The author as a first-year cadet at the Air Force Academy in 2001. "My rape and subsequent medical problems ended my dream of becoming a pilot," she writes.
A thick manilla envelope addressed to me in loopy cursive went unopened on the front corner of my desk. Every time I added mail or receipts to the pile, I shifted the envelope to the top. The wave of guilt brought on by noticing the care of the handwritten address was perhaps a way of punishing myself for my inability, or my refusal ― I wasn’t sure which ― to face the contents.
I already knew what was inside: a stack of letters written by the students of the most recent college class I visited. My book, the first traditionally published memoir about military sexual violence, was two years old at that point. Every semester after I met with this particular class, the professor asked them to write to me, to share what reading the memoir had meant.
The stack of letters I received twice a year came typed but with handwritten signatures. Hearts by their names, lime green gel pen ink, an extra p.s. in careful block letters, brimming with evidence of their youth and the intentionality with which they wrote to me.
They said things like, “My best friend killed herself after she was raped. Nobody had believed her.”
Or, “My stepdad raped my little sister.”
Or, “I didn’t think I would ever be able to tell anyone.”
“I thought it was all my fault,” was the most common theme.
Years earlier, when I started writing my memoir, I had wanted to craft a narrative which would speak to my dream audience — people who had never experienced sexual violence, those who could become allies should they understand the ways rape culture condones perpetrators and silences victims like me.
Ultimately, upon my book’s publication, I did receive a few emails in that vein, from readers who said the book helped them understand. But for every one of those messages, I received a hundred confessions from survivors. Only in hindsight did this seem predictable.
I resented these disclosures. Bearing witness to someone’s most personal story ought to be a privilege. I began to hate myself for not reacting accordingly, at least internally. I became disgusted with myself for allowing the manilla envelopes or Facebook messages to go unopened for weeks or even months. I felt as if I had become a very bad person.
By the time my memoir was released, 15 years had passed since my own rape. I had been a part of four survivor support groups, each member sharing the details of the worst moments of their lives. Back then, the commonalities in our experiences dismantled our shame and isolation.
Then I became an advocate at a rape crisis center. I answered the phone in the middle of the night and listened as survivors cried. I held hands with women as they underwent forensic rape kits, nurses plucking their hair and photographing tears. I held witness to even more stories until betrayal was ubiquitous. Trauma I had once considered unfathomable became the standard.
Next, I worked in a treatment facility with small children, age 6 to 12. Nearly each one had been sexually assaulted. When I rocked one tiny 6-year-old to sleep, rage consumed me. The days of finding healing in shared stories had long since passed. This small child was witty, hilarious and creative during the day, during the moments she felt safe. But at night she felt anything but. Every night that she curled her head into my elbow, both of us squished into a rocking chair, her feet dangling over the arms, I tried to calm my anger to keep from passing it to her.
I lasted only fifty-one weeks.
Advocates are remarkable human beings for their ability to empathetically pay witness to their clients’ stories without taking on the distress themselves. I discovered I am not one of these people. The weight of our collective traumas clings to me. Until there is social change, I remain unable, or maybe unwilling, to let go.
That’s why I wrote a book. It wasn’t the trauma of my own rape that drove me through revision after revision. It was the trauma from sexual violence becoming standard in the lives around me. I had wanted to move fully from advocate to activist.
At a book signing early in my author days, a 19-year-old student looked down to where I sat at the table, straight into my eyes, and stammered, “How long ... ” I stopped moving the Sharpie, gripped it harder, anticipating what was coming.
“How long until this stops hurting?”
Book signings are the epitome of writers’ dreams. Sharpies, stacks of books, lines of readers. All these gifts are tangible markers of success. After years of writing and revisions, querying agents, coping with rejections, holding my breath while out on submission to publishing houses, I had made it. Finally. But it turned out, I hadn’t gone anywhere at all.
The weight of the student’s question, the sadness in her eyes, her overwhelming need to find hope smacked me across the face. I had no clue what I could succinctly offer her. I felt helpless. Inadequate. The line of students waiting in line pressed at our limited time together.
The author on a 13,000-foot ridge near Silverton, Colorado. "I sought many mountain summits before and after my memoir was published as a means of coping with angst and grief," she writes.
It was one thing to hold space for the survivors who reached out to ask for help. Because I had been a cadet at the Air Force Academy when I was raped, cadets across the services sometimes contacted me for advice. They wanted to speak out, too. They wanted to force change. Even when their stories were among the most heinous, at least when I heard them, I didn’t feel quite so lost. I connected them to journalists, offered advice, waited with them for months for their stories to make it on air. I became a small part of their pathway to activism.
Ironically, the readers who asked the least of me were the ones I had the hardest time facing.
Emails from survivors made me feel as if my writing was in vain. I didn’t want these confessions to add to the heft of my pile. I wanted survivors to feel empowered to tell others in their real lives, to report criminally, to no longer live in shame.
After all, I wasn’t the only one working toward this goal. My memoir was born in the middle of the #MeToo era, and I believed, rather naively, together those of us who were activists could accomplish this cultural shift.
Instead, it seemed that the division between those of us who knew sexual violence and those who did not became heightened. Those of us who were survivors or advocates, or both, screamed from one side of an imaginary soundproof wall. Those who believed #MeToo was a little overblown, a little unnecessary, a little too angry remained oblivious and blaming on the other. People who find themselves on the unknowing side will never have to face the heart-tearing messages that prove the depth to which they are uninformed.
I realized my true resentment was toward those who could remain blissfully unaware, those who would never have to look a teenager in the face as her eyes begged for a glimmer of hope.
The kids say, IYKYK, or “if you know, you know.” But if you don’t know, you never will.
I regret that the turmoil I felt in the wake of my memoir’s publication caused me to take my foot off the gas pedal. I felt as if I couldn’t handle the disclosures. I felt as if they made me become a horrible person. Even as my book failed to sell to even half the figures my publisher hoped, that I had hoped, I felt overwhelmed into paralysis by its tiny, tiny success.
Here is what I failed to understand. Even in a post-#MeToo era, social change is glacial. I might have believed that together we could shift culture enough so that shame no longer silenced survivors, but that reality is still years and decades ahead of us.
Survivors gaining the ability to reach out on the internet to an author to anonymously share the details of the most damaging experience of their lives is a step forward. And, I remind myself, perhaps that step led somewhere else for them. Perhaps hearing my story ultimately allowed them to tell their story. When I stopped fighting that as progress — and accepted the potential and possibility inherent in what stories like mine being heard can do — I found gratitude for the small number of messages still trickling into my inbox.
Today, years after this ordeal, I still have to remind myself to celebrate even small change.
This week, former President Donald Trump was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation, and ordered to pay $5 million in damages. Some of us want to scream in response, “This isn’t enough.” We want criminal prosecution, jail time, sex offender registries for these powerful predators like Trump.
But in this situation, just like in the wake of my memoir, we are being called to measure and accept small bits of forward momentum, even when what we deserve is so much more.
I remember the stack of manilla envelopes living in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, rarely opened. I now find solace in the evidence that my words touched even a few lives, an extraordinary opportunity and privilege. This is progress, I remind myself.
Lynn K. Hall is the author of the memoir, “Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience” (Beacon Press, 2017). She is currently finishing her second memoir, an exploration of the psychological impact of chronic pain situated within a wilderness adventure story. She lives with her partner and their cat at 10,100 feet in the mountain valley of Leadville, Colorado, where they spend entirely too much time on alpine trails.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.