February 12, 2019

Why I've Been Avoiding Memoir


CW: sexual assault.

If you've been reading my ramblings for a while (or if you take a quick creep in my 2016 archives and earlier), you know that I used to do a lot of memoir writing on this blog. 

I would write about ridiculous happenings, like that one time I was convinced that a guy inviting me over for wine was just trying to be friends. Or about that other time I broke a lock I was picking and had to pay an 80£ fine

I wrote about my most jubilant moments, like my first marathon and breaking my half marathon PR by 5+ minutes

I would also write about what was gnawing at me, things that hurt. I wrote about the drifting from friends while studying abroad. I detailed my running injuries.

I haven't really been writing memoir for the past year or so, and it's been weird. Instead, I've been sharing more advice-style pieces, or posts revealing just enough personal experience to flirt with memoir. I haven't been able to bring myself to delve deeper. 

A couple things might be at play. For one, my French thesis was basically a selective memoir, focusing on my encounters with language and identity--it spanned from my childhood to my 2016-2017 study abroad experience. I worked all of senior year on it, and the final product was 70+ pages. It was the most I'd ever written, and I was tired afterwards.

That's the straightforward answer. If I try to psychoanalyze and go all Freud, however, I think there's more to it. 

2018 was a rough year for me. I poured my heart and soul into pursuing a fellowship that I didn't get. I struggled to do math research that I didn't really enjoy. I felt isolated from the campus community since I only had one non-thesis class and no longer played in the orchestra. I couldn't figure out why my running performance was dwindling.

But beyond the everyday challenges, I was also grappling with trauma. Because of all the national sexual assault scandals (Weinstein, Aziz Ansari), I was finally beginning to process my own experiences. I had previously blocked them away, written them off as my own weakness, my inability to stand my ground. I eventually realized that I was the one who had been seriously wronged. And I was angry. 

It was grossly unjust that I alone bore the burden of the assault. I faced a lifetime of psychological damage, all while the perpetrator continued his life unscathed, perhaps even ignorant of the gravity of his actions. Our friends, unaware, interacted with him as normal, as if he were a "good guy." Nothing was going to happen if I remained silent. No one would learn anything. So I resolved to say something. 

Coming forward with an account of sexual assault is volatile business, especially if the perpetrator is part of your friend group. In the aftermath, I sometimes bitterly joked: if you want to know someone's true nature, rightfully accuse them of sexual assault. The same goes for your friends: rightfully accuse their loved ones of sexual assault, and you'll know who's really with you. 

I tried to talk to him about it. Tried to make him understand the harm he inflicted. His response didn't come for 10 days, and when it did, it was inadequate: I'm sorry you feel that way...I didn't mean to hurt you...It's clear that we interpret these events differently. I tried to continue the conversation--I wouldn't accept that response. Nothing.

If I couldn't get direct justice, I wanted social justice. I decided to run a 50k and raise money for RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual assault network. In conjunction with the fundraiser, I publicly shared my story, though careful not to name names. The love and support poured in, with over $1400 from 70+ donors. Other survivors reached out to me to share their stories. It felt nice to do something, even if it was small in the grand scheme of things. 

Unfortunately, not every reaction was positive--some were quite ugly. I lost a close friend in the process. He shamed me for coming forward, saying that there was "no defense for a rape accusation." He said he could never really know what happened, so he cut everyone involved out of his life. Other acquaintances--those I once respected, or with whom I exchanged the occasional friendly Facebook comment--also refused to believe me, or simply stopped initiating contact with me. 

Along the way, I stumbled upon some alarming holes in university Title IX policies and the criminal justice system. There is no process to adjudicate alumni sexual misconduct claims, even if the misconduct occurred while the alum was a student, AND even if the alum is benefiting from institutional support, such as recommendation letters or post-grad scholarships. In the criminal justice process, there is actually no "sexual assault" charge. It's either "rape," which legally must involve force (this does NOT mirror society's accepted definition of rape), or "indecent assault and battery." There was little I could do to change the legal system, but even my college was reluctant to bear the burden with me. The sad truth is that a lot of Title IX offices operate by legal liability--if they're not legally obliged to do something, they often won't. Even if they have an ethical and moral obligation that suggests otherwise.

Long story short: I've been wanting to write memoir about this. I've been wanting push my college to change their policies. I've been wanting to better process what's happened and to share my experience with others who are also fighting. I'm just tired. And I don't want to think about this. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, every minute I spend grappling with this trauma is another minute that the perpetrator has robbed from me. I want to live normally. I don't want to be known as the girl always rambling about sexual assault. I don't want to bear the burden of justice alone.

I don't want to deal with this, but I also want things to change. I want to write so that maybe they will. I want to write so that I can find closure without direct justice. 

I want to write, but I'm also afraid. While I was still in denial about the assault, I actually wrote about my relationship with the perpetrator. It was my first relationship, and I idealized it. I wrote that the relationship wasn't perfect and that he was often unavailable, but that I was grateful for the resonant moments that we did share together. I proclaimed that it was better to love temporarily than not at all. It used to be my proudest piece. Now, I'm disgusted by it. Isn't it funny how our perception can even turn "good" memories sour?

Even if there's nothing ideal about this situation, I'm afraid of pouring my soul into another piece that I'll later toss away and deem over-romanticized. I'm afraid of producing writing that is inadequate, that fails to embody the emotions I've felt and address the serious issues at hand. I'm afraid that nothing will happen even if I write, even if I bring myself to face the trauma. 

I'm afraid, but I know that writing is the one thing I can do. Sexual assault is a crime that often leaves survivors feeling powerless--whether it's their bodily autonomy, or in the pursuit of justice. Writing can educate; there are a lot of misconceptions, and general ignorance persists. Perhaps writing can even assemble more voices to demand justice, more people to share the burden. 

I'm dreading the long process ahead (hello hours of agonizing over one sentence), but I know that this is what I want and need to do. I want to write so I (we) don't have to be tired anymore. 

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