BY MELANIE MACEACHERN
Published March 24, 2009
Picture this: you’re a 17-year-old girl from Arizona thrown into campus life at the University of Michigan. At first, there is the inevitable struggle of meeting people and making friends. You’re impressed by almost anyone you meet and jump at the chance to hang out with someone new — even when it means forcing your mother’s criticism to the back of your mind. You know exactly what she would say: “You don’t know what these people are capable of. What exactly are you intending to gain from any experience with them? You don’t know anything about them.” But you toss off that inner voice and skip into the night looking for fun free of a curfew and your parents’ scrutinizing eyes.
That voice, which I so easily ignored at the beginning of college, now taunts me on a regular basis. I can hear it all the time — yelling, judging and criticizing. As an adolescent, I’d heard my mother talking about other girls my age, ones who had been raped or assaulted, with a disdainful tone. To her, these incidents were always the girl’s fault — her stupidity and her inability to make proper decisions.
Of course, my mother’s worldview impacted mine. My first inclination after hearing about a sexual assault was to make hasty assumptions. What did she do wrong? How did she bring this upon herself? This remained my perspective, unquestioned and unchallenged, until an experience changed it entirely. One single night gouged my frame of self-reference — just three weeks into my college life, my naivety had become but a jaded outer shell of my molten, burning interior.
It would be difficult enough had I simply been raped and knew it. But I didn’t know. The roofie coin had been flipped, and not knowing whether the outcome was heads or tails wracked my ability to cope. I turned to every potential distraction: drinking, smoking, drugs of every variety and even the hot pursuit of sex that I hoped could cool the anger and distress.
Nothing helped. I tried to suppress the memory of waking up in a strange bathroom, jimmying the window to escape and walking across town back to my all-girls dorm. I couldn't remember anything that had occurred on that fateful night after running into someone who I vaguely knew on the street and going with my new friend to a bar. Only the lingering feeling of something horrible and the edge of expectation was left to fuel my emotional distress.
I found myself trying to blame Ann Arbor, the University and my so-called “friends” for everything. I wanted to transfer somewhere else where I wasn’t just a student number or a uniqname. I longed to replace the carefree acquaintances I had collected with new friends and professors, intellectuals who would shield me from my emotions and guide me into a world of logic and reason.
This internal campaign came to a head during this past winter break when I told my parents that I wanted to move to Seattle. As I danced around the subject, trying to express my distaste for Ann Arbor and feed them the excuses I’d spent so long convincing myself were legitimate, I came closer and closer to the confession I had resisted for almost a year and a half.
Finally, in what was supposed to be a happy, warm mother-daughter bonding day, I couldn’t resist any longer. Sitting in my mother’s Toyota, we argued back and forth: why I hated Ann Arbor, what that did and didn’t have to do with my educational experience, how I was drowning in a gigantic student population and could do nothing to battle the bureaucracy. “This is just real life,” she said. I broke down. “Real life?” I said. “I’ll tell you about real life, mother. I was raped.”
I felt the wave of anger subside as I paused, awaiting her response. Would she fulfill my previous expectations? Would she yell? Curse? Attempt to break down my psyche for my mistakes? Group me in with the other “stupid” or “promiscuous” girls that I had heard her criticize so often before? But it didn’t matter anymore. I had said what I needed to express, not only to her but to myself.
A mother’s protective nature always pulls through. She sat in silence, tears rolling down her made-up face. All she said was, “Why didn’t you tell me?” in heart-wrenching confusion, over and over again. Then she wanted to know how, where, why. She partook in my own epic disbelief. She wasn’t judgmental; she simply had no frame of reference for what I was going through. I’d finally broken the thick, critical exterior and brought to her something to identify with, if only just barely.
Apparently, that was all that I needed. I needed to explain to my mother, someone who I know would unconditionally love and care for me, even if she would never be able to comprehend the magnitude of my situation. Since then, I have been able to re-think the past year and a half of my college experience. Sometimes, all one needs is to cry in her mother’s arms.
As my perspective changed, hers did as well. Lately, she’s been hounding me about getting back on birth control in an attempt to protect us both from something that she has always denied: my sexual activity. She has opened her mind once again to the trials and tribulations of a girl my age, a college student living and learning on her own.
I’m not trying to encourage all girls in my situation to speak out, stand up and preach their troubles on some sort of soapbox. It certainly took me a long time to even comprehend what had happened to me. What I want is to encourage women on campus to have integrity, understanding and the capability for reason that my mother didn’t have and that plenty of other women certainly don’t have. This isn’t something that occurs because of throwing yourself at someone and then recoiling after experiencing the emotional results. This isn’t something that happens after a night of drunk partying and unintentional seduction. This is something that just happens, without a single cause and certainly no solution.
Compassion is absolutely necessary, and when I overhear people on campus talking about “some slut,” I feel sick. I may very well be that “slut,” that “whore,” that wicked “she-demon” flaunting her past to gain some sympathy. But I would hate to see those girls who pass judgment on other women have their opinions changed as painfully as mine were.
My one piece of advice for girls facing what I have: tell your mother. Just tell her. Regardless of how you think that she will react, don’t harbor that pain inside any longer than you have to. Tell her without expectations built up in defense. Regardless of her reaction to your story, you need to let it out to the woman who understands you the most. Her reaction may surprise you — and trust me, it feels so much better after crying on that shoulder.
— Melanie MacEachern is an LSA sophomore