Growing up, I only knew one story about rape. It was a story repeated over and over again. There was a violent, senseless attack – a man against a girl. And when it was over, there were tears and suffering, often followed by the catharsis of a righteous justice system. The man goes to jail and the girl is forever changed from the person she was before. Her trauma continues in the form of that permanent change, or mark. It’s a trauma perhaps tempered by the release of speaking her truth in front of other powerful men, but a permanent trauma nonetheless.
This story isn’t a lie. But it isn’t my story.
I can’t tell you if my rape was violent or senseless, for the very simple and common reason that I can’t remember it. I was blacked out—unconscious, and I think drugged, although I have no way of knowing for sure. And, because I had so little information, the catharsis of a court of law wasn’t available to me; the good—the correct way—of getting through that experience wasn’t an option.
Instead, the catharsis I found was in a joke.
I was sitting at my parents’ dining room table, distraught and nauseated. No one knew what to say. And my most irreverent friend (honestly, probably the most irreverent person in New York, which is hard to pull off) hustled into the house, plopped down in a chair, and with a big smile on his face, said, “So, Max. You gonna see this guy again?”
And I laughed.And it hit me: I was allowed to laugh. I was allowed to find a “rape joke” funny and to laugh.
I believe firmly in the power of stories. I think our identities are essentially made up of the stories we tell about ourselves. I think we cope through the stories we tell about ourselves. And the only story I knew about rape couldn’t help me when I needed one. I wasn’t the right kind of victim (sober), it wasn’t the right kind of attack (say, at knifepoint), and I couldn’t fix it in the right way (I had no way of identifying the guy). The only story I knew about rape didn’t fit; that story told me only that I didn’t deserve to feel as sad and stolen-from as I did—after all, if there wasn’t a story about it, it couldn’t be exactly a real rape, right? The only story I knew told me that, when it came to having been raped, I was doing it wrong.
So I kept going back to that joke.
I had started writing The Accidental Bad Girl just a few months before. I had wanted to write an origin story for a femme fatale, a fun and dark, twisty thriller. This was also around the same time that seventh-grade girls were getting suspended for wearing leggings to school and I was (still am) extremely angry. I wanted to write an angry, rebel-yell-kick to the groin of slut-shaming. And I like to think that I did. But rape culture and, well, rape wouldn’t leave my head and so I wrote about that, too. I kept it all.
I ended up writing a black comedy that also has rape. It’s a mystery, a neo-noir, about a badass teenage girl with no idea of how to handle rape culture. And there’s another girl in my novel, an even more badass, character, who is raped and comes out the other side even more herself than she already was, not less. She is not fundamentally changed and she is certainly not diminished.
I am not alone in being unable to find solace in the old stories we have about rape. These stories tell us that if we don’t fit into a particularly narrow mold, then we are at fault. They tell us that we are not allowed to choose another way to cope.
We are living in an era of #MeToo. What we should have learned in the past year is that we all have stories of life in a rape culture. We cannot possibly all find our path or comfort or identity in the same old story. If there is still only one acceptable way to be a girl in a rape culture, then we’re only doing half the work when we say, “Me too.” Rape culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum and its stories can’t either.
We need more stories. Everyone has a right to a story that feels like the truth. The Accidental Bad Girl is mine.