I’m now typing black letters on a white screen, but the truth is never so clear as simple black and white. Any narrative can be stolen, just like my panties. Let me try to explain….
When the now infamous Rolling Stone account of a gang rape of a coed named “Jackie” at the prestigious University of Virginia, it was shocking enough for any reader, but for me….
It was especially shocking, because I could identify, as if my own very personal past was suddenly being rewritten by an omniscient, third-person narrator. Long-buried memories, formerly fixed, seemed suddenly subject to radical revision.
I could have been Jackie.
And now it appears we both have been liars.
That Rolling Stone editors, and others, subsequently called into question Jackie’s own first-person narrative does not diminish the truth-telling the story forced on me.
Such is the power of the written word, especially when imbued with a reporter’s implicit goal of objectivity — trumping the subjective point of view of a first-person (often unreliable) narrator — that I began questioning my memory as if I’d become my own prosecuting attorney or investigative reporter.
So in reading Jackie’s story, I allowed myself to think the unthinkable: Was I also raped? And have I been lying all these years, both to myself and others? Have my friends been my enablers?
The story — a lie? — which I had always told myself was in the impressionistic first-person present, as it was happening, and then, as the years went by, ever more factually fixed in the first-person past. And it was simply this:
When you’ve had too much, way too much to drink, and the people all around you are drunk as well, distinctions and definitions blur. What does the word “consensual” really mean anyway, as slurred words and affectionate embraces morph into sloppy kisses and fumbling bodies? You feel yourself being touched, groped, brushed up against, maybe even actually penetrated. Is that a finger that is felt? It tickles; no, it hurts. Or maybe not?
When you wake up, you find it laughable that you can’t find your knickers, tossed somewhere on the floor of his messy room. It’s so much easier to laugh than to cry. But cry I did when I got back to my dorm room and told my roommates what had happened. Wiping away my tears, as friends do to alleviate the pain, they helped me frame the first-person narrative that made me feel better — and that, until now, had comforted me.
Everything from that night was a blur except, for some reason, my missing and now lost panties. Lost, or stolen? And never found. There was no way they could have been violently ripped off; I would have remembered that, right?
So, yes, of course, it was consensual. Well, if not exactly consensual, it’s understandable that my date inferred as much. Otherwise….
Otherwise, I’d be compelled to utter that awful, scorching, and forever scarring word. Rape. You don’t want to say it — not out loud, not even to yourself. To be a victim, that is not your self-image. And you would certainly never date a rapist, would you?
A thief, on the other hand, that’s so much understandable, even forgivable. So I focused, even fixated, on my stolen panties. Even today, all these years later, they’re as real as if I were wearing them now: black, matching my bra at the time; bikini; newly purchased from a boutique near campus.
But a reporter — trying to be objective, writing in the third person — is not afraid to use the “R” word and edit out what’s not important — in this instance, a flimsy piece of lingerie.
As my own first-person narrator, however, to cry “rape” would make the alleged rapist and his friends enemies for life. Instead of friends having fun, I’d be at war forever. Who wants that?
Thus what I told myself — and what my complicit friends confirmed — is that I shouldn’t worry about what had happened. It was all part of having a good time in college, of being well-rounded, of learning how to be a party girl, you know?
Itwould become essential to the way I saw myself, and presented that self to others — the persona I was forging. I was no longer just a bookworm or a nerd; I was now a brilliant wild woman, living on the edge, desired by desirable men, accepted as one of the boys — a Facebook-era rendition of Zelda Fitzgerald, partying the weekends away. This cultivated self-image was as central to my college identity as my signature miniskirts, baggy sweaters, Wolford tights, and knee-high boots.
“We had fun, didn’t we?” he said when we saw each other next. I smiled, winked, and put my index finger to my lips as if to say, “don’t tell anyone how deliciously naughty I can be.” I quietly asked, and we snickered about, my panties.
They my brand-new, lace bikini panties — would become the leitmotif controlling my narrative. More than that, their thief became almost an obsession, my very own fetish that I would toy with, playing over and over again in my mind. Although his room was a mess, I’m certain my underwear was never “lost,” as he claimed. Surely, they would have turned up sometime, and he would have then used their sudden discovery as a convenient excuse to date me again?
Instead, I could picture — ever more vividly with each rewind — his balling up the panties in his fist and stuffing them somewhere never to be found during my fumbling, frantic search while hurriedly getting dressed to escape his room. But why did he want me never to find them? I could only imagine. A trophy, a souvenir, a memento? To boast, as in show-and-tell, to others? Or to secret away for masturbatory fantasies? Did he ever wash them? Did he ever wear them himself, imagining he had become me, as if a predator eating its prey?
Every possible — even the weirdest, least likely — scenario about my purloined panties played out in my mind. Anything to keep me from acknowledging the real theft, what I had suffered indeed. It would take a third person — a Rolling Stone reporter — to finally tell the truth of what had happened to me. First-person storytellers — including Jackie apparently, and especially me — seldom can be trusted.
Note: An earlier version of this, my very personal, essay was just published in the new London literary magazine “Talking Soup.”