When I was young, I somehow got the idea that rape was the worst thing that could happen to me.
Maybe it was the way the word was used -- in horrified whispers, with pained expressions, accompanied by sighs.
"She was raped."
Maybe it was seeing The Life of Saint Maria Goretti when I was in sixth grade. In that grainy black-and-white movie, poor Maria Goretti, a devout but beautiful Italian teenager, was raped by a working man. She resisted with all she had and he murdered her. Then she was made a saint.
The rape scene was horrific -- not explicit, mind you -- but brutal for a sixth grader.
The message we got as Good Catholic Girls was that boys and men would try to have sex with us -- would try to force us to have sex with them -- would rape us at the drop of a hat. And we had to resist with all our might, even if it meant getting killed.
So all my life, I dreaded and feared the possibility of rape. I went over and over in my head what I would do if such a horrible thing were to happen to me.
And then it did. On a cold night in December 34 years ago, a touch past midnight, four men kidnapped me at gunpoint from the parking lot at the University of Maryland and spent the rest of the night raping me.
I did not resist. I did not fight with all my might, because I did not want to die.
They left me, in my car, on an overpass in Northern Virginia, miles from the apartment where they had taken me and raped me. They threw my car keys and my purse over the side of the overpass, stranding me in the darkest part of the night. I flagged down a passing car; the two men (men!) in it took me to -- a coffee shop? a 7-11? a parking lot? -- in any case, they called the police. The justice system kicked in.
I was -- if you can apply this word to this situation -- lucky.
Lucky, because I did not know the men who raped me. Lucky, because I managed to memorize the faces of the two who snatched me; I could therefore give accurate descriptions to the police artist and I could pick their pictures out of a "lineup". Lucky, because mine was not a "messy" case; there was no doubt that I was raped.
Lucky, because the rapists got careless; their fifth victim (I was their fourth) got their license plate number. They were caught and arrested. Lucky, because out of the four of them, three pled guilty and turned state's evidence against the fourth.
Lucky, because I was not beaten, or sodomized (anally or orally), or shot. Or killed, like Maria Goretti and countless other women.
The thing I feared most happened to me. I survived it; with counseling, I overcame it. However, my body and my mind will never forget it. Even now, as I write this, I am shivering and tearing up. Even now, I hug myself when I cross a darkened parking lot alone. Even now, my heart races if a car follows mine for any length of time.
And yet, I will not let this event rule my life. I travel alone; I take myself to the movies alone; I walk through the woods and the city and the neighborhood. I will not allow the rapists to win, even 34 years later.
I am not a victim.
I am a survivor.
I do not need to be a saint.