The strength and earnestness with which Martinez describes her incomplete memories serve to prove that strong feelings are just as powerful as concrete details. Feelings are true, they leave lasting effects on one’s life, and this alone makes them important. Yet many of those who experience sexual violence also experience self-doubt. This piece asks many questions familiar to those who have experienced sexual violence–what makes someone a survivor? What counts? “Is my experience valid?” Martinez shares moments and years of doubt and distrust–she must grapple doubly with violence and lack of memory, and this makes the resilience in sharing her story now shine through.
by Illianna Martinez
“Sexual assault” paints a picture far too violent to capture my experience. “Survivor” is a word too strong to summarize my existence reference to what I have endured. I do not feel like I have “survived” anything. I feel like my experiences were just something that happened. I feel that “Survivor” gives my experiences, which are mild compared to others, more importance than I deserve.
When I remember my experiences, some things are clear to me, while others are just out of reach. I feel as though I am looking through a broken stained-glass window. Through sections that are missing, I can see clearly. But, through the remaining glass, I can only see shadows, or it is impossible to see through. If I take a step back, I cannot tell what was there or what I am supposed to be looking at.
When I was about five years old, I made a friend named London. London and I exchanged tales about how we both had backgrounds of being stripped naked and having our pictures displayed on a wall. A teacher overheard us speaking, and my parents were informed of the conversation. I assured them that I was lying because I thought I was in trouble. I was not sure then, and I am not sure now how much was true. I immediately cut London out of my life and regarded her as an enemy for “getting me in trouble.” I pushed all memories that prompted our conversations deep down inside of me. However, whenever I watch a movie that depicts sexual assault or rape, the remnants haunt me. I have these recollections of being in a dark place with a man. I cannot see him in my memories. I hear him laughing, and it is so familiar. I detect a camera clicking. I am naked and cold, and I want him to hold me, but he is doing something else to me. Why is the laughter so familiar? Am I in a Darkroom? Do I see a photograph of myself hanging? What is he doing to me? Why does the sound of shrieking girls and images of rape bring me back here?
I have learned that my broken memories do not give a clear picture, even when I should have been old enough to remember. When I was seventeen years old, I was shocked to discover that Reiki did not involve getting naked or touched. I remember being told about this revelation. I was wearing a yellow collared shirt and standing in a town office waiting to sign up for an activity for school. I was with my mother; it was scorching and humid. My hair was so frizzy, not at all inhibited by my hairspray-soaked bun, and I could feel the hairs adhered to the perspiration on the back of my neck. I told my mom I wanted to learn Reiki for my patients, but I did not want them to feel violated with my touching them while they were naked. My mother was very confused when she revealed that was not how Reiki worked. I was suddenly frigid and clammy without registering why. I was brought back to a memory I had not thought of until that moment.
I was around eleven years old, however, truthfully, I cannot remember how old I was. I remember lying on a cold flat surface in the basement of my house. My great aunt was a Reiki master and had me strip, but I cannot remember if it was complete or partial. I remember feeling her fingers run across my bare stomach, neck, collar bones, and thighs. I remember cool crystals being rubbed all over my body. I remember her cold thin fingers between my inner thighs, lingering. But what else did they do? What else did she do to me? The memory leaves me feeling upset, distressed, alone, and scared. What happened? Why can I not remember? I forced myself to sit with these questions, and I discovered I had many broken memories with my great aunt. I felt comfortable being wholly or partially undressed with her, which is an extremely uncharacteristic feeling. I remember sitting in her bed several times, having fun, and singing show tunes as a young girl. I feel as though I may have been undressed, and as though she was touching me. I say I feel because I honestly cannot recall. I do not remember feeling scared with her any other time I was alone with her because I was much younger, and I was under the impression there was a fun game-like factor to whatever was happening.
Can you be a “Survivor” when you do not know what happened to you? Does it count as “Sexual Assault” if you cannot confirm any details? Can you be a “Survivor” when you cannot trust your own memory? Where do I fit in? What does my story mean? Is my experience valid? I try not to think about the answers to these questions.
I have not heard the man’s familiar laugh again and I do not know who it belongs to. That one hurts less because it is so vague. I have not talked to my great aunt much since the memory of the “Reiki” experience emerged a few years ago. I have been told to call her about random life events several times, but I just do not want to. I still ask about her. I have not told anyone but my boyfriend about either experience. I cannot recount what happened to my mom because I do not know for sure what happened. When I think about telling my mom, I become overwhelmed by a sense of guilt I cannot explain. I will never tell my grandmother because any details would likely break her heart, and she does not deserve that pain. I do not want to create family drama and family heartbreak over a broken memory.
Illianna Martinez is a student at the University of Connecticut. She has been published by Zimbell House Publishing and by Thurston Howl Publications. Illianna spends much of her time traveling and eating.