You Too? Kim DeRose on Telling and Retelling Stories of Sexual Assault
"When we craft stories, we don’t necessarily write ourselves; sometimes we write the characters and stories we need to see."
It occurred at, of all places, a local tapas bar. I was sitting with a group of other Brooklyn moms when someone mentioned that my debut novel was going to be published soon. Everyone congratulated me and asked what the book was about, so I gave them a brief rundown: a group of teenage girls meet in a sexual assault support group and form a coven to get revenge on their unrepentant assailants. It was then that one of the women, whom I’d just met, leaned toward me, and asked, without hesitation or judgment, “Did something happen to you?”
It was the moment I’d long dreaded. Mind you, I’d anxiously anticipated this question coming in a slightly larger, more public forum. Perhaps at a book signing or during a Q&A. So, in some respects this was best case scenario. A microcosm, allowing for a test run of what might lie ahead. And yet I still felt adrenaline flooding my body.
When you publish a book, the natural first question most people ask is why you wrote it. What inspired your story? But how do you answer that when the seed of your story is so very personal and still so very painful?
Did something happen to you?
It might seem ironic since I wrote an entire book about people owning their stories and stepping into their power, and there I was seemingly shrinking from my own. But when we craft stories, we don’t necessarily write ourselves; sometimes we write the characters and stories we need to see. Furthermore, what we tell people in our private lives—people we know and trust—might be different from what we feel comfortable sharing in public. Even if that public venue is merely a tapas bar.
Sitting there, I quickly calculated my options. I thought about lying. “No, as a feminist, I’m just really passionate about this topic.” Or maybe, “Oh no, nothing happened to me, but this issue impacts so many girls and women, and so many of my friends have their own personal #MeToo stories.” All of which would have been true. And all of which would have been lies. Because that’s not why I wrote the book.
So, I told the truth. “Yes. Something happened to me.”
I didn’t share my own story with the group that night. Or rather, I didn’t share the story, the one that, in the words of Susan Cain, was the pain that I could not get rid of and that I had made my creative offering. That story is one I am still processing, one I am writing about, one that I’ve shared privately and maybe one day will share publicly.
But I did tell a story. One from my Freshman year of high school. It’s a story I’ve told a million times, and for years, I’ve always told it the same way: in the fall of my freshman year, when I was 14 years old, I went to my first kegger, smoked weed for the first time, got black-out drunk, and hooked up with two different guys. (Side note, I went on to journal about those events…and then got busted when my mom read said journal.)Sometimes that connection comes first by encountering stories and seeing ourselves reflected in another’s narrative.
But here’s the thing: that’s not actually what happened.
It’s not that I’d lied all those years. In fact, I’d always believed that version of events. But in writing my debut—and in simultaneously deep-diving in therapy—I spent a lot of time reflecting on the experiences I’d had, and I realized that the story I’d told all those years was wrong.
Here’s how I now understand what happened back then: in the fall of my freshman year, when I was 14 years old, I went to my first kegger, smoked weed for the first time, got black-out drunk, and was taken advantage of by two guys.
Things could have been far worse for me that night. I could have experienced something far more violating than what occurred. Afterwards, I normalized the experience. I laughingly told people that I had “hooked up” with two guys. And I actually went on to briefly date one of them.
And yes, I could say, “Well it was the 90s and we were all normalizing traumatic experiences, and often not talking about them at all. I didn’t have the language to see the situation clearly and call it what it was: assault.”
And that’s true.
And it’s also true that it’s now 2023, and so many things have changed; we’ve had the benefit of Tarana Burke’s MeToo movement and we have a much more open dialogue about sexual abuse and assault.
And yet I have to wonder how many teens still have a version of that same story? How many teens have had a “drunken hook up” at a party that was anything but? Or have experienced unwanted touching or sexual attention? How many have been objectified or harassed or stalked or abused or raped but don’t have the language to call it what it is? How many are minimizing what happened to them? Or normalizing what happened to them? How many are afraid it was their fault? That they asked for it, or should have done more to prevent it, or are somehow shameful because it happened? How many are unclear if it even did happen?
My guess is quite a lot.
It can take time to process the things that have happened to us, to even acknowledge that something has happened to us. And if we tell, or how we tell, or who we tell are all such nuanced and personal decisions. There is no set timeframe for how we move through and process our pain. The path toward healing, as my therapist often reminds me, is not linear.
But I want to take this moment to be very clear: writing this book and sharing it with the world, this is me raising my hand and saying, “me too.”
Something happened to me. Something happened to a lot of us. And sometimes we are ready to talk about it, and other times we are still quietly processing and healing. Sometimes we know we need the connection of others, but we don’t know how to ask for it or where to find it because we’re not quite ready to use our voice. Sometimes that connection comes first by encountering stories and seeing ourselves reflected in another’s narrative.
I needed this book to exist because I needed to see these girls’ stories. And it is my deep hope that this book will find its way to those who need it most. Those who are seeking connection and a path toward healing but aren’t quite sure where to look and aren’t quite ready to use their voices. I hope this story can be a shining light in the darkness. A voice to whisper, I believe you, and I’m so sorry this happened to you. It was not your fault, and you are not alone. But you can walk through fire. You can come out the other side.
For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose is available from Union Square and Co.