Victims’ Memories Are Imperfect, But Still Perfectly Believable
"Just tell us you're making it up."
During the fall of my senior year in high school, I was sexually assaulted in the back of my car by one of my closest male friends. I came home and felt like a ghost; my mind could barely, and my body could not, process what had just happened. I briefly debated going to the police or the hospital, but felt too scared about the potential retaliation I'd face from my perpetrator if I did, and really just wanted to forget this had ever happened. The next day, I went to school as usual, and, aside from showing my best friend the marks my assailant had left on me, tried to act normal.
Despite my own attempts to minimize my experience and move on, over the next few months, my world continued to shrink. My perpetrator kept contacting me, draining me of any remaining agency I felt I had. I had told a few friends and my brother what had happened, but spoke to no one about my daily experience, and often felt too ashamed of what had happened to even leave the house. For the rest of that year, I would throw things into the backseat of my car: an umbrella, papers, coats. I needed to avoid feeling like I was driving around in a crime scene. I couldn't bear to look back there, and so the things I put in the backseat were never coming back. Inside, I felt like I wasn't, either.
As I slowly started to tell others in my life that I'd been assaulted, I heard from many that I was not my perpetrator's first victim. Too many told me they, too, had been sexually harassed by him for years, and a few told me of girls they knew he'd assaulted as early as middle school. This is common: The average perpetrator assaults up to six victims before they are apprehended by law enforcement. Knowing of other victims, combined with my assailant continuing to harass me, led me to reach out to a local rape crisis center, which connected me with an outside lawyer.
It took me nine months to feel ready to take this action, and some friends, as well as an officer, questioned why I waited "so long." Despite the quick turnaround we often see in media depictions of sexual violence, victims commonly wait to report assaults, due to fear of police, fear of being disbelieved, and more. I was able to obtain a restraining order, which the police were charged with upholding and which my perpetrator violated multiple times, including one instance in which he left a message that said, "You shouldn't have talked, bitch. I was gonna leave you alone." As the police had told me I should, I reported this violation. Though it states explicitly on my restraining order that a violation is "punishable by imprisonment or fine or both," the police did neither.
I also pressed charges, and though the police and prosecutor told me it could take up to two years for my case to go to trial, I felt empowered and wanted to move forward in hopes my assailant would be punished. But with nearly nine months of pretrial hearings during my first year of college, I struggled immensely. Like many other victims of sexual assault, I had developed post-traumatic stress disorder, which impacted my ability to sleep and function, as well as my memory of the assault. Ten days before the case was set to go to trial, the prosecutor sat me in a room with a detective and my state-assigned victim advocate, where they interrogated me, telling me that I was wrong: wrong about what I remembered I was wearing, wrong about through which door my perpetrator had left my car. I must be lying. They begged me to recant my story, telling me, "We're dropping this case. Just tell us you're making it up."
I left devastated: Instead of being treated as a victim, I was treated as a lying criminal, and my assailant went unpunished. No officer ever interrogated my assailant, the actual criminal, about what he'd done. Instead they chose to interrogate me.
Cases like mine and Jackie's (the subject of Rolling Stone's story on UVA) are the reasons victims so rarely come forward at all. It is well-documented that police rarely believe sexual assault victims; worse, some police are sexual assault perpetrators themselves. Culturally, we beg victims to report assaults immediately, yet disbelieve them even when they do. Victims' memories are not perfect — and we cannot and should not expect them to be, as the very nature of trauma skews memories. Victims are torn apart on campus, in our communities, in internet comments, and in the public eye every day. If we want victims to come forward, we need to give them the cultural safety net of support to do so.