It was 2014. I was 20 and struggling at my new job as a receptionist in a law firm. My boyfriend, with whom I lived, was becoming increasingly abusive. I concealed my tears by pretending to search under my desk while I cried. Fortunately, I made a friendly acquaintance.
He would frequently stop by my desk and eventually we started hanging out ― we stopped for dinner after work (Indian food); I played him a new single I liked (“Came Back Haunted” by Nine Inch Nails). I grew to trust him as a mentor and friend.
One night, I sat in his living room, crying into a microbrew about my home life. I had never been drunk before, so red flags did not go off when I began stumbling to get to the bathroom after only two and a half drinks. I soon began fading in and out of consciousness.
He was raping me when I woke up.
I escaped once the grogginess wore off. At the police station, I called him on a recorded line. “I always use protection,” he said, when I asked if he had used a condom. The police took him away in handcuffs that night.
But things began to unravel. I gave up my job due to the ongoing police investigation. Shell-shocked, I waited for the investigation to end. In 2016, it did. The assistant district attorney was closing the case, despite the DNA evidence found on my body. Society needed a “paradigm shift,” he opined, before it would convict for this type of rape.
I was devastated, but I wanted blood.
In criminal court, a defendant is held legally accountable and can be punished with things like fines or imprisonment. However, when someone is wronged and incurs damages due to the conduct of another person ― such as injuries or financial loss ― they can sue for relief in civil court. Couldn’t this also extend to me, a rape victim who lost earning power and incurred emotional and medical damage?
It turns out the answer was yes ― so I decided to sue my rapist.
I sat in a too-big chair, watching their faces for a sign. Their eyes danced over the evidence printouts I had brought. Vince, a bald, 40-something lawyer who I gathered was one of the partners, spoke first.
“So I’m sure the question on everyone’s minds is, ‘How much are we going to get?’”
Oh, right. The money. I hadn’t even thought about it. It occurred to me that filing suit was all about the symbolism for me. It wasn’t a payout I wanted, but retribution.
“And this guy is a lawyer? Frankly,” he said, tossing my file on the table in front of him in disgust, “I don’t care if we lose money on this case. This guy has got to go down.”
I blinked. “So, that’s it?”
“If that’s what you want.”
Months passed. I was deposed for seven hours, made to recount what had happened to me on tape in front of my rapist and his attorney, a grueling process I mostly dissociated from.
My rapist was also deposed, and I spent this gleeful day watching my attorney grill him as he squirmed and sweated every time he was caught in a lie.
I spent entire days searching for documents ― for instance, all the correspondence I’d ever had with people about the assault. Attorneys then squabbled over the documents, evidence, my anonymity. It was surprisingly anticlimactic.
To sue your attacker is a process requiring immense patience punctuated by small moments of intensity, with months of excruciating nothingness in between.
During this time, I became conscious that I was in a kind of emotional holding pattern ― unable to move forward and fully process. While I was propelled forward by the hope I might bring a rapist down, I was quietly suffering in ways I never foresaw. I developed central sleep apnea, breathing too little in my sleep. I was hypervigilant. I had trouble concentrating, keeping my train of thought, remembering basic things.
Nearly four years passed in a blur until the day of my trial.
Court was a swarming mass of bodies that smelled of anxiety sweat and burned coffee.
I had pictured us all striding into a large room, coattails whirling dramatically, as a full jury gazed down at us. Instead, from a tiny window into a near-empty room, I watched the judge bicker with the attorneys. We had to make every effort, I learned, to settle the case before jury selection could even begin.
As the hours passed, we were ushered back and forth down the stone halls, weaving in and out of the dense crowds of court attendees. I was suddenly conscious of the open space between my body and my rapist’s ― I felt as if the glass of the animal enclosure had suddenly vanished.
He had taken everything from me ― my brain, my life, my relationships, my job. There is a reason that they advise never cornering a wild animal ― out of options, it will do anything to survive. And I had been in a corner for far too long.
He was but a single, nervous presence in the room, but I felt him everywhere. It was not the first time I had seen him since the rape ― he had stared at my chest for the seven hours of my deposition ― but it was the first time I truly felt my personal space might be compromised again.
Something inside of me cracked.
When I drove my fist into the wall, I felt nothing. I heard the smack of bone against marble, and the impact against my hand. But I was so full of rage, I felt no twinge of pain.
I punched the wall so quickly, and in middle of a hubbub of bodies, no one noticed my outburst. But in that moment, I surprised myself. I had not realized how much rage I had contained for so long, and how ready I was to unleash it onto its source.
Vince swept me downstairs and into the small cafeteria. He would disappear and reappear several times before finally arriving at my table with an air of finality. My hand had begun to ache.
“Here’s the deal.”
Vince sat down at the small cafeteria table, facing me. The terms: $400,000.
I shook my head. He made over 200 grand a year, I said. Make it hurt more.
I was practically reverberating with fury. No figure was ever going to be enough, I realized. He had taken everything from me ― my brain, my life, my relationships, my job. There is a reason that they advise never cornering a wild animal: out of options, it will do anything to survive. And I had been in a corner for far too long.
“Take it,” Vince said. “At a trial they could give you more, or less. This guarantees you walk away now with something.”
I’m gambling, I thought. This trauma in my life has boiled down to a moment of spin-the-wheel. Civil society dictates that we may only filter down our rage and pain and loss into the most mundane of resolutions. Words on paper and numbers in a bank account balance. So clean. So sterile.
“OK,” I said. I felt defeated.
I don’t feel richer. I don’t feel necessarily happier. I feel burned out, psychically spent.
Moments later, after years of fighting, I had signed the single sheet of paper that made it Over.
That myth of “getting justice” is a misguided one ― at best, you walk away with a consolation prize for the trauma you went through. The misaligned pathways in your brain from the trauma are not rerouted. The lost hours at work, the time dissolved away in therapy, and days of litigation are not totaled up for the clock to be turned back.
Getting justice means, at times, doing the equivalent of a second job. It means retelling your story to hostile strangers. In effect, it means staying locked in a holding pattern on your narrative of trauma. Standing up for yourself does not, by a long shot, guarantee an objectively positive outcome.
It’s been over a year since I sued my rapist. I don’t feel richer. I don’t feel necessarily happier. I feel burned out, psychically spent. When I started it all, I believed I would feel my control was restored when Iwonthe court case against my rapist ― I wanted a gold medal of achievement and perseverance. In reality, we didn’t get as far as a civil trial, but a settlement.
When I signed my magic signature on the document that authorized $400,000 out of his bank to me ― blood money ― I didn’t feel a sense of glowing achievement like I had anticipated. But that does not mean I regret what I did.
What I discovered in the end was that the settlement didn’t really matter ― it was getting there. We equate power with success in social arenas such as the court system or business, but what I discovered is that you can all but lose and still be powerful.
In fact, the times I felt truly powerful were the times I saw the betrayer of my trust pinned and cornered, his pale and shaken countenance. Every court filing was an indelible stain on the timeline of his life, forcing him to yield to me. A sense of pride in my own actions grew ― in my decision to speak up, I became devastating.
I had become a force to be reckoned with, a haunting presence and a target on his back. I was no longer the semi-conscious, helpless corpse he had once reduced me to, but a terrifying, all-powerful phantom that had arisen from her body, the girl that came back haunted.
It was through the exercise of that power alone ― not a judge’s declaration, nor any amount of cash ― where I finally found my control again.
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