We all keep secrets. Sometimes we keep them from ourselves. I’m an expert at this.
I think it must have been something I learned to do. I think it must have taken some time to learn. But I don’t remember a beginning. I don’t remember the first time I lied to myself. I don’t remember developing the skills I needed to hide the truth. I only remember realizing I’d been doing it. For years. For more than a decade.
When I was 19 I was raped.
The man was someone I knew, someone I loved, someone I thought loved me. But it turns out I was raped by a man who lied to me.
I didn’t know what was happening to me was rape. Yes, I felt violated and ashamed. Yes, I told him no (I told him again and again) and he did it anyway. But I loved this man and he loved me. So it wasn’t “rape,” not that terrible thing we talked about in health class, that thing that was “about power and not love.”
Instead, I believed that what happened to me was completely about lust. The sin of lust, to be specific. My sin. Each time I was raped, I begged God to forgive me for me for what I’d done. You have to understand that at this time my beliefs in good behavior and purity had been twisted by my church upbringing into a sick belief in a need for perfection.
I believed with all my heart that what had happened was my fault, that I could have, should have prevented it, was perhaps even the cause of it. I prayed over and over again for cleansing. I thought the dirtiness I felt was my own guilt. I know now it was violation, a coat of hell I’m still trying to scrape off my skin.
I felt completely worthless while I was dating this man. I was sinning; I was causing the man I loved to sin. I apologized to him. I told him I would try not to let it happen again. I thought I was lucky this man still loved me after what I’d done. My greatest fear was that he’d stop.
I told no one.
Until about a year ago. “You were raped,” my best friend told me. “No,” I told him, “it was never not consensual.”
This is where the lying comes in. Even as I explained what had happened, even as I described hands touching skin I didn’t want touched, sexuality forced upon me, fear and shame and not wanting it to happen, I told my friend it was my fault, that I’d been guilty of sex before marriage. I told him the shame I felt was my own fault because I’d sinned. I deserved that shame. And the disgust I remembered was with myself, not this man.
I believed it. I told my friend the man I’d now been married to for fourteen years was a good man. It didn’t matter that when we were dating he was a senior and I was a freshman, that he had taken advantage of my innocence and inexperience, that he hadn’t been considerate of my feelings or my boundaries; he’d married (worthless) me and was a good father and a good husband. The sex was my fault because he was a good man and I was bad.
“You were raped.”
The words sunk in as I tried to unravel my shame last spring. My friend told me I was worthy, told me I had a right to say no to anything, even sex, even if the man loved me, even if I loved him, even if I was married to him.
I found a way to share the blame I felt with my husband, at least fifty-fifty.
And then I found out this man had lied to me to make me trust him while we were dating. I discovered he lied a lot. Enough that I knew I couldn’t trust him anymore. I divorced him.
I’d been angry for years that my husband never felt the shame or remorse I felt for the sins we’d committed before we were married. He told me he’d made peace. But as spring turned to summer, I was suddenly disturbed and suspicious of his lack of emotion.
I was raped.
I started to own the words before I believed them. Yes, I remembered being violated. Yes, I remembered saying no. Yes, I remembered being touched in ways that made me sick. But I thought I was mistaken, that the last thing I wanted to do was accuse an innocent man, even if he was my ex-husband, of rape because my memory was false and I’d said yes when I thought I’d said no. I couldn’t blame him if I was wrong and had actually wanted what happened to me.
I spoke the words I was trying to own in a very small circle—to my two best friends, my counselor, the man I was dating—I denied it to myself, refusing to let go of the blame. And then I found proof.
Sixteen summers ago I kept a journal, a record of the year I was 19. It was explicit:
“I had sex with him last night. I told him no, but he didn’t stop.”
I was raped.
It hit like a wave, at the same time filling my lungs and pulling me so deep I could no longer see the light above the surface. The secret was out. I couldn’t deny it to myself anymore. It’s impossible to argue with a first-hand account. The man I married raped me.
I’m still drowning. The sadness I feel is profound, consuming. I can understand why I kept it from myself, told myself it was my fault. Because realizing someone I loved and trusted violated me so completely is so much harder to accept than a mistake I made.
I understand that honesty is the first step to healing. And the honesty of this should lift my shame and free me from guilt, and maybe it has. But the void that remains is deep and dark. The man I once loved more than anyone else betrayed me. That image of a “good man” is now no different than Dorian Gray’s painting. And, worse, memories I once refused to remember are flooding back in all their truth. I was raped.
My friends keep telling me it’s not my fault, and I need to hear those words over and over again. I need to know I’m worthy and loved and braver than I ever knew. I need to know there’s goodness left in this world, a light at the end of the darkness, and even though my secret is out, I still deserve some of that goodness.
Be brave. Tell your secrets. Tell the truth. Even to yourself. It’s difficult and painful, I know. But honesty is so much better than living a lie. It’s so much better than losing yourself in a lie. It’ll be okay. You’ll survive. And best of all, you’ll no longer be alone.