It Was Not My Fault
This post discusses assault and battery, sexual assault, and its aftermath, in graphic detail. Consequently it may be triggering or inappropriate for some readers.
The events discussed happened a little over 20 years ago. Although events may not have happened in the precise order outlined, everything below is true.
All names have been changed.
Except the name of the man who tried to rape me.
________ • ________
The summer of 1995 was a golden one for me, until, as all golden times do, it ended.
I was an art director at an advertising agency called An Ad Agency That Might Sue Me For This Post. Let’s shorten that to Agency. My client was International Vehicle Manufacturer (IVM). We produced national TV spots, newspaper and magazine ads, and radio commercials for IVM every quarter. It was an incredible workload; creating a multimedia campaign from whole cloth every three months. I worked with an amazing team of people inside and outside the agency—directors, producers, editors, CGI people—and everyone was so talented. You know that fable about stone soup? That’s what it was like. A nascent concept for a commercial grew to a strong engaging campaign, because all the people hired contributed to the original idea. It was a thrilling time for me, creatively.
We worked mainly with a production company called (in this article) A/B. They had done many IVM productions, so they were pretty much go-to. A was the director, and B the executive producer. They seemed to be great guys. Every three-month production was fun and hard and 18-hour-a-day and stupid-crazy, and I was thrilled with the work every damn day.
At the time, I lived in Long Beach. This was a good town for me because it was somewhat near Hollywood (where we shot) and Santa Monica (where we edited), and equally distant to the Agency office. Long Beach had good nightlife, and my apartment was just as I liked: pre-war, hardwood floors, claw-foot tub, and tall vertical casement windows. You turn the little crank and they open inward to catch the breeze. Very nice for old apartments with no AC. The bedroom was small—just enough room for the bed with windows that open inward. I also got to furnish it with things my ex-boyfriend Larry didn’t like: a six-foot-long purple brocade couch and specifically, my great-grandfather’s iron bed. The head and foot have high rounded arches with upright bars, kind of like old hospital beds from the turn of the twentieth century.
As I said, the summer of ‘95 fell apart. New creative management came to Agency, and I was laid off. Larry was a Creative Director at Agency. We broke up after too many years, as much as I had wanted it to stick. You know how it is—you’re at that age where, Okay, this is who I should marry, and he had proposed, and whatever.
But our five years together could not paper over our differences. His charm, humor, and obvious inclusion in the boy club that is advertising served him well, despite his indifferent talent. Larry never had a hard day. He had the integrity and inner strength of a ham sandwich. After ending our relationship we took separate apartments in Long Beach about a mile apart. By that summer, we’d been apart maybe three months or so.
Life started to change quite quickly, far beyond the layoff and breakup. At first it was my cat becoming quite sick. Ralph had been my kitty since junior year in high school and had made four moves with me over 12 years. He was an old kitten. So, of course, his acute illness was worrisome and a middle-of-the-night trip to the vet went without saying. After several hours, the vet sent me home. “Come back in the morning, we’ll talk then.” Exhaustion and autopilot drove me back to Long Beach. That’s when life took its first real shift.
Parking in Long Beach is completely impossible, especially at 2 a.m. People often circle around blocks, with the neighborhood parking code—the silent “Are you leaving?” motion to see if you can hopefully take that person’s space, and the well-known “Sorry” gesture in return. Tired and with no more patience, I eventually gave up on parking legally and just parked.
As I walked the few blocks to my apartment, an old Chevy slowed down, and the two guys in it looked to me. I gave the neighborhood-understood “Sorry” wave. But that was not what they were interested in.
When the car stopped, fear shot through me. When I heard the doors open, I took off. Ran. But not fast enough. They grabbed my shirt and pulled me up short. Although I turned on them and fought, I was attacked, beaten, and robbed. I still see them both, the patterns of their shirts, the (stolen) license plate on their car. Mocking me as I tried to get up, the sound of my knees against the sidewalk when they knocked me back down. Their laughter as they took my purse and called me a stupid cunt. The taste of blood in my mouth after one of them kicked me in the jaw.
At least I had my keys in my hand. After they took off I found my way home.
After that shittiness, I reached out to the friends I thought could help me through. One was Rick, the executive producer of A/B. Rick always seemed like an Okay Dude to me. We’d socialized before—Larry and I had him at our home for dinner more than once when we lived together. Open, friendly, funny in a goofy sort of way. He had thick gray hair and a moustache, crinkly eyes, and a big laugh. He immediately said, Whatever I can I do—referrals for work if that’s what you want. I know a lot of people! We can hang out! Come to my house in West Hollywood and enjoy the pool—whatever you need! “Gotta take care and let your friends help!” he said. Let people help, he said. Let people be good to you.
So once, I did let him be good to me. Rick had a wonderful home in West Hollywood, a cottagey place, private, with a lovely little pool. He left the key under the mat, and for a day I lounged in the greenery and enjoyed the rock-lined pool. What a quiet secluded day that was. No one could see me, no one asked me anything. Truly idyllic. When he came home, I said thank you and that I probably needed to leave (traffic in LA starts at like three in the afternoon, had to check on recovering Ralph, etc.). He suggested he follow and we have a night in Long Beach, his treat. How nice to offer—a diversion with a friend! And off we went. We drove separately to Long Beach and both parked near my place.
I changed at home. I put on a pink T-shirt, and a skirt. The skirt was a cream chiffon, with little pink/purple/green flowers on it. I loved that skirt, it made me happy. I still have it, wrapped in tissue, sealed in a plastic heavy-duty zip bag. I never wore it again.
Rick and I went to a cigar bar (big in those days) and had some lovely cocktails. Then we toddled over to a bit of a dive bar for pool and music. Danced like fools. We wrapped up the evening and on the way back to my apartment, Rick asked, “Listen, I have a DUI and I really shouldn’t drive home, it’s too far. I’m a little drunk—can I stay at your place?” I said of course. I put him on the big purple couch, gave him a pillow and blanket and a glass of water. I said good night and went to my bedroom.
During the night, I woke up, feeling uncomfortable and odd. . . . I looked down and saw a head between my legs. The hair was very gray, and my first thought was, “Larry’s not that gray . . . ”
It was Rick. I pushed at his head, and tried to move up, away from him, and said, “Rick, No, what the . . . Stop!”
His fingers dug into my outer thighs and his mouth kept digging into my labia, chewing my clitoris. I was so frightened and so in pain, I had no idea what to do. Digging my feet into the bed, I tried to crawl up and away. Then I put my feet on his hips for leverage, and pulled his hair to get his face off of me. His head fell on my pelvis.
My pushing and backing up had put my head tightly between the rails of the iron headboard, and a true shot of fear went through me—I can’t go any further. This is it. At the same time, Rick rose up. Thank God, I thought. He’s stopping.
But he wasn’t stopping. He quickly moved up and over my body. With his left hand on my shoulder to hold me down, his right hand guided his penis. He leaned into me, mumbling that I wanted it, how hot I was. His hand stabbed his penis against my vagina, clumsily searching. As his face crushed mine, his legs pumping to find me, I could smell my own scent on his face while my head was trapped by the bars. I went blind with panic.
I pushed him off me with all I had. I think he hit his head on the open casement window next to my bed. As he wavered and tried to regain his balance, I scrambled out of the bed and ran for the bath, where I locked myself in. Pounding on the door, I shouted for him to Go away! Get out! Leave! I crumpled to the floor, gasping and crying, and listened in between my weak words and failing slaps to the bath door. At some point I heard rustling and finally the front door closing.
Once I really thought he had gone, I peered out from the bath. He had left. I ran to the front door, locked it, and ran back into the bath where I locked the door and again sunk to the floor, grabbed my knees and cried. At some point, when the sobbing subsided, I let go of my knees and tucked my feet under me with my knees spread. I tried to breathe.
That’s when I smelled him, and me, again. The vomit came up. Then the dry heaves.
After emptying everything in me, and a few moments with my head against the coolness of the bathtub, I got in the bath under a very hot shower. I scrubbed myself almost to rawness. Shakily, I shaved off all my pubic hair. The cuts and blood from my unsure hand turned the circling water pink. This went on, the scrubbing and cleaning and bleeding, until there was no hot water left.
After wrapping myself in my robe and a clean blanket, I was still . . . something unknown to me. Something frightened. Something vulnerable. Hardly human. I was a beaten innocent. Abused.
I called Larry.
“Larry, Larry wake up. It’s me.”
“Wha? You okay?”
“No. Rick tried to rape me. Please come over. Please help me.”
“Rick [last name]?”
“YES THAT RICK HOW MANY RICKS DO WE KNOW? Can you just come over so I won’t be alone?”
“We went out, he couldn’t drive home . . . he was on the couch but then . . . he was on top of me . . .”
I was crying at this point.
“You went out with him? And you let him stay?”
“He was drunk, he has a DUI. . . . He almost raped me! Larry just please come over. Please.”
“I can’t, I have a voiceover session in the morning.”
“You’re the Creative Director! You can give that session to anyone!”
“What were you thinking, letting him stay . . . ?”
I hung up.
He was right. It was my fault.
I should have never let him stay. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone out at all. Or maybe, someone I had known for over two years, I should not have trusted. Maybe every man is capable of raping a friend sleeping in a nearby room.
I have never forgiven Larry for doubting me, for questioning me, for not doing anything at all to help me, and for continuing to work with A/B although he knew—HE KNEW—Rick sexually assaulted me.
________ • ________
Exhausted by then, I must have slept. I’m not sure. Then it was morning, a peaceful warm morning like every other Southern California summer morning. The first thing I did was call my friend Emily. Em and her husband Alex had been dear friends for about eight years. They lived in Seattle.
Alex answered the phone, and although I am sure I was pouring out my babbling fear, I don’t think I explained what really happened. Truly, I have no memory of that conversation. But my voice told him everything, and the only thing I remember is Alex saying, “Em will be on the next plane.”
And she was.
Em has many strengths. She has been wildly successful in her field, beyond what many women have attained. Part of this, beside her undeniable talent, is her steely backbone. Em is compassionate, to be sure, but she takes No Shit from anyone, no matter the situation. And if someone needs support, she makes that support happen.
Emily made sure I ate, although food did not interest me. We talked when I wanted to talk, and didn’t when I didn’t. There was a tiny balcony outside my living room. I wanted to sit out there, unthinking, feeling the breeze from the bay.
Cigarettes helped. I’d smoked off and on, in the “drinking and maybe some smoking, Yay!” kind of way, but this was different. It was the ritual of it, calming. Lighting the cigarette, the sound of the flame. The first draw and its small rush. Twirling the tip of fire along the tray, and pushing the remains into a little small gathering of ash. Breathing in, letting out. Controlled damage, my control.
Em kept a blanket around me, and sat with me, asking nothing, not pushing.
After a few days Em had to go home (her new job was planning a “Welcome Emily” party. She offered to stay but of course I couldn’t ask that)Her new professional life, in a new city, was starting. She did everything she possibly could for me, and it was time for her to head home.
What she did was triage, really. Emily held my hand for the first few critical days, literally and figuratively. She got me on the shaky path to recovery, and I will always be grateful to her for that.
________ • ________
Then came my friend Todd.
I met Todd during my time at Agency. He worked at a post-production house we employed for IVM, a place that worked in tandem with A/B. A/B shot the principal photography, and Todd’s company ran the post production. Todd was handsome and talented, and still to this day is the hands-down funniest person I know (sorry, everyone else). We dated for a bit and although we weren’t for each other romantically, we were friends—and are to this day.
Once Em left, I called Todd and poured everything out—at least I think I did.
And being Todd, he was appalled and his heart broke for me. We had all worked together in post, and he knew Rick (vaguely) through A/B. He encouraged me to find help—somewhere, anywhere—and that led me to UCLA.
I went to UCLA’s Assault Support Clinic, where two clinicians wired me up and I went through what is called “flooding” exercises. Twice a week for four weeks, they strapped me with heart monitors and BP monitors and lie-detector monitors while I repeated in great and fine detail what Rick did to me.
I suppose it desensitized me, which I guess was the point. The work enabled me to tell the story without falling apart (well, up to the “I don’t think I’ll ever have sex again and any aroma at all means I’ll definitely never have oral sex again”).
The UCLA therapy put me in a place where I could narrate the rape, but I still couldn’t talk about what it meant or the damage it caused. It was still my fault.
________ • ________
It was time to move. A completely cowardly decision, I imagine. And a fairly privileged one as well. LA is full of ad agencies, and production houses, and countless ways to make a living as an art director. . . . But I couldn’t be there anymore, out of fear and despair and loss. Everyone I knew, every connection to production, every agency that did car work knew A/B. Besides—no one would care if I left. I was just another AD, who gives a damn? And I had the money to move.
In retrospect, it was probably the worst decision I could have made when it came to my advertising career. I never really recovered. Sure, I went on to be employed and won a few more awards, but leaving LA . . . I blew it. Seattle didn’t seem to like me, work wise, and the rest of my career never reached the level I had in LA.
Meanwhile Em encouraged me to move north—she and her husband were my best friends, and if I wanted to start over, why not with them in their new city? So that’s what I did.
After deciding to move to Seattle, I gave up my apartment and stayed with Todd until my actual get-on-the-plane move. He was kind and supportive and tolerated Ralph the cat, even though I was a fucking mess. One evening I decided to dress up and make him brownies—not that that makes any sense—and when he came home from work he said, Oh that’s so sweet but I have plans tonight.
I fell apart. Literally crumpled to the floor and sobbed. Why didn’t he want my brownies? The brownies cooked over and burned in the oven. What the hell had I done? How could I be so horrible and thoughtless?
Who the hell was I? Because I did not know. I did not know.
Todd gathered me up and put me to bed. He held me and petted my head and told me I was okay, it would be okay. It was the first time a man reassured me and did not question me. I will never forget how good he was to me—and you know what?—it was basic human kindness, trust and love and empathy.
Todd never said it was my fault. That alone comforted me, made me feel safe and understood. Had it not been for Todd’s open heart, offered when I desperately needed it, I would not be where I am today. I owe him deeply.
________ • ________
When I moved to Seattle, my parents insisted on coming up to “help.” I settled into my apartment, with little furniture (I couldn’t look at the purple couch, so I sold it) and no real excuse for moving from LA.
After a lot of pushing from my dad (“What’s up here anyway?”) I decided to tell my parents. My mother went pale, and said nothing. My father dropped his head into his hands, and when he looked up, his face had aged 10 years. “Why did you let it happen?” he asked. “What where you thinking?”
He was right. It was my fault.
We have never, all these years later, discussed it again. Apparently, it never happened.
________ • ________
Life went on for about 10 years after that. Rick had taken my sexuality, my desire, my pleasure as a woman. I rarely touched myself, let alone looked at any man with want. That part of me—an important part of me—was gone.
Really, I never thought it would come back. Why would it?
Then I met Someone. He was kind and funny and talented, and somehow that part of me blossomed again. My gentle and handsome lover reminded me how pleasurable sex could be. It was wonderful, to regain that part of me—but I still couldn’t have oral sex. We tried a few times, in the many years we were together, but I couldn’t do it. Although dear and careful and patient, I always pushed him away in a panic, and the smell of myself on his beard. . . . I still had not recovered.
________ • ________
Since then I have had a handful of other lovers, and the oral sex is better. I’m working on it—of course, with the lovers willing to work on it too. Few men can handle the “I was almost raped so . . .” conversation. But the ones who can are worth keeping. Why there are so few of them, I can’t say.
For me, oral sex is deeply personal—more personal than “Hey I’d like your penis in my vagina, let’s do the Sexing!” To hold the sweetest part of your lover in your mouth, with the only goal your lover’s pleasure . . . well. That’s as intimate as it gets. Of course, your mileage may vary—maybe oral sex does not have that meaning for you. But this is a personal essay, so.
My point being, Rick took away a very, very intimate part of my sexuality.
________ • ________
I am now 52 years old. Rick’s attack changed me irrevocably. I’m sure Rick just shook off his hangover, washed his face of my scent, and carried on for, well, the last couple of decades.
But he robbed me. He took, with no thought and for almost 20 years, an essential aspect of me. Yes, I am better, but I don’t think I will ever enjoy sex with the pleasure and abandon I did before that night. The best thing I can say—if there is a best thing, which is incredibly bleak—is I no longer blame myself. It was not my fault. I don’t know when that realization came to me, or even if I believe it fully, in an everyday way. But it wasn’t. Letting a man sleep on your couch does not give him permission to have sex with you.
I know that intellectually. But trauma and emotion and shame and how this world works and judges . . . I think about it every day. And you know what? I still hope someone will come along and love me despite my age, despite my scars. That is either the most positive mindset I could have, or the most foolish. Today? I think it’s the latter. Maybe tomorrow will be different.
As Todd said to me recently, “Deep wounds do heal, but if hit just the wrong way, the scar can still be tender.”
I have no idea where Rick is today, but I hope it is in a small, sorry place with little love or light. There is no forgiving. Not ever.
This is my story.
I hope in telling it, you might find the strength to tell your own.
________ • ________
*The Author posted this piece under a pseudonym