It took me 12 years to realize it was rape.
For more than a decade, the trauma I experienced the summer after high school stayed filed away in my brain as something to be ashamed of, something to keep secret.
In the rape-revenge thriller-slash-comedy, Carey Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, a 30-year-old woman who’s dedicated her life to teaching men who believe they’re “nice guys” to stop preying on vulnerable women. Night after night, Cassie goes to bars and pretends to be near-collapsing drunk, luring predators into taking her home with them. As each one inevitably begins to sexually assault her, Cassie drops her act to teach them a lesson: You’re not a nice guy, you’re the bad guy.
Reviews have been mixed. It’s nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture. Some critics say it’s a “ferociously great” film that amplifies how society fails women. Other critics say the movie itself fails women. On Twitter, some sexual assault survivors say they wish they hadn’t watched it.
Others, like me, say watching the movie validated their traumatic experiences.
I was nearly a quarter way through the movie when it dawned on me why the plot felt familiar. When Cassie tells yet another “date” that she needs to go home, and he starts to sexually assault her anyway, a memory of my own “nice guy” assault came into focus. Suddenly, I was shaking and sweating, overwhelmed by the simultaneous clarity and confusion.
What happened to me didn’t register as rape at the time, or in the years to follow. Despite the rise of the #MeToo movement, or watching other movies or TV that depicted rape, nothing resembled my experience close enough to make the connection. My idea of sexual assault had been the life-threatening kind: a strange, masked man attacks a woman in an alley at gunpoint. But in reality, 80 percent of the more than 430,000 victims of reported instances of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. each year are committed by people who know the victim. It took seeing my specific scenario — a drunk person raped by a date — portrayed in “Promising Young Woman” to finally identify it as a crime.
Once the movie cracked my life open, I wanted to learn why it took me so long to come to this conclusion, what to do next and how to heal. I decided to talk to experts on sexual trauma, other survivors of sexual assault and start going to therapy again.
I’m sharing what I’ve learned so far, hoping to help other sexual assault survivors in the process.
My nice guy was a rich, handsome college graduate I met where I worked at the time. The night he invited me to his house for the first time, I was 18 and ecstatic. We drank his Patron tequila before he led me from the kitchen to a completely dark den where I assumed we’d make out. We did, for a moment. Then my date got up from the couch, retrieved a condom and started opening it as he stood in the shadows. I told him not to: I didn’t want to have sex. He put it on, smiling defiantly. I repeated I didn’t want to have sex. He didn’t stop.
I have no memory of how I got home. That may have been because of the alcohol, or because decades of research show trauma can impair the brain’s ability to process information and store memories. It’s common that victims may remember parts of an attack with detailed clarity, while the rest is disorganized and incomplete.
It’s also common that it can take years to understand an assault. Kamila Alexander, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins nursing school who researches sexual health outcome disparities, says people will respond to the trauma differently, and on different timelines. “A person will respond by going through a particular process that makes them feel safe or helps them to understand what happened,” Alexander says. “That understanding can take hours; it can take days, weeks. It can also take years.”
The week after my rape, I told a couple of friends that my date had sex with me after I told him not to repeatedly. And then I bottled it up. In the following months, away at college for the first time, I felt too repulsive to have friends. I avoided social opportunities unless I drank enough to blackout. It was too embarrassing to exist sober. Eventually, I went to a campus therapist. While I didn’t tell her about my sexual assault, I did tell her about the fantasies I had of swerving my bike into oncoming traffic.
Crawling out of my darkest places took time. There were years full of danger and depression, many moments competing for rock bottom. There was also abundant joy in between it all, too. That could be because of my privileged position. As a middle-class White American woman, my demographic comes with societal benefits that extend way beyond the conversation of trauma. There are survivors who can’t escape their abusers, and communities at higher risk for sexual violence like Native Americans, transgender people and sex workers. People of color and lower socioeconomic status also are less likely to be believed when they report sexual assault.
My first instinct after my “Promising Young Woman” breakthrough was to share an acknowledgment of my experience (without details, or the word “rape”) on Instagram with links to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) resources hoping that other sexual assault survivors might feel seen or supported. Next came painful phone conversations with my family, who sounded heartbroken I couldn’t come to them when the assault happened.
My sister sent me “The Body Keeps the Score,” a book by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk on the complex effects of trauma and scientific approaches to recovery. Research in it shows that many traumatized people seek out experiences that would repel most of society, that they can be prone to impulsive, self-harming behavior — traits that have unfortunately defined me.
“When you’re traumatized, you feel all stirred up and hyper-aroused and scared all the time,” van der Kolk told me on the phone. “Many traumatized people become very good at learning not to feel. But at the same time, if you don’t feel anymore, you feel dead inside and need to make yourself feel alive. … You feel alive when you do dangerous things.”
The more I read, the more I started questioning my entire identity. I tallied up the other traumatizing moments of my life that took place well before the night of the rape, and the many that came after. I wondered what parts of my risk-filled existence happened because of my adventurous personality, and which were actually products of my compounded trauma.
Just before the pandemic started, I happened to go to a few months of therapy after a bad breakup. While I worked on my warped self-esteem, I overlooked my rape, a memory hiding in plain sight. When the coronavirus shut down the world, I stopped therapy and focused on the global crisis.
Van der Kolk’s research has shown that trauma physiologically changes survivors’ brains and bodies. Avoiding it — whether consciously or not — can have enduring health and emotional effects.
“A critical piece of healing that damage is acknowledging what you went through,” van der Kolk says. “It needs to be out there for your brain to put it in a time and a place,” he explains.
Once I watched “Promising Young Woman,” I could acknowledge what I went through, and the physical toll it’s taken. Whether writing this or walking in a grocery store, when the rape comes to mind, my heart throbs without rest until I can think about something else. My stress-induced alopecia has returned with full force, and my off-brand women’s Rogaine seems to be no match for what’s happening in my body. I see how much work I have to do.
According to Gail Wyatt — a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior — the best step for survivors post-epiphany is to seek therapy to address their physical and emotional turmoil.
“These are significant and long-lasting experiences we cannot ignore,” Wyatt says. “And only with real therapy — talking to a professional person — can someone’s brain begin to disengage the early experience from what people experience later on.”
It felt freeing for me to unearth my trauma, and on social platforms, some survivors seemed to be having similar experiences. In Sydney, Lynde Alaba tweeted that she’d never cried so much or felt so sick watching a movie. Seeing her own experience reflected in “Promising Young Woman” was both cathartic and devastating.
“I think it’s relatable that you have met these kind of people and think that they’re nice,” Lynde told me on a Zoom call. “But what I really like about [the movie] is that she was able to say it out loud.”
None of the four survivors I spoke to for this piece reported their assaults to an authority — which is sort of the norm. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center says rape is the most underreported crime, and some estimate less than 1 percent of rapes lead to felony convictions.
Experts don’t necessarily recommend survivors seek out triggering content. Claude Mellins, a clinical psychologist and professor at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, says it could be more helpful to work with a therapist to help process such media. “For some people, I think being able to watch a film like [“Promising Young Woman”] is probably a very powerful intervention, whereas for other people it may be very, very threatening and traumatizing,” Mellins says. And she’s right; many people feel the movie does more harm than good. I’m fortunate it worked for me.
I didn’t write this to tell anyone what to do — I haven’t done everything the experts advised and I’m still reeling.
Since January, I’ve logged on to sporadic video therapy sessions to unpack as much as I can in 45 minutes. Three months after I watched “Promising Young Woman,” I called the RAINN hotline. A counselor explained how I could report my rape with the appropriate police department. She said a RAINN advocate could be on the phone with me to go through the process or be available round-the-clock if I had questions or wanted to vent. I asked about what happens when you call the police, what happens if the person I report wants to find me and retaliate. Her answers were comforting yet terrifying. I hung up and wept. Reporting the crime looks straightforward on paper, but fills me with dread. I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to ever do it. What I can do is continue therapy, practice yoga and meditation and try to take care of myself.
What comes next will not be easy, but I’m hopeful about healing. And I have “Promising Young Woman” to thank for that.