The Reclaim Project is an initiative to help sexual violence survivors to feel comfortable in their skin again. We're partnering up with photographers to provide these photo sessions in the hopes that we can help to portray female bodies as belonging to actual human beings, instead of objects. We'll be sharing lots of these sessions over time, each one paired with a statement from the survivor about how their experiences have shaped their body image, mental health, and view of their sexuality. Click here if you're a survivor interested in setting up a session, or here if you're a photographer who'd like to participate!
After assault, the lesson seems to be clear: do not show your body, the public is only there to hurt you, men cannot be trusted, you cannot be trusted. You are stripped of your senses the second you are assaulted, and they don’t return after. After you’re raped, somehow everything smells like the cologne your abuser wore, or everything around you has been drained of its color. Touch will sometimes feel like an imperceptible breeze; sometimes it will feel like a blanket of thorns. People on television or in books will describe a survivor’s relationship to the world after assault as “complicated,” but it’s simple: something inside you has died.
My first assault happened when I was six. He was a part of my family. In a roomful of wolves, I felt we were the only humans, and I felt close to him for that. A child navigates the world like a mountaineer when she is so young-- all exploration and glory. All survival. When I was alone with him, he was meant to be my caretaker. Only a man with demons like coal can produce such horror. My therapists now have referred to him as being “sick,” or “untreated,” as if the mental illness he gave me can somehow be an access point into empathizing with him. He smelled like gasoline and burnt toast and that’s all I can say. I’ll never know what I was like as a young girl, just like how my parents could never afford a video camera to film my brothers and I as children. I lost two years of my memory. At six years old, I was grown because I needed to be in order to live. In order to pull my legs up and place them in front of me, one, then two.
Often I think about what led me to my second assault. It was my first year of college, in the springtime in Vermont, when the tops of snow banks get shiny and crunchy like a candy apple. At this point in my life, I was in love with my brain, as ambitious young women are, imagining their careers, soaking up everything they can, concerned with not leaving anything out. I would daydream about fame in the art world, I dreamt about love and sexuality. I freely touched my own body, with the exception of a small area by my right hipbone, the skin above my appendix. It makes me feel a sharp tickle, an anomaly since childhood, a phenomenon I hadn’t realized was a physical manifestation of my trauma until many years later when I heard the phrase, “the body remembers.”
My second attacker acted like an animal. He respected my wishes to take our encounters slowly, didn’t even kiss me until I let him. He acted like an animal. He waited until I was drunk and then his sweat was everywhere, dripping onto my skin. I couldn’t move and I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to leave, my exhaustion was too draining, I only wanted to be removed from his room, taken into the air like machinery lifts a log in chains-- I wanted to be moved anywhere but there. He acted like an animal, acute and quick, trying so hard to get me to lie silent.
When a woman lives long enough, she dies. When a woman lives long enough, she will encounter the same pain, again and again, wrapped differently, perfumed differently, but the same. I wake up and I ask myself what is it about me that makes men take advantage of me? It’s not naiveté, it’s not gullibility, it’s not my sexual history, it’s not the way I dress, it’s not that my favorite color is yellow-- and I list these things in my head, wracking my brain, trying to figure out what has made me so vulnerable to assault.
And that’s the thing. It’s not one thing, and it’s not anything. It’s not me. I want to say it again: it’s not me that makes men want to take advantage of me. It’s not me. I know what it is, despite the daily self-shaming I put myself through. It’s what makes women strong, and what makes men feel threatened. It’s the way men are taught to value the tenets of masculinity, and it’s the way that this hollows them out, a shell of performativity, obliged to assert toxicity against any non-male. I know that this is what makes men want to take advantage of me. And none of that is my fault.
So how is it that I can know this and still feel shame around what happened to me a third time? (Are you losing count yet?) The last time I saw my third rapist, I was dressed up like a panda for Halloween. He came to the party I was at, no costume, and as I peered at him through a bonfire, I wondered what might be under his skin, what kind of person he was dressed up as. Because I knew he raped me and threatened me, and I couldn’t leave my house for weeks. When I saw him, I screamed at him, “Get the fuck out of my life,” and a friend of mine escorted him out, how lucky, how lucky to feel safe. Safety is a luxury for survivors. Metaphor forced, I’m glad he didn’t put a mask on that night, betraying the truth, my truth.
My third story of what happened to me is the same as before, the redundancy growing exhausting and foul. None of these men deserve my story, they don’t deserve anything from me. Not my story, my pity, my forgiveness, my beautiful heart, my time of day. My work is for me and the people who can feel this in their gut, our collective cringe resonating against the cowardice of those who thought we were weak.
How are we meant to love after rape? How do we allow someone to receive our trust when our boundaries have been breached and our internal organs, like a million glass swans, have shattered against the inside of our skin? Most times I cannot believe I am alive, the devastation relentlessly picking at my depressed body. Is it possible to refrain from putting our trauma aside and using it instead to inform how we learn to open ourselves up to the possibility of finding people who love us? I’m not talking about being accepted as broken and addressing everything around it. I’m talking about using our heart the way we use our mind-- ambitiously and gracefully, with wit and poise, unforgiving in its processes. Let’s use our trauma to address our loneliness, shamefulness, and pain-- and let’s use it to thrive in the company of others who listen to us, and feel our stories in their bones.
I’m not interested in dwelling in the possibility of recovery anymore. That’s not meant to sound cynical or rude-- what I mean is that my life has changed forever, and this is who I am now. I’m too exhausted to entertain the idea that I might go back to the way I was before I was raped. Trees hibernate when it’s too cold for them to continue growing. They lose their leaves to preserve water. When their environment allows them to grow more, they will. So too am I not wistful about previous summertimes. I’m preserving what I have left, getting ready to learn how to give and love and find new passions. It’s normal to expect to return to our lives, like we do after any event. I’m just too tired to worship that belief. So here I am, fresh out of the fire, arms outstretched past the smoke, sunshine on my fingers.
Photography // a. lentz photography