008: The Story I Never Thought I'd Have to Tell
Ben shares his story of loving an abuser, having the courage to confront an abuser, as well as living a life free of abuse from thereafter. Ben previously shared this piece on his personal site, which is accessible by clicking here.
Trigger Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.
"The Story I Never Thought I'd Have to Tell," Benjamin McKean Williams
The letter started with, “Dear Bennie, I love you and I hope you love me still. I was not the best man I could be for you, but..”
What the hell was that supposed to mean? It was seven pages of words that confused, enraged and soothed my heart. I received a letter on November 10th of my sophomore year of college from the man who you will soon come to know as my first love, abuser, and rapist. At that time he was simply a complicated sometimes ex-boyfriend who had chosen to commit suicide before I could ever make peace with what he did. This story lines the page of every book that captures moments of my life.
He sent a sealed letter to me and the words still enrage me. We’ll start this chapter explaining what a snort means and why the lock is tattooed on my wrist. You have already or soon will have the pleasure of hearing me snort at some time from laughing too hard. What you probably don’t know is that the reason I snort is that the first man I ever loved hit my nose just a little too hard in one of his rages and a snort is not easy to fix.
I would argue our stories are carried with us in different aspects of our lives. We get tattoos, we have scars, or we make jokes. The irony for me is that every time there is just a little too much joy and I snort I am reminded of the darker parts of my story. In the summer of 2007, I began my coming out process and was introduced to a student at Kennesaw State University while I was getting ready to come out to my parents. In that process he was there for me. The actors in our stories are not always the best and though he showed me affection and care, he is probably the worst choice I ever made.
In August, I went to my first college party with my boyfriend and couldn’t believe this was my life. He was hot, he was older, and he was incredibly sweet and caring. That night he showed me the other part of him that was angry, bitter, and violent. There was a fight between him and a friend and as he stormed off into his room I followed. The door closed, I spoke, he grabbed, and my arms burned. I remember that burn in a way that I wish I could forget. He was stronger than me and taller than me and his force pushed me into a wall.
His eyes met mine, we kissed, and my head fell on his chest. This is my shame. This is a moment I wish I had done something different. I should have walked out and never looked back. I didn’t. I stayed and over the course of the years we continued to see each other. The hits continued, yet my mind began to make sense of them in a way that still terrifies me.
My self-worth was gone and I wore a mask every day when I went to SGA meetings, greeted new students, and painted an extrovert face on my broken interior. The worst part was ahead, but looking back now at least I believed this part can have a happy ending.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010 and my time as a new student orientation leader is coming to an end and this man who I thought was the love of my life was still in it. He was much better or maybe I was just better at rationalizing it and to be completely honest I am not sure which of the statements I just made is true. It was July and he took me out to dinner and we danced and all seemed to be perfect in the world. I have described our love up to this time as “a dark start with a beautiful ending.”
Well, the ending ended up being dark itself.
That night we came home and all I could think about was passing out. I can remember clearly going to the kitchen to grab a drink and coming back to a kiss from the man who I had fallen so deeply in love with in between the blows he dealt me. Well, kisses turned into a plethora of things that ended with the question, “do you want to?” My answer was no, but my choice was removed. I felt my wrists burn the same they did that first night he ever laid hands on me and that night I found myself with an incredible darkness remaining in what seemed to be a promising world. I had never “gone all the way” with him because I didn’t want to lose the beauty of a first time.
My entire body burned with emotion, hate, sadness and pain. He was still stronger and taller than me, which he used to take from me that last piece of myself I saved for the hopes of someone else. Rape. Every exertion of force by him broke me more and more. I locked eyes on a stuffed bear from when I was younger and that was my salvation. When he finished we showered and I found myself lying in the wreckage of me as he put his arms around me and pulled me close enough to feel his warmth.
For days after a bruise on my left wrist tortured me so I went and got a tattoo to rest above it. A lock to represent the marks left on my heart and mind that may stop me from ever sharing myself with another in the same way again. At least twice a year I have dreams where my subconscious reminds me that the experience boils below the surface even as I work to make sense of it in new ways or try and advocate for those who have not found their voice.
In many ways we tell our stories but the fibers of my muscles and the beat of my heart does a damn good job of reminding us what has happened to us. I shut down and after a negative experience trying to report to the police I pushed it down deeper and found myself spinning without regard for my well-being. Today after years of work and self-love I own my story and speak with others to share the experience.
I invite you to connect with me on twitter @benmwilliams or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the art:
What's funny about Ben sharing his story with us is that shortly after we launched our initial call for folks to share their stories, I was emailing folks that I knew had shared stories in the past. Just as I was emailing Ben, I got an email FROM BEN asking if he could share his story!
That was one of the most serendipitous moments of this project so far. It was wonderful.
Alas, in knowing Ben's story, I was so glad to have another man's story to add to this project during the sexual assault awareness month. We have a few more to come, but I wanted Ben's because it touches on many aspects of this topic, and being from a man's perspective, it gives us a perspective that we definitely need in our societal view of who sexual violence impacts.
In creating Ben's piece, I wanted to use warm and cool colors so that this piece could encompass all aspects of Ben's story and personality. In knowing Ben personally through the realm of the Student Affairs online community, I am glad to have such a loving and supportive colleague. Having met Ben at a conference last year, we bonded over tattoos, their meaning, and the stories they tell. So I knew the direction I had to take with this painting.
I wanted to run with the message of his tattoo, "Forget regret," an homage to the musical, RENT. So I went with some of my personal favorite lines from the song that inspired the tattoo, "No Day But Today." It JUST SO HAPPENED that those favorite lines coincided with the line in Ben's tattoo! So, another serendipitous moment!
Thank you for sharing your piece, Ben. Thank you for being resilient.
You are a survivor.