Spoiler Alert: If you have yet to read Jessica Knoll’s The Luckiest Girl Alive, I would put this post on the back burner before I spill the beans for you. Give it a read first. I will be here when you return.
I picked up Jessica Knoll’s The Luckiest Girl Alive last month for book club. It was suggested as an easy beach read, tantalizing with twists and turns, perfect for the August heat currently rolling through New York City.
I was struck by one particular line in the acknowledgements. “To my editor, Sarah Knight,” Knoll writes “for being the first to swoop in on the book…and for making me see that I could not let them ‘get away with it.'”
I’ve been running and I’ve been ducking and I’ve been dodging because I’m scared. I’m scared people won’t call what happened to me rape because for a long time, no one did. But as I gear up for my paperback tour, and as I brace myself for the women who ask me, in nervous, brave tones, what I meant by my dedication, What do I know?, I’ve come to a simple, powerful revelation: everyone is calling it rape now. There’s no reason to cover my head. There’s no reason I shouldn’t say what I know.
“What I Know” – Jessica Knoll
Published on: Lenny Letter
As I read Knoll’s essay, I started to think of all the ways women are encouraged to be sexual while being shamed for their sexuality all in one fell swoop: women’s magazines will read “50 ways to seduce a man” while news coverage speculates whether or not Bill Cosby’s accusers are being honest or doing it for fame. The media tells women how they can be successful: snag the guy, keep him sexually satisfied, wear pretty clothes, maintain a fit body and then points the finger back at women when boys are not taught respect. Shame, all manifested in womanhood.
Sex was a mystery in my house. There was no talk of the birds and the bees, my mom simply told me to never let a boy touch me down there. She said it in such hushed tones I thought sex was as bad as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
By the time uniforms became a requirement in New York City public school’s not even a steamed button down blouse could contain my C cup and my butt was already round enough to pull looks from the college boys hanging around the block. I was in fifth grade, an eleven year old already being mistaken for a young woman of age. An older man once catcalled at me while I was with my mother, and she shot back at him with such anger that I started to understand my body possessed something unworldly (and not in a good way), something to hide and be ashamed of. Sexual attention, I was starting to understand, was bad and from the way forty-year old men tried to talk to me I started to understand there was something about my body that was sexual. And being sexual was bad.
In seventh grade, my crush and three of his eighth grade friends pulled my book bag from my hands and made me chase them through the park to a nearby apartment building. The tallest of his friends stood in the lobby holding open the building door, my book bag dangling from his hands. I pleaded for my book bag, starting to panic. My mother would be waiting for me at the bus stop. Being late would get me in trouble and I was not the kind of girl who got into trouble.
I realized my book bag would not be returned to me without a bit of work so I conceded to going upstairs. They sat me on the couch, locked my book bag and all four of themselves in the room. Time slowed in that apartment, as I sat on the couch–one of them always sitting with me to make sure I did not make a run for the door– coming to the realization I was not getting my book bag back.
The police officer on my case asked me after if I knew they were watching porn in the bedroom. I didn’t. I remember them hurrying me to the bedroom and locking me in the closet when they heard keys turning in the door but the television? I cannot remember if I even glanced at the television.
When I finally ran out of the apartment a vicious group of eighth graders taunted me with “slut” and “you have cum on your lips.” As I walked away, the pack of eighth graders at my back, I tried to push the image of one of the boys trying to shove my head onto his penis out of my mind. I wanted to tell all of them nothing had happened, but there was so much shame building inside of me that I did not even react when one of the girls in the group started pushing me from behind. I did not know what had just been set in motion, but soon after the cops were sitting with me in the station throwing around the word rape and my principal was pointing a finger at me, yelling “You wanted this!”For a long time I thought maybe she was right, maybe it was my fault, maybe I deserved to feel ashamed.
I learned, the same way Jessica Knoll and her character Ani learned, that this was actually far from the truth. Seventh grade and the media taught me to see my body as the enemy. It taught me to be ashamed of my body, ashamed of what I put into my body, ashamed of how I dressed my body– whether I wore a t-shirt or a revealing dress the message was clear: my womanhood was sexual and therefore shameful.
But I want you to know, your body is not shameful. Nor are you as a woman. Your body does not need an extra 15 minutes on the treadmill because you ate a slice of a cake. Your body does not need you to go hungry or for you to cover it in a sweater in the middle of August. Your body does not deserve to be disparaged and mistreated, and neither do you– ever. You are not shameful. Shame does not deserve to live like an invisible tattoo on your body.
If you have been hurt, traumatized, raped or sexually assaulted please reach out to someone you trust. Please know you are not alone. You are beautiful, miraculous and deserving of love. Your body is nothing short of beautiful, miraculous and deserving of love–in all its forms.
Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.