Christa Parravani is the author of “Her: A Memoir.”
Whether you’re traveling on a bus in New Delhi, India, or drinking at a teen party in Stuebenville, Ohio, rape, it seems, is never far. In the United States, nearly one in five women have been raped at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — most of them before age 25. Across the planet, more than one in three women will be physically or sexually abused by men.
But whatever the grisly statistics, the number of people damaged by rape is much higher. Those devastated by sexual violence against women far outnumber any official tallies.
I know this math intimately.
In 2001, my identical twin, Cara, was raped by Edgardo Hernandez, a stranger, when we were 24. It was a violent act that destroyed her. And then it almost destroyed me.
After her rape, Cara took drugs in quantities that would prove to be lethal, doses she felt she needed to help her forget. She died from an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl, a pain medication, on a late spring afternoon — June 13, 2006. And even though her death was an accident, no one who knew Cara doubts that Hernandez, though he didn’t murder her, took her life nonetheless. It just took four years, seven months and 26 days.
Cara said it best from the witness stand during her rapist’s sentencing: “Edgardo Hernandez is the worst kind of thief. He did not steal my wedding rings, yet my marriage has dissolved. He did not take my legs, yet for over a year I was afraid to leave my house, to walk around in broad daylight. October 18, 2001, was the day I died.”
My sister died from a rape. She is that rape’s core victim — its axis of suffering, of torment, of woe — but she is not its only victim.
I don’t know how our mother, who raised us alone, has managed to endure. Mom was the one who bandaged Cara’s badly injured back where Hernandez bit it during her rape. Mom double-bolted the apartment door to lock us safely inside. And Mom was the one who found Cara’s body when she died. Mom was the first and last person ever to touch my sister.
But she was not the only person touched by her. Cara’s teachers at Guilderland High School in Upstate New York and at Bard College loved her. Her graduate professors and fellow students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst loved her like family. Her husband loved her, and when that marriage ended after her rape, her boyfriends loved her. These people were hurt when she was brutalized. All of them lost her when she died.
My sister once outran a mountain lion in a Santa Cruz forest. My sister wrote the draft of a novel. My sister meditated at an altar in her living room adorned with shiny plastic grapes and pictures of those she loved, alive and dead. The sound of her laugh was the purest music I knew, a certain melody that she convinced me even the dead could hear.
And she possessed a power over me. Researchers speculate that, when a twin dies, the surviving twin’s life expectancy is shortened. I barely survived Cara’s death. The agony of losing her was inescapable. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw her. Whenever I spoke, I heard her. And then, because I missed her so and wanted her back, I tried to become her.
I began to do the kinds of things that would lead me to follow her to the grave. I took drugs. I attempted suicide. I was caught in the trauma of her absence. My first marriage ended after Cara died. I played the loop of her rape in my mind, for that was the moment I’d really lost her. Now my second husband must hold me and listen to my version of Cara’s story whenever the anguish wells up again.
I survived, but it was a close call.
Cara’s rapist struck every person who ever loved her. Then he hurt every person who ever loved me. It is stunning how far the grief of rape travels — across generations. Violent acts done to us affect our children not yet born.
My daughter is 18 months old. Baby Josephine sits on my hip, pushing trustingly against me as I show her a picture of Cara and me that hangs on our dining room wall. In it, we’re holding hands.
“There’s Aunt Cara,” I tell Josephine, smiling, hoping to teach her who this important woman was. “Mama,” Josephine says, proud of herself, placing her tiny finger over my cheek in the photograph. She looks at the photograph again, at these identical women, perplexed, and then claps her hands. “Mama,” she says again, gently stroking Cara’s cheek.
“I’m not the same,” my sister often said after her rape, “but you want me to be.” Sometimes she said this so forcefully that I was frightened. But she was right. There was a Cara before and a Cara after. Her body became marked with piercings and covered with tattoos — Cara’s effort to reclaim control over it.
This isn’t easy to admit, but when Cara was learning to navigate the world as a changed woman, I pleaded with her to move on. I was uncomfortable. I found myself replacing the word “rape” with the word “attack,” sanitizing the truth. But rape gains power in the shadows. Cara said we must never look away.
What will I tell my daughter when she is old enough to ask about Cara’s rape and death?
One thing I will tell her is this: When you hear or see a story about rape or read a statistic about sexual violence against women, multiply the number of people harmed. Be conservative, if you must. Assume that two other women loved or depended on each woman or girl who was violated. So, for one rape, three are injured. And one in three women are assaulted worldwide. So, what’s that?
Three in three women are harmed.