Until I told my mother I’d been raped, I’d never been so aware of the silence on the other end of a receiver. I called her the morning after the attack, and I counted the seconds of nothingness. The quiet felt how I felt, and the numbering gave me a rhythm and a sense of time I was trying to find again, like children filling their seconds with Mississippis. One, nothing. Two, nothing. Three, nothing. Four, nothing. Calling your parents during an emergency is a reflex we learn as children — from PSAs and after-school specials — but enduring the silence served another purpose. When my mother was younger than I, she was sexually assaulted at a rock concert, which she has been frank about with me since I was a kid. This is what we are born into, she wanted to say. Welcome to the world, baby boy.
I didn’t realize at the time that this was now something we shared — to add to our passed-down noses and eerily similar elbows. When I look at my mother, I see parts of myself that I love and other parts it’s difficult to face, my life distorted like in a funhouse mirror. At this moment, I was glad I didn’t have to see how I looked upside down in her reflection. Of course, I thought I knew what was at the end of the line, but I was relieved to hear her start crying anyway — tears of love, sorrow, and frustration. The love part, I knew, was easy. She would love me the same way she always had, with a devotion that often verged on socially acceptable obsession, the everyday pathologies of parenthood. She was mad about me. That could never change.
It’s the frustration that’s the hard part, knowing that you aren’t going through this alone. I wouldn’t understand this until years later, when I started talking about my experiences with sexual assault. I came out as a survivor in an open letter to my assailant; even though we would likely never speak again, I wanted to hold him accountable for what happened that night. He was the phantom that lived inside me, and sometimes I wondered if I made the whole thing up, a drug dream shared one night with a stranger, and I needed to exorcise him. The words made finally him real, even if I was still figuring out what I wanted to say. In my initial letter, I called him “the guy who molested me,” because it felt easier to write and I wasn’t ready for the alternative yet. It took years to be ready.
Before I posted my letter to social media, I was so terrified of what the reaction would be that I closed my computer and finished a bottle of wine to dull my senses; I didn’t want to feel anymore. It was like a part of me was being ripped out, as if I had to come out all over again. I was asking my friends to love every part of me — even my pain, those quiet moments in the bathroom the next morning when I didn’t know if I could live with this. Did I want to exist as a person who had such a fact about them? For me, coming out was finally answering that question, and the “yes” was overwhelming. My Facebook page poured over with love, the affirmations as infinite as a midday sky I was seeing for what felt like the first time. I stepped onto the balcony of my Paris apartment, and the cars barreling through the boulevard below kept moving as if nothing was different. It was just another day.
Of course, it wasn’t different. That was both soothing and sobering.
According to statistics, one in three women and one in 33 men in the U.S. will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. That number never felt real to me until I shared my rage with others who had been through the same experience. I was grateful for the support of friends and loved ones, but I also found an unexpected community of people who were also survivors of sexual assault. Some were people I already knew; others I met through comment boards or email. Total strangers I only knew online proved so willing to open up to me about their experiences that I realized how necessary a support system was as survivors, the people who share our ghosts and know what it means to be haunted. They help the past make more sense to us, and through their struggles and their triumphs, they also show us what a future can be. This is the winter light we walk toward.
I don’t know where my rapist is now, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t still think about him. He’s in every line and poem that I read, like the inverse of a great romance. On cold days, I used look him up on Facebook to see what he was doing, knowing that he probably doesn’t even remember who I am. To him, I’m just some college boy he got high with one night, when he was too stoned and drunk to hear me crying and to take no for an answer. I used to wonder what he thought my tears meant, if he thought that’s how people make love, and I used to hope he was haunted too. I hoped I followed him everywhere, watching him bag his milk or iron his shirts. However, it took me years to realize he didn’t even deserve my ghost; he deserves nothingness. When you’re assaulted, it feels like everything takes years.
I came out as a survivor two years ago. I’m still counting, but the space between doesn’t feel so empty anymore.
NICO LANG is a correspondent and blogger for WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR affiliate), the cocreator of In Our Words, and a graduate student in DePaul University’s media and cinema studies program. He writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago and contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Thought Catalog, and The Huffington Post.