‘As if nothing happened’: Going to court after sexual assault

‘As if nothing happened’: Going to court after sexual assault

This article contains an account of sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing or triggering.

I can still remember the smell of vodka, cologne and orange juice. We were in Rob’s* bedroom, with his older brother Timothy* and Timothy’s friend, Joey*, drinking shots. A dozen later and the room was spinning. Timothy chuckled, persuading me to have one more. I obliged, and the sexual assault that followed is now no more than a blurred memory.

At the beginning of ninth grade, my English teacher asked me if I wanted to join an after-school club for gifted students. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Rob there. He had never noticed me in study hall, even though we sat two rows apart from each other three days a week, but I noticed him. He wore a black leather jacket, with no regard for the weather. He was handsome and intimidatingly cool.

I had presumed popular kids had no interest in learning about the great works of American literature. But he was smarter than I anticipated, and more devious, too. If I could redo one choice in my life, I would choose to decline my teacher’s invitation.

Rob and I shared similar interests. We were both fond of JD Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye. The main character, Holden Caulfield, deemed anyone who was attractive, charismatic, wealthy or superficial a phoney. Rob possessed all of these characteristics.

He was 16 when we became friends, three years my senior. After school, he made me laugh with witty anecdotes and we would talk about news, politics and the arts. He was the only person at school who paid me any attention.

Two months after we officially met, he invited me to his house. It was 5pm when my mother dropped me off at the Lawrence* family home. She insisted that a parent be present before agreeing to leave me there for four hours. I was just shy of turning 14. My mom went inside to meet Mrs Lawrence and they chatted for a few minutes.

Mrs Lawrence reminded me of the stereotypical soccer mom. You know – the kind who seems to be happy but is really overwhelmed with loneliness and depression. She made me feel welcome in her family’s home, but maybe seemed too friendly – like she was more of a friend to her sons than a mother. She told us Mr Lawrence was working late.

Their home was more of a mansion than a house. It looked as though it should be on the cover of a magazine. Everything seemed perfect – as if no one ever sat on the couches or ate in the kitchen, as if no memories were ever created there. I tip-toed through the corridor, fearing my footsteps would somehow break one of their valuables.

Rob introduced me to Timothy, who was almost 18. His demeanour was different from his brother’s. It is hard to explain, but he emitted a disturbing kind of energy. I felt uneasy being around him. I probably shouldn’t have drunk alcohol with someone who made me feel this way but I was young, naive and impulsive. Besides, being around Rob made me feel safe.

Timothy’s friend, Joey, was spending the night. He came from a religious family and I thought he was meek and a bit of a bore.

We drank a lot, which was not abnormal for me. Alcohol helped relieve my depression.

Then, Timothy suggested we play a little game, but it was not a game. He held my wrists down; with a crooked smile on his face, he ripped off the jeans my mom had ironed for me earlier in the day. Joey pleaded with his friend: “You’re drunk, man. Come on, let’s go back to your room.”

I wondered why Rob was not stopping his brother. I called his name out several times. I am pretty sure he was preoccupied with vomiting into a bin – I could hear gagging noises – and I had the fleeting thought that he would save me when he was done being sick. He did not.

[Illustration by Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]Timothy became enraged when he caught sight of my tampon string. He mumbled and cursed; I am not sure what he said. I blacked out for a few seconds or maybe it was minutes. When I came to, the three of them were taking turns anally raping me. I screamed. I tried to get away but Timothy grasped my wrists harder. I screamed again. Tears flooded down my face.

I felt sure Mrs Lawrence must have heard my cries for help. I prayed and prayed she would come to my rescue, but she never did.

I am not sure how but I disconnected from reality when I realised my screams weren’t going to save me. But I remember the ceiling fan spinning and spinning. My eyes were glued to its wooden blades and ornamental pull chain. I had entered a state of physical paralysis. My attention was focused on counting how many times the fan spun around – not the number of times they took turns raping me.

When they were finished with me, Timothy and Joey tossed me on top of Rob’s bed. I heard one of them say: “Let’s leave the lovebirds alone,” as they left the room.

I blacked out again and woke up in my bra and unzipped jeans, with warm vomit cladding my chest like a shield of armour. I needed to escape. What if they planned to kill me? I walked out of Rob’s room, still drunk.

The grandfather clock in their den showed it was 8:30pm. The house was silent. Mrs Lawrence found me wandering through her home. She must have known what had happened. She physically dragged me to the master bathroom, where she bathed me against my will, washing away every last bit of vomit, semen, evidence.

There was no fight left in me. I whispered: “Please stop, please” a few times, but I eventually succumbed. She gently scrubbed beneath my fingernails, my private parts, my body. She was calm and collected as she did so.

I vividly recall her saying in a “helpful”, friendly voice that this was for my own good, a favour, so my parents would not smell alcohol on me.

My mom knocked on their door for about 30 minutes as Mrs Lawrence bathed me. When we finally answered it, I walked with her towards our car. That was when she noticed that I was stumbling and my hair was wet. She asked if I had been drinking. I lied. She went back inside to talk with Rob and Timothy’s mother while I waited in the car.

My mom later told me that Mrs Lawrence would not turn around and look her in the eye; she continued washing and drying dishes – much like she had washed and dried me. My mom asked her what happened. Were there any problems? Had we been drinking? Mrs Lawrence mumbled a few words, none of which were coherent.

I did not tell a soul, I was too apprehensive. I told myself that I had been drinking that night and if I had not, maybe they would not have sexually assaulted me. The mental anguish must have been too much for my brain to process because, subconsciously, I repressed the majority of my memories from that night. Life continued as if nothing had happened.

Two months later, I told my new boyfriend, Sean, I had been raped. I begged him not to tell anyone, including my parents. He reneged on his promise within 24 hours. I do not blame him – he had my best interests at heart. I came home from school the next day to find my home crowded with at least 10 police officers. My mother, who was seated at our dining room table, could not stop crying. My dad stood in the corner of the living room with his arms crossed. I will never forget his bloodshot eyes or the solemn expression on his face.

A weight was lifted from my shoulders when I told my parents what had happened. They embraced me, telling me I was not at fault or in trouble. Regardless, I begged them to call the cops off. I did not want the police involved. They refused. Reluctantly, I gave my formal statement – a detailed account of the assault – at the precinct.

The following morning, the police called my parents and told them that my rapists had been taken in handcuffs to the police station, where they were interrogated individually. Joey and Timothy had insisted the “sex” was consensual. Rob had confessed, providing the police with all of the details, even those my memory had been guarding me against and which, now, I cannot forget.

Their families hired notoriously expensive lawyers to represent their sons. Not one of them spent the night in jail. I was confused; they were arrested and cuffed, why were they not imprisoned?

Rumours spread in school, where I was nicknamed “lying whore”. I could not walk to classes without everyone staring at me and, sometimes, I found anonymous death threats in my locker. Before I was raped, I was an outcast, a loner, a nerd. After it, the bullying escalated. I felt unsafe – always looking over my shoulder.

My mom and dad pulled me out of school roughly six months after the rape. They weren’t thrilled with the idea of me seeing Rob there, which I understood. I only crossed paths with him a few times in the hallways – after all, I was several grades below him and I dropped out of the after-school club for gifted students. The public school I had been attending ended up paying for a home tutor to keep me up to date and provide standardised tests to take in the safety of my home.

[Illustration by Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]The court proceedings went on for nearly two years. My father attended every single court date – 24 in total – and spoke on my behalf. My mom showed up a dozen times but seeing the teenage boys who raped her daughter was too heart-wrenching. I was not required to be there due to my young age, although I wanted to go. I felt the need for my perpetrators to see that I was alive and well, that they had not succeeded in breaking me.

But every time I saw them laughing in the court waiting room, my mental health spiralled downward. I only showed up for court about six times because my depression would return with a vengeance when I saw their faces. Eventually, for my own sake, my mom forbade me from going to court.

I did not blame her. There was no notable progress towards placing my rapists in prison. The court dates were scheduled once a month and every last one was a preposterous charade. People who had nothing to do with my case sat in church-like pews, packed in tight as sardines. After an hour or two, a court officer would yell: “Timothy, Rob, Joey.” They dressed respectably in suits with ties and dress shoes – for appearances, I would assume. When they approached the bench with their lawyers, the judge and assistant district attorney (ADA) filed a stream of adjournments, pencilling them in to return the following month, and the month after that, and after that – ad nauseam.

Throughout the two years of monthly court dates, I attended weekly therapy and group counselling for sexual assault victims. Despite all of the supports that were set in place for me, I still blamed myself. I could not rid my brain of the “if I wasn’t drinking, they wouldn’t have raped me” mentality. Logically, I knew “no means no”, yet I struggled to identify with the other survivors in my groups. They did not know their rapists. They were not friends with one of the men who assaulted them. They were not partying with their attackers. No, that was me – only I was ignorant enough to do that.

Mrs Lawrence was questioned but never formally charged. My dad called the assistant district attorney a handful of times, insisting the court redetermine their decision not to charge her. It killed my mom to know that another mother could be capable of such barbarity and heartlessness. I should note, Mr Lawrence was known to play golf with the ADA on warm, sunny days. These families abused the power of wealth, privilege and social connections in an attempt to prevent my rapists – their sons – from incarceration. Rob’s confession did not hold up in court because his lawyer was not present when he spilled his guilt out onto the interrogation room table. Devious, highly intelligent, capricious and a phoney – Rob was all of these things.

And worst of all, the court proceedings never even made it to a trial. My family and I experienced the utmost disappointment on the final court date, the very day my perpetrators got off with a mere slap on the wrist. They accepted a plea deal offered by the district attorney – three years of probation, a sexual misconduct misdemeanour charge and their criminal records would be sealed when they each turned 21. No jail time, not a single moment in a cell.

Justice was not served and sadly, this is not uncommon with rape cases – the odds are stacked against us survivors. Nearly one in five females has been sexually assaulted at least once in her life. Only about one in four sexual assaults are reported, and of those only a fraction end with a formal conviction. This means that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults in the United States, a mere five perpetrators end up in prison.

Rob, Timothy and Joey laughed and whispered as they walked side-by-side out of the judge’s chambers. Where was the remorse?

Today, it is 16 years later. My emotional wounds have healed over like scabs. Although I do suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), my nightmares of being raped are not as frequent as they once were. I am emotionally incapable of sexual activity at times. This symptom of PTSD has lessened, as well. My doctor provides me with a medical marijuana certification annually and he prescribes an anti-anxiety pill for daily use. Medication is not a cure-all but it relaxes me when memories of that night re-emerge.

Now my life is better than I ever expected. I have a daughter, a house, a loving family, a career. Rob, Timothy and Joey stole a piece of my innocence when they raped me but they did not rob me of having a future. I will probably never forgive them, although I can honestly say I have accepted what happened to me. I am a survivor of sexual assault – and I have nothing to be ashamed of.

*Names were changed to protect the minors’ identities.

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