Biography / Legal System / Politics / Rape

Breathing Easier

The Michigan legislature last year was just brutal for everyone concerned with the welfare of people who aren’t corporations, but for women, it has been even worse.

Michigan enacted some of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion measures, including the requirement of a transvaginal ultrasound before any abortion may be performed. The intent of the laws is to regulate abortion providers out of business — this, at the hands of the party that always cries about Democrats trying to regulate “job creators” out of business. The Republicans in this state talk a good game about being pro-life, but the rest of their agenda shows how little they actually care about babies once they leave the uterus. They got rid of the $600 per child tax credit. Republicans also continued to gut public schools and cut back assistance programs whenever possible. And when they weren’t doing that, Republicans were busy dismantling the democratic process to try and insulate them from the will of the people.

Like I said, a brutal year.

Yet in the middle of all this, the Michigan legislature managed to do one thing that I found comforting and validating. They did one thing, probably in spite of themselves, that reassured me that what I endured in my past was, in fact, a crime. And for that, I’m thankful.

What was this thing they did? They simply declared that strangling or smothering a person is a crime worth 10 years in prison. The new law, I should point out, was sponsored by Sen. Steve Bieda, a Democrat.

When I read about this law, I felt it more than comprehended it. Simply reading about it made me remember the feeling of a fist closed around my throat, the struggling for air, and the quick and irrepressible determination that I’d do whatever I had to do to make it through that night. As I read it, my body was still in my office, fourteen floors up, surrounded by people I know, trust and love. In my mind, however, I was 23 again, alone with a cruel man, wondering how my parents would survive if I did not. Flashbacks are funny like that.

There’s something especially heinous about strangling or smothering a person. It’s not just the physical act itself, which, of course, can end in death. Even if death isn’t the aim, it can still be fatal. A nurse recently told me that when a person is strangled, it could cause a blood clot resulting in a stroke.

But even if the physical harm is minimal, the emotional damage inflicted by strangulation is enormous. When it happened to me, I immediately thought I was going to be killed. My mind whirled through a set of rapid calculations: Why is he doing this? What does he want? What will it take to survive? Will I make it to morning? What would happen to my parents if I die? When it happened to me, rape was the furthest thing from my mind. I wasn’t scared of being raped, I was terrified of being murdered.

And that was the point. Because if I was scared of being killed, if I thought murder was a very real possibility, I would be willing to do almost anything to stay alive. And if that meant complying with a rape, so be it. It turned me from a human being into some kind of zombie doll, there but not there at all. It’s the same thing as putting a gun to someone’s head, but you don’t even need to buy a gun.

The day after it happened, still like a zombie, I went to work. When I came home, I looked at myself in the mirror. I was still numb and everything felt surreal. I knew what had happened, but it seemed like it had happened to someone else. But there, on my neck, were a set of small bruises. I put my fingers to them, and it became clear that these bruises were where his fingers had dug into my flesh. It had really happened.

And then I forgot.

You want to know how traumatic strangulation is? I never forgot the sexual acts that man did to me. I remembered them, and I remembered being terrified that I would die. But for years and years, I couldn’t remember why I had been so afraid. What had happened? Why did I behave so unlike myself? Why could I not remember?

It came back to me 15 years later, during a training session on how to help survivors of rape. All of a sudden, the memory was back. The hands on my throat, being crushed against the wall, his face near mine screaming at me to never say no to him again. All of a sudden, I remembered. He had made me believe I was about to be killed. That was the memory I had blotted out, or tried to. That was the part that was too painful to remember.

I never went to the police after what he did to me. I never went to a hospital. I told only one person, a former boyfriend, who assured me that this horrible thing had happened because I was stupid. After that, I went silent. I was silent because I believed I was stupid, after all. I went silent because after those hands were at my throat, I didn’t fight back. I went silent because I thought for sure everyone would blame me. I went silent because I wasn’t even sure if what had happened to me was a crime.

It was, of course. I know that now, but that knowledge was some 15 years in coming, and getting to it took a lot of hard work and tears. I know it, but I’m still grateful for reassurances that what was done to me was criminal.

That’s why what the legislature did is a gift to me. This new law clearly states that the minute that man closed his hands around my throat to stop me from breathing, it was a crime. No matter what happened next, it was a crime. Even if he stopped there and left my home, it was a crime.

And it’s not just a gift to me, of course, but to everyone who has ever or will ever suffer in this way. Just as using a gun in a robbery elevates the seriousness of a crime, now strangling someone during part of a crime can also bring added charges against a criminal. And while rape cases are notoriously hard to litigate, perhaps a jury will be more likely to find a person guilty of strangulation. It’s not a perfect solution, but it beats letting a rapist go free.

What my rapist did to me happened years and years ago. The bruises he left on my throat are long gone. The emotional wounds took a lot longer to recover from. But recover I did, and I went on to do so many wonderful things and have so many amazing experiences. I truly believe I am blessed. But what is in the past is not ever completely gone. Because whenever something catches me off-guard and makes me remember my own rape, the sensation that comes back to me is not that of being beaten or even penetrated, but the feeling of hands at my throat cutting off my ability to breathe.

It was a crime. A great crime. I know that now, and so does my state. And for that, I am grateful.

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