When You're Accused of RapeIn the Stream
By Scott Bear Don't Walk
When I was 22, I was accused of rape. More correctly, an ex-girlfriend told people that I was a rapist. No formal complaint was made. This happened right around the time I was selected as a Rhodes Scholar. What she said started to circulate and people who heard this as rumor tried to reconcile two competing visions of me: the local Native American who makes good, and the rapist.
Madeline (not her real name) and I had dated for four years and been broken up for two years. The campus buzzed with talk of me, first as Rhodes Scholar, then as the rapist. People began treating me differently. Smiles gave way to confused, wary looks. People started asking about what they had heard,
“I heard something disturbing about you.” or
“Is it true?” or
“Hey, did you?”
Prior to this, Madeline and I had been friendly if not close. There had been good deal of public talk about me then. Before the accusation, I was a local Indian boy who makes good, a welcomed antidote to image of Indians as tragic, drunken, criminal prevalent in the reservation border town where I grew up.
A local Native American health clinic hung posters with my photo and the headline “This is Today’s Warrior” in shop windows all along the downtown. They told me I was an Indian role model, a hero, something extremely rare these days. Heroic Indians came from the past, chiefs, warriors, not the living present. Indians had given over to tragedy. If I saw an Indian face in the news, it was most likely on a wanted list. This is still true today. In 2008 in my home state of Montana, Indians make up 6.5 percent of the population but 20 percent of the men’s prison population. Reading a hometown newspaper was an exercise in despair and alienation. Indians were seen as always close to criminality, walking the edge of lawlessness. We did not disappoint. We fit the stereotype all too well. Some part of me felt unsurprised when I came under suspicion.
We had started dating in high school. Madeline was my first kiss, the first person I held hands with, my first date, my first everything. I didn’t date Indian girls. I didn’t know how to find them beautiful. The larger culture didn’t see them as such. I wanted what everyone else wanted, blonde hair, light eyes, light skin. Madeline had all these things and she wanted to date this dark Indian boy, a kind of miracle in a place where Indians are still seen as dirty and lesser. She didn’t like white guys.
It’s necessary to tell you more about who she told -- her friends, acquaintances, my teachers and mentors, the local Rhodes Scholarship committee. She told them that I had harmed her, been violent towards her, and had sexually assaulted her. At no point did she ever tell the police, or any other authorities. No formal accusations were made. It’s also necessary to tell you that what she said was untrue.
As people I knew spoke to me, struggling to understand, I struggled to answer for what she was saying.
The hardest question they asked was, “Why would she say such a thing if it wasn’t true?” It became her word against mine: she said, I said. Even now, you will have to make up your own mind. A kind of sorting happens. If you know me personally you will place words, gestures, glances and moments -- towards “Did he, or didn’t he?”
I did this sorting myself when I heard about others, and without much difficulty. I never suspected this would be said about me. If a person’s demeanor seemed possibly violent, or too quiet, that would go towards the court of evidence against them in my mind. If there is karma then it carries the ease with which I had judged others.
When we first dated in the 11th grade, Madeline told me that a previous boyfriend, a guy I knew, had assaulted her. Hearing this I wanted to protect her, hold her, help her know that she was safe with me. I revealed to her that I, too, had been sexually assaulted as a child. Together we made a kind of vow to be safe for one another.
Later she told that another acquaintance of mine had harmed her. One day when his red Chevy Nova drove past; I remember the urge to drive after him. I didn’t know what I would have done. I could see her crying face, her mascara running, hear her quavering voice. Someone had hurt her that way. I wanted to see myself as her hero, grabbing him by the lapels. What happened next? Would I hit him? Make him promise not to hurt another woman? But this didn’t happen. I wasn’t reckless, violent, or brave.
Still more revelations came -- another guy, someone I knew from chemistry class, seemed the type, with his surfer t-shirts. His grin took on a sly, cunning cast. With each new revelation I hated these guys, despised them. Each time she told me I believed, outraged at how men had treated her, at how men treated women.
At a certain point, I’m not sure when, a kind of silent space in my outrage appeared, an unsaid question. What about the quiet guy who lived down her street? She said that he had continued when she said no. They had been friends since childhood. He was smaller than her. But I also knew that looks can deceive, that coercion comes in many forms. I also knew that men do these things. They perpetrate. She told me not to bother with the guy down the street. They were still friends.
After each revelation I did would I could to support her. I did this through early college and the consciousness raising she did around that had happened. When she marched at Take Back the Night, I supported her from the sidelines. We tried to heal together. I was in a consciousness raising time for myself, learning about gender, race, male privilege and violence against women. As a Native American, I related to such oppression, personally, deeply. Violence had touched me. As a boy I had been sexually assaulted by a man. I tied my own rape to that of generations of children on my reservation by the Jesuits in the boarding schools. My wariness of men felt like hatred.
Part of our bond had been to be safe together. We questioned male culture, violence culture, rape culture. We tried to find a way to be safe.
It wasn’t until much later that the shape of my own unease with Madeline took shape. She had named every guy she had dated as having assaulted her. My own sense of self-protection gathered only slowly. But then it was me. Now she talked about me, how I had hurt her. She no longer talked about those other guys. And I imagine people felt sympathy for her, as I had, feeling deep anger towards those that hurt her -- but now it was me.
Around town she started writing my name on bathroom walls with the word “rapist” attached. She made a shirt for the Clothesline Project, an organization and event which addresses violence against women. The shirt she made said “Sometimes Rhodes Scholars Rape”.
I was taking a Women’s Studies course in feminist ethics then. I saw my professor as a role model, someone I wanted to be like. She asked big questions about society, culture, and patriarchy. The professor was a close friend and I felt lucky to house sit for her and feed her cats.
My mother, a second wave feminist, had friends with bumper stickers that said “A Woman’s Place Is in Senate” and “If a Woman Says It I Believe It”. Violence against women negatively affected us all. I tied the pain of the women in my family to a much larger picture of violence and as part of violence against children and against my tribe -- the pain from the Jesuits, the rape of our land, and culture. Everything was related.
Madeline had told the head of the local Rhodes Scholarship Committee. I was summoned to answer for what he had heard. A few months prior when I first got the Rhodes we had met, and he told me about his adopted Native American son. At that meeting he treated me like a proud father, patting me on the back, smiling broadly, hugging me. He said that me getting the Rhodes gave him hope for his own son who was having difficulties in school. This time his face remained impassive, his eyes searching for signs of guilt. He didn’t speak of his adopted son. He said took such reports very seriously. He said that until more formal charges were made he couldn’t take the scholarship from me, but if charges were filed that would be another matter.
One day my mentor called me to her office and told me to stop coming to her feminist ethics class. My presence was upsetting women who had heard about me. She said that she didn’t know the woman accusing me, and though she knew me, it would go against everything she believed not to take seriously what a woman said. I never house sat for her again.
Now former friends visibly avoided me as I walked across campus, turning away. I had been trying to get the Native American campus community to work with the women’s community but things started to fracture. Indians stood with me. They believed me. Race raised its head in this. Whites accused Indians of all kinds of crimes. My friends split into two groups. One said, “If a woman said it I believe it” another said, “Whites tell lies about Indians.”
Madeline started telling people that she was going to harm me. This swas to protect women from me. When I dated her she carried a large folding knife in her purse for safety, then a .38 revolver. I began to hear more of her violent behavior. She had tried to hit a friend of mine over the head with a beer bottle at a local bar. He said “She missed. She’s was too short, but she had this look.” She had called him a “known abuser”. She also said that she was going to “take care” of me. I started receiving hangup calls at all hours. This before caller ID. She worked odd hours at a call center.
Walking toward class one day, I noticed that my car had been vandalized. The antenna and rear wiper had been ripped off by force. That hopeful part of myself left then.
That part that aced the Rhodes interview. That faced the world without fear and suspicion.
I felt silenced. No one would believe me. Would I have believed someone telling me the same?
Madeline was working as a campus women’s advocate, assisting women affected by domestic violence. After a night of hang up phone calls, I heard the loud knock,
“You have been summoned,” the sheriff at my door said, handing me a restraining order. There was a court date for a hearing, but in the meantime I was to stay away from Madeline. I hadn’t seen her in months.
It was then that I realized I was in trouble. Madeline was intent on doing me harm using every possible means: rumors, phone calls, damage to my car, a knife, a gun. For the first time I saw the shape of her intent. All the other guys who she said had harmed her didn’t matter. I was her target.
I asked my family for help finding a lawyer. My mother saw the accusation against me as part of a long line of accusations against her family and against Indians. Her brothers and father had spent time in jail and prison for trumped up charges, for being Indian. She reacted with rage. She offered to “take care of Madeline”. I didn’t know what my mother meant, but whatever it was would do no good and prove true what was said about Indians -- that we are violent, harmful, criminal. My then girlfriend’s mother offered to pay for the lawyer. For this, I am still indebted and forever grateful.
The lawyer very quickly saw above my fear. She was very concerned about the nature of the threats Madeline had made against me, especially the knife and gun, and the beer bottle incident with my friend. My lawyer understood that Madeline was out to harm me. She worked with women stalked by ex-boyfriends and said that this situation reminded her of that ,except some people would have difficulty believing that a small woman could threaten a man. But we had witnesses.
We took pictures of what was written on the walls in bathrooms around town. I still have these photos and look at them today with a mixture of anger, hurt and dread. We prepared our case but didn’t expect that our biggest help would come from Madeline herself. We responded to Madeline’s restraining order with a restraining order. Both charges, hers and mine, would be heard in court.
Much of what took place was mundane. I wasn’t in the courtroom on the day of the hearing. My lawyer thought it best I stay home. I saw the transcripts, and heard from friends and family who were there. But one thing had a big affect; on the stand Madeline told the judge that I was “the problem” and that I was “violent against all women” and “should be taken care of”. She said that she would be doing all women a favor by taking care of me. Madeline said something oddly specific. She said, “If he traveled to South America, I would go to South America to protect women from him.” Soon I would be moving to Oxford England for the Rhodes Scholarship.
The judge found in my favor. I was granted a restraining order. Madeline was to stay a specified distance away, hundreds of feet, and make no further threats.
A few weeks later we both graduated from college. The graduation ceremony was the only exception to the restraining order. Madeline could sit in the same large fieldhouse. As a Rhodes Scholar I sat up on the dais. Did I look happy then to be an honored graduate? Inside, my blood froze to ice. Madeline remained a glimpse, rising only when her name was called to receive her diploma. I was acutely aware of her that moment, though I barely saw her face. Did she smile, or look intent, stoic, angry?
Standing directly above me were two plainclothes police officers. Madeline had a gun, had made threats. During the ceremony, I kept one ear to the speeches and an eye toward any fast movement, any flash of light, any kind of warning. My sense of safety crumbled. We never saw one another after that day.
When women say they have been raped I believed them. I believe them now. Yet complications arise to trouble clarities. Something to help women be believed can be misused to harm. Anything can be misused. My support of women in a society set against them was not abandoned. But wrestling with an impossible knot, I became immobilized and disillusioned.
After the judge found against Madeline, our lawyers worked on a written retraction, signed by her, which was to go to all the people she had talked to. On the morning she was to meet with her lawyer to sign the retraction, she didn’t show. She had left the state.
I was in shock then and for a long time after. I recognize that now. But I tried to put on a brave face and move on. Some time later as I prepared to leave for Oxford, I noticed a triangular spot in the vision of my right eye, blue, slightly vibrating, more visible with each blink. The eye doctor, and subsequent doctors over the years, could not find a cause and tested me for everything from auto-immune disorders to HIV. The spot remained, distorting what I saw, making me fear for my eyesight. Today I connect this loss of vision to what had happened to me in a world that I wanted to reject and not see. I still see that spot though I have become used to it.
At Oxford, I felt a deep sense of insecurity. I felt mistrustful. I had the signs of what remains after trauma. A deep sadness and anger rose up. My drinking started in earnest. After a year and a half I dropped out of Oxford, left the Rhodes Scholarship, and returned home where whispers about me lingered for years, coming up at odd moments. Sometimes people would avoid me on the street. Someone threw a glass of gin at me in a bar. Small towns don’t forget.
To this day there are people who assume they know something terrible about me. They know some deep dark violent secret. There is no way to reply to this but to survive. Eventually I moved away from my home, my tribal homeland and my people to get away from this.
I wish I had an answer to what happened, but I have none. There are only difficult discernments to be made. When I hear suggestions about someone, or overt accusations, I still have to make difficult judgements. But I understand that in general the less I judge others the better. I still understand that few women are believed, and that a woman courageous enough to say something should be believed -- this is true even after all has happened.
A few years ago I visited my women’s studies professor, my former mentor and friend. She didn’t recognize me. It had been over 20 years. She looked very much the same but I was not the same person. I am not the same person. If you looked close enough, I think you could see it in my face, the set of jaw, the way I stand slightly hunched over, bracing myself.
We spoke briefly about our shared interest in poetry, about her former partner and life events. The conversation dragged out to uncomfortable silence. She dug in her desk for a writer’s magazine she wanted to give me. Then she said it.
“I should have believed you.”
I didn’t know what to say.
She said, “I didn’t know her, I knew you.”
Over the years, I have been asked why did Madeline say those things? It’s an impossible question. If a woman was being stalked by an ex-boyfriend, we wouldn’t ask her to explain why he did what he did. But, of course, I wonder. The answer lies with Madeline. I must guess, trying to piece together what I know and remember.
Recently a woman, "Penny", who knew Madeline in elementary school told me about something that happened when they were both children.
“I was new to the grade school and Madeline was my friend at first,” she said. “She was kind to me, and it helped me transition to a new place with kids I didn’t know. I was a nervous, quiet girl, and Madeline seemed to enjoy taking me under her wing. But when she thought I got too big for my britches she told kids that I had done something terrible”
I asked what that terrible thing was.
“Madeline turned the other kids against me, as a kind of way of getting back at me for other kids liking me too much,” Penny said. “Madeline wanted me under her control. I had no idea what was going on, until it was too late.”
Asking her again what was said, I saw how reluctant Penny was to repeat something said about her 30 years ago. Her pain was still present. Finally, Penny told me that Madeline said that she had caught her giving an older boy at school a b.j. behind the school where the dumpsters are.
“I didn’t even know what a b.j. was,” Penny said, laughing uneasily.
Penny said that the resulting rumors and talk spiraled quickly. Students taunted her and yelled obscene things as she left school each day. Girls didn’t want to sit by her in the lunchroom. Eventually, her parents moved her to a different school.
“She ruined my reputation, saying those things. She demanded loyalty, even in grade school.” Penny said. “She wanted to be in full control. If she thought you crossed her, she’d make you pay.”
I asked Penny how she thought I crossed Madeline.
“When you got the Rhodes,” she said.
Madeline had tried out for the Rhodes herself, unsuccessfully.
Madeline had said that as a child she was sexually abused by a male relative who babysat her. I’m inclined to believe this, then and now. She had symptoms of trauma and abuse, as I do. She expressed a genuine fear around certain people, especially men. At times she seemed scared to leave the house. She was afraid, depressed, frozen.
When her young parents would go out drinking, they left her home alone with a teenage male relative. He touched her, made her touch him. He called it a game. She couldn’t tell anyone. She told her parents but they dismissed her. It went on for some time.
After Madeline and I had been together for about three years, she told me that she re-experienced those moments at the hands of her abuser: the sights, the sounds, the smells and the terror, as if it was still happening. She then told me that when we had sex, past and present drifted and blurred for her. She felt unclear at certain moments about what was happening: was it happening to her, had she chosen it? Not long before we broke up, she told me that in those moments she wanted to stab me the back with the folding knife she kept bedside.
No means no, but does yes also mean no? Is that what happened for her? I can only wonder, because much of this confusion she had was internal, silent, unspoken. I never knew.
Just before I left for England, at my adopted uncle Louie’s sweatlodge, I talked to my uncle about what had happened. I told him about my anger with Madeline and my hurt. Water poured on red-hot lava rocks making steam so that we might sweat and pray to the Creator to be cleansed. My uncle said that the sweatlodge was a womb from which we emerge reborn, pure. He told me that I should pray for Madeline. Though she seemed to be very much my enemy, Indians prayed for their enemies.
We prayed and sang, for what was hurting her to be healed. Louie himself knew the deep hurt that staggered a person. Yet he walked a spiritual path. He wasn’t bitter. He was still open to the world. Part of my heart carried fury and hurt. I wanted her to feel sorry.
Speaking in his low soft voice, Louie said, “I’m sure she’s hurting. I’m sure she is full of regrets and pain.”
Then we prayed for her, beating out a rhythm on the ground with small sticks and singing the very old songs so that she might heal, so that I might heal, so that the world itself might heal.
That is still my wish today.
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