on the floor by the bed. My sandals were lined up perfectly. I went to work and then my friends told me that this guy had slept with me. They were pissed about it because no one liked him. I couldn’t remember anything so I didn’t know what to say or do.
That’s the memory gap. That’s the place I can fill with anything I like. Do I really want to remember? I tell myself knowing is better than uncertainly. I want to know that I fought and clawed, and screamed “NOOO!” like I was taught in health class, and “FIRE!” like I was taught in women’s self defense courses (because people are more likely to respond to an emergency that threatens them as well, yelling “rape!” has been proven to be less effective).
My story takes up about a quarter of her report page. Her pen waits, patiently for more but I draw my legs up to my chest and silently look at my boots, crowded into the armchair.
That afternoon I start baking.
At first I bake bread from a box, with most the ingredients already combined. I form sugar cookies into Halloween pumpkins. I grind carrots into cakes and frost them smoothly. One afternoon, in late October I walk downtown in the warm Carolina fall and buy myself an apron. When I’m not baking it hangs from the handle of the refrigerator powdered with flour dust, crusty with whipped sugars, stained with potent vanilla extract and the bright splatters of food coloring.
The recipes tell me what to do. I learn to level tablespoons and sift flour and how to soften, not melt butter, how to combine not mix a dough. In my mouth I discover the way granulated sugar gives a sharp crunch, while powdered sugar dissolves on the tongue.
Baking is structured. It creates the sort of daily routine that many people need to recover, but I didn’t make my first loaf of bread with any deliberate approach in mind. I am in love and want to nourish my lover and bread fills like and satisfies like nothing else. I am hungry too and, in our new house, with all the rooms empty during the day, the kitchen feels warm and tight, like a favorite knit dress. I set up my laptop on the counter, and watch Netflix while dough hardens in the fridge or rises on the back of the stove. Even though it’s hot and humid, and the AC whistles through the vents I still love the heat from the oven, how it draws sweat from my nose and brow. When I slip cookies from baking paper, or flip a loaf of bread out of its pan I have something to show for my day, something I can cut up and share. I fill my notebooks with insights: More salt! Mixed too much? Maybe lemon?
There’s a little place for art in each bake, a blank that a good baker will fill with whatever is needed to make the dough rise.
The first step at the Julie B Valentine Center is to complete a group introduction class. It meets during the middle of the day; so many of the women in this process are unemployed or underemployed that it isn’t an inconvenience to any of us. Sometimes it’s the one reason I have to leave the house, and I enjoy the luxury of getting out of my yoga pants and putting on makeup and a real, structured bra. We meet in a boardroom around a veneered table where the therapists have scattered paper and crayons around bottles of water and candy bars.
There are two women therapists and they sit next to each other at the head of the table. Behind them there’s a whiteboard where they can scribble insightful words like “victim” and “recovery” or draw pictures of flowers blooming on the sterile, reflective surface.
I am full of homemade bread so I pass on the candy, but I drink bottle after bottle of water; something about the room makes me dry and thirsty. We are given a workbook of copied pages, some of them so worn that their words blur and slide off the page. I realize on the first day that three of women can hardly read. We all have to read out loud one paragraph at a time, in a circle. When someone struggles to form a word a therapist will jump in and guide her, helping her combine the letter’s sounds. Latin based words are the worst, physical, physiological, domestic. I pick the dough out from under my nail, ashamed of my degrees, of my library, of my literacy, of my shock that borders on repulsion when they can’t get a simple word out. Grace, the therapist writes on the board. Acceptance.
Two of the women are retired. Everyone else is unemployed. One girl, who looks no older than my sister who just graduated from college, has 7 kids, 2 of whom she’s lost to child protective services. Three of them are currently living in domestic abuse situations. All of us have been raped.
I know that 1 out of 3 women in the US will suffer some form of sexual abuse, but in the little conference room, at the edge of town I feel dirty and second-class, and low for needing help. I resent it. I resent the word acceptance and even more the word forgiveness. Many of the women wear gold crosses around their necks that shimmer in the fluorescent overhead light, but I am no Christian. Sometimes, during a session, as we read in an endless circle around the table, I fantasize about killing the man who raped me. Would that not be the swiftest cure? I imagine dressing up like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, or driving the dusty roads of central California where I know he now lives, confident and vicious as Thelma and Louise.
Our sessions end with art therapy, which everyone else seems to love but I find insulting. I am reduced so often by my grief that I resent the child-like sensation of these activities. There’s always an assignment like “make a collage of your ideal self” or “draw your happy place”. I cut and paste and glitter because I want to pass and move on to one-on-one therapy, hopefully with one of the two therapists who run the group class. The brunette is my age and talks about her shoe collection and Beyoncé, the blonde is a bit older and smells like her new-born baby. They watch me kindly as I flip through magazines and paste images to cardboard. As soon as I leave I stop at a gas station and crumble up the art therapy project into the trashcan by the gas pumps.
One day we are asked to decorate a shoebox which can hold our self-care items. Self-care is the process by which a person moderates their moods; sometimes they can be as simple as taking a shower or painting your nails. We’ve been asked to come up a self-care “emergency plan” for when we have flashbacks of flare-ups. Some of the women love to color in adult coloring books, or knit, or listen to a particular music, and they tell the group how they’ll stuff the shoebox with markers and ear buds, or a bundle of yarn. I shrug when asked how I’ll use it. Maybe recipes I say? Although I keep them on my computer. My box isn’t long enough to fit spoons and spatulas, or big enough to fold my apron into.
Fall comes late to South Carolina. All at once, around Thanksgiving the leaves give way, and cold rain comes. Our little row house drips and drafts. I steam the windows baking, and fill the sidewalk with the smell of fresh bread. When Daniel comes home from work I slice a piece off for him, and tell him how I made the crust crispy or the center softer. I am not a scientist by nature nor an exact measurer. When I bake I’m learning that there’s an art to bread.
I bake more bread and cookies and cakes then we need to eat. Daniel brings leftovers to the residents’ room at the hospital. I bring plates of cookies, and once a full cake to the gym. Every bake is a time when I couldn’t deal but I did. A moment, in a day when walking the dogs, or reading, or driving to the store was impossible, and instead of collapsing I survived. I made something out of it.
Bread is essentially a combination of flour, water, salt and yeast, baked into something edible. But yeast, even dry yeast, is a living creature. Actually its thousands of tiny organisms breathing and eating the same things we do. It is the yeast that makes bread baking an art. They are sensitive to heat, moisture, air pressure, elevation and time so that dough I make on a cool rainy day will rise and bake differently then dough from a dry, warm day. Most recipes call for two proofings, the first rise is done in a mixing bowl, and the second is completed in a bread pan or with the dough shaped into its final form. The first rise activates the yeast, starting the process of transformation from simple ingredients to something changed by chemistry, friction, heat, humidity, and the passage of time. The second rise gives structure to the bread, allowing it to cook and dome without collapsing. It strengths the soft mixture; inside little chambers of pocketed air rise up so that in the oven they can pillow and expand. The bread is then baked and cooled.
Bread asks me to pay attention. If I leave dough to rise too long it might fall as it bakes or if a loaf sits in its pan as it cools its crust turns soft and mushy.
The kitchen in our home isn’t a perfect place to bake. It is located at the back of the house, near where an outdoor kitchen would have stood when it was constructed 75 years ago. All the homes on our street were housing for the workers employed by the mill at the far end of the neighborhood, weaving cotton into curtains and bed sheets. Now, the mill is crumbling behind high metal fencing. With all the glass broken out of its high windows its façade resembles a boxer’s grin, bloodied and gap-toothed. The houses on our street are crumbling too, or being demolished for new luxury condos. Our home feels its age. There is a crack under the old, warped door tall enough for acorns to roll in. In the kitchen the only window is over a single porcelain sink with a view into our neighbor’s yard where a neglected pit-bull sits miserable and cold, chained to a lead, and kept behind a high fence. He’s worn the ground down to mud. I throw him burnt rolls, and heelpieces but he never warms up to me.
In January I begin individual therapy with the brunette who spends too much of her salary on shoes. Her office is in the back of the Julie B Valentine Center with a window facing the parking lot not the busy road. I like that I can sit in it and pretend I am in a nicer place. All of our dialogue is prep for EMDR, short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Although EMDR is still considered unconventional it has been proven to be highly effective at treating victims of assault and those who suffer from PTSD. Instead of talk therapy or drug treatments, EMDR attempts to dampen the power of emotionally charged memories by rewiring the brain.
In practice EMDR is so simple that it seems magical, like some sort of ritual I’d invent as a girl. My sisters and I used to sleep with spoons under our pillows when we wished that a snowstorm would give us a snow day. EMDR is like that. So simple it can’t possibly be the cause.
During EDMR sessions I pull my chair up close to my therapist’s chair so that our knees almost touch. She asks me to sit back and relax then we begin to talk about an issue that we’d come up with earlier, like my folded dress, or sweat, or the guilt I feel for not remembering. As we talk she taps my knees, first my right then my left, tap, tap, tap, steadily. Sometimes the tapping doesn’t feel like it’s working so I follow her finger as she sways it back and forth in front of my eyes. The back and forth of the tapping or the finger, is supposed to stitch the two hemispheres of the brain together and recreate pathways that might have been worn out, or cut, or forgotten.
First my therapist runs me through a PTSD test. I have mild symptoms. While I don’t experience the sort of vivid flashbacks that are a hallmark of PTSD, I do suffer from lack of sleep and moments of unnamed panic and fear. Next, she takes me through a test designed to put a number on my stress levels. I have a score of 700, 400 points above what is described as health-threatening stress. Finally we work on a list of the moments that I find most troubling. I rank them 1 out of 10. I struggle to give a number to that night.
I talk about the dark space. About the not remembering. I tell her about all the research I’ve been doing about memory, how it shifts, and can be dredged up or manipulated. I’ve read that people who loose their long term memory suddenly, for instance as a result of a head trauma, suffer from terrible depression. As a writer I have often felt that we are the characters created by our stories, by both our replayed internal dialogues as well as the plot line of our lives. Scientists and doctors believe this too, they just express it differently. They talk about the struggle of amnesia patients as they try to remember a loved one’s name. One doctor recalls the story of a young man who lost his long term memory, his name, his history all in the few seconds it took for a car to knock him off his bike. He could still walk, and talk, and build up a bank of history but having nothing, just blankness, terrified the patient. He called his doctor in the middle of the night, suicidal. I am nothing, he repeated. I am no one.
I have rich mines of memory, banks and shelves of stories, and I’m in the business of dredging them up. Names, phone numbers, addresses, the smell of my dogs fur, the softness of my high-school boyfriend’s chest still as smooth as a girls’, the taste of the first apples in the high orchards of Vermont, how I watched two swans land on perfectly still water in Northern Michigan, and have been looking for a way to describe the union of their reflection and their beings ever since. I have road trips, and song lyrics, recipes, and jokes but I don’t have this one thing. Its absence is made more apparent by the abundance that surrounds it. I start to feel that everything else spins around that black point.
Where did it go?
What if its not there at all? What if it slipped out like mercury? But I want so badly to see into it, I want so badly to know. I work the edges. If this memory were a stone it would be worn smooth as sea glass. I rub it raw. I tell her I can only see the beginning and the end and the words I have fail. I can’t say what I want to say about it because I don’t know.
My shoes were next to each other like my mom had come into the room at night and set them just so.
My dress was folded, a full-length maxi dress with a striped print. Who folds a dress? Did he think I wouldn’t notice? Did he think he was being kind? I liked the dress but gave it to a thrift store. I didn’t want it hanging in my closet.
I didn’t feel like I’d had sex. How can a body fail you like that?
I don’t remember.
Later, during an EMDR session, I remember sweat. Sweat in a hot summer night. Sweat terribly close to my skin but not my sweat. It feels scary, this sweat but that’s it. There’s nothing else.
The brain can wrap up trauma and pack it up in storage. Most memories are there, they just need getting to, like something you’ve forgotten in the back of your drawer. EMDR is, according to medical journals, still not fully understood. It rewires the brain somehow, shifting things forward; re-establishing lost connections like an old-time circuit board, making two people who haven’t talked to each other in years speak.
Afterwards I feel like someone has put a mixer in my brain and whipped it stiff.
I drive home through the semi-trucks and car lots and take a long nap. After EDMR sessions my dreams are vivid, and joyful. Once I dream that I’m in the field at the edge of my childhood yard lying low in the tall grass. The sun is setting through the trees and through the heads of the grasses. Light reaches out to me like a hand and I know I’m going to be okay, there are no words or voices, the light conveys this and I understand.
As spring comes I finish up my sessions with my therapist. We have talked through all of our points and worked EMDR over their dialogue. She is moving to a new city and just in case I need to reach her she gives me her email. Finally she re-administers the PTSD test and shows me how dramatically my answers have changed. At first I feel accomplished and then the darkness gnaws when I realized that for a few weeks I have nothing to do at the Julie B Valentine Center. In the ringing silence, at that point where I’ve been taught to open my self-care box, I start to grow my own yeast mother.
Yeast digests bread before you taste it. It works through gluten, relaxing it like a warm bath relaxes tight muscles. Bread baked with active yeast creates a product that is easier to digest. All great breads are baked with live yeasts, organisms that are often ancient, and deliberately cultivated to produce sour, or sweet flavors. Sometimes these yeast mothers become legendary, like San Francisco Sourdough. They are well-developed cultures. The process of creating a yeast mother starts simply, by combining water, and flour, and then waiting for them to fester. Cooking with ‘wild yeast’ requires more skill, more subtly than cooking with the instant stuff. There is also more risk of failure, flattened loaves, doughy interiors, but I tell myself I am up for the challenge. I am different than the woman who started baking bread from a box.
I keep notes during that week of temperature and humidity. Daniel and I are searching for a new place to rent so my notes include scribbled contact information and addresses alongside the times of my rises and bakes. I peak into my brewing bowl of flour, and water, waiting for bubbles to form. After a few days the bowl starts to grow live with yeast. It smells like beer spilled in the recycling bin, and then left in the sun. I feed it steadily; a daily meal of luke warm water, and more flour. Its smell sweetens. First is rising and then suddenly, it falls flat.
It dies. The bowl fills with plaster of Paris instead. There is no smell anymore, it has returned to its ingredients, flour and water. I toss the whole thing out, and spend the afternoons reading about yeast, and yeast development, trying to figure out what I did wrong. I tell myself this would have stopped me cold a few months ago, that I would have ended up in the bathroom, on the floor weeping for the life of my yeast that had left mysteriously in the night, crying like a woman who finds her cat crushed on the road, crying like a woman whose emotions are strange powers, not of her own control. It hurts still. I have always wanted to get things right. Instead a bake a quick bread recipe that always turns out well and we eat thick slices of it in bed, dripping butter and strawberry jam onto our plates.
Later I learn that it was the city water, drained of bacteria, bleached of all imperfections that prevented the yeast from growing. Sometimes it’s the imperfect parts that are needed for growth. Bread baking is messy business.
The other therapist, the woman with a new baby, asks me to join a rape survivor group. She’s collected five women she thinks will work well in a group therapy environment, women, who like me, have completed an intro course and extensive individual sessions. We meet on a rainy spring day, as the light drains from the window overlooking the busy street. We crowd into room filled with couches and easy chairs. Each of us chooses a space to sit, and we maintain the same position for the rest of our time together, as if moving would some how tear the fabric of our relationships.
I find myself on the edge of a faux leather couch with my legs tucked up under me, hugging a pillow. My house and oven have been cold all week and I can’t get the chill out of my bones. We’ve been packing up kitchen equipment into boxes labeled “plates,” and “pots and pans” and moving them out to a new house in the country, with a big kitchen and cows near the driveway. I should be happy about the move but I’m paralyzed. In the hustle of moving I have no rituals. No way to self-care. I feel like an idiot for thinking I had worked through my problems; rape isn’t something you heal from like the flu. Trauma doesn’t leave the tissue of the brain; that sponge holds onto to everything.
In group therapy everything that we say remains secret; we take pledges and sign a document. I am the oldest in the group by five years; all the other girls are in college or just out of it. Some of them are recovering from abuse that occurred a few months ago. I feel old and scarred over.
As if it’s an AA meeting we are asked to go around and say our names and that we are survivors of rape.
I am the last to speak.
I am Megan Baxter, and I am a survivor of rape.
I tell the group that I’ve never fit those two things into one sentence. I don’t like saying rape. I don’t like saying survivor. I wasn’t attacked, I tell them, like how I imagine rape, a strange man on a dark path in a park, lots of blood and bruises.
But think of what you survived afterwards, the therapist reminds us. Think of that struggle.
Each of us is given a full hour session to tell our stories. We bring cookies and chocolate and popcorn on sharing days to ease the tension. Some of the girls cry and sit with boxes of Kleenex in their laps. The only thing startling is how similar each of our narratives is. They are the same story told five ways. The difference, the therapist points out between my story and the others is that I was likely given an older form of the date rape drug, one that knocks a person out entirely where the other girls were given updated versions, which allows the victim to still move a bit and talk, although deeply sedated. These new drugs provides the rapist with the ability to more easily get victims out of bars and into taxis, or maneuver them down the street. It produces in the victims’ memories spotted recall, like seeing the world through a sponge. The girls speak about flashbacks, or about waking up briefly and then drifting under. All I have is darkness.
But I fill in an hour with details. I spread out my few sentences and am surprise by how long I can stretch them. For not knowing I have a lot of words. I tell them about the dress, and the shoes but also about how often I drank, and how I know my blackout wasn’t alcohol induced. I talk about how the guy had tried to seduce me before, when I was much younger, and how physical he was at work, how often he hugged and touched me even as I shrugged away. They nod. They cry. The therapist moves me forward when I stop. I talk about the blackness and how I’ve tried to look into, how I’ve tried hypnosis and EMDR but there isn’t anything there.
Can you live with that mystery, she asks?
Can you trust your instinct that how you feel was how it happened?
Outside I can hear truck tires in the rain. Outside I can imagine the trees budding, and the red clay earth stretching to open for grass roots and raindrops. I go home and cry into Daniel’s chest but I feel lighter. The crying stops and we fall asleep together, he’s holding me, and our heartbeats settle then synchronize. The rain keeps up all night on the roof.
Just beautiful, Megan. You should be very proud of this piece. I was completely riveted throughout.