0125: Free and Strong

Content warning: The following story contains references to rape and sexual assault, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Free and Strong," Theresa Mary-Clare

I was 18 years old, and I went to a party at a friend’s house the summer before I started college. I got drunk for the second time in my life, and met a guy who was a few years older than me. I was a bit to drunk to get a handle on his name, so I called him “Ethan.” It was close enough. We flirted with each other, but nothing happened. 

Two weeks later, the same friend hosted another party. I went, and got drunk for the third time in my life. Ethan was there again. This time, we made out. He wasn’t very good at it…his mouth was too big, and he gave me a hickey all down the front of my neck. We slept in the same bed that night…we made out a lot more, and I put his hand down my pants. He didn’t know what he was doing. He seemed innocent. I thought I could trust him.

He found me on Facebook, and we started talking a lot. The first day after I moved into my dorm, he asked me to be his girlfriend. I didn’t know any better, so I agreed. Things were fine for the first month or so. We kissed, and we did Other Things, but we didn’t go all the way. I had been raised in a strict Catholic household, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have sex before marriage. He knew this. We had discussed it. Despite the fact that I had debilitating menstrual cramps, I was not on the birth control pill – again, due to my strict Catholic upbringing. He knew this. We had discussed it. 

There were a lot of things we hadn’t discussed, but he always pushed my boundaries. I didn’t have that many examples of healthy relationships growing up, so I didn’t understand that what he was doing wasn’t ok. I wasn’t sure how to talk about it, or say what I was feeling. I have to make a conscious effort here, to not list all the things I should have done, and chastise myself for not doing them.

It was about a week after we specifically discussed how I wasn't ready to have sex, and we were fooling around. We ended up naked, which I didn't mind; I didn't expect him to do anything, because we had talked about it. But then he was on top of me, and he spread my legs with his knee. I thought he was just repositioning, but then he just went for it without saying anything. I was just so shocked I didn't know what to do or say. I felt like a rabbit that just heard a twig snap: maybe if I froze, I would blend in with the background, and remain unharmed. I remember thinking "oh, I guess this is happening now." He didn't wear a condom. After a little while, he rolled off, and I still hadn't really processed what happened.

Later, I thought maybe I had done something to make him think I was ready. I wasn't really sure about it, but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t realize I could talk to people about it. I didn’t realize that your boyfriend could rape you. I didn’t realize that not all rape involves threats and weapons. So the next time he wanted to do it, I just went along with it. I couldn't think of a reason to say no, since we had already done it. I thought I needed a reason to say no. 

After a few times I told him he had to get condoms. He did, but he bought ones that were way to big, and he didn't like to wear them. He wanted me to go on birth control, but I wasn't really sure about it because of the money – I didn’t have a job, and he didn’t offer to pay. He kept pressuring me, and eventually he talked to one of his friends, who said his girlfriend got birth control pills for free from Planned Parenthood. I felt trapped, so then I said I wasn't sure about side effects. He talked to his friend about that too, and convinced me that I was overthinking it. I was out of excuses (which I still thought I needed) so I went along with it.

Several months later, I got up the nerve to say something to him. I told him that if he had asked me that first time, I would have said no. He made me feel guilty for bringing it up, so I kept most things to myself after that. 

I felt trapped in the relationship for a number of reasons, and I ended up staying with him for two years. I remember sometimes I would initiate sex, even if I didn’t want it, because I wanted it to be on my terms. I am convinced that it was impossible for me to have consensual sex with him. 

Over seven years later, I am doing much better. I am happily married to a wonderfully supportive partner. Some days I still struggle. I have nightmares about being assaulted, and I struggle with depression. However, I am finding my strength through claiming authorship of this story that he had tried to control. 

Several years ago, I found out he calls himself a feminist. Naturally, I was completely pissed, but I claimed authorship of that story, too, and wrote this poem:

My rapist calls himself
A feminist.
“Platform of a Male Feminist”
he writes,
As if he invented it.
He didn’t.

My rapist calls himself
A feminist.
“Safety, self sufficiency, and freedom”
he writes,
As if he wanted me to have those things.
He didn’t.

My rapist calls himself
A feminist.
“Basic human rights to safety”
he writes,
As if he kept me safe instead of forcing himself on me over and over again.
He didn’t.

My rapist calls himself
A feminist.
“Self sufficiency is tantamount to safety”
he writes,
As if he wanted me to be independent and self-reliant
He didn’t.

My rapist calls himself
A feminist.
“Freedom from bodily harm, and freedom of personal choices”
he writes,
As if he valued my personal choice to not have his penis inside my body.
He didn’t.

My rapist calls himself
A feminist.
“These are my tenants of feminism”
he writes,
As if he invented it (again).
He didn’t.


His lies stare at me from the page
And suddenly I am naked in his bed
Trapped in the gaze he holds me in
Holds me down
I freeze
I don’t know what to do
How to escape
How to right the wrongs and correct the injustice
Escape the memories
If only the first time had been the only time
If only I could get back what he stole from me
Took from me without saying a word
And now he writes these words
I wonder if he knows he raped me
I wonder if he knows how many times
How many ways
I don’t

It’s easy to fall into the well of anger and sadness that exists inside me because of him
Most days, I am weak
Most days, I am mad at myself for letting him make me feel guilty for having friends
Most days, I scold myself for letting him treat me like a servant
Most days, I am embarrassed that I didn’t stand up for myself when he ridiculed me in front of others
Most days, It’s almost impossible to scrape and claw my way back out of the well
But some days, I am strong
Today, I am strong.
Today I say “Fuck You and your Misogynistic bullshit”
Today I say “You will not define me”
Today I say “I am whole”
You tried to tear me down and rip me apart
Make me helpless and small and frail
You tried to keep me for yourself and use me as you pleased.
I belong to no one.
I will build myself back up
I will find courage in those who truly love me
Your lies will not weigh on my heart
I am free from the guilt you placed on me over and over again
I am free
And strong

Today, I am free and strong.


About the art:

I absolutely love Theresa's story. While it's heartbreaking to know what she experienced, it is wonderful to see how she has processed the events. Her final segment of the story really sealed her piece for me, and I knew that I wanted to encapsulate her art with something from that section because it shows so much strength and power.

I asked Theresa what she might want created for her art and she gave a couple suggestions and told me what colors she loved. While she gave me a couple quotes, I felt like the main one that stood out to me was this quote that I chose. It's such a badass feminist statement to make amid all of the chaos of this story. It's a statement of advocacy and agency as well, which makes me love it even more.

I'm thankful Theresa shared this story and I hope it inspires others to do the same!

- Craig.