A few weeks ago I invited a man named John into my home. I had met John just once, at a party six years ago -- the night he sexually assaulted me.
John came over to talk about that night. I brewed a pot of herbal tea, Honey Lavender Stress Relief. John and I added honey to our cups. We sat together on my couch, talking and listening.
I am a survivor of rape and sexual assault and I am a filmmaker. I captured my experience of speaking with my assailant in a short documentary film called Gray Area. ...
I think the night John assaulted me was the first time I was assaulted. But I can't say for sure, as that declaration in itself places a value judgment on my experiences. I think it was the first time someone had touched my body while I kept saying no and pushing him away. But countless times prior to that night I had experienced street harassment, body talk, unwanted attention, slut-shaming, policing -- the trauma we tell ourselves comes with the territory of simply existing and physically presenting as a woman in the world. Those experiences blur together to create a half-remembered narrative of instances I tell myself "aren't a big deal" and "don't count."
It took me a very long time to refer to that night with John in 2012 as assault. I knew I didn't like what had happened. I knew I had said no in many ways. But I also knew I was drunk at a party when it happened. I knew that I was different, as a woman who has always been loudly, boldly, openly honest about my sexuality. I knew I had been with many different partners, and I let that night with John fade into my memory as just one of my many sexual encounters, even if it was one I hadn't wanted. I didn't tell my parents or my friends. I put the experience out of my mind and didn't hear from or think about John again.
In 2016, I received a message in my "Other" inbox on Facebook and by chance clicked on it. It was John, reaching out to apologize for what he had done. I thanked him for the note.
John's message came just months after I was raped by a man I trusted, a separate instance with no connection to John. It took a long time for me to call that experience rape. I still wonder sometimes if it "counts" since it was on a comfortable couch and not in a dark alley, since it was done to me by a dear friend and not a stranger, since I came away with bruises on my wrist and breasts but never felt afraid for my life, since there were ways I said yes in addition to saying no. And since most of the time I'm so angry with him, but sometimes I miss him so much -- my rapist, my friend.
I didn't feel the way I thought I would feel after being raped.
The #MeToo campaign was harder for me than I'd expected. Triggering wasn't the right word for it. A trigger to me implies something swift and jarring, a bullet to the brain. This was more like a fire, slowly, at times almost imperceptibly, burning my body.
During this time, John and I reached out to each other again. We wanted to finally have a conversation about that night. I think we both wanted to heal. I wanted to stop the burning. I asked him if he would join me on camera to document our conversation, putting his name and face to what he had done. He said he was scared but that it was "the right thing to do."
When John assaulted me it didn't ruin my life, but it changed it, and that sucks. By making a film, I want to tell my story and make my own ending. ...
When John arrived at my apartment I was so incredibly nervous. At that moment, I would have gladly volunteered to be hit by a bus rather than go through with having the conversation with him.
I had gathered an all female-identifying film crew to make Gray Area with me. Everyone working on the film was so supportive and open. Before John arrived, we had worked all day and grown close, holding space for each other and getting our own needs met as well. John was entering into a space as the only male-identifying person, entering my home, my domain, among people who knew exactly what he had done six years prior.
Seeing him again didn't bring back memories from that night. It was more like we were meeting each other for the very first time. In a way, I think we were.
At the start, we were both anxious. As our tea steeped, conversation started to flow more easily. He recounted his memories of the night. I recounted my own. We listened to each other. The camerawomen filmed us and silently held space for us both.
I respected him a great deal for choosing to forgo euphemisms and instead use the actual words to describe what he did to me in the moment of assault. He named his actions in detail, he named my body parts that he violated.
He took true ownership.
After John left, my best friend, Johanna, asked if he had said "sorry" or not. John and I had sat together for hours, talking and listening, and he had spoken with such repentance. But I honestly don't remember if he had said the precise words "I'm sorry."
When I try to remember the night he assaulted me, I'm certain I said "no" over and over. But sometimes I'm not so sure I did.
Even if he didn't say those words exactly, I know he said "sorry" in many different ways during our conversation. Just as I said "no" in many ways the night he assaulted me. ...
Speaking with John wasn't easy and was far more emotional than I expected. What has been even harder is to join John in taking accountability for my actions. I'm not demanding that he do that work without doing the work myself as well. I don't think I have always had the most respectful, consensual, boundary-aware behavior. I am trying to educate myself about consent. I am trying to take responsibility for my actions (or inaction) and for my language. I am trying to learn about my own boundaries and teach myself to respect those as well.
Even though the film isn't finished yet, it has already started so many conversations. John told me he has started sharing his story, our story, with friends. He's having conversations with other male friends about what he did to me, and they have in turn shared stories of nights like ours, events they have never admitted to anyone aloud, have tried to forget. John hasn't yet told his family, though he is planning to before the release of the film.
Similarly, people have already started reaching out to me to share their survivor stories. I feel connected to John in this way, each of us becoming these space-holders for others who need their stories heard.
So I am trying to talk but most importantly trying to listen. Because it's not all black and white.
ERICA M. HART is a documentary director, producer, and editor working primarily with a passion for feminism, storytelling, and conversations between humans that serve to reduce shame and stigma. In her spare time she volunteers to clean up the loose shards each time a glass ceiling is shattered.