In the wake of the #MeToo wave, to say that I found myself triggered was an understatement. I was hospitalized for six days, called myself “Whore of Babylon, Queen of the Universe,” rented office space in the World Trade Center, and joined a mystery school coven where people practiced Goddess worship and believed in “Sacred Wealth” and talked about alchemizing their trauma. I was telling anyone who would listen that I had a message for the world about how to reclaim our sovereignty from those who stole it and usher in a new era. The only problem was that I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to really express myself in a manner where people would actually listen. And then, there was Valentine’s Day.
The letter was in my mailbox. The certified mail notice was pale orange, not pink. Someone once told me that orange is the color of transformation. Thankfully, the letter was also sent via regular mail so I didn’t have to sign for it in person. The envelope was that austere lawyerly ecru or linen color, on a thicker weight paper that is meant to evoke a sense of urgency. The stationery heralded an authoritative message. Important business in here. I assumed it was from a debt collector; something I couldn’t pay when my mother’s house was in foreclosure and I began taking care of her. I slid my finger under the tab, ripped open the envelope and grabbed the paper inside. ‘SENT VIA EMAIL, CERTIFIED MAIL, AND REGULAR MAIL” it said. Subject line: “Defamation and other Malfeasant actions against [The Man].” Happy Valentine’s Day, indeed.
The letter continued: “It has come to the attention of the undersigned that on or about January 2, 2018, you contacted [The Man’s] employer, [The Man, Inc.], by telephone to purportedly ‘report’ an ‘incident’ of sexual assault which had allegedly occurred while both you and [The Man] were students at Dartmouth College back in 2005.” Ah yes, the phone call.
It was apparent to me that there was no right way to do this, no right way to speak up about the incident. I went to the police at the time, and the police declined to press charges for sexual assault. I was retaliated against by my peers for involving them in an investigation. Called someone who was already a “professional victim” who “faked being raped,” whose claims were “bogus.” Someone I once considered a friend wrote online that they wished that I would just kill myself. Someone else wrote that they were having fantasies about stabbing me in the head.
And if I told my story now to the women’s confessional machine I would just be seen as another cog striving for what a colleague once bitterly called that “sweet rape money” which occasionally comes in with a settlement or even more rarely from confessional writing.
The truth, of course, is that “sweet rape money” is as rare as the lottery. Low compensation, doxing, trolls making death threats in the comment section, and professional consequences were far more likely, statistically speaking. And if I reported my truth later as I did, directly to the people who empowered this individual, I would face financial ruin in the form of a defamation lawsuit at the hands of the person who assaulted me. In The Man’s eyes, speaking up about what happened was worse than what actually happened. An offense punishable by suing me for millions. The irony of it all did not escape me.
I knew the confessional machine well — I’d been working in the seedy underbelly of Internet journalism on and off since graduation. I assisted the COO at Business Insider on a freelance basis for awhile, and I helped Jane Pratt launch the infamous XoJane.com in a windowless yellow room in the Flatiron district years ago. I saw XoJane unleash a torrent of “It Happened To Me” features. Jane always said that everyone had an “It Happened to Me” article in them. She and I disagreed about the payment structure from the beginning, especially because I was an unpaid intern. I think Jane usually compensated a typical payout of $50 for the “It Happened to Me” stories.
I knew my story was worth more than that. And so, on the precipice of courage and fear, of silence and strength, of acclaim and poverty, I remained on the bench. My colleagues at XoJane were shining, beautiful examples of the power of raw femme expression. Back when I helped launch the site, I watched intently while confessional rock stars like Cat Marnell and Emily McCombs fearlessly confronted their trauma and spun it into gold with tears, frenetic “tap tap taps” of the laptop, and heroic bravery. Of course, both of them had salaries and health insurance so they were speaking from a place of relative comfort.
Emily confronted her rapist through Facebook and turned it into a viral article and television appearances. She is now an editor at Huffington Post. Cat wrote about her drug addiction and maniacally destructive lifestyle, and then flipped it into a column at Vice and later a six figure memoir deal with the acclaimed How to Murder Your Life. I idolized them, but at the same time the emotionally charged environment was highly triggering. There’s that pesky word again, reflecting the pesky reality. In fact, just before the launch of XoJane, the intense work schedule and subject matter was so affecting that I missed a week at the internship. I had no idea how to make the leap myself. Instead, I turned in lukewarm writing and avoided the hard stuff. And they didn’t publish it. And so my writing career did not take off in that direction. Instead, in my own professional life I kept signing non disclosure agreements to hide my voice for a paycheck.
Sometimes keeping quiet is easier than speaking up. It can be more comfortable, safer — less painful. Not writing the book can be more lucrative than writing the book. Each instance is its own delicate game of calculus and opportunity cost. The problem, as I learned, is that signing settlements and keeping quiet doesn’t excise the festering wound that trauma leaves on the psyche. Back at XoJane I figured that my colleagues were more seasoned at it than I was, anyway. I still had more to learn before I could really have anything of importance to say. I kept assisting, copywriting, ghostwriting, and writing fiction. I kept using words to do anything other than confront my painful truth. But suddenly last year, it was as though I wasn’t alone. I could no longer keep pretending that nothing was wrong. The hashtags came rolling in, and everyone’s story was in my newsfeed. The burial of collective trauma could not continue for another moment. And just like that, everyone’s truth began to bubble up and emerge and re-emerge into existence.
I came to New York to be a writer — how was it that I was so far down the rabbit hole that I was getting paid the most to keep my mouth shut? How long would I have to wait until I gathered up the courage to finally say something about the things I’ve endured just to exist in the world? I spoke on this hard reality with my coven sisters. One asked me what the point was in speaking up now. She asked what I was trying to accomplish. I have had a long time to think about all of this. It would be my goal to be heard. It would be my goal to be acknowledged. In the end, it would be my goal to be believed. After collective trauma like this, truth and reconciliation is the only form of justice that is possible, and the only form of justice that can work.
The Man obviously, finally, got the message when I contacted the human resources department of his employer. He was anointed as the head of his division at a major corporation, so this did not fall on deaf ears even though The Man, Inc. has been notably silent on the issue. And now, I have legal threats from The Man’s lawyer that my own lawyer says may very well amount to “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” My funny Valentine.
In the Valentine, The Man’s attorney threatened me to say The Man was going to to sue me if I did not quickly sign a hush agreement by an arbitrary deadline. There was no offer of money in exchange for my silence, only the offer of dropping a defamation suit. No acknowledgement of or compensation for the emotional labor involved with keeping all of this buried and internalized, and carrying the shame of the incident solely on my own shoulders.
The proposed agreement included a clause that would force me to falsely confess to committing slander, another clause about not being able to speak up even if other victims came forward, and a clause agreeing to pay $500,000 in damages for any time that I would violate the agreement, plus all attorneys’ fees. I would also have to destroy any journals or writing I had done over the years about the subject matter, and deny that any sexual assault had happened to me in college. I would not be permitted to even speak his name.
The Man seeks to hamstring my freedom of expression to ensure that my truth will not come at his expense. He seeks to remain unscathed by securing my silence. He seeks to forever ignore the pain that I felt. He seeks to bury my truth forever.
Before I scraped together the money and hired my own attorney, I wrote back to the The Man’s lawyer. I told him that I would ultimately like to forgive the The Man, but that I was reluctant to cede the right to my voice and my recollection of what happened. That I was not going to be ready to sign a gag order. In response, The Man’s attorney ignored what I wrote. He re-issued a new firm — but still arbitrary — deadline for signing an agreement. He ignored my request for acknowledgment of my trauma. So then, my attorney wrote them a letter. He told them that my “everlasting right to accurately state [my] own opinions and beliefs about [my] own life experiences must at all times be held inviolable.” And in response, again I have received nothing but stonewalling and threats.
And so, I will keep fighting this one. I will keep fighting for my right to speak. I do not consent to my voice being silenced. I will deny the man who violated my body the right to rob me of my voice. I wanted to speak up about this a long time ago. I will not make that mistake again. There is no right way to do any of this. But that doesn’t change the fact that it needs to be done. My silence is no longer serving me. I will be silent no more.