Sometimes, when I have an excess of nervous energy, I run. This is no small feat. To leave the house to go for a run on my own along a nearby and very familiar, well frequented walking path that traverses a residential area, involves many complex internal negotiations. I only do it when someone is at home who knows where I’m going, when I left, how long I expect to be, what I’m wearing – in other words, all the information they’ll need to tell the police on the chance I don’t return. I have to take my phone. I have to be in a strong, energetic, determined frame of mind and, most importantly, I have to have rehearsed what I will do in the event of an attack. Incredibly enough, sometimes I do actually make it out the front door. During my run, I go over and over all sorts of thoughts, plans and emotions. My mind is so preoccupied it’s a wonder it remembers to instruct my legs to move. If I happen to cross paths at any point with a lone male or, worse, a group of males, I have to practice anger towards them. This is entirely regardless of the behaviour, attitude, appearance or any other quality inherent to the male in question. In my head I repeat a well-worn series of angry, threatening, aggressive phrases and remind myself that, if required, I have the right to protect myself, even if that means hurting my (potential, imagined) attacker. Sometimes, I even visualise the actions I could take if required to defend myself. Then, once I have recited this psychological talisman, I make myself meet the eyes of this man, say hello and smile warmly.
This is a routine that I repeat in many situations and as absurd, anti-social and deranged as it must sound, I cannot imagine moving about in the world without it. Practicing anger is something I do often thesedays. Imagining infringements of my rights or difficult situations that I might need to confront and rehearsing how I might go about speaking up or acting out to make sure I express my concerns and protect myself. It may therefore be needless to explain that anger terrifies me. Just conceiving of this post makes me feel intensely, irrevocably vulnerable. That’s not to say I don’t feel anger ‘naturally’. I do. But mostly I do so privately and internally. More often than not, anger isn’t something I feel until well after the reason for it has occurred. Sometimes days (months, years) have passed before I finally find myself enraged. Perhaps, there is no coincidence in the inclusion of anger in the word danger. At least to me, instantaneous, unrestrained or unreflective anger feels only terribly risky. In the moment, I tend to freeze or cry or just get hot and flustered. All unfortunately ineffective and unprotective expressions of anger.
This situation deeply distresses me. I wish I had some powerful demonstration of passionate defiance, or self-righteous indignation, some suggestion of an active, entitled, assertive counter-force of my own to hold on to, to take refuge in. But I don’t. I was raised to be a good girl, a nice girl. Nice girls don’t get angry. Anger is provocative, anger is about entitlement, anger might make somebody else uncomfortable, it might be inconvenient for another. In so many ways, women are still discouraged from anger. As an adolescent, I had a fierce temper that I wasn’t afraid to express but I was strongly criticised for it (rather than being encouraged to find a more considerate and less melodramatic way of expressing it) – to good effect. I remember my temper but I cannot seem to call it up at the required moment, I cannot recall how to rage and fume or how to indignantly express my dissatisfaction unless I’m around people with whom I feel safe and respected – precisely the people with whom there is no need to express anger this way. When the need is there, I flail, I freeze, I miss my opportunity.
What is it that’s so complex and confusing about anger? When something makes me angry the anger splits into three paths: first, the awareness that something isn’t right and the sense of responsibility for doing something about it; second, the worry that in expressing my anger I might hurt someone else, I might do wrong or attract disapproval and; third, the fear that if I express my anger I might get attacked or hurt in return. By dispersing my anger and divagating it into these anxieties and fears, I effectively disable my own ability to act. Anger becomes just a frustrating cul-de-sac, an impasse that leads nowhere. I have struggled repeatedly and somewhat futilely with this since the assault. Practice is the only answer I’ve found. And so, I rehearse. I call up the feelings and identify what needs to be said, what needs to be done and then, I repeat. I go over and over until gradually I begin to feel comfortable, until my cheeks stop flaming and the tears stop stinging, until the urge to apologise subsides and the habit of dismissing my expectations weakens. Every woman (or man) who’s been raped is entitled to righteous anger and is entitled to express it with fury and contempt. For no story, no judgment, no history can be complete until the victim has had their say.