I remember it like it was yesterday.
I sent a private message to a page created in support of two public sexual assault survivors letting them, or whomever helmed the page, know that their stories inspired me as I pressed charges against my abuser.
But it was not, in fact, yesterday. It was three years ago almost to the day, although the trial only concluded recently.
Their response is what popped for me. They said:
“The legal process can be very cathartic.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines catharsis as “the process of releasing and thereby providing relief from strong or repressed emotions.”
Catharsis is my favorite. I snatched that word and its shimmering yet substantial connotations out of the ether and clutched it to my heart as a mantra for what I had no idea at the time would stretch into several years.
Those survivors did not win their case, for reasons similar to why I’m assuming I didn’t win mine. The case was too old, there was a lack of evidence, they took years to come forward (the actual abuse had occurred seven years before trial in my case), they had stayed almost aggressively loyal to their abuser in the past in a common dynamic of trauma bonding that there is no guarantee a jury understands, and the usual reasons victim blaming and discrediting continues to flourish in the modern world.
Still, cathartic was a term not widely associated with the American Judicial System, and it was a word I would not hear applied to it again over the course of three years that I found myself living in the courts shadow.
My temporary identity as a rape survivor existing within the limbo and uncertainty of a pending trial was met with compassion, sympathy, and even borderline pity from some, and discomfort, hostility, and denial from others, depending not only on their relationship to me or my abuser but, I suspect, their relationship to themselves and the skeletons in their own closet or society as a whole.
Three years. That’s how long I had adapted to the rigidly structured but inherently topsy-turvy legislative realm where what our predecessors and occasionally our peers have deemed “just” is frequently and blatantly unfair.
It felt like a punch in the gut when I learned that my abuser’s extensive history of predation of women, including a previous rape charge and numerous domestic violence charges as well as multiple protection orders taken out against him, including my own, could not be entered into the trial as evidence of anything. The law, once it is established, is inflexible—one person’s justice is another person’s injustice. Many innocent people are behind bars and many guilty people are walking the streets among us; some of those people are guilty or innocent of innocuous, harmless crimes like selling marijuana or shoplifting out of hunger, while others pose a genuine threat to the most vulnerable members of our society.
Early on, I set the intention of not making this trial about my abuser. He had already hijacked a place in my life where I never wanted him when he groomed, abused, and controlled me with fear. Three years ago, I found my awareness coexisting with him again when I pressed charges as he was being released from prison after serving multiple years on prior charges, and I was terrified he would make good on countless threats to take my life.
The trial dragged on month by month—as trials are wont to do—somewhat held up due to the pandemic but mostly due to the defenses stalling.
I could write an entire volume on the vicious and inhumane tactics of the defense but I won’t, because they, like his friends and family members, fall into the same camp as him, meaning people I didn’t invite in but rather crashed through my boundaries as a result of extremely traumatic experiences I never signed up for. Rather than allow his presence to become central in my life or occupy unnecessary space in my head again, I intentionally chose to make this journey about me—my healing and empowerment rather than about how he and his sympathizers couldn’t hear or see my suffering, or if they could they flat-out didn’t care.
I chose to hold fast to my truth and plunge deep into my personal healing. I’ve been in talk therapy for five years and EMDR therapy for at least six months. I’ve written a poetry chapbook expressing my feelings about not only my abuse at the hands of the man on trial but everyone who had ever abused me, including the intergenerational abuse in my family and the prolific cases of gender-based violence in my community. I’m a Seattle local, so this includes Gary Ridgeway and Ted Bundy, who haunted my childhood, as well as lesser known but no less severe cases of murderers and rapists never held accountable or held accountable far too late.
I severed ties with anyone who blindly aligned themselves with my abuser as I, too, had once done until I saw his true colors—colors he vehemently denied having—in a way I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
I went to Disneyland. I went to concerts. I focused on my eating and sleeping habits.
I found solace in the relationships I have with my children, my lover, my friends.
I tried hiking for six months. I moved into a better apartment. I worked with my epilepsy specialist, nutritionist, and psychiatrist.
I plugged into me, nourishing the mind, body, and soul he had violated, not temporarily as a bandage on a topical wound, but transformatively as a new lifestyle that I will continue to nurture and maintain forever. I wrote articles and essays about all sorts of things, not just my abuse. In fact, this is the first article I’ve written about it now that the trial is promptly in hindsight.
I adopted a dog and bought a fish. I lived the life I had fought to keep in a manner that felt safe and true to me, holding space for my emotions without avoiding them or allowing them to consume me, in spite of some rough days here and there.
My priority was and is my holistic health. I made it clear to therapists, advocates, and friends that his influence in my life was a blip on my life timeline, that I pre-existed the sexual abuse and would continue to thrive apart and away from it. That the abuse was a part of my story but my story is not about him. My story has many chapters—and he won’t even be one.
As the trial loomed, my ominous dread shape-shifted into annoyance. I wanted to kick him out of my life and never look back. I wasn’t the same broken, isolated, and disassociated young woman I had been when we met. I was—I am—self-aware, loved, independent, and secure.
My self-worth went from minus-five to plus-eight because I realized I always have room to grow. I am trauma-informed and I know at a cellular level that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. I had heard many unjust scenarios by other survivors over the course of this three-year process, and I had no sense that this trial would be a slam dunk, in spite of the overwhelming evidence in my favor. I read statistics that many rapists don’t spend so much as a night in jail; my abuser had spent three years in jail awaiting trial as judges repeatedly denied him pre-trial release as they believed he posed too great a threat to the community, even in peak pandemic times when inmates were being released en mass.
But the ultimate verdict wasn’t up to a judge—it was up to a mixed bag of 12 American strangers who could have any number of personal beliefs and experiences and who would have to come to a unanimous decision after a weeks-long trial that they didn’t choose to be a part of anymore than I did. And they had to do so with tightly restricted information being allowed to squeak through to them following a hair-splitting litigation process.
I decided not to invest my rising self-worth in the verdict. The case was in fact: The State vs. my abuser—not Me vs. my abuser. I was a witness to a crime as the survivor of said crime, but aside from telling the truth I had little, if any, control of the process and zero control of the outcome. I could control only what my intentions were and what I internalized.
As powerful as the catharsis message had hit me years earlier, not long before the trial, as the date of my testimony had been set, a realization floated up from my subconscious and it was:
I’ve already won.
It hit hard. My abuser had tried to destroy me—mind, body, soul, and spirit. He tried to do so with every resource he had at his disposal, and I used every resource I had available at mine to counteract his malicious actions toward me. And I had succeeded.
I was in better health than I had been at the time; my relationship with my adult sons was stronger than it had been since they were children; I have a decade free of drugs and alcohol, by choice; as well as years free of caffeine, nicotine, and sugar. I’d rebounded beyond anyone’s expectations, not only from the sexual abuse but from the cerebral hemorrhage and emergency craniotomy I’d suffered in the midst of it.
In the past, sexual abuse I’d experienced destroyed me by fueling a downward spiral of self-destruction, and I knew of other women who had survived but been indefinitely destroyed by it socially, mentally, and personally, which is a completely typical and wholly understandable reaction to abuse, which in any form is never justifiable and always results in long-term damage. Have I been diagnosed with PTSD? Yes. Do I have flashbacks and nightmares and mood swings still? Yes. And maybe I always will but they don’t dictate my life.
I may have been powerless at the mercy of the legal process but I empowered myself in the greater arena of my entire existence on this world and in the universe. The one that exists beyond marble floors and law books. I emboldened my spirit and rewired my brain, breaking cycles of violence that had plagued not only my entire life up until that point, but the lives of my ancestors.
I took control.
On the highly anticipated days of my testimony, I walked in looking healthier than I have ever looked, flocked by loving, supportive, and trauma-informed women. My abuser saw that he did not destroy me.
I took the stand in spite of my valid concerns of having a seizure in the over-stimulating environment of the county courthouse downtown. My abuser had kept me silent for months and had weaponized my fear. I was scared yet ready to sing in front of a room full of mostly strangers and face my demons head on, literally. My abuser, who had once controlled me with the threat of death and constant reinforcement of that threat, sat directly across and mere feet away from me on the stand. He had told me that if I ever told the police that he would kill me.
I told the police. I defied him and broke free. In fact, I told a lot of people: detectives, judges, friends, strangers in the audience at an art exhibit on gender-based violence I was hired to speak at, and now in front of jurors and prosecutors in training.
The previous night I had more unsolicited but much appreciated personal advice from my own psyche:
Let it go.
The cryptic words came bubbling up via my intuition as I was waiting for my melatonin to kick in, and I made a note of it in my phone.
I had no idea when or where this advice would come in handy and it turned out to be when I was responding to direct questioning by the prosecutor who was incredibly good at her job and had been doing everything in her power to protect me and advocate for me for three years.
When it came time to recount the graphic details of the abuse, I broke down crying, which may sound par for the course but I was taken aback. I’m not much of a crier historically, though I’ve worked hard at being a bit looser with the tears since I’ve been on my healing journey.
One thing is for certain: in the years since the abuse had occurred, I had never cried like this about it and I can’t remember if I’d even cried about it at all.
I’d processed it into a fine powder for years, seeing numerous therapists as well as processing with friends and advocates, but I had not experienced the reality of what I had survived at this visceral level. And here I was, completely cut open like a Palahniuk guide for true happiness. In a completely counterintuitive venue. I was not on a therapist’s soft couch surrounded by neutral palettes, nor in the strong but sensitive arms of a lover or the intentional space held by an evolved friend. I was surrounded by sharp edges, cold colors, and harsh judgement.
And I cried. From my core. From places I didn’t know existed within me. From the depths of my being. Years of pent up tears poured out, right there with my abuser and his brother watching and listening and the defense circling like vultures.
I let it go like Elsa. I didn’t automatically reach for my composure or hasten to make the onlookers less uncomfortable. I didn’t get hung up on what horrific femme stereotype I would be thrust into like Anna Nicole Smith pressing her handkerchief against her beautifully made up face being looped on salacious entertainment news reels.
I didn’t care if I was accused of “playing” the victim. I’d already been made out as a years-long vengeful sociopath by the defense.
Ludicrous and archaic feminine stereotypes of the evil women just out to destroy a naive and vulnerable man for the heck of it had dogged me not only since the trial was announced but since birth—so be it. This was no act and I’m no actor, just a no-longer-apologetic rape victim turned survivor. It felt like I was passing something tangible through my body at that point, like giving birth or passing a kidney stone.
That happened…and it happened again when I was asked to recount the day of my cerebral hemorrhage when my abuser had been stalking me.
In seven years of talking about it, I had never felt it. Not the way I did in the courtroom when I broke down in beautiful, pure, and unscripted emotion.
And again when I was asked about my grandpa’s death in 2003. Waterworks. I was finally able to grieve, thank you very much criminal court. I needed that.
I burst into tears on a few other occasions. But only when the supportive and compassionate prosecutor questioned me, never the defense. The infamous cross examination could only be described as tedious, no matter how obviously the defense tried to push my buttons and elicit a reaction.
When, after two days of direct questioning I heard the judge say, “The witness is dismissed,” I felt like I had just won an award or received a diploma. I had wobbled into court on the first morning of testimony like a baby doe in headlights, heart jackhammering and hands trembling. I emerged at the end of the second day—and hours of defense picking apart my truth and implying that I, rather than my abuser, was the one at fault—10 feet tall. I had broken the silence and broken down and emerged from the rubble in front of everybody. I laid waste to shame. I was drained of this great burden I had been incubating for almost a decade, and full of self respect.
The jury deliberated for days. But they didn’t come back immediately with the “not guilty” verdict they eventually landed on.
I was disappointed but not surprised when I got the news.
I’d prepared for that as a possibility and I knew I wouldn’t live or die with the verdict, not physically because now that everyone knew what I’d testified to I had a safety plan in place in case anything were to happen to me. And not emotionally, as I didn’t see my victory through the narrow lens of the judicial system since my paradigm is one that values my own integrity and truth as well as personal healing and growth.
The jury made a ruling that I believe could endanger the lives of other vulnerable people and that is something they, like the defense attorneys, have to live with. I’m at peace with myself knowing I did all I could.
Although I can easily imagine my abuser celebrating his “victory” and “vindication,” I know that legally, a “not guilty” verdict does not equal an “innocent” verdict. It means that the jury concluded after much deliberation that the prosecution did not prove that he was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” and the defense undermines the prosecutions case by looking for minute discrepancies over years of testimony.
If it had been up to me to get up and tell my uncensored story from my heart, maybe the verdict would’ve been different. But I could only speak the truth within the parameters of the American judicial system—and I did my best.
I’m glad he had to sit and listen to me share how his actions harmed me, without distraction or response.
He is still him, the person who abused me without taking the accountability that would be necessary for any change to take place and he has to live with himself.
But I don’t anymore—and that is the ultimate win.