I tried not to cry as my parents dropped me off at my hostel at the university on what was to be my first night living away from home. Dad put $250 in my hand and basically told me to have a nice life. I was petrified and I felt very alone!
While still in fear of standing on my own feet, I was introduced to Donna, a powerful woman who dominated any conversation as soon as she entered a room. For those of us from tiny country towns in my native New Zealand, she seemed all knowing because she came from the “big smoke” (translation: the big city). Members of her fan club spent hours in the cafeteria in deep philosophical discussions and we traipsed around in our long black dresses that was the uniform of the trendy. I never felt totally part of the group, always feeling a little lost in its presence. When the feminist group spoke about taking up arms against the men, I realized that it was totally insane to keep pretending to belong to them! Especially when Donna asked me soon after that same crazy meeting to stand guard while she watched a fashion show in town so her feminist friends protesting outside wouldn’t catch her there. The charade of following Donna around became apparent for the hypocrisy which I was enabling. Who was I kidding?
My whole involvement with this crowd took a 180 degree turn after a traumatic event turned my life upside down; an event that made me question everything about my life. I took a date to a close friend’s wedding. It was miles away in a small town in South Otago and we had travelled there in his tiny MGB. On the way back home, he drove like a maniac, swerving at every corner. He suddenly took an unexpected side road in the middle of the dark countryside and at the end of this unlit road he raped me. To make matters worse, I was forced to continue the hour-long drive home with him afterwards because the alternative of being left in that isolated spot was even more terrifying.
At first, I was in total denial that this happened to me. Dangerously, I kept returning to the offender, just willing him in my mind to tell me it had never happened. It was as if my body and my emotions just could NOT wrap themselves around the idea that something so painful, so profound was now part of my life. I could never be the same. Finally, I woke up and realized that I needed therapy to work my way through the waves of emotion that came, especially the feeling that I would never be clean again, that he had somehow made me dirty, less than a woman.
The counselor did everything she could to help me tap into feelings of injustice and anger, but I would not go there as I was so deeply in shock. I kept examining myself to see if I had done something to cause this to happen. “Had I danced too seductively? Had I done something to trigger him?” In the end, the counselor began to suggest that the rape was not my principle issue. My constant attempts at self-blame led her to conclude that I was suffering from an “identity crisis.”
That revelation transformed this horrific experience into a fundamental turning point in my life. With that insight from my counselor, I gave myself permission to explore who I really was. I tested out how I felt in different environments, with different groups of people. I’d often ask myself, “Is this me? Does it feel as if this belief belongs to me? Do these people feel like “my” people? Do I like myself when I am in this place or having these thoughts?” Part of that journey was a process of becoming my own person, separate from others around me I OWNED myself! I was not able to confront my offender, who died about a year later in a fiery car accident, but I finally reached a point where I was able to forgive him and move forward; not for his sake but for mine, so that I would not be chained by my anger.
I would like to say my life has moved onwards and upwards since then but that would be an exaggeration. I have experienced many ups and downs. There have been times when I have lost myself in relationships or when I have handed over my personal power and other times when I have truly stood in my power, established boundaries and felt clear about who I am.
What did I learn? That the times I remained in “victim mode”, looking for someone to blame for my woes, have been when I have most often lost personal power, direction and my sense of self. I have felt most in charge of my life when I have decided to put away any bitterness and have focused on driving forward with my life’s direction. It is the best kind of vengeance: not to let someone derail me. I could have decided that all men are potential perpetrators, but the resulting fear of men would have held me captive and restricted my life.
I learned to embrace the good with the bad, to look for the lessons and be grateful for all my life; not just the good bits. Moving forward with my life has been at times painful, exhilarating, infuriating, empowering and loving. There is no one else’s life quite like my own and I love it, because I've come to know and continue to discover and create who I am.
We’d like to thank Marianne Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity.