A guest post by Sue Hartman
It’s been almost 30 years since I worked my last rape case as a crisis counselor in Salt Lake City. I moved to Colorado in 1979, leaving my childhood home and crisis career behind me. It wasn’t until I got across the Continental Divide that I realized how relieved I felt. I still hate the sound of a ringing phone, especially post-midnight. I avoid most phone calls even now, particularly if I don’t initiate them. It’s not until you land in a safe haven where you can finally exhale, that you realize how tightly you’re been wound. Or how wounded you’ve become, without evidence of dripping blood. Empathy is a necessity in service occupations, but it isn’t necessarily healthy. When I left Utah, my next career move was into Social Services: Child Welfare. Burn-out was destiny. Add guilt and shame for abandoning people and agencies who perpetually need help yet demand total devotion. To keep body and soul intact, I turned away from counseling, leaving the stresses of politics and direct services behind for good. No looking back. I became a writer; no one else’s survival depended on it. Besides, you can do it alone. No one judges a writer withdrawing from the outside world; it’s inherent in the job description.
Intentionally or not, I soon forgot names of sexual assault victims, and rightly so, given the absolute necessity for confidentiality. I let specifics float away. Perhaps indulging myself in magical thinking; I half-way believed that if I worked to remember, it would lock victims into their own histories (make that her-stories) maybe delaying healing. It’s easier to deny what’s happened and/or to forget trauma if no one is around who reminds you. Perhaps if I could forget, it would somehow facilitate them to do so, too. My best bet, when I’m feeling logical, is that it is nothing’s ever that easy. Names may be erased, but circumstances and some faces, I’ll never forget. I’ve dreamt about clients, but with less frequency over the intervening decades.
In my dreams, a group of ten girls in gauzy dresses huddle in a corner, shivering near a radiator, in a train station. Most are teenagers; a few appear college-aged. Two are small children. On closer look, one actually is a boy, about five, wearing a bathrobe. Some of the girls sport casts on their arms or wave bandaged hands. Their scars are covered. One slight woman, however, has an angry crimson scar which dashes from her lower right eyelid down over her cheekbone to her chin. Other than where she is scarred, she has the palest skin, almost transparent, and wispy ash-blond hair. She never looks up. Over time, as the frequency of the dreams diminishes, the angular structures of cheekbones and chins blur and hair colors fade. The actors in my dreams begin to blanch like ghosts.
I don’t remember encountering these women in my sleep in the past few years, but writing isn’t as safe as it sounds, either. Over time, I’ve accrued newer nightmares. Be careful about who and what you write.
During Thanksgiving week last November when I was visiting Utah, I went shopping with my 31-year-old niece and her son in the Gateway Center. I wanted to buy her a perfect birthday jacket to wear to her office Christmas party. Her boy’s birthday was also coming up; I bought him a computer game. We were in and out of that tech store in five minutes. By lunchtime, we’d explored nearly every women’s boutique. My ankles were swelling. My ten-year-old grand-nephew slumped to the floor and played games on his cell phone while his mom tried on a dozen outfits. I knew which jacket I wanted to buy for my niece; it was the first one we’d spotted, in Anthropologie, two hours earlier. It was a deep-cut, pale coral velvet jacket that would contrast perfectly with her sapphire-colored sweater. We could’ve bought it then, but she didn’t want me to spend that much on a jacket, and besides, we hadn’t seen everything everywhere yet, so on we trudged, looking for something lovely in her size, zero to two, (sigh).
At my prodding, we entered Chico’s, a store that displayed stacks of colorful merchandise. From the way my niece wrinkled her nose, I could tell that no matter how vibrant, the styles looked matronly to her. No matter they seemed almost juvenile to me (and nearly 60, I don’t want to wear granny-styles myself). I stepped back to see how the one almost-rust colored leather jacket—that she’d indulged me enough try on—looked on my sister’s youngest and pickiest child, when I collided with another shopper. Ouch.
“Please excuse me,” I muttered and tried to smile my most appeasing grin. It was my fault; I wasn’t looking.
“Not a problem.” The woman I’d run into was middle-aged, with a ragged haircut that looked trendy and youthful, but her hair was dyed unflattering taupe. Her stylist got that much wrong. Our eyes met, and we froze. I noticed a faint scar, mostly disguised by makeup, running vertically down the length of her face from beneath her left tear duct to her chin. My dreams had always got that wrong; the other cheek. It was a reflection, mirrored backwards, but the same bewildered eyes, with crows’ feet.
Judging by her obvious fear, I knew my former client recognized me, too. Yes, I was the woman who once took her to the ER in a ferocious blizzard, me holding a bath towel tightly to her face. She’d jammed another between her legs. My male back-up from the Rape Crisis Center was driving his own jeep with four-wheel drive; we slid sideways on the icy streets if we slowed down, or stopped at redlights.
I don’t know how she realized it was me. I’ve plumped out considerably since menopause, and my hair is significantly grayer. I used to wear contacts, now I wear graduated bifocals. In no physical way, do I resemble my former self. At least I don’t think I do. But still, she knew. In that moment when we met in the Chico’s store at the Gateway Center, more than thirty years fell away. She was again the terrorized woman who refused to speak to detectives. I was the exhausted Crisis Worker, who along with the exasperated female intern, urged the victim to report, not just to help herself, but to protect other women. The victim could prevent the rapist from striking again and hurting someone else. She refused to cooperate, yelling at the Salt Lake patrolman who had arrived and even at my male back-up to get the hell out of the exam area. Men! Sobbing, she told me she was too scared that her fiancé would discover what happened to her. It would always have to be her secret. Couldn’t we respect that? We could and we did. We had to.
The whole tragic pageant, the cold glare of the exam room, the echoing, cavernous halls of the University Medical Center outside the curtain, the warmth of the plastic surgeon’s voice as he pushed the curtain aside, all came back in a flash. He wore a green mask with turquoise scrubs. There were some small brown stains on his scrubs and you could see dark curly hairs at the base of his throat. He had reassuring long fingers, like a pianist. Him, she would trust, only to sew her cheek back together. Somebody had to do it.
In Chico’s last November, I couldn’t know if she recalled our former meeting exactly the way I did, or with such precision. I knew she had other details, more horrific, to recollect. I hoped she’d repress that much at least. I tried to resist checking the ring finger of her left hand, but I couldn’t help myself, and I hoped at least I was subtle about it. Her finger was bare. I knew it didn’t matter in what manner her life had played out, anymore than it did mine. She was a survivor. Period.
Trying to get out of her way, instead I stepped right into her path again, and fumbled another apology.
“No problem,” she repeated, turned on her heel, and strode out of the store. Gratefully, everyone else in Chico’s was oblivious to our claustrophobic microcosm—just another historic drama, a period piece. Nevermind.
In 1975, when I graduated from the first class of rape crisis center counselors in the newly founded Salt Lake City Rape Crisis Center, it was estimated that only one in seven victims of sexual assault reported the crime to authorities.
By 2005, the US Justice Department estimated that 26% or about one in four assaults were currently reported. That shows some improvement, but hardly the leap of awareness I hoped to discover thirty years later. NOW claims that there are 132,000 reported sexual assaults in the US. If that represents about one fourth, how many total assaults would be represented? 528,000. The entire population of a large city, approximately the size of Washington DC. (522,000 estimate, 2006) Would more be done, would the stigma of being a victim be erased if all American sexual assaults occurred simultaneously, in the same area, such as Washington? What if every Washingtonian was raped? Would society be outraged enough to demand change? Currently, twenty-nine percent of college girls report that they have been assaulted at least once since age 14. One in six American women has been raped, and it’s important to note that one tenth of all sexual assault victims are male.
— Sue Hartman is a writer who currently lives in Boulder County, Colorado. A former social worker, she has worked as a newsprint journalist, free-lance magazine feature writer, essayist, short story author and poet. Her work has garnered mainstream fiction awards, and appeared in literary journals. Her essays and stories have been widely anthologized, including non-fiction appearing in Woven on the Wind and Crazy Woman Creek, collections which celebrate western women’s contributions to the world. Her short story “La Loma, La Luna” first appeared in High Fantastic, a Colorado anthology, and was chosen for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, 9th Edition. She has two novels in the process of revision and is co-authoring a non-fiction work about Cold Case murders in Utah in the 1980’s, working with a former Salt Lake City Police gang officer.