real life

'At 23, my body was violated by someone I knew. Now, I'm trying to understand why I didn't scream.'

This post deals with sexual assault and might be triggering for some readers.

“Perhaps the only thing worse was when another man asked me a few days later, why didn’t you just scream?”

This was my Facebook status in 2017 when #METOO, (a term coined by African American woman Tarana Burke in 2006), exploded around the world. On that day, I posted in solidarity with the thousands of women who were disclosing things that had happened to them, but this post became more than a status, more than a statement.

It became a question I had to answer.

I wanted to understand why victims and survivors of sexual violence often don’t scream. To understand why I didn’t scream, when at the age of twenty-three, my body was violated by someone I knew. This post became the first iteration of my novel, Below Deck.

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Something that was ‘clear cut’ sexual violence when I was 16, was this time murky. Some would call it rape. Others would name the space my body occupied as the ‘grey area’ of consent. Because it wasn’t simple… Because I said no… Because I participated… Because I thought, in that moment, pinned against a wall, that if I chose to participate, somehow that was giving me agency… a sense of autonomy… a feeling that I had ownership over my body and my story.

After writing that status, I tried to make sense of what happened to me by researching and writing non-fiction essays. I examined the reasons we often don’t scream and I asserted that language matters. That the language we use when we talk about sexual violence matters because we make our worlds with words.

I wrote these essays, and still, he lingered, haunting my body in still and silent moments. And so I turned to fiction…

I created a world for myself where it was safe to explore consent and victim shaming. That ‘grey area’. The watery in-between where it might not be a stranger in an alleyway, but it also isn’t consensual. What became of it, Below Deck is a story about choice. The choices we make and the choices we don’t make.

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The line, ‘we choose to breathe, don’t we?’ is repeated throughout the novel, because it asks us whether we are consciously making the decision to breathe, or if we are breathing whether we like it or not. Whether we choose this bodily function or whether it happens to us.

My main character Oli’s experiences of sexual violence pose similar questions. Because she makes the choice to get on a boat with five men… Because she makes the choice to flirt with one of them… Is the violation of her body something she consciously chooses or is it something that happens to her?

I use irregular punctuation to break up sentences, to force you to take a breath where you otherwise wouldn’t.

Do we choose to breathe?

I also use irregular punctuation to break up sentences so that they’re distorted so that they’re inconsistent.

Because how often have we been told that the inconsistencies in our stories make our stories less true… less believable?

In fiction, I could use language creatively to show that inconsistencies are a product of trauma, not a sign that the trauma itself is false or inauthentic.

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I wrote a scene of sexual violence in which the borders are watery. Because I wanted my readers to ask themselves, where is the line? And at what point did he cross it?

Because there will be readers who will think Oli crossed that line herself by getting on a boat with a crew of men she didn’t know. There will be readers who ask, if she didn’t want it, why didn’t she just scream?

And I wanted this novel to show those readers how having your truth met with disbelief, corrupts and warps your memory of what happened.

And how incredibly painful it is to distrust your memory… to distrust your own body. Like I did.

Sexual violence takes us out of our bodies. And it makes it difficult, if not impossible to inhabit them afterwards. Because someone has forced their way into your house and set the walls on fire…

Below Deck is about the rebuild. It’s a novel about repairing the fleshy walls that house your soul, a room of one’s own, so that you can once again write poems about beautiful things.

This is a story of reclaiming your body. And I wrote it as fiction, so that I could reclaim mine.

Because I know that if I’d written it as non-fiction, there’d have been no ending, only the incessant lingering. Then, now, forever.

And in the end, writing Oli’s story gave me the power, allowing me to sail, if you like, across the horizon into a landscape where the repressed have managed to survive.

To take authorship of my own story. To take back control. To re-write the ending.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Sophie Hardcastle was born in 1993. She is an author, artist, screenwriter and scholar. In 2018, she was a Provost’s Scholar in English Literature at Worcester College, at the University of Oxford, where she wrote Below Deck. Sophie is the author of the critically acclaimed Running Like China (2015) and Breathing Under Water (2016). She is the co-creator, co-writer and co-director of the online series Cloudy River.

You can purchase Below Deck here.

Feature image: Supplied/Charlie Ford.

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