What Do You Do When Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You?

bubbles

Trigger warning.

You know it’s bad news when you see a photo of someone you know at the top of a news article. Last week was no exception. A man I knew when I was a teenager — let’s call him A. — was sentenced to 6 years in jail for trafficking child pornography.

I saw the article and was completely stunned. I emailed an ex-boyfriend who knew A., asking, “Did you see this?” Not only had he seen it, but he had been in court for three days, watching the case unfold. Furthermore, he was convinced the guy was innocent.

It all came back to me in a flash: when I hung out with A., I was 14, and he was almost 30, and there was definitely something off about that. I remembered the inappropriate comments he would make, the things he did, and his reputation among my teenage friends as someone you didn’t want to be alone with.

We had a complicated relationship. Mostly, I knew A. as “my boyfriend’s best friend”, as the guy who always had a house stocked with booze, a bookcase full of great fiction, a supersonic music collection. We would talk for hours online, about books, music, all that High Fidelity stuff. (“Books, records, films… These things matter.”) But sometimes the subject matter would veer elsewhere. I wish that was as far as it went. But it wasn’t.

I remember feeling really special whenever he wanted to spend time with me. A. was much older than most of my friends, and he was smart, funny, and pretty charming. He was a pretty good friend, really: always available to talk. One year he bought me all of Hunter S. Thompson’s books for my birthday, and all of Bret Easton Ellis’ for Christmas. I remember thinking that I must be pretty intelligent, funny, and unique for him to want to hang out with me.

I was intelligent, funny, and unique, but that wasn’t why he hung around me. That wasn’t why he hung around any of my friends. I was at a party once, standing in a group of other girls, and when his name came up, we realised we all had similar stories. There were several instances of “I was at his house drinking, and woke up with his hands on me, and his excuse was, ‘Well, you were drinking my alcohol.'” There were a few accounts of him asking girls in their young teens whether they’d be in the porn film he was supposedly making, getting angry when they said no, calling them prudes. He molested one girl when she was 13 years old, and left her $150 in cash and a note of apology afterwards. As we discussed these stories, none of us seemed terribly traumatised. Instead, we acted as if this was just a thing that happened in the adult world, a world we had quickly become a part of at the age of 14.

I drifted away from that social circle, moved on, and never really thought much about it. (Most people would call this repression.) In fact, years later, when I was an adult, A. maintained a friendship with one of my boyfriends. We would even go out to dinner with him and his wife. I still felt a little uncomfortable around A., and never wanted to be alone with him. I said as much to my boyfriend, but I never went into detail, and my boyfriend never pressed the issue.

When the news broke last week, it was the hot topic of the day among my friends from that time. Most of the women commented along the lines of, “He was always a creep, it was about time.” And the men? An old friend said, “It’s become apparent that it was very different being friends with him as a guy.”

The night that I read the article, I couldn’t sleep. My adrenaline was pumping. I stayed up until 4am talking to my husband about it, freaking out, reeling. I feel like I’ve been processing the news every day since it broke. I’ve been having flashbacks, and I feel tortured by my thoughts. It has been really hard to concentrate on anything else. I usually fall asleep easily, but every night since, I find myself staring at the ceiling.

My ex — who was in court — told me that the whole case was technically shaky. A. got six years, four without parole. He will be on the sex offender registry for life.

I don’t know if he’s guilty or not. While the details of the case didn’t feel like him at all, that doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. Maybe he wanted to get caught. Who knows? What I do know is that the odds of him having a taste for young girls, and later being convicted for soliciting and trafficking child pornography, is too much of a coincidence to ignore. I also believe that even if he’s innocent of these charges, what he did in the past more than warrants his current sentence.

As I process the information, I keep asking myself over and over, why didn’t any of us come forward or do anything about it? Why didn’t the other people we told — our friends who were a little older and wiser — encourage us to go to the police? Or to our parents?

I think we felt like no one would believe us. We were a motley crew: teenage goths, with substance abuse and self-esteem issues. We felt like no one would take us seriously. Maybe we thought we’d be in trouble. Or that if we told our parents, our freedom would be taken away.

This is, I’m sure you can tell, a difficult thing for me to talk about. Like I said, I’m still processing all of it. I think the most important thing I can share is that if you’re ever in a situation that feels off or uncomfortable, it’s okay to back away. I know it’s really hard to say “This makes me uncomfortable,” but it’s important to practice. Please don’t ever feel pressured into doing something that you don’t want to do, and don’t let someone talk you into something you’re not ready for.

At the time, I filed all of my interactions with A. away, thinking that it wasn’t really a big deal, and that I could just move on. I had no idea how much it would impact me in the future. It has had serious repercussions in my life, and has affected how I behave in my personal relationships. I’m taking action to heal, and if you have been in a similar situation, please know that talking about your experiences with a trained professional is very, very important.

It doesn’t matter whether the pressure comes from your boyfriend, your husband, a relative, an employer, or a total stranger, it’s still wrong. It’s your body to do with as you wish. No one has the right to make you feel like you owe them anything… EVER.

I asked a couple of my friends who had experiences with A. if they would write something about it, and their accounts are below. I’ve kept them anonymous. I hope that by reading their stories, it’ll help you recognise the importance of consent.

At the end of the article is a list of links for various help centres. Please don’t be ashamed to reach out.

Love,


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I knew Gala and her friends over a decade ago when we were teenagers trying to figure out where we fitted in. We mixed in the same circles, we all frequented the same internet chat rooms, inner city cafes and parties.

I can’t speak for them, but I was lonely, insecure, with such low self-esteem, and was desperate for people I could talk to about how I was feeling. I had no idea of healthier ways of managing my anxiety and depression, so I drank a lot and I drank often. I deeply disliked myself, and instead of showing myself kindness, I behaved recklessly and destructively. I soon discovered that I couldn’t tolerate being on my own and I craved constant attention and company. The internet is a great place to connect with people, and while I later met my husband online, I also met at least one predator. I am relieved now that he has been sentenced to jail but it has also opened the doors to memories of much darker times.

I chatted with A. a lot online, we had mutual friends, and met up often in the city. I spent time with him at his apartment, usually with my boyfriend and our friends. I was under the legal drinking age, and often when my boyfriend went to bars that I was denied entry to, I would end up at his apartment because I couldn’t tolerate being at home alone. He was always flirty and inappropriate, both online and in person, but it seemed to sit in a grey area which was laughed off by most people, even myself.

The first time he moved beyond innuendo it came as a shock. Was it just a joke? Was I imagining it? I had drunk a large amount of his alcohol and realised he was getting too close physically. I felt really uncomfortable, but he reminded me that he had supplied me with alcohol and I was in his house. I had visited him, he had listened to me and kept me company, and I should be grateful. After all, I had chatted to him a lot online and I should have known better how to keep myself safe. He was right, I hadn’t wanted to be alone and I had been craving alcohol. He had let me talk about my problems and had shown me sympathy and given me advice. He had provided me with what I felt like I needed, and now I had to return the favour.

Twice I can recall waking up after drinking too much and finding his hands under my clothing with him trying to kiss me. This was a man who knew I had a long-term partner and a history of sexual trauma. This was a man who knew I was heavily intoxicated, and in fact had provided me with the alcohol. This was not OK. When I complained again however he reminded me, angry this time, that he had given me what I wanted and made it again my responsibility. I am incredibly lucky that these events never progressed and that I was never again alone with him. It could have ended much worse, however it still had an impact on me.

These events made me believe that I was to blame for how bad I felt, that I was a slut, and that men were entitled to treat me how they liked. He knew I was vulnerable and he preyed on that and made it worse. I was an easy target for a man like him. Any decent human would try to help a distressed and intoxicated person. A decent human would make sure they are OK, get them somewhere safe and call for help. Only a predator will take advantage of their vulnerability.

My experiences alone made me feel like I had done something to bring about what happened. Now, talking with the other women and piecing together everyone’s stories, it is so obvious what he was doing. His behaviour is so typical of a predator, and while it is easy to see this in hindsight, it is much harder when you are immersed in it. He knew I would blame myself for what happened, he knew I would feel dirty and ashamed, and he knew that I wouldn’t tell anyone. I am sickened that his behaviour continued to escalate, and I am devastated that so many girls were hurt by him. I do however feel validated finally because now I know I didn’t imagine it or make it up and it was never my fault, only his.

I wish that I had believed in myself back in my teens, and I hope that these yucky events will at least continue to bring conversation and understanding. If you feel that something, anything, is not right then listen to yourself and tell someone. Keep telling people until you find someone who treats you with the respect you deserve and will listen. Don’t feel like you can’t talk about what is happening, or happened in the past. Abuse thrives on secrecy. It doesn’t matter if you were drunk or had taken drugs. It doesn’t matter if you had been chatting online or even had met up in person. They might tell you that you owed them for something or had led them on. These are tricks predators will play.”


wrist

As Gala has mentioned, we were young, too young to be hanging around with people in their late twenties and early thirties in the capacity we were.

Drinking, partying, sneaking into bars and shadow dancing to The Cure as baby bats. A friend at the time used to jokingly call us jailbait, which I didn’t really think about in depth. Now I hate the term, despise it. Implicit in the title is that as a young woman, a girl, you are a trap by merely existing. As though just by being out of the house, you’re subject to the impulses of people who should think of you as a little sister, a friend, someone to nurture and encourage, rather than someone to sexualise and objectify.

We wanted to live in a Poppy Z Brite novel. Dressed up, going to parties in the apartment of adults seemed perfectly acceptable to us, we were misfits, and our peers who had saccharin sleepovers and wanted to talk about which boy in Hanson was the hottest didn’t quite satisfy our social and intellectual needs.

Reflecting on those times now, as a married woman if my husband was hanging out with girls our age back then (13 and 14 respectively) I would have serious questions about why he was hanging out with young teenagers who are still classified as children by law. When you’re 13, the 30 year olds who hang out with you seem ‘cool’. When you’re 30, you realise that by ‘getting wasted’ with 13 year olds, they were socially defunct at best, and lecherous at worst.

Admittedly Gala and I were perhaps a little bit more informed about the world than some of our peers, but it didn’t negate the fact that we should have been tucked up in bed, in suburbia, getting a good night’s sleep before school the next day.

I had a tumultuous relationship with my parents, and A. seemed like a wise confidant, who had been through everything I was going through. When I had a serious argument with them and decided to make the move to leave home, he offered me a place to stay. As a young girl, who was naive in many ways, it didn’t even cross my mind that there would be an ulterior motive.

Everything is clearer in hindsight, but I can genuinely say the thought didn’t cross my mind. I stayed with him, and he was wildly inappropriate, criminally so, and he knew it. He was guilty about it. He tried to make reparation in a really sad way.

I won’t get into the explicit details, I don’t think that’s helpful, but what I will share is having a vivid memory of feeling like a helpless bug, the way they writhe, powerless when flipped the wrong way. I couldn’t find my voice. I was crippled. That hot, sick, feeling of being in danger rocked me to my core and yet I wasn’t able to scream at him, or communicate boundaries, or ask for help after the experience when I was confused and upset.

Why? The pressure to conform, to submit, is a sick and pervasive part of rape culture. If you object, you’re a prude. They’re a ‘nice guy’. You want to be cool, you want to be liked. Saying no seems like something uptight people do. Teachers say no. Parents say no.

I remember bawling and feeling more alone than I ever have. Why didn’t I talk to someone? Why didn’t I go to the police? Why didn’t I “protect myself” and be so foolish as to drink excessively with this MAN who behaved in such a predatory and inappropriate way with a teenager?

In the rearview mirror I can see the power and control dynamics that rendered me powerless. If he tried that now he would face an entirely different person.

I suppose predators choose their prey wisely, which is all part of the twisted appeal. I don’t like calling him a predator, even now, it feels bizarre. Supposedly he was our friend. He was cool. He was a nice guy. I can completely relate 100% to people who struggle to report incidents of abuse, molestation, sexual violence or statutory rape.

So what would I say to anyone who is experiencing similar behavior?

No matter what you do, how you dress, how drunk you are, who your friends are, what conversations you have, or what signals you may or may not give – your body is your own. No one has a right to touch you without your explicit consent. Saying no doesn’t make you a prude. It makes you strong and determined. It’s your right. It’s your prerogative. No is your default until you give your resounding yes.

Consent is given. Not taken. Talk to a trusted friend, an adult. Talk to rape crisis, talk to the women’s refuge. Talk to someone who you know has the right idea about what is and isn’t okay, because as Gala and I have learned, talking helps. It changes things.

I don’t care whether or not A. did what he has been convicted of, he asserts he didn’t. He did enough to us, and to our friends, to warrant his sentence.

On the flipside of this, if you find yourself attracted, or struggling with your sexuality in a way that would be illegal to express, seek professional help. It’s okay to talk about it and get help, it’s not okay to act on the fantasy. I’m really proud and happy that A. has people who are willing to stick by him, support him, and hopefully ensure he gets the help he needs.

I am terribly sorry for the victims of the crime.

You’re not alone. Do all the talking you need.”


If you need help, RAINN has a space where you can chat online with a trained volunteer. It’s an excellent place to start. Rape Crisis in England and Wales has a lot of resources too. RAINN has a listing of crisis centres in the USA. After Silence is an online support group that is open to anyone who needs it.

Images by Li Hui, Raquel Martins, and Mariam Sitchinava.

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