Facebook relationship statuses have become so much like the Greek god, Atlas. They carry the weight of a woman’s definition on their backs. Two years ago, having that small, pink heart connecting my name to the name of the man I was dating at the time was of the upmost importance. I had been dating a man at my university, Ronald, for almost a year, but he just could never work up the gumption to ever define me as his girlfriend. On Facebook, or otherwise. Ronald was charming, a good listener, and incredibly handsome. Too handsome to be humble. And, clearly far too handsome to commit himself to just one woman.
Still, he and I did all of the things that a committed boyfriend a girlfriend do together. He took me out to dinner, he walked me to my doorstep from my car when I returned from work after dark, he kissed me passionately, and told me he loved me. Little by little, in pursuit of a man to have and hold me, I began compromising. I thought that the more I gave to him, the more he’d be willing to accept me. To define and affirm me. This was about so much more than Facebook: I wanted to be loved and cherished and I wanted to be set apart from the “single” and “it’s complicated” crowd.
Eventually, he began picking out clothes for me. He started following me to work to make sure I was going where I said I was going. He checked my phone call logs, texts and Facebook messages. From the inside, this seemed like a totally normal relationship dynamic. After all, this was love, wasn’t it? I was willing to do anything to secure this man’s acceptance. And I was caught between doing what pleased God and what pleased Ronald. He began encouraging and hinting at his want for a deeper, more physical relationship. The more isolated I became from my friends, family and church community, the more willing I was to be physically vulnerable with him.
This was quickly unraveling my sense of exactly what I was worth. Because, throughout the pursuit of a relationship confirmed (virtually or otherwise) there was one word I had failed to define… I didn’t realize it until it was too late. Until the day I paid a visit to, Emily, the Title IX coordinator on my college campus. Emily was in charge of investigating sexual assault cases that allegedly take place within the realm of the university.
I sat in the office she called “her closet.” By her desk was a large bulletin board, and at least a dozen marathon medals dangled from the edges of it. At the end of the row of medals was a small pink note. “Coming soon!” it read in a very neat, feminine print, presumably in anticipation of a marathon-in-progress. Through the guidance of my counselor, I decided to tell Emily about the relationship I had withRonald. From start to finish, I told my story, no details unturned or uncomfortable words left behind. I told her about Ronald, the words he used to describe me, and how after a while, he stopped listening to the word “no.” I told her about a day our physical relationship escalated too quickly.
“What do you mean, ‘too quickly?’” She was gentle, but direct with her words. I shifted, suddenly uncomfortable in my seat. “Well, nothing,” I stammered. “I just mean that sometimes we’d be…making out or something and then before I knew it we’d be on the floor.” I stopped as soon as I noticed she was staring at me. She didn’t seem to be as haunted by the thick smog of silence falling over the room like I was. I was wringing my hands, but she sat still, expectantly, with her legal pad in hand and mechanical pencil poised. She was taking notes, and waiting for me to continue.
“And…” I kept going in an attempt to fill the shifty silence. “Well, I’ve never really told anyone this before but there was one time when he decided to have sex with me when I didn’t want to.”
Emily drew in a sharp breath. I could feel the air rush into her lungs from across the room.
Then, it was as if I couldn’t stop talking. Like I had just broken the dam of ugly, dirty clumps of words that came to life and waved wickedly as they sprawled from out of my mouth. The place in my mind where I had kept them locked away and starved. “I told him, ‘No. Not now. I have to go to work soon,’’ I looked to the floor as I continued, carefully trying to remember the exact incident. Truthfully, it had been so long, I was beginning to wonder if it really happened to me or if I were telling someone else’s story. The whole memory of that day was as distant to me as the day my brother was born. It was an important day, it stood out, but it only came back to me in flips and flashes. I couldn’t rest easily or assuredly in the details.
“Brett,” said Emily slowly. “You know that’s called rape, right?”
There it was. The definition of a word I had failed to acknowledge: rape. When a woman says “no,”no matter the circumstances or situation. The veil was lifted. Right there, in Emily’s boxy office, among the marathon ribbons, I started a marathon of my own. Twenty-six point two miles of grueling confrontation. Accusing my attacker who I had known and loved. Who I wanted so desperately to love me.
Emily’s eyes were full and sharp. She explained that she couldn’t keep what I told her confidential anymore. She dialed 9-1-1 on her phone, and I was emerged in a process of filing criminal charges and trips to the SVU. Situations I had always heard about, but never anything I thought my life would be defined by.
That day, as I was confessing my past to Emily, she took my hands and made me repeat in prayer after her:
“Dear God,” said Emily with words strong and graceful. “Thank you for loving me. Thank you for making me beautiful. Thank you for making me a writer.”
I bent my head and the tears fell to my lap. A tiny pool collected there as I struggled to form those words. Writer. Beautiful. Loved. I somehow managed to squeak the words out, meek as they sounded. In that moment, I discovered that all along, I had only wanted those words to define me. If I had only just believed them, I would have saved myself from one terrifying mess of a heartbreak.
Still, admitting I had been victimized, and admitting to the definition of rape was the first step on the road to no longer needing people or relationships to define me. It was there, in Emily’s office, I escaped from the cloak of words like victim, and assault. I escaped from the lies of Ronald, and was able to explore the meaning of the world’s most beautiful words: redemption, dignity, healing and courage.
Story by Brett Wilson