When I published my memoir two years ago, the initial weeks of interviews and events were every bit as joy-filled as I’d imagined. Manhattan dinners with my agent, NPR interviews, book signings, and even an Op-Ed in the New York Times.
At one speaking event in particular at a college in Colorado near where I live, a few hundred students packed the room. People wanted to hear me speak. Ten years of grueling work had come to fruition. Ten years of pouring my pain into a story for public consumption, of enduring rejection from agents and publishers, of wondering if my words could ever be powerful enough to be heard. Afterwards, the line the students formed in front of my table wrapped out into the hallway and around the quad. They wanted a note and signature on the title page of a book I wrote. My book-signing Sharpie and I were traveling the country influencing readers in exactly the ways I had dreamed of. Initially my ego inflated, I’ll admit. I remember thinking, “I’ve finally made it.”
But on that night, when I began signing books, the students approached me one by one, and I looked into their faces, and even if they didn’t utter the words, “me too,” I felt their pain. Most were there waiting an hour or more for me to sign their copy of my memoir, because that’s how badly the world had already hurt them. This group of mostly women looked like children to me and yet their wounds were deep enough that they were looking for someone to help erase their shame and give them a torch to move forward. They wanted consolation and hope. My words couldn’t have felt any paltrier.
My memoir, Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience, is the first traditionally published memoir about sexual assault within the military. It’s the story of my repeated victimization, first sexual abuse when I was a teenager and then a rape while I was a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy. It’s also the story of a culture that influenced my intense self-blame and enabled my perpetrators.
I often write about a particular moment when I was 19. I had medical conditions consequent to the rape that were so severe I was about to lose my career, but even heavier than the illness and the PTSD was the shame I carried. I believed down to my core that I caused my own victimization.
The moment I write about is when I realized – I started to realize, at least – how false that belief was. The victim advocate with whom I worked gathered us survivors in the counseling center after hours. She gave us a dispenser full of jelly beans and a space for privacy. The other women filling the seats around me were gritty, tough, intelligent, brave women. As they shared their stories, I realized they weren’t to blame. Today, that sentence seems cliché. But in 2002, when I was 19, the thought was profound. If these women I admired weren’t to blame, then maybe I wasn’t either. Maybe I wasn’t the f*cking whore one of my classmates called me.
Of all my experiences in the Air Force, this moment is perhaps the one with the greatest legacy. My kinship with the other survivors freed me from a lifetime of self-blame. However, I traded one wound for another: realizing the pervasiveness of our experiences, how so many of us would lose careers we’d sacrificed everything for, that the same perpetrators who sexually assaulted many of us were being protected by both the institution and the culture which had silenced us, how political my extremely personal experience actually was, drove me to a lifetime of anger and activism.
In my twenties, I became a victim advocate. I was terrible at it. I mean, I was great at the actual job, but terrible at what the work requires. I learned I am incapable of leaving other people’s traumas in the office. Instead, I kept piling the stories onto my own shoulders, one on top of the other. The traumas crushed me, and then when I looked around, I wondered why I was seemingly the most pissed off feminist for miles.
For me, advocacy wasn’t a cure for my anger; advocacy worsened my anger. It wasn’t enough for me to help a survivor after a sexual assault; I wanted the violence to end.
I became a writer. I wrote from a place of anger. Unapologetically. Every time the world outraged me, I directed my fury straight into the keyboard. I couldn’t tell the stories of those with whom I shared survivor’s groups, and I couldn’t tell the stories from my clients, so I told the world my own. I wrote my memoir. I wanted to give other survivors the experience I had had that night in the counseling center, but much more than that, I wanted to help readers understand how culture perpetuates this violence.
What I didn’t consider is how it would feel on the other side of publication. How it would feel when the stories kept coming. Accelerated, in fact. Now, everywhere I go, I am the woman who confessed an intensely vulnerable story of her victimhood. Now people want to tell me their secrets. I listen and nod and don’t speak. The pile grows heavier. The anger intensifies.
I’m more keenly aware that readers are divided into two groups: those of us who need personal stories and memoir to free us from our traumas, and those who have been sheltered and do not have a single clue why I’ve chosen to write. The traumatic stories I hear in response to my writing upset me, but even more upsetting are the responses from readers who, ever so politely, tell me that I really should have kept my traumas to myself. I want to make those particular readers wade through my email or my Twitter mentions, make them listen to women who were raped at age six, or nine, or whatever age and still blamed themselves. But they will never have that opportunity, and they will continue wondering why I’ve exposed myself in this way.
I look into the eyes of the women who attend book readings, like those college students in Colorado, and I read emails from current Air Force Academy cadets, and I am outraged anew, this time without a clear project in which to funnel my frustrations.
For about a year, I served as an unofficial advocate for Air Force Academy cadets. Many reached out to me after they read my NY Times Op-Ed, and a few wanted to go public too. I helped them talk through the implications and through the process of working with journalists. The resulting investigative story aired on CBS This Morning in 2017 and won a News Emmy in 2018. I’m proud…but still angry. Angrier even. Because, no, the Air Force Academy has not changed one bit. And, as we’ve all been aware since November 2016, the world outside of the military hasn’t changed either.
What if having “made it” as a writer, activist, and public speaker, also means continuing to experience the type of pain which drove me to this work in the first place? What if I can’t have one without the other? Two years after my memoir’s publication, I’m still trying to decide what making it actually means.
Leslie Jamison wrote to her readers, “Thank you for making my confession larger than itself.” Her words remind me that the notes from strangers are “gifts as much as burdens.” She’s absolutely right. I will continue to gratefully bear witness to the readers who reach out to me. I know it’s a privilege, even if their stories make me ache.
I’ll keep writing, too. My next project is a follow-up memoir to Caged Eyes. It’s the second half of my story, the recovery half, centered around my climbs of Colorado’s highest peaks. Perhaps writing about this journey of healing and self-discovery will allow me to encounter new stories of hope.