I will tell you what I know of the way silence grows roots inside of a person, until all that is left is a brutal, crushing vacancy where a voice ought to be.
I was 17 when I was raped by a classmate. He was someone I knew, someone I trusted, but in the end, none of that mattered. I would not find out until eight months later that I was pregnant as a result of the assault. My daughter, Zoe, would grow inside of me with a fatal congenital birth defect that took away her ability to think, or emote, or connect to the world in all the fundamental ways that make a life worth living.
I was forced to give birth to the child of this rape, always connected in some way to the man who took so much from me. I lived in Alabama, which this week welcomed a draconian new abortion law, but the state’s politicians have never borne any ethical compunctions about controlling women and subverting their agency. To them, we are collateral in a game of politics, and the suffering they inflict matters very little ― if at all ― to them. They have no interest in perspective or stories like my own, but I must speak ― or else the woman behind me might not.
It starts with a man at a water park in Destin, Florida, and I’m 9 years old. He grabs my inner tube as he passes by, reaches under and sticks his fingers high up between my thighs. His thumb strokes against me. I look over at him, shocked. I want to scream, but he smiles back at me. His eyes are everywhere I am. He says, reassuringly, “Looked like you were drifting off, just thought I’d help,” and lets me go. I float like flotsam, jetsam down the Lazy River, and the space between my legs is burning, my heart is pounding, but I say nothing because he was just trying to help.
Second semester, freshman year of high school, I am outside waiting for my mother to pick me up. A boy I’ve never met jumps out from behind the columns, runs up behind me and grabs my ass. I stumble forward, my head whipping around in time to see him sprinting toward the gym. “It was a dare!” he shouts back at me, as if this gives him reason and excuse to have me under his hands, to hook into me as if my flesh were meat hanging raw and waiting.
There is a boy whom I dance with at the military ball in my sophomore year. The following Monday at school he begins stalking me. He follows me to my classes even though I never tell him my schedule, asks people who know me where I live, corners me alone in the courtyard and tries to kiss me. He writes violent stories about me in class after I reject him. In these stories, he slits my throat for my deceit, for leading him on with smiles and kindness. “He’s done that to half of us in this class,” the other girls explain. “The teachers won’t do anything.”
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These men are not my rapist. Neither are the men who begin leering at me from their car windows, starting when I am 13, who shout the things they want to do to me ― whose whistles are piercing and lecherous, and always reminding me you are on display, before driving off. No, they are not my rapist, but each of them takes something from me ― starting with my agency, my dignity, my sense of safety. They plant little seeds of self-doubt that grow unchecked; the roots spread outward, the silence flows into me, and into my mouth. Slowly, excruciatingly, I am alienated from myself.
This is not the first occasion I have written about the night of my rape, but in times such as these, we must revisit the origins of trauma. I must continue to draw the poison from the wound if I want any sort of progress or if I wish to heal at all. I refuse to let the infection spread, can no longer allow it to sit and continue to fester on my tongue.
Here we are again, back at the Before: I am 17 years old, I am a junior in high school. The darkness within my kitchen is beaming at me like an open mouth. My body is bent against granite. The corner edge of the table is a constant stinging presence against my stomach. A hand, not my own, is around my throat ― all 10 fingers dug in like claws. They are hands that I trusted, the hands of a boy from my Algebra II class. I try to reconcile the hands pushing down my shorts, wrapping around my throat, holding me still, with the hands that occasionally brushed against mine when I reached for a pencil or a piece of gum.
My pulse is churning, my own blood is a hostage in my veins. I don’t know how we got here, when two hours ago we were studying quadratic equations and watching a movie. When his fingertips crept down the inseam of my shorts, I knew that something bad was about to happen ― a gut instinct. They call it that because that’s where you feel it first, a thickness rising up from your stomach, into the back of your throat, and it burns there.
I do not know what he was thinking, if I led him into this with my body or my initial reticence when I got up and moved away. I am so accustomed at this point to men who turn and run away once I turn my head that it never occurs to me that he will follow my path into the kitchen, and even as it is happening ― visceral, undeniable ― I still can’t believe it’s happening. The throb of life is trapped inside me, and I’m trapped inside me, and my body is heavier than it has ever been. My teeth grind together ― but my spine, it folds over so easily, a burnt matchstick crumpling under a thumb.
I feel every bit of flesh and bone ― feel my shadow where it’s pressed flat against the wall. And life is startling and horrible and inescapable in this moment, and my mind is still a part of my body but I don’t want to be. His body is in mine, but I don’t want it to be, and somewhere amid it all, I notice the old oil left on the stove that my mother was too tired to throw away.
I’m shouting, right? Yes. I do it silently though. I don’t use words. I make myself small. I trap the things I mean to say inside my throat and I say, Stay there, don’t move, and he says, “Stay there, don’t move.” I keep my eyes cast to the ground. I tether myself to places I don’t belong: the white tile, the crack running through it. I think I die between one breath and the next, curl up and leave so quietly and so completely that it hardly feels like a death at all.
It is this I remember most: the moment of division when I go limp, the fight evacuates my body, and the rest of me goes with it. The hand around my throat falls away. I watch myself from the other side of the room. I am here, and she ― both me, and absolutely not me ― is there, and we are no longer the same. We say, “You’re not alone,” when this happens, but in this moment I am alone. I am locked inside a moment from which I can never depart, and I have to abandon myself there, and what is left behind is the great gaping maw of shame and silence.
It effectively dispossesses me of my voice. After, I am always afraid, always worried my attacker will come back for me. I see him watching me from across the parking lot and tell myself to never ever speak about that night out loud, because I would rather bear this shame than endure the indignity and violation all over again.
I become pregnant from this rape, but I will not know until it is much too late. I lose weight. It is not uncommon for me to go months without a cycle because I am an athlete, and have an undiagnosed hormonal disorder that I will not know about for 10 more years.
I walk and speak and smile, but a part of me is convinced that I died that night in the kitchen, and my world is no longer real. I am paralyzed the moment reality tries to assert itself. I have the constant, repeated compulsion to climb atop a building, to step off and let the ground rise up to meet me. This is my first thought when the pregnancy test comes back positive. The doctor tells me that the baby is eight months along, and I am climbing to the top of a skyscraper.
She diagnoses my unborn daughter with hydranencephaly, explaining how her cerebrum failed to divide into two separate hemispheres, and instead filled with cerebrospinal fluid. The only reason she continues to experience some degree of development is because the cerebellum and brainstem are ensuring the most rudimentary of functions to sustain her precarious life. If she is born, she will suffer and die so very, very young ― and I step off the ledge.
The doctor tells me that in spite of this, I cannot receive an abortion that will prevent this pain ― both hers and my own. Alabama does not make exceptions for these cases at this stage of pregnancy, and going out of state is beyond my family’s means ― and I fall down and down and down.
I give birth to Zoe on Oct. 27, 2005. I am 18, my legs are spread in front of a room full of doctors as I push her out into the world. She doesn’t cry at all, but she breathes, and my mother cries. They wait to see if she will die and I violently thrust my mind out of my body. I cannot be here for this. I cannot stay in this room. I watch the second hand on the clock tick tick tick.
When they finally bring her over to me, I see she has my red hair, but I cannot bear for my eyes to linger there. I do not want to love her because I already know where this path will one day lead, but I love her anyway. She is blind, deaf, unable to suck, she is already expiring ― just as we all are from the moment of our birth, but she does it so much faster.
I have a front row seat to my daughter’s suffering for an entire year ― the grief moves toward us day by day, merciless and unstoppable. Every other moment until her final one, she lives in pain. I wake to change her diaper in the morning and I find an angry red rash that had not been there five hours ago. I apologize to her, my tears falling on the collar of her onesie as I smear hydrocortisone on her. Even this sort of stimulus to pain sends her into a tonic seizure. Her legs stiffen, her body locks so tight I’m afraid her bones will break. She is diagnosed with diabetes insipidus. She has to have her IV placed in the vein along her skull, because every other vein collapses as soon as it’s touched. Her body is swollen from being unable to regulate its own fluids. She hardly looks like herself. I hold her hand in my open palm, stroking over the distention of her skin. I can’t make out her tiny knuckles.
I am afraid to lie down with Zoe because her reflux, even medicated, is so severe that the risk of aspiration makes it unsafe for her to sleep prostrate. Zoe can’t cry, so she can’t let us know if she has vomited. We always have her in our arms. I sit propped with my back against the headboard of the bed, I clutch Zoe to my chest to keep her warm, and I stare out into the dark corners of my room. My fingertips press against the pulse point on Zoe’s wrist and I count the beats to stay awake.
I have never felt the loss of time as keenly as I do in my year with Zoe ― every inch of her life runs out like sand between my fingers. Do you think I am not preoccupied by it? Can you fathom how many times I held my daughter stiff in my arms and felt like a monster because I could offer her no respite? I blame myself ― even now I rewind to the days after my rape. I wish I could go back and pry open my mouth, make the words come out so that my mother, asleep in her bedroom, would have known what was happening in her kitchen and come to my rescue ― and ultimately Zoe’s rescue. But aren’t solutions to catastrophes always that way afterward ― obvious?
Zoe’s heart stops beating on March 6, 2007, in a hospital emergency room. We’ll never know if it was the seizures or the fever that started in the night and had no end, but she slips away between one moment and the next. At night I stand in that same kitchen, the epicenter of my silence, and I stare down the contents of the medicine cabinet, wondering how much I would need to take to go to sleep and never wake up. I am only 19 years old, but it all seems to be over, the world and my life and the future I once knew. I think then that I will never look at my body and see a body ― I will always see a crime scene. I’ll never be done feeling violated. I’ll never be done with the grief. I will come to know the swell of these emotions better than I know myself ― they are my constant companions.
This is how we treat the women where I live ― here in Alabama where men who have never once been inside of my body, never once been forced to endure my circumstances and never once felt the residue of my violation eating away from within still feel divinely compelled to appropriate my autonomy. I feel such anger and sadness at their limitedness, their inability to perceive reality, and their willingness to leverage our lives and well-being in exchange for a “red meat” vote.
The new Alabama abortion ban has nothing to do with mercy or the preservation and sanctity of life. The politicians in this state who voted for this law do not care about children once they have been expelled from our wombs. They do not care whether a child is wanted, fed, loved and provided for. They do not care about the things they thrust on the shoulders of women and children, and whether or not they are left destitute in the fallout.
Our politicians demonstrate no desire to understand the destructive nature of silence in victims of rape and incest, and instead base law on their idealistic fantasies of how they want women in crisis pregnancies to feel and react. This willful ignorance is a violence in and of itself. It makes my skin crawl and my stomach turn that yet another trespasser has inserted themselves into some part of me, without even touching me, without being forced to confront my voice before speaking over it. This is not compassion, this is cowardice. They dishonor us all.
I am not ashamed to say that if I had been given the option of a so-called “later-term” abortion, I would have taken it. I know the value of being given a choice, because I know what it is like to have those choices ripped out from underneath you with only the freefall below. It should have been my decision, and certainly not that of some faceless interloper who will never experience my reality, or Zoe’s.
I would have done anything ― anything at all ― to have prevented even one moment of Zoe’s relentless suffering. I have been told this is selfish. I have been called cruel. I have been called a monster. I have been called unthankful for not cherishing every moment with my child, as there are so many other parents who wish they had even a sliver of the time we shared. But explain to me how I am supposed to watch my child live in pain, unable to relate to the world around her, unable to feel joy or anger, or the mangled calamity of my love ― and be grateful for it.
I have a family now ― three daughters who are hilarious and brilliant and so full of light. One day I will have to allow them to go out into this world, to places my hands cannot reach, and how will I protect them then? I cannot shield them with my body forever. I find myself speaking more and more, adding my voice to the multitude, because I do not want for them the things that happened to me. I do not want them to feel that insidious burden of silence, not when my words could reach out and make a noise.
Here in Alabama I often am told that when a person becomes pregnant, it is no longer their body. I must disagree. I have lived in this body for 31 years, I know its limitations and its triumphs. I am beginning, just now, to relearn the sound of my voice. I know the cost of every bone-deep scar, and I carry the weight of those scars because I have been given no other choice. No one else can bear my scars for me. This is my body, and I know what it is to have my body invaded.
Now tell me, am I truly not my own?
Dina Zirlott is a 31-year-old stay-at-home mother. She lives in Mobile, Alabama, with her husband and three young daughters. In her spare time, she likes to bake and decorate cakes with a highly questionable level of expertise ― and taste.
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