Content Note: Sexual Violence
From the hallway, I saw one of my vintage leather Mary Janes peeking out from under a blanket on Kristin’s bed. The leather was riddled with pinhole punctures; its tongue was torn out of its body by the white husky she’d recently adopted. A few days earlier, Kristin had scolded me when she discovered her black halter top in a pile of my laundry, even though I’d sworn I had never borrowed it.
We were fighting over everything that meant nothing: crumbs, clothes, dishes, taking without asking. Silences had replaced conversations; those little awkward pauses were unbearable to listen to. Neither of us could find the words to say anything about the real reason our friendship was unraveling: We had been raped at knifepoint in our West Village apartment.
I met Kristin my junior year while attending a writing program hosted at Skidmore College. She had wide-set eyes and a platinum pixie cut that few girls can get away with. The kind of hair that made my stepmother say, You need to have the face for that, implying that I did not. When we met, her electric blue nails framed a Marlboro Light as she laughed about a joke that I wasn’t in on yet. She was dating the drummer in a hip New York City psychedelic pop band, and was, by all accounts, an effortlessly cool girl. I desperately wanted her to show me how to make a grand entrance anywhere, how to win at life the way that she seemed to.
A year later, Kristin asked if she could move into a tiny room in my first post-college apartment, a glorified closet that could barely negotiate a single bed. I didn’t care about how cramped it would be, or the fact that racks of clothes would soon take over the closetless space.
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After 21 years, someone who had become a best friend—a sister—wanted to live with me. I’d never quite fit in with my family; I was adopted, and still searching for innate, undeniable connections. I felt safe in her hands when she held me by the shoulders, and knew that she wouldn’t drop me, even if I said the wrong thing. So we moved in together, young 20-somethings dropping quarters in the jukebox at The Dew Drop Inn, taking care of each other during flu spells and heartbreaks, spending lazy Sundays on our banana yellow futon watching 90210 reruns, and soon, our apartment became a home.
After the attack, our most memorable fight occurred while I was contemplating two potential jobs. One was an assistant photo editor position at George Magazine, where before my interview, John F. Kennedy, Jr. smiled and said “good luck” to me as he carried a vase of white tulips to his office. The other was a marketing gig for an independent record label.
Despite my brush with American royalty, I knew that I wanted to work in the music industry. You can’t afford to take that job, she told me. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but the thrust was that I needed to get my sh*t together. Perhaps it was legitimate advice, but because of the way the conversation went, I felt judged and inadequate. We were beginning to break apart.
I would always be the one who let a rapist into our home. When he had followed and pushed me through the front door, Kristin had been safe on the other side. I wanted to keep him away from her. I failed. Every day that followed, I found another way to fail her.
It was a new year, the season when living things die. I couldn’t bear to let go of the Christmas tree I’d decorated in white lights and ornaments saved from my childhood. Brown pine needles carpeted the hardwood floor of our apartment when Kristin told me that she’d signed a lease on a two-bedroom in the East Village with one of our mutual friends. The naked tree became a fire hazard in the middle of the living room as she packed up her belongings. It took me until April to drag it to the dumpster and stop believing that she’d return to me.
On that night in November, when a gloved hand forced itself over my mouth and another pointed a knife at my throat while I unlocked our front door, Kristin and I never spoke directly to each other but through each other. When he asked us for money, we dumped our purses and jewelry boxes on my bedspread. We assured him that we would not snitch to the police, reminding him that we had never seen his face, which was covered by a ski mask. That must have been hard, one of us said, as he ranted about his mother, women, all bitches. Our hands were steady as we tied nylons into knots around each other’s arms. Tighter, he said. Calm and focused, we nodded and pulled harder.
After he left, I found a way to turn the bedroom doorknob with my chin. I called out her name while crawling on my hands and knees, making promises to God about all the selfless things I would do if she were alive. When I found her safe and breathing, we tore through the stockings and sank to the floor. What do we do, little one? she asked me. Neither of us knew. But in that moment, there was comfort in knowing that we had each other, something few victims ever have.
In the weeks that followed, Kristin and I clipped pagers onto our pleather pants and stood in front of thick sheets of glass staring at one lineup after another. Maybe. No. No. I don’t know. We were navigating the aftermath together, but it didn’t take long for that connectedness to twist our insides out. Our faces became mirrors when we didn’t want to be seen. Our inherently different ways of coping, of finding life after near-death, ultimately tore us apart when we needed each other the most.
Because it was a double rape, we were treated as one person, but no two people experience or react to a traumatic event in the same way. I told anyone who would listen what happened to me, as if in repeating the story, it would lose its venom. It never lost its shock, but it began to feel normal to me.
I was also expressing a lot of anger: I had followed every rule and warning my parents had taught me, and the world had still failed me in the most spectacular way. I went to therapy and constructed mixed media installation pieces so large that they couldn’t be carried out the door. I wrote grant letters and connected with nonprofit organizations as I whittled myself down to 80 pounds. I became so masterful at feigning recovery that most people ignored that I was dressing in children’s clothing and binge drinking every night.
Meanwhile, I was on anti-anxiety medications for PTSD, had an anxiety disorder, and suffered from acute panic attacks. I blacked out often, walking alone through the Lower East Side, dodging rats running from one trash can to another, tripping over my platform heels. The next morning, I’d loosely piece together the night before with the bar and taxi receipts stuffed into my pockets. Sometimes I never made it home and woke up next to strangers, wondering what neighborhood I was in as I collected my clothes, my fake eyelashes stuck to the nightstand.
Kristin didn’t want to talk about what happened, and while she did go to therapy, she wasn’t interested in becoming a poster girl for rape. Our friends saw her as “the fun one,” while I was “the serious survivor.”
The truth is, we were both stumbling along, doing our best to forget what had happened—we just couldn’t do it together. We were trying on new identities, searching for a way to erase the past and contemplate a future. No one around us wanted to talk about the rape.
Friends and family often find it uncomfortable or are unsure of how to help or even listen; there is no guidebook to assisting survivors. But that lack of understanding, the desire for a rape victim to quickly recover, can make us feel that we’re supposed to pretend everything is fine. Kristin and I did this in our own ways, our friends chose the one they perceived to be moving on, and I found myself alone.
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When I looked at her, I could only see my part in things. I wanted to fix us, but the further she pushed me away, the tighter I tied myself around her ankle. I became a heavy weight to carry, and when she eventually cut the tie, I sank into a deep depression. She represented our youth, joy, the idea that anything was possible.
Eight years later, I received a message from Kristin saying that the NYPD SVU unit had been in touch with her, and wanted to interview me. We exchanged numbers and sent flurries of messages back and forth as our rape kits were pulled from a storage facility and retested. DNA caught up with the perpetrator before the ten-year statute of limitations, and he was caught.
I sat in my company’s conference room during a lunch break with detectives who asked me to recount that night. They told me that my statement was nearly a carbon copy of my first account so many years ago. All except one thing: Multiple times they stopped me to say, No, that happened to Kristin. My memory had taken the worst parts of the rapes and transferred them onto me. I wanted them to be mine.
We faced a grand jury before walking into a courtroom together to testify at his trial. Kristin had spent many years living in the West Village, while I had relocated to a different neighborhood every 12 months until I packed my bags and headed out west. By that point, we had been practicing self-care and were in serious relationships with men who shared the same name.
During that summer, and the year leading up to the trial, the pieces of our individual and collective histories were artifacts, evidence of the young women we once were, a reminder of how things might have been. We pored over all of it together, swapped victim’s impact statements before we read them at the sentencing. Neither one of us asked our family to be in the courtroom; we were never alone.
Afterward, our lives intersected as trained victim’s advocates for emergency rooms. We have both dedicated a significant part of our lives to affecting change, sharing our stories to help others. Advocacy was something I had turned to long before I had learned how to help myself, but eventually, I learned how to do both. I don’t know what inspired Kristin to become public about her rape; I just know that in a way, it brought us back to each other. Not as best friends, but as people who have always loved and cared about each other. Maybe we needed time to heal apart.
We’ve shared moments of monumental victories for sexual-assault organizations, and support the SVU unit, as well as the advocacy organization that was there for us the night that we were raped and again during the trial. We are on the same speakers’ bureaus and boards. And every November 18, we send each other messages that say, love you. glad that we are alive.
Marnie Goodfriend is an author, sexual violence intervention speaker, and 2016 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices fellow. She writes essays on women’s health, mental illness, family, trauma, adoption, and relationships. Her forthcoming memoir, Birth Marks, chronicles her journey as a child illegally sold to a family by an infamous baby broker. You can check out her site, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.