ANONYMOUS | January 17, 2017
To me, hell is a Radisson Blu hotel room. It’s July and I’m waking in a place I don’t recognize. As I put the pieces together, I start to fall apart.
I was living in rural West Africa to work on a grassroots initiative. Over the past few years, I’d spent many months living there to work. I learned the local language well, made friends, and developed a sense of home. That summer of 2016, I was excited to return. I wanted to spend time away from my family, vocal Republicans who had become increasingly difficult to communicate with. Although I loved them, it was defeating to speak to them as they actively chose to ignore the implications of supporting Donald Trump. The project was difficult, but we made progress and it always felt nice to be detached from social media, the news, and all the things that distract a millennial from her own mind.
On this specific day, I was taking my friend to the airport. Before arriving, I hadn’t had access to any internet or world news. After dropping her off, I decided to sit down at the Radisson Blu Hotel to check-in on current events and Skype some friends. When I finally got access to Wi-Fi, a flood of notifications alerted me that the United States seemed to be falling apart: I had just learned of Philando Castel’s brutal death and the protests that followed; Trump was continuing to earn votes by aligning himself with a dangerous demographic through spewing hateful rhetoric; Bernie Sanders was losing in the Democratic Party; and ISIS was getting more violent in pop-up terrorist attacks. My friends articulated the unease in the country. I remember feeling very far from home; it seemed to become apocalyptic.
An American man in his fifties sat next to me. He heard me speaking English on the phone. He spoke with hyper-masculinity, and a rehearsed chivalry that made me uncomfortable. He told me he worked in the music industry and that he was in the country to search for African singers for “Kanye’s new album.” Shortly after, I would realize that this was a lie. I regret that I didn’t leave when my intuition alerted me to. But there are moments that feel mundane after the excitement of a foreign place wears off, so I talk to new people, to hear their stories, hoping for something interesting to inspire me for the course of the conversation. He boasted about his career and told me of his “celebrity” friends – he even pretended to call Kanye – when he waved his phone in front of me, insisting for me to say “hi,” I could see that his phone was on the home screen. He was talking with no one. He bought me a drink.
This was July 15th, the night of the Turkish coup. That image on a TV would be the first thing I saw when I woke. Slowly, then quickly, I find my body betrayed by him.
It’s funny how the body can deceive the mind, how it had woken me from my sleep to a stranger inside of me. It’s paralyzing. Every woman has feared this moment, but I thought I would be stronger if it ever arrived. I cried and left. It was 2 AM and I was alone in complete precariousness. I had nowhere to refuge at this hour, unannounced. So, I bought a hotel room at the Radisson Blu to stay the rest of the night, just a floor away from my hell.
The lights in my room didn’t work and that was fine. I wanted dark. I wanted a shower. I sat on the wet tile floor for an hour. I let the water run on me until its pinches hurt. And I wondered if I would ever feel good again. Mosquitoes bit my legs and arms, I just let them, too tired to fight. Everything that made me proud before I woke was lost in this labyrinth as I wished for innocence.
I’d imagine it’s a mother’s worst fear, to get a call from her daughter as she weeps alone and explains she was just raped. There’s no way to protect her once it’s been done. She told me never to let this define me.
I came back to the United States four days later. This country was divided in ways I couldn’t quite comprehend. As my hometown became a swing county, the polarization was stark. It was disappointing, but I was so happy to be home, just thankful that the people I love would never blame me for what happened to me.
I asked my mom not to talk to me about what happened. She passed the message on to my family. We acted like it never happened. They went on with their lives, Fox News played at night, and they were ready to rally for Trump. Nothing I experienced would alter them, and in the face of such misogyny, I was an inconvenience.
Watching Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” video upset me now in ways that I couldn’t have understood before. It reminded me of being thirteen, uncomfortable with the development of my body, as men began to look at me and I wished they couldn’t. I didn’t get to choose their gazes and comments. I didn’t want them to look at me like that. I wanted to be unseen.
The leaked Trump video brought me back to that feeling. But at this point I was 21, and my fears as a thirteen-year-old had come true. This video showed a man who feels entitled to openly permit assaulting a woman, to make her powerless, to subordinate so that a norm becomes acceptable and perpetuated. In this subordinate position, a woman is increasingly unable to combat a man’s gaze, his words, or his hands. When a presidential candidate does not hide his misogyny, others won’t feel obliged to either.
I felt thirteen again: knowing that they are looking at me, wishing to feel innocent, understanding that I will not succeed. And it’s burdening, this lack of innocence. It’s something felt by women, but curated by men, a byproduct of gender that women cannot control. Like so much else, it becomes something we carry. But they call it locker room talk. Women, in response, no longer feel that they can keep in their stories of sexual assault, and they emotionally and angrily share their darkest moments. Those who participate in “locker room talk” accept this as a norm, so sexual assault is no longer horrific but instead is something that “just happens” to women who aren’t strong, and men should be forgiven for perpetuating it.
My dad was always my favorite person to talk to. He was an enigma to me: a gentle man surrounded by masculinity, he practiced law but loved painting and running, a self-proclaimed “libertarian” who never let that define him. He lost a piece of himself a few years back. The recession hit and the company he worked for was malicious in nature. They dug under his skin and broke him down. After four years of unemployment, he became an independent contractor, making about half of what the used to without receiving health benefits for him or his family. He felt dejected about how his life came to be. He was never the same. No one could pick him back up. And he couldn’t pick up himself.
He was the perfect target for Trump: a man who was economically struggling, who couldn’t find an immediate answer but was tired of being broken, who was ready to be angry. Trump’s rhetoric appealed to him in a way that never truly fit him. After watching his speeches and Fox News, my dad became convinced that being gentle was no longer going to work. He became extreme in all of his interactions, frequently angry and ready to argue about the most monotonous things. I stopped interacting with him, consciously removing myself from interactions with him when I had the capacity to.
While I was trying to come to terms with rape, he became defensive of Trump. I had my breaking point a few days ago when I was in my parents’ home, and my dad started talking about Donald Trump. I asked my dad not to talk about Trump in front of me. I explained countless times that the President-elect — a hateful man who normalizes sexual assault and oppresses minorities — makes me feel unsafe. My dad responded, “Oh, Jesus Christ. Sexual assault happens to a lot of people.” In response, I recited the details of everything that happened that night: the man, the bed, feeling scared, feeling humiliated.
I could see in his eyes he was sad. In this moment, I thought maybe our relationship would change. Maybe my dad would get it now that the story was told. I thought maybe he would realize how much all of it hurts. Then he responded: “What were the conditions? Why didn’t you call the police? Did you know the man?” Asking all the right wrong questions. And now I know that nothing will really change.
Because what I now understand is that the Trump election and propaganda has polarized and politicized the most basic violations of human rights. It has placed emphasis on one’s identity as a suffering white man over the father of a sexual assault victim, and the two became mutually exclusive in this case. When it comes to allegiance to a political candidate, or his daughter, my dad chose Trump.
As a woman and rape victim, I do not agree with Donald J. Trump’s values. But I know that really, he’s just my scapegoat to the frustrations of a culture war that puts fragile white masculinity up against minorities and women, as it has always been.
I’m mad that Trump is the face of hate and rage, and that he is winning. I’m mad that my father responded with “What were the conditions?” when I shared my story. I’m mad that the rising conversation surrounding sexual assault has caused individuals to excuse it as a norm. I’m mad that people have such difficulty identifying or empathizing with sexual assault in the absence of violence, or if it is not with a stranger. I’m jealous that my friends got to detest Donald Trump without their hearts breaking, as their relationships with their fathers deteriorated. I’m mad that the idea of a safe space has become politicized. I’m mad that my dad isn’t who I want him to be, who I needed him to be.
In days, Donald Trump will be sworn into office. I’ve thought a lot about what I will do on inauguration day. I thought maybe I’d protest. But when I considered what I actually want to do in the face of hate, it’s to remain an ally for the voiceless. Instead of standing in front of the U.S. Capitol building, I will be in a maximum-security prison. I’ll be preparing for and attending the graduation for the prestigious Bard Prison Initiative, granting bachelor’s degrees to incarcerated individuals. I don’t need to go near Trump to fight him.