Shelley Wolf Harris shares some of the details of her experience with rape many years ago, while other memories surrounding this event remain missing—yet that does not make her pain any less real. By placing herself in the context of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Harris uses parallel storytelling to share how trauma and memory can affect one’s experience after violence. The stories of these two women blend into one another, and their decades-long journeys through pain lead to discoveries of sturdy resolves, conviction, and greater compassion for the self.
Why Didn’t I Tell?
by SHELLEY WOLF HARRIS
September 2020, two years since Christine Blasey Ford testified to Brett Kavanaugh’s character at his hearing. I understand why she answered so many questions “I do not know.” Time and trauma play tricks on one’s memory. Belatedly, in 2014 I wrote to the President of my college reporting my rape, stating it occurred in the fall. I now believe it was springtime, because I broke up with my high school boyfriend after the winter term and looked forward to my first frat parties that spring.
Feeling good after a long and snowy upstate New York winter and having recently freed myself from my high school relationship, I was excited about a festive sun–kissed afternoon of mingling at the legendary “rites of spring” fraternity party. My last memory of the celebration was enjoying the socializing until dusk, while drinking the sweet punch. My next memory begins the following morning, with me slowly waking, finding myself in a fraternity brother’s elevated bed, naked, my legs spread apart by him, and him forcefully penetrating me, thrusting. I couldn’t move. I felt paralyzed, muddled from the effects of the alcohol, but also from shock. I was eighteen; this was my first experience with sexual intercourse.
My brain foggy, I wondered how I got there. Alarmed, I forced myself awake, eventually wriggling from under his heavy athletic frame and climbing from his bed to find my clothes. He made a curious attempt to be polite, offering me breakfast in the frat’s kitchen. Embarrassed and anxious about being seen, I declined.
Like Dr. Ford, I have no witnesses to corroborate my rape. Anyone who saw me celebrating a 1973 sunlit afternoon on the fraternity’s lush green lawn, overlooking a glistening New York Finger Lake, could have thought I went willingly to the athlete’s bedroom. I don’t remember going to his room. I was too drunk and unaware to offer any objection. Or to offer my consent.
I left mortified, trying to act like nothing happened. I never reported my rape or spoke of it to anyone. Why? I thought I was at fault for drinking too much. Adding to the indignity, that lacrosse-playing frat brother never looked me in the eye again or spoke to me, which further degraded and stung me as if he slapped my face. The physical pain stayed for days; the emotional pain remained for decades. Do I remember my rapist’s name? You bet I do.
It took a profound scare, my daughter’s risky behavior, to provoke me to face and share my deepest secret. Her drinking and nighttime disappearances led me to resurrect and confront my most demeaning experience. I shared, “Your drinking worries me because I was trusting and raped after drinking too much.” It took me almost that long to acknowledge that I was raped and another decade after that to overcome my shame. It seems odd now that it didn’t occur to me to place at least part of the blame on my rapist.
When I was sixty years old, a therapist asked me, “Why didn’t you tell your parents?” I couldn’t answer. His question haunted me. Only after reflecting upon it for days, for months, for more than a year did I understand why. It was fear. Fear of what I assumed my parents would think of me. Fear of being berated. Fear that it was my fault.
How far back can I trace this fear?
At sixteen years young, my parents summoned me into their bedroom. The hairs on the back of my head stood up. I tensed, knowing I was entering “A Serious Discussion.” I sat on the edge of their bed, my mother sitting next to me; dad loomed before us. He said, “Today Rabbi Barras told me that Marlene’s parents told him you pressured her to smoke marijuana.”
Of the three synagogues in our area, Rabbi Barris was THE rabbi of our community; my father was embarrassed to learn such personal information from him. I broke a whopping family rule. We “don’t hang our dirty laundry out in public.” The more he spoke to me, the more my father’s emotions and voice level increased, escalating into a venomous rant. His radioactive tirade culminated with “You’re a whore!”
The power of that word. It vibrated through the air, to my head, traveled to my heart and lodged in my soul to throb for the remainder of my life. That perplexing exclamation was the peak and worst of his fury… and my strongest memory. I was stunned by his vehemence and sat on my parents’ bed sobbing, racked with guilt…for making Marlene feel bullied, for what I assumed her parents thought of me, for embarrassing my father, for embarrassing myself.
Now, I no longer torture myself and wonder why I didn’t report my rape. I mistakenly thought it was my fault.
Additionally, like Dr. Ford I wouldn’t be believed, because of gaps in my memory and a lack of witnesses. A few years ago I tweeted my experience: “I don’t remember the exact day I was raped over 40 years ago, but I remember my rapist’s name, his nickname, the color of his poker straight hair, his face, his build & a vague vision of the room where the rape occurred. I tried to forget, but the trauma stays with me. Maybe Kavanaugh forgot but Ford never will.”
It doesn’t surprise me that my evolution, from rape victim to struggling survivor to a fighter and lastly to conductor of my triumphant life, mirrored society’s progress. Sexual assault victims, predators and the public are being educated about what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior and rape. Women have gained courage, are speaking up and will not back down.
I will not succumb to thinking that nothing I do will provoke change. I no longer feel ashamed or blush when I tell people I was raped.
I’m fighting back. Having found my voice, I’m using it with increasing boldness. Imprisoned for almost five decades by a hidden trauma, it is now my righteous cause.
Except for one real estate article, I’ve never published. Currently, I’m ecstatically retired (former commercial/industrial real estate exec) and enjoying crafting (mostly found art), ten-year volunteer at an after-school facility (pre-Covid-19), athlete, wife, mother of 3 (a therapist, a USMC officer, and a former Peace Corps volunteer now a graduate student) and daughter caring for 91 year old mother and Covid-19 survivor.
Survivor? I looked at different definitions for “survivor.” This definition certainly applies: “a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks,” so I guess I am a survivor. However, I’m much more than that. My husband was attracted to my strong independence. My son, a USMC lieutenant thinks I’m a “badass,” which I accept as a compliment. My oldest daughter believes I’m generous, and my youngest daughter is inspired by my sense of adventure. Reflecting on the characteristics they admire in me, I think they all pertain in standing strong and proudly publishing my story.