We do not live in the same city, but if we did we might be friends. At least, that is what Google suggests. Thanks to the power of the Internet, it takes only a few minutes to find we are both 40-something mothers raising children in big cities. We are both well-educated professionals, Hillary supporters, members of progressive faith communities and active in our kids’ schools.
She is also married to the man who raped me. In more than two decades, I never went looking for him. But when I did, after Christine Blasey Ford came forward with her story, I found myself deeply troubled: not over my rapist but over his wife.
He was my friend’s boyfriend, and I told no one after it happened. Because my friend was out of the country and I could not face telling her by phone. Because I had been drinking. Because I had not spoken up during the previous months while he harassed me: passing too close and leaning down for a vile whisper or a pinch.
But most of all, because I remembered only flashes of before and after: his promise to give me a safe ride home from a party and the sound of his footsteps behind me on my apartment stairs. The feel of the chipped hall floorboards against my bare back. My blue sweater, now inside out. His face, in shadow, before he turned to go — but not without warning me first: She would never believe me over him.
So there, now I’ve reported it. Please do not call me brave, because the shame of this story is his, not mine. Instead, consider this: What happened that night is savagely ordinary, one of countless acts of violence so many women bury, imposing forgetfulness over them like layers of river silt.
But dredge it up and you will find that the stories often have another side. Not his; I know that one already. (When I finally broke down and told my friend, I found out he had talked to her first and said it was consensual. And as he’d predicted, she believed him. She ended our friendship.)
No, I am talking about his wife’s side, today. What would happen if she knew what I do about the man she presumably fell in love with — the one who must have been in the delivery room when their children were born?
My online search reveals a headshot of her warm, open face, and I can imagine her in my book club, where we talk about politics far more than the book. We could have been packed in together at the Women’s March, furious, hoarse and exhilarated. I picture her skimming the news on her phone at karate class, while our daughters practice their snap kicks and jabs.
By all appearances, she is a busy mother and a progressive, like me. Right now, with survivor narratives flooding the news and our social media feeds, women like us are almost uniformly outraged and grieving. We are walking out and wearing black and tweeting photos of ourselves saying we #BelieveSurvivors.
Would my rapist’s wife believe me? Do I have a responsibility to name him, knowing it could bring solace to other women I heard rumors about — women who might have gone through what I did at his hands? Should she know because she probably loves him, and maybe he’s a different person now who could learn from what he did? Or because he might not be different at all?
This past week, I read an account of the recent Values Voter Summit, where former Family Research Council president Gary Bauer chillingly warned American women of “a country where . . . the man in your life can be ruined by someone getting up and saying ‘36 years ago, he did this to me.’ ”
You can almost imagine the spike of dread each woman in the audience must have felt. Because of course the ruin Bauer conjured up was not just that of the man in their lives but their own. The pitying glances of friends and neighbors; the gossip at work; the kids getting teased at school.
Would it be any different for the wife of the man who assaulted me? In her progressive community, wouldn’t it be worse? People like us read stories of sexual assault skeptics — especially other women — and we seethe. But what if it were my spouse or partner who stood accused? Picture facing your circle of feminist friends or your children after a story like mine surfaced about the person you love. Now tell me you don’t feel a cold trickle down your neck.
My Internet search revealed that my rapist had helped refugees in the United States a few years ago. He sounded like a good man, a kind man, a loving father. That is the person my rapist’s wife knows. (I have deliberately kept details about him and our shared past vague.)
Technically, learning of my story would make my rapist’s wife a secondary survivor, although the term is commonly reserved for people close to survivors themselves. Research shows that hearing about a loved one’s assault can take a heavy toll. According to one study, as many as 1 in 4 secondary survivors experience post-traumatic stress disorder, tormented by imagining what befell someone they love or wracked with guilt at not having prevented it.
As for the family members of perpetrators, given that nearly 2 in 3 sexual assaults are not reported to police and that research shows many college-aged men do not associate forcible intercourse with rape, the odds are that they will never know what their loved ones did.
I could change that, at least in this case. But as I inventory potential consequences, I know my silence will go on protecting me and my unasked-for compatriot, my rapist’s wife. By not naming him, I spare us both. I remain safe from scrutiny and from reliving another brutalizing round of doubt. Not from the people around me this time, but from at least some of those around him.
Maybe she would believe me. If so, it would come at a terrible price. It would surely rock their marriage — maybe even end it. If her children are old enough to ask why, she would have to find a way to tell them. Like me, she would have to decide how and to whom to tell this story of how her life went off the rails; how she was forced to question everything she thought she knew about herself and the people she loved. And like me, she might spiral into paralyzing depression, finding simple tasks insurmountable and full recovery years away.
Her husband had that power over me and used it. Now I have that power over another woman, so I won’t.