Content warning: rape
He played The Wombats’ new album over the speakers at the bar the night he raped me. I think the album was new, or quite new, and he played through all the songs he liked best and told me and my friend how much he enjoyed the band.
I remember this viscerally because, even now, I can’t bear to hear any song by The Wombats without enduring a crawling sensation over my skin or feeling sick to my stomach.
This is one of the weird ways my rape has been imprinted onto my life, even so long after it happened that I can’t really remember whether the man who raped me was blond or brunette. I might have actually known this guy’s name at one point (maybe that night), but now I can’t even tell you the colour of his hair—just that it was long enough for him to wear it in a ponytail.
Details are recalled to my brain voluntarily (when I am trying to remember things, like in therapy), or all in a rush involuntarily, like being smacked in the face. And they used to make me so panicked that I would lose the ability to speak, or see, or walk, or breathe. Writing about rape or assault, which I often did in my day job as a staff writer during the Harvey Weinstein #MeToo wave, was once a topic I would take on like you would approach a steep incline to reach the end of a long walk: not great, but you have to do it, I guess. I felt that, as a survivor, I had a responsibility to write about rape, about victimisation and survival, in order to do my part to combat rape culture.
This is quite a common way for victim-survivors of assault and abuse to interact with the culture of violence that surrounds us. People who have survived violence often feel as though they must connect with every similar story of violence and horror that crosses their path, as a kind of endurance test. How much of a survivor are you? Can you survive being retraumatised again, and again, and again?
As a young journalist I sought out stories about abuse and assault to weigh in on. I read reports into sexual harassment and assault on campus at Australian universities. I read the court transcripts from Larry Nassar’s trial. Even while I wrote that we needed to stop asking survivors to fix rape culture, I was on the frontlines trying to fix rape culture. It’s not like I was deliberately doing myself harm, but victims of abuse and assault often feel a desire to re-enter the trauma space to do good. So I was in a never-ending cycle: retraumatising myself and getting knocked down, picking myself back up, and then hopping online to do it all again.
These past several weeks, the trial into the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins by Bruce Lehrmann has made headlines across the country. Once upon a time, this would’ve been another opportunity for me to delve deep into a story that would dredge up horrific feelings and fuzzy, uncomfortable details of my own rape. And I’ve paid attention to the trial, there’s no doubt about that.
I knew that Lehrmann was pleading not guilty to sex without consent. I knew that Higgins had been questioned on the stand about what she did with the dress she wore on the day of the alleged assault. And I knew that, twelve days into the trial, the ACT’s Chief Justice Lucy McCallum had released the jurors and aborted the trial, after one of the jurors was found with academic papers on sexual assault that they had printed out and brought into the jury room. This act directly contravened at least seventeen separate instructions from the Chief Justice that ‘you should only be learning about this trial in this room in my presence.’
In the past, the Lehrmann trial might have occupied my every waking moment. I might have spent a great deal of time reading every available media report of the goings on in Canberra. The tragic news that the trial was to be aborted, and that Higgins would have to go through it all again, might have broken me.
This time, though, I noticed I no longer hungered for this kind of story and coming across it via a radio or internet news report did not knock me over like it once might have. I felt terrible for Higgins, but I did not let the news undo me.
In early 2020, I was worrying about my position at two Melbourne universities. That’s because we were hearing whispers about a virus that was running rampant overseas, which would make it impossible for many of our international students to return to campus. My classes were all at least half made-up of international students, so this was very strange and distressing to think about. I hadn’t even gone so far as imagining what would happen if the virus came here—that seemed impossible. But I was worried about my small corral of classes, my position at the unis, and whether I’d make enough money that semester.
I felt worried about everything and paralysed by that worry. I was between psychologists, and my GP had handed management of my many medications over to a psychiatrist. I thought a lot about my assault, especially about a letter I wrote, detailing my assault, to my last psychologist. She and I never discussed the letter—or the assault—before I left her practice. I wondered if that was a mistake. Still, I saw my psychiatrist occasionally, and my GP often, and tried to stay afloat.
My GP was housed in the QV building, and while waiting for her to see me—she was always, always late—some rabbit-hole research into a piece I was working on led me to discover that CASA House’s CBD office was right across the courtyard from where I was sitting. I packed my notebook and my phone back into my backpack, got up and left the GP’s office. The lifts were out (this is often the case at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre), so I climbed many stairs until I was puffed and shaking—from the climb, and from building panic. Then I found myself standing outside CASA House.
I did intake that day. I was told by my intake officer that the wait to see a counsellor or a psychologist was as long as 10 months, but I had waited so long already, to have someone really see me and understand what I was carrying around, the weight that my assault had added to me. So I stayed. My intake officer asked me delicate but direct questions about the incident I was there to report while she filled in a form. I watched dry-mouthed as she listened, paused, then ticked ‘rape’ on the form.
Before that moment, I had never given myself permission to call what happened to me a rape. But this intake officer was right: I had been raped.
At the end of the intake session, the officer told me that CASA would stay in touch, and that hopefully they would have a counsellor for me to meet with soon. I left, returning to my GP’s office, where my GP was still not ready to see me.
CASA stands for the Centre Against Sexual Assault. It is a department of the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne that provides services to adults of all genders who are survivors of sexual assault, as well as to family members, friends and other people supporting survivors. They also provide health, legal and community support, as well as support to professional individuals and groups. Individuals can self-refer to CASA House, as I did. Once you are matched together with a counsellor, you are given 12–18 free sessions to work with them.
My experience with CASA House saved my life. After a few months of waiting, CASA rang to match me with a counsellor named Tessa. I would see her the very next week. Tessa and I did the kind of work that you do with many psychologists or counsellors—taking our cues from ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and DBT, or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy—to address my anxiety and panic surrounding the rape. Tessa told me to think of panic like watching a horror movie: if you’re watching it alone, in the dark, on a stormy night, you’re going to have a pretty bad time. Our therapy was like your friends arriving, turning on the lights and asking to watch the movie with you—it’s still scary, but your environment makes it bearable.
Before I started working with CASA House, I had never done any therapy besides CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), so working in a new way, with ACT and DBT, was like a southerly on a stinking hot day. I actually showed up to my therapy sessions, which was something I had previously struggled with. I cried less during my sessions, and I had fewer flashbacks and night terrors at home. My fiancé noticed that we refilled my Valium prescription far less regularly than we had in the past. By the time we really got stuck into therapy, COVID had overrun Melbourne, and most of our sessions happened over the phone. I found I didn’t mind this as much as I did with other health providers. Tessa and I just got on with what we needed to do.
After a year working with Tessa, I did not feel overwhelmingly that I wanted (or needed) to die. I could talk and think about my rape without freaking out, and I no longer had the kinds of intrusive thoughts or flashbacks that crippled me with panic. Tessa let me know we were reaching the end of our allowance of free sessions, and that she believed I had vastly improved in the time we’d spent together. So she asked me, was there anything we hadn’t done that I really wanted to do?
Then I asked her: what if I contacted my rapist, and let him know what he did to me?
Here’s what I thought: maybe he didn’t know what he did. Maybe he didn’t understand how he had hurt me. Perhaps, if I told him, I would prevent him from hurting another woman in the same way. I thought, maybe I could get some final catharsis.
Tessa sighed. I had never heard her sound so old. What do you want from this man? she asked. Do you want him to apologise? In my experience, the people who do what this man did to you do know, deep down, what they have done. They have no remorse.
Tessa told me that if I really wanted to contact my rapist, she would help me. And CASA House had always made it clear to me that if I wanted to pursue any legal action against this man, they would support me. So I told her I would think about it all and get back to her in our next appointment.
What did I want from this man? For him to say sorry. For him to cry like a baby about what he did. I had been reading a lot about restorative justice, and I thought that’s what I wanted from my rapist. But, I realised, all I wanted was the same illusion of retribution that carceral justice offered: the shimmering idea that someone will pay, in some way, for what they have done. That, with his remorse, he would repay me for his crime.
When I looked at my life, at what my rape had done to me, it was like a part of me had been ripped open. I had patched that part back together in a year of hard work with Tessa. I didn’t need anything from the man who had ripped me apart in the first place: he couldn’t do anything to heal me because I had already healed myself.
Justice is such a bizarre concept. There is no justice in the traditional justice system—we have evidence of this every day. Even once I had come to terms with my rape, I knew I would not seek justice in our carceral system, not just because I did not have the tools to hold my rapist accountable (I had no physical evidence, and my rape had happened nearly a decade beforehand), but also because I no longer wished to see him punished. If I didn’t want retribution or accountability from the man who raped me, what good is the traditional notion of ‘justice’?
As I was preparing this piece for publication, it was announced that Higgins’ charges against Lehrmann would likely be dropped, due to the effect of a retrial on Higgins’ mental health. This is a tragic but understandable result. Sexual assault is already so deeply destructive to our minds and bodies, reliving the event over and over again in a courtroom (after being forced to relive it over and over again to police and lawyers and others in preparation for a trial) must be absolutely disastrous. As some often say, this is one of many reasons why rape victims do not seek justice through the minefield that is law and order.
But maybe there is some personal justice to be found in sewing yourself back together, like I did with Tessa. Or, if not justice, just healing?
A year after my time at CASA House, an acquaintance contacted me to tell me they had been raped. They were looking for advice about what to do, where to go and how to hold their rapist accountable. This is an intensely individual and personal process, and justice and accountability look different for everyone. This person wanted to know how to prepare themselves for going to the police and reporting their rape—something for which I have no real-world frame of reference. They also told me they were worried that if they didn’t, this man might hurt another person. I told them I knew very little about carceral justice, but I explained what I knew about the aftermath of a rape attack.
I told them what Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo said, which is that you never need to tell anyone about your assault if you don’t want to. Even if you’re saying #MeToo into the mirror, to yourself, you’re starting that healing process. I told them that they never have to feel like a rapist’s actions (to them, or to another person) are their responsibility—it’s not their job to stop a rapist from attacking. And I told them that the best thing I’d ever done was seek help from experts in how to heal from rape.
Justice for you could be reporting your rape to the police, taking your rapist to trial, and holding them accountable in a court of law. Or justice could be a mediated discussion between you and your rapist, where you explain what he has done and how he has hurt you, and you look for reparations. Or you could be like me. For me, justice is the feeling of peace I have when I come across a news item that might once have retraumatised me. Justice is a good night’s sleep—because I no longer have night terrors. Justice, for me, is the feeling of being free.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is an author and a bookseller who lives on unceded Gadigal land. You can find her tweeting too much from @mdixonsmith.