The Surprise that Surprises No One


For me, it begins with this story.  I come back to it every time there is yet another national conversation on sexual assault and wonder if anything will ever change.  It is not an allegory but a real life emblem of how rape is addressed in our country.  The legacy of neglect it illustrates and then how victims work to make meaning in its wake is a torment.

Somewhere in the city of Detroit sat an abandoned warehouse.  Birds flew in and out of open windows, the floor littered with stray feathers, and rat droppings.  Long ago, its thermostat broke and what lay stored inside became subject to temperatures that sweltered past 100 degrees in summer, and dropped below freezing in the cold Michigan winter.  Inside the building sat boxes stacked from floor to ceiling, filled with forensic evidence.  Over 11,000 untested rape kits were discovered there a few years back, each representing a person who on one of the worst days of their lives submitted to a multi-hour intrusive physical exam hoping it might help identify their rapist. For the eleven thousand human beings that each one of those uninvestigated cases represented, no call ever came.   Worse still, when the city began to go through these old evidence kits, they found matches to serial crimes that would have been prevented had they tested them sooner.

What happened in Detroit was no anomaly; watchdog groups identified cities that ignored rape evidence over decades – Dallas, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Memphis, Las Vegas, Houston, Milwaukee, New York City, and dozens more.  Estimates of close to half a million evidence kits that held DNA of violent criminals simply had never been tested.  They were disregarded, shelved, and left behind.  As each rape survivor tried to rebuild her life with no news, the question of whether she would ever learn more about the crime that had ravaged her body and soul went unanswered.    Like Detroit, when these cities began attending to their untested kits, rapists were identified, but often the statute of limitations had passed and prosecution was no longer possible.

The most recent news about sexual assault, harassment, and abuse of power with accompanying denials or weak apologies or a promise to get help, is simply put, more of the same.  For rape survivors like me, Harvey Weinstein is no surprise. Neither are Donald Trump,   Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Al Franken.  We could fill the page with names from this month alone.   The list of famous men — along with everyday men – who experience no consequences for their crimes is beyond common place.  It is the rule rather than the exception.   They walk away from the accusations with way far fewer scars to life and liberty than those they hurt.

We know this: rape is the most under reported felony and the least successfully prosecuted.  Only about six out of 1,000 rapes will lead to incarceration (RAINN).  Victims are routinely disbelieved and our pleas – first for the rapist to stop and then for law enforcement to seek justice – are ignored.

So how do rape victims survive in this environment?  Our cases are rarely investigated.  We may tell no one.  For some, our lives are destabilized by the impact of violence which can influence one’s ability to hold down a job, complete an education, or have a healthy relationship.  We experience substance abuse and depression at a higher rate than most.  And everywhere around us, there are conclusions to be drawn that what we went through matters to no one.

Rape is not treated as a crime of brutal violence but as a parlor game:  his word against hers, regret sex, revenge against a scorned lover.  It a game of it didn’t happen; she’s crazy and everyone knows it; she just wants attention or maybe money; she wants to destroy his life; she is part of a well-crafted political conspiracy to discredit.  It would be laughable if it didn’t work so much of the time.  We even have a President who was elected despite nearly twenty women stating he assaulted them and being damned by his own ugly words on a live mike.  The official White House policy is that every single one of these women is a liar.

Given all this, it seems fair to ask whether rape is actually a crime.

Women don’t lie about rape. And I mean to be an unequivocal here.  I don’t want to argue about the one time it was loudly broadcast that some allegation was untrue.  Studies estimate that maybe 2-10% of rape claims are either false or baseless (NCVRC).  We need to ask — what does that mean exactly?  Who decides what is false or baseless?  I’m guessing it’s some of the same people who put hundreds of thousands of rape kits in warehouses and police lockers and never looked back.  If you have ever had a rape kit done or tried to report a rape to the police, you understand it is no one’s idea of a good time.  Describing in detail sexual humiliation, unimaginable violence and debasement is not something a human being would choose to do if they had any other option.

As my wife once said to me on a day my own intractable memories grabbed me hard, “You aren’t crazy; what happened to you is crazy.”  Despite all the facts that could lead me to conclude otherwise, I have to believe change is possible. I have to believe that this time, a reckoning toward justice will occur.  Otherwise, it is simply too crushing.

This is why I write.  This is why I will keep writing.  This is why I will tell this story and my own repeatedly, way past when it seems the saturation point must surely have been reached.  We must try to help nudge the needle in our flawed world and the world doesn’t make it easy.  Every voice that refuses to be silent — whether it’s a day, a month or thirty years past the moment of victimization and violence – tells society so much more than the story of the violation endured, often with no justice or consequence to the perpetrator/s.  It sheds needed light on the world we live in where freedom is a concept given only to a select few in which  our bodies and the right to their sovereignty is not yet secured.

2 thoughts on “The Surprise that Surprises No One

  1. Michelle, another beautifully well written piece that makes us all question our justice system when it relates to sexual assault on women. I hope that the #MeToo movement will help change all that…Women need to denounce their abusers but they have to be heard, believed and helped!


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