Trigger warning for sexual assault and suicide.
I wrote this piece of fiction several years ago, but recent events made me pull it out and dust it off. This short story illustrates the devastating effects of disbelieving and shaming those who come forward with claims of sexual abuse.
I follow her because she’s crying. This is an unusual sight in the halls of a Bais Yaakov, where crying tends to take place behind closed doors, or not at all. We are in different grades, but I know who she is. Everyone knows who she is.
She pushes open the door to the stairwell that leads to roof access – forbidden to students – and I pause for half a second before following her, more concerned about her emotional state than with the potential consequence of getting caught.
I call her name just as she’s about to push the door open. She stops in her tracks, spins around to see who’s following her, then ignores me and steps through the door, onto the roof. I follow. It’s mid- October and the weather is mild, but there’s a substantial breeze on the roof, four floors off the ground.
“Are you okay?” I jump as the door slams behind me. I wrap my arms around myself, feeling uneasy.
She whips around and pierces me with a fierce look.
“Are you joking?”
I take a step back. There’s nothing funny about this situation. It’s been two months since she accused our principal of sexually assaulting her over the course of a year, but the aftershocks are still reverberating through our school and community. We’re not friends, but even I’ve been wondering how she manages to come to school each day and face all the students and teachers who stare at her with a mix of curiosity and fascination.
“No, I’m not. I’m asking seriously, are you okay?”
She just stares at me, tears streaking her face, and I search desperately for something useful to say.
“I mean, I’m guessing you’re not okay. I saw you crying, that’s why I came after you. I know you’re going through a lot, and if you want to talk…” I trail off, silenced by the look on her face.
“You know I’m going through a lot?” Her voice is hard. “Really? What do you know about what I’m going through?”
My heart is pounding and the uneasiness is spreading rapidly. “You said something happened with the principal. That he abused you.”
She takes a step towards me and although she has stopped crying, I don’t feel any better about this situation. Her eyes are wild and I need to force myself not to take a step back.
“Do you think it’s true?”
I can’t look away. For two months I’ve been hearing bits and pieces. Apparently, she’d confided in a teacher. The teacher reported the principal. That teacher has since quit or been fired, no one really knows. The principal is on paid leave, but popular opinion is that he’s done nothing wrong, and her accusations are motivated by some mental instability. He has a spotless record of over fifteen years, and she’s always been… unique. Everyone knows her parents are divorced and her father isn’t religious.
“I don’t know.” I say finally. “I really don’t know.”
This wounds her. “You’re just like everyone else.” Her eyes refill with tears. “You are just like every other person is this two-faced city who won’t face the truth.” Her face contorts in pain. “You’re killing me. You’re all killing me.”
“I don’t understand. Why are you up here?” But I do understand. The realization hits me hard and I want to be sick.
“I’m done.” She says quietly, moving towards the edge of the roof. “I can’t take this anymore. Everyone wants me to stop talking about this and pretend it never happened. Well I can’t do that. So I’m done.”
“Stop.” My throat is dry and I choke on the word. “Talk to me. What happened?” I struggle to remember how to breathe. “Don’t do this.”
She stops with her back to me. “Oh, now you want to know what happened? Now that we’re up here and you don’t want to see this, now you’re asking? Why didn’t you ask me yesterday? Why not the day before?” She turns around and stalks towards me. “Why didn’t you care until right this second.”
Shame and fear fight for dominance and I stumble over my words. “Look, I don’t really know you that well. I didn’t think you’d want me to ask you about something personal like that.”
She shakes her head in disgust. “Then leave. Walk away and pretend you never saw me.”
We stare at each other. How is it, that over the past two months, as I’ve heard her name whispered in hushed tones, passed her walking in the hallway with her head down, I’d never really seen her?
“I’m not going anywhere.” I swallow hard.” You’re right, okay? It’s messed up that we all knew you were going through something and we didn’t try to talk to you. Look, we’re not good at dealing with stuff like this. It’s awkward – “
She cuts me off. “It’s awkward? Wow, I feel really sorry for you. It must have been so difficult to see me in school and feel awkward.” Rage flashes in her eyes. “You have no idea. You have no idea the hell I’ve been through since I came forward. “
“So tell me.” I force myself to keep her gaze. “I’m sorry. I’m listening now.”
She is silent for a minute. Then she gives a small nod and starts to talk.
“Everyone hates me. Everyone wishes I would have kept my mouth shut and not brought all this shame and drama on the school and the community. He knows what he did but he’s going around spreading these rumors about me and my family, trying to prove that because my family has problems, I must be lying about him.” She’s clenching and unclenching her fists. “He offered me money to take it back. He offered my mother over ten thousand dollars, knowing that she’s a single mom with three kids and dirt poor. He told us it would be for my own good if I would let it go, that if I don’t, this will follow me forever. He said to forget about seminary and forget about ever getting married.”
My whole body is cold. I’m listening, and feeling the weight of her words, but at the back of my mind is a nagging voice reminding me that if I’d not careful, this will be the last conversation she ever has.
The next words out of my mouth surprise me. “It really happened. He really raped you.” Now that I’m actually seeing her, my assumptions and beliefs disappear, as I come face to face with her raw pain. She’s not making this up and the realization hits me so hard that my legs go weak.
“Even my mother wishes I’d never said anything. She won’t say that straight out but I know she thinks it. She’s about to lose her job. She believes me, but she can’t afford a lawyer, so she wants me to drop it.” Her gaze drops as she’s speaking, but suddenly her heads snaps up and she’s staring straight at me. “Do you think I should drop it?”
I’m still trying to breathe normally. I feel too young and stupid to be having this conversation. Her life is on the line.
“No.” I’m vaguely aware that I’ve started crying. “If I were you, I couldn’t drop it. You deserve to be believed.”
She laughs. “It’s too late for that.” She steps up to the edge of the roof. “I give up. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Please don’t jump.” My voice is shaking and tears are blurring my vision. “Please don’t do this.”
“Give me one good reason not to.” She’s crying too, but I can see the determination on her face. I want to reach out to her, but I can’t bridge the distance between us for fear that she’ll take a step back.
“It’s not fair.” I say weakly. “Why should you suffer for something he did?”
She laughs through her tears, bitter and angry. “Nothing is fair. No one cares what happens to me. Everyone just wants me to go away. I’ll be doing everyone a favor so they can go back to pretending that everything is perfect and that this type of thing doesn’t happen to us.”
“What if he ends up doing it to other girls?” I’m starting to feel disconnected from my body, as if I’m watching a scene play out, two girls on a roof.
This shatters her. “He already has.” She rakes her fingers across her face, knots them in her hair, and tilts her head back as tears rain down her cheeks. “You don’t understand. He already has but no one else will come forward. Not after they’ve seen the way I was treated. People put notes in my locker and send me emails. But they won’t come forward.”
While she’s wrapped up in her pain, I take a few tentative steps forwards. I glance at my watch and see that school will let out in less than ten minutes. If I can keep her talking for that long, maybe someone will see us.
“That’s why I have to do this.” Her eyes are pleading with me to understand. “I need people to believe me. I left a note explaining everything. If I do this, people will realize I wasn’t making it up. Maybe they’ll start paying attention and then maybe it won’t happen to anyone else.”
“You’re wrong,” I say desperately. “They’ll think you were crazy, that you were so messed up that nothing you say could possibly be true.” She’s shaking her head but I keep talking. “You have to stay alive. You have to fight this. I’ll help you. My friends will help you. We’ll make people believe you.”
It’s the wrong things to say. “You’re too late!” She screams. “Where were you and your friends when everyone was talking about me behind my back? Where were you all when I was dying inside every single second of every single day? Where were you Mrs. Keller got fired for actually doing her job and reporting what I told her?”
I’m sobbing now, terrified of what she will do with no idea of how to get through to her. Before I can say anything, she sinks to her knees, facing the open space at the edge of the roof.
“You have no idea.” Her voice is so raw it’s like a dagger through my heart. ”I never thought that telling the truth about being raped would be worse than being raped.”
“Tell me what to do.” I plead through my tears. “Tell me. I’ll do anything.”
When she looks at me, her eyes are hollow. “Tell them I was telling the truth.”
A second later, the final school bell rings. She tilts forward and I lunge for her, wrapping my arms around her and pulling her back to safety. I can’t tell which of us is crying harder.
“I promise you,” I whisper fiercely, “You’re not alone anymore.”
And then I start screaming for help.