It’s the first week of February. This first week of the second month of the year is significant to me.
I moved to Springfield, IL in February 2001. I flew to Georgia a year later and fell in love with my second and last husband. We danced to Ray Charles on the porch of his antebellum home on a street in Athens, Georgia, just down the street from the home of his favorite band’s lead singer, Michael Stipe. We married a year later on February 7, 2003. Ray Charles bellowed Georgia from the CD-player, inside of which was one of the two custom-made CD’s he made for that occasion, as I walked down the stairs of the century-old rowhouse on a historic square in Savannah, Georgia. We divorced last year just one day short of our 14th wedding anniversary. The afternoon of February 6, 2017, just hours after I attended court, I practiced yoga and Ray Charles again sang Georgia. My teacher Rachel could not know the song’s significance, but my sister who was practicing beside me did. She heard the sniffles and sensed my pain, acutely aware that I used every muscle to not splay my wounded heart across the studio floor.
There are many events about this first week of February that stick with me. My college education and life were thrown a sucker punch on February 4, 1990, when I was sexually assaulted as a freshman at Marquette University; an offense that produced such an insignificant admonishment that it didn’t prevent the university from making him a resident advisor, or for that matter, from him raping my friend. My first husband’s birthday was February 5. The last birthday I celebrated with him was his 30th, just weeks after a wicked bout of the flu that produced 13 stitches in my lower lip after a midnight fall that smashed my face, it was the party where my Grandma told me she’d put the key under the mat for whenever I decided to leave him. It was another moment that changed the trajectory of my life because I left him ten days later.
February is the month of Cupid and broken hearts. Oh, I sound so morose. Does everyone have weeks, or months, like this in their lives? The truth is, February is a game changer. I felt good that a marriage, a friend’s birthday, moving to Springfield, and so many positive events offset what happened in 1990. That was when I went to my resident adviser at Marquette University and told her that I sexually was assaulted by another student. I asked her if I should contact the Milwaukee Police Department. She said no. I needed to report it to the university police. I followed her instructions and soon learned any action was a joke because there was nothing in the code to correspond to the offense. That meant there was nothing wrong with the actions of a student trying to rape another, nothing wrong with him trapping her, placing her in a headlock, dominating her, diminishing her, and stripping her. Nope, that was cool behavior at Marquette.
I consider myself lucky that the final violation didn’t occur. Maybe that was my goal? In that brief moment when you get to choose, I persevered. I never said yes. I never stopped saying no. I managed to twist myself out from under his 220-pound, 6’5” javelin-strengthened body, curled myself up into a fetal position, and pinned myself against the wall when he finally stopped. So fortunate was I to attend a school where the trauma of my clothes being torn off, of being perversely touched like a wooden mannequin, of becoming an object owned and controlled by another human being was approved behavior.
Yes, I was devastated. Moreover, I was mortified, ashamed, and appalled that I attended a university where the student judicial code was absent of sexual assault offenses. So, instead of being silent, I worked with a student body committee to get it added. It was ironic that I attended a university that had a sexual assault crisis center and support team that worked on sexual offenses that were noticeably absent from the judicial code. My university-paid therapist asked me to speak with a reporter from the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee, who was working on a story about date rape on college campuses. Yes, it was a ripoff of the cover story from the People magazine that was on my desk for the last six months. I told her no, which she didn’t accept, and I eventually agreed.
I remember that night waiting for the news to air, and watching the story. The next day as I walked into the lecture hall I felt like I wore a scarlet letter, my arms and every pit of my body sweat; he sat a few rows in front of me. A couple of the guys from neighboring parishes on South Side came up to me after class, they commended me, and they were ashamed. They introduced me to him. They didn’t know. My eyes told them it wasn’t their fault. As I walked out, a friend Abby, ask that we get together later, and we did. Tim Galvin, she asked? And I said, yes. He raped me, she said.
Shortly thereafter, my financial aid package for my sophomore year was sent home. The good Jesuits of Marquette University cut my aid by more than half, making future attendance there unlikely. After the news story aired, university officials asked to meet with me. My mom came up from Chicago. I felt like it was a Spanish Inquisition where I admitted I once believed in God but under the current circumstances questioned His existence. The more important question was where was their good sense? How could this behavior be permissible? How can someone who treats women, like I was treated, become a resident adviser in a co-ed dorm? Why didn’t it matter? Why didn’t I matter? I told them their meaningless slap on his wrist didn’t stop anything. He raped my friend. They wanted a name, a request at which I laughed. Really, a name? You want a name? You want me to give you the name of another woman, who he did this to? So what? So, you can treat her like you treated me? No, I won’t do that.
I spent one year at Marquette. I made some dear friends, all of whom, I fell out of touch with when our paths stopped crossing. Going back to visit wasn’t actually great. I felt cheated, robbed, and angered. I recently came across a letter from Heather, who was from upstate New York. I recall Michele, who lived in Naperville; every week on my way to my Al-Anon meeting I drive by her childhood home. I think fondly of Denise from Medford, Mass. She came home with me on Thanksgiving and her eyes were opened to living in the city. It was then that she began to understand why people often asked me when they learned I was from Chicago if I carried a knife. And Sue, from Michigan, who I often wonder about and if she ever became a journalist.
February is a double-edged sword. And my nineteenth February was a critical year. A lot of shit happened in my 19th year, the biggest pile of it was heaped on me the first week of this month, 28 years ago. Friday when Bridget and I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri there is a scene that struck a nerve. It’s where the daughter tells her mother that she hopes she gets raped. And she did. And she was murdered and burned. The mother is haunted by their parting words and of the stupid wish to be raped, scarred mostly by her angered concurrence of the wish. Listening to that, I had a flashback of the call with my mom, a couple days after the assault at Marquette. I was quiet, withdrawn, and avoided calling her. When the phone rang I answered. Through that black rotary dial desk phone, she sensed something was wrong. In an attempt at levity, she asked. “What happened Karen, were you raped or something?” Silence. Then tears. And an admission, followed by a mother’s shock at her own words, grief over what happened to her daughter, and anger.
And that’s what I am feeling this morning, angry, with a world where so much has changed, yet so much has stayed the same. Women are still treated like second-class citizens. A generation of young people has no idea what ERA is. They don’t know that Congress passed it in 1972, but over the next decade, enough states failed to ratify it.
Anniversaries are not always tethered to marriage, though I do have my share of weddings! There are events in our lives, some we choose to celebrate and others we try to abandon. Some events, no matter how hard we try, they come back. Marquette is one of those events. Writing through this, on this Sunday morning, I thought of the lyrics to Pain, by the War on Drugs. I have been struggling to make sense of the song for a couple of months. “I resist what I cannot change. And I wanna find what can’t be found.” I know I can’t erase Marquette. I can’t remove the events of February 4, 1990, or stop its annual arrival on the calendar. What I can do, is accept it when it surfaces, and continue to try to make sense of it, even if its purpose evades me for the rest of my years. I’ve learned that my attempts to abandon its anniversary is futile.
The War on Drugs – Pain
Go to bed now I can tell
Pain is on the way out now
Look at the way the domino falls away
I know it’s hard looking in
Knowing that tomorrow you’ll be back again
Hang your head and let me in, I’m waiting
I was staring into the light
When I saw you in the distance, I knew that you’d be mine
Am I moving back in time?
Just standing still?
I met a man with a broken back
He had a fear in his eyes that I could understand
I can’t even shake the hand
Without breaking it
I’ve been pulling on a wire, but it just won’t break
I’ve been turning up the dial, but I hear no sound
I resist what I cannot change
And I wanna find what can’t be found
I’m aware of the time we lost
Like a demon in the doorway, waiting to be born
But I’m here all alone, just begging
Pull me close and let me hold you in
Give me the deeper understanding of who I am
Yeah, I’m moving back again, I’m waiting, yeah
I’m just pulling on a wire, but it just won’t break
I’ve been turning up the dial, but I hear no sound
I resist what I cannot change, own it in your own way
Yeah, I wanna find what can’t be found
Songwriters: Adam Granofsky
Pain lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.