My stomach dropped when we entered the room. I wiped my hands on the sides of my pant legs as we searched for somewhere to stand. We were late, but no one noticed. Everyone’s eyes were focused intently on the large screen that hung in the center of the room. Images of women and men rotated slowly on a PowerPoint presentation. One after another the photographs appeared in front of us—images of friends, mothers, neighbors, and sisters all holding up signs that carried the weight of rape, molestation, and trauma. I knew what I had come to do; I was there to share my story and to add his words to the collection of abuses obtained by Project Unbreakable.
Project Unbreakable, founded by Grace Brown, began as a Tumblr page. Brown’s idea was to help victims break their silence by photographing them holding signs that read quotes from their attackers. Since its start in 2011 Grace has photographed over 300 victims and this once small movement continues to grow.
I stood in the back row of the crowded lecture hall, listening to stories alarmingly similar to my own. Each word, piercing stare, and utterance of abuse pushed me back to a place I never wanted to return to. I saw his face emerge on the screen and shook my head—struggling to focus, I heard him hiss and spit poison into my ears and my hands began to shake. I am here, I am safe, I repeated it over and over again in my mind but his words muffled my attempts to stay focused. His voice was booming within my brain and I could feel his words slithering inside of me—I knew I was ready.
He didn’t mean to—or, at least that’s what he told me. I can still see the guilty look on his face as I laid crumbled and silent on his bed. “It was an accident….I didn’t mean it…. You’re making me feel like I raped you.” I can still remember thinking that no, of course it wasn’t rape—rape happens in dark allies, rape happens to strangers—not to me, not in this bed. But in reality, that’s when he silenced me. In that moment declaring that what he had done was somehow outside the contexts of rape was all the convincing I needed. It was an accident and as we all know “accidents” happen.
I was eighteen when he raped me, but the abuse began a year earlier. At first it was verbal—he’d tell me I was worthless, call me garbage, and throw all of the familiar names at me, names I was already used to hearing. The more he broke me down the more I depended on him to build me back up. I used to think of my love for him as an addiction—that something deep inside kept willing me back to him. Or, that my love had turned him bad and everything he did to me I deserved—it was my fault.
I found myself identifying with the labels he had placed on me. He called me worthless and so that’s exactly what I saw when I looked in the mirror. The abuse wasn’t my fault—but I had internalized the feeling that I had deserved all of it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone. Today, one in three adolescents will be a victim of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.
I used to wonder why it took being raped for me to finally break contact with him. Looking back, I understand that I was no match for the toxic cocktail of manipulation and coercion he was feeding me—especially when coupled with the idea that the messages he was sending me were the same ones I was receiving from my peers and from the media. I learned young that love was fear and sex was only for him to enjoy—not for me, my body and my pleasure were irrelevant.
I didn’t speak about my experience for two years. I had let myself become convinced that talking was useless because no one would believe me—it was his word against mine and his was always heard first. Excusing abuse and placing a higher value on a man’s word over that of a young woman is a societal norm that must be changed. This phenomenon is a large contributor to the fact that only 33% of girls in violent relationships admit to being abused.
Finding the courage to tell my story was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, but I couldn’t be more satisfied with my decision. I am fortunate enough to have a community of women and men who help me lift my voice and support my choice to speak. We didn’t choose to be abused—but we can choose to heal. We can choose to take back authority over our bodies and reclaim our power and purpose. I, along with the other one billion victims worldwide can rise against physical and sexual abuse. Together, we are unbreakable.