With time, memories and dreams grow alike and interchangeable. Leaking into the air of the eternally forgotten, they leave a residue of love and longing that remains in our bodies and becomes our stories- beautifully penned by Ananda
A part of me never believed I’d come to a point where I’d feel comfortable sharing my story of redemption and rising from sexual assault, teenage pregnancy loss and subsequent complicated and disenfranchised grief. I was given a nudge in the right direction however after waking up the news of something special.
The Twenty Twenty One Australian of the Year Award has gone to Grace Tame, an activist for legal reformation in the sexual assault justice system. For nine years, she was silenced by state gag laws which prevent assault survivors from self identifying in the media. Unwilling to bend and conform, Grace’s fight for rights is now very public. She has been honoured with Australia’s biggest platform. She was fifteen years old when she was groomed and raped by her fifty eight year old high school maths teacher. He was found out and jailed for his crimes but Grace, unlike her perpetrator and the media, was not allowed to speak about the incident.
Overall, I’ve always felt that my experience is sorely under represented, that being the very reason my grief has stayed unresolved for so long. Let me tell you though- a mother’s love is fierce and undying. It lives on through the years, even when a baby has come to pass. Here’s to uncovering the elephant in the room.
I recently learned of the correct term to describe my grief in what is such a unique and somewhat unheard of circumstance. I was fifteen when I fell pregnant and it was to my friend turned rapist. Those three fateful months had passed by without my knowing anything was amiss. I had no time to process an unexpected pregnancy let alone the lengthy and physically + emotionally draining aftermath of early loss.
The rape itself was traumatic. It happened in broad daylight in a shopping centre, right next to a restaurant with clear glass walls. I find it hard to believe that nobody saw us- I think they assumed it was two teenagers up to no good and opted to turn a blind eye. I know there have been instances where I’ve caught people in compromised positions and left as I was embarrassed and didn’t want a bar of it. Consensual or otherwise, indecent exposure is a serious crime. At this time, my friend’s grandmother whom he was very close to had died. I was there to show my support. We were just meant to talk. My own great grandmother was sick and we felt she was on the verge of passing too. It was very emotionally charged. My great grandmother, who has since passed, lived to the ripe old age of ninety four. She gripped onto life very tightly, saying that she hadn’t lived enough and was too young to go.
To this day, I haven’t been able to recover my suppressed memories. Scientists believe that suppressed memories are as a result of a process called state dependant learning. When the brain creates memories whilst in a certain state or mood, particularly a negative one of extreme stress or trauma, those memories become inaccessible in a normal, healthy state of consciousness. If the brain registers overwhelming trauma, it can essentially block out that memory through detachment of reality. This mechanism allows the brain a chance to protect itself, to wander off and work to avoid excess aggravation.
I work tirelessly to answer the age old questions that are posed to me. Most pressing, however, are the ones I ask myself. Where was I as he ravaged my body? Was I drugged at any point so I’d be more cooperative? I recall us sitting adjacent to each other, him restless and growing increasingly angry. We were close to a balcony and I feared that he’d push me off. He was flying off the handle. I remember willing myself to be small, to cocoon within the faux pink fur of the large jacket he’d later struggle to tug off of me, sweating and swearing as he did so. When I stood up to leave, I was grabbed and shoved roughly onto his lap. He pulled my arms behind me, crushing them between us. In one swift move, he’d managed to turn my face to the side and go in for what appeared to be a kiss. This is my last point of recollection and where I believe I was slipped something. The heaviness in my eyelids grew, the drowsiness became hard to fight off and I went peacefully.
The transition from conscious to unconscious was too smooth. When I finally came to, he was in the middle of the act. Shock overcame me. I fumbled in my search for words to sum up what was incomprehensible. I knew I’d lost time. His darkness had taken over and I recoiled at the thought of such blase carelessness marking my days forever more. He didn’t wear a condom and I prayed he didn’t have a disease. He choked me for minutes on end, berated me for bleeding all over his pants and then let me go. “What is my mother going to think,” he asked, “If I come home like this? What have you done?”
Fifty dollars later and he was out of there. “Go take the pill, take it once, twice, perhaps four times. I don’t care.” For a grocery store worker, he couldn’t have been earning that much. It was always more important to him that he show me up and demonstrate his autonomy and non reliance on other people first and foremost. We’d always had a complicated relationship. While I was content with friendship, he wanted to add a new dimension on top of that and was determined to see things through. “So, this is how it is? I’m good enough to be your friend, meet your parents and get close to but not good enough to be your boyfriend?” He was always controlling and I should have tapped into that earlier on. He had an intensity to him. A desperation that made him dangerous. His anger was towards the world and all its’ people.
Disenfranchised grief encompasses a variety of situations. It would apply to someone who has gone through a divorce, has a partner who has left for military service, had an ex partner who died, had an extra marital or secret lover, elected to have an abortion or give their child for adoption, lost a limb, a pet, a personality from dementia or a relationship with someone whom they weren’t connected to by blood. Perhaps a girlfriend, boyfriend or a family friend.
Grief is disenfranchised when the loss suffered has been socially negated. There is a particular set of social factors that combine to form complicated grief in which loss is not recognised and the individual and the people close to them behave as if nothing occurred. Grief is a constellation of fragmented, nonsensical thoughts and feelings we have after a loved one passes. Grief may be thought of as a container- it is the internal meaning and response we give to the experience of loss. Mourning is the brave and vulnerable act of taking our grief and translating that internal experience for the rest of the world. A public display of feelings that can be intensely private and may evoke shame and guilt.
The only way I could make sense of this compounded tragedy was to say I discovered a gap in my life. Suddenly I had this need that required fulfilling that I wasn’t previously aware of. As they say, grief is just love with no place to go. Where would I put all my imagined dreams and hopes? It came as a stark shock and really pulled me back to reality. The twenty minute ordeal I’d suffered through at the hands of my rapist would ultimately represent a short moment in time. However, the overarching selfish choice he made would change the course of my life forever. My body was to be a home to a little one. In a recent chain of emails, instigated by my rapist and his sudden need for apology and forgiveness, I disclosed this news.
I had gotten pregnant despite taking the pill. I was miscarrying without having realised it. At three to four months old I could make out little legs and arms. This baby had just fallen out of me, covered in blood. It was the most heartbreaking thing to see but at the same time, I was in awe. I couldn’t believe that someone so perfect had been one with me, even if just for a few months. I was able to separate the circumstances of that baby’s creation from itself. After all, that baby was the most innocent part of anything that had happened. The loss hit me hard. I noticed the absence of those ever so tiny flutters I’d get in the stomach sometimes. It was painful, excruciatingly so. Both physically and mentally, it represented the heaviest burden I’d had to carry.
Something interesting I learnt along the way is that any pregnancy you carry, whether to full term or otherwise, changes your DNA. As women we hold the genetic makeup of our children and our parents. This is known as microchimerism, making us chimeras. This cellular transfer takes place in all pregnancies. Within weeks of conception, cells from both the mother and foetus traffic back and forth across the placenta, resulting in one becoming a part of the other. It is known that during pregnancy, as much as ten percent of free floating DNA in the mother’s bloodstream comes from the foetus, despite it being half foreign to her. While these numbers drop after birth or a loss, some cells will still remain harboured. Children, in turn, carry a certain population of cells acquired from their mothers that persist into adulthood and can inform the health of future offspring. With each successive conception, the mother’s reservoir of foreign material grows deeper and more complex, with further opportunities to transfer cells from older siblings to younger children, or even across multiple generations.
Some months later, I had a dream that the baby was a boy. I seeked to find a way to honour my baby’s life and move through loss, so I asked my partner to help me pick a name. We came up with Mateo, the Spanish version of Matthew. It means gift from God and he truly was. My partner was so understanding and his kindness incredibly touching. I’ve never been more sure about someone. I wouldn’t have expected him to be as calm as he was but he just took everything in stride. He still refers to that baby, almost a year and a half later, as his son. I wanted the both of us to name him because in any normal circumstance, that would be a bonding exercise for couples. I felt we needed that.
I truly can’t speak to my rapist’s intentions that day, nor to the thoughts that crossed his mind. I can’t tell you what he must have believed I deserved. I just know I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. Just like that, he became the sole person who understood my loss on a level so intimate it’s overwhelming. It’s so ironic I could almost laugh. The sheer panic and desperation in the way he spoke revealed that he got it. He understood that he’d given me a life sentence and that try as I might, I’d suffer every day of my life without him needing to lay a hand on me again.
What I can tell you is that being a teenager who has fallen pregnant and then suffered a miscarriage is an experience a world away from a woman in the same position. Nobody mourned my miscarriage at any point in the last year and a half. I received some of the most outrightly offensive and inappropriate reactions to my sorrow- other women have reported being given well intentioned messages of hope and healing that just missed the mark. Even that would have sufficed, compared to the responses of the people I hold nearest and dearest. The words “I’m sorry for your loss” never reached my ears. Instead, I was told “I’m happy for your loss. I’m glad it happened.” Not too long after, I made the decision to confide in a friend. She paused for a minute and then laughed hysterically. “I’m sorry, that’s actually hilarious.” There were a range of other responses but I’ll have to shortlist my favourites.
“If you’d been a more dedicated follower of Islam and prayed five times a day, each day of the week, you wouldn’t have been punished by God for your sins.”
This left me bewildered. Not too long ago, I read the story of a mother who lost her baby to infantile leukaemia, a condition in which he had a one in a million chance of developing. He was diagnosed a week or two after birth and lived to be a year old. Throughout his short life, there never existed a moment in which he wasn’t afflicted by pain. Even the most innocent of our kind are touched by suffering. Who is anybody to say that sin or failure to lead a perfectly virtuous life results in hardship? God did not guarantee life without trials but did promise to reign supreme and carry us throughout. To make a way in the wilderness and the midst of struggle. We are not forsaken.
“Why didn’t you say no? Didn’t you stop him? It’s your fault for meeting a boy and making friends with him in the first place. Were you drinking, on drugs?”
To that final statement, I did have a few words. I’m sure Ted Bundy’s wife was asked the same question at one point. It may be natural to wonder how a woman could reside under the same roof as a notorious serial killer but a simple fact stands. Until someone presents themselves to you as being one way, you are very much in the dark. How are you to know any better?
Furthermore, this is both a man and woman’s world. The two genders coexist. Why should I be expected to ignore an entire half of society and have no interaction with them just because you tell me men can’t control themselves?
It is absolutely unacceptable to vilify all men, just as it is to suggest that the violence some direct towards others can be backed with reason. There is nothing I could possibly do to earn my rapist the right to violate my body. There is no condoning sexual assault. It is not a show of male domination or strength but a display of control and abuse. It does not make a man powerful but it renders him cowardly. A real man knows that there is power to be found in gentleness, humility and respect. This is what I told my rapist whose ego and pride ran rampant.
I am grateful for the support I’ve received through an unprecedented time. For the laws that protect my right to speak out and progress my case whenever I wish, whether today or fifty years from now. There was no statute of limitations imposed upon my case.
Stories of baby loss are all around me but the narrative never changes to allow girls and women more grace, understanding and empathy. My stepmother lost a child. My grandmother lost a child. Nobody is any the wiser. Let’s make an active and empowered decision to equip others with the strength to break free of societal moulds and conditioning. When we share the weight and burden of loss, we allow ourselves to begin the process of healing, fully seen and supported by the people who surround us.
I want to touch briefly on the immense potential for healing with family after a tragedy. More often that not, the people closest to those who’ve suffered will feel a second hand version of their pain on top of what their own personal reaction evokes. It understand how difficult it can be to support a loved one after trauma. You feel as if you need to walk on eggshells, be strong for them and place yourself in their shoes for long enough to know what is and isn’t right to say. As a society we are quick to produce therapists and trained professionals that talk you through a supposed linear healing process and schedule regular times to meet. We are quick to connect sufferers with those who will never know them on a deep, personal level, nor be able to understand their walk through life. I personally never saw a therapist. My story felt precious and deeply private. I didn’t want to hand it over to a stranger for safekeeping, for directions and advice on. I didn’t want to open it up to cold, critical and highly objective dissection when I could share my truth with those who love me.
What I wished to hear after breaking the news of my miscarriage was a simple, heartfelt acknowledgment. I wanted someone to validate the strange and scary experience I’d been through. To tell me that my first baby was meant to be a joyous experience and even though nothing went to plan or could’ve been anticipated, there’d be room in my life for that child. That I’d have made a good mother, even and especially because I knew my limitations. I know I have much to learn still. If I was to tell my rapist anything, I’d say that I get the final say. I hold the pen in my hand, I write my story. I determine the way it ends. Most importantly though, no person is ruined or tainted in the eyes of the Holy one. Nothing can separate me from God’s love.