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Rebecca Donner: Blaming the Victim

The night a girl learned about rape culture, first hand.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Pat David.

By Rebecca Donner

The night I was raped by my uncle, I—

Wait. Raped? Did he have a knife? A gun?

The night I was raped by my uncle, he did not have a knife or a gun. I was lying next to him in a tent, asleep. I woke up when I felt his fingers in my underwear. I—

Did you scream?

The night I was raped by my uncle, he did not have a knife or a gun. I was lying next to him in a tent, asleep. I woke up when I felt his fingers in my underwear. I didn’t scream. I pretended I was still asleep and rolled away from him. I—

Why didn’t you scream?

The night I was raped by my uncle, he did not have a knife or a gun. I was lying next to him in a tent, asleep. I woke up when I felt his fingers in my underwear. I didn’t scream. I pretended I was still asleep and rolled away from him. I crossed my legs. I clenched my thighs, trying to close the space between them. I didn’t know what to do. It was my first sexual experience. It was the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade. My mother thought it would be so much fun to go camping with my uncle. I—

After I rolled away I felt his hand slip between my legs again, insistent.

Did you wear a see-through nightgown?

The night I was raped by my uncle, he did not have a knife or a gun. I was lying next to him in a tent, asleep. I woke up when I felt his fingers in my underwear. I didn’t scream. I pretended I was still asleep and rolled away from him. I crossed my legs. I clenched my thighs, trying to close the space between them. I didn’t know what to do. It was my first sexual experience. It was the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade. My mother thought it would be so much fun to go camping with my uncle. I thought it would be so much fun, too. I wore flannel pajamas. It rained that night. I remember the rat-a-tat of raindrops against the tent’s canvas. After I rolled away I felt his hand slip between my legs again, insistent. He probed my vagina with his middle finger, over and over and over. I—

I knew that if I told my family, no one would believe me. I was right. They didn’t.

Why didn’t you sit up and slap him?

The night I was raped by my uncle, he did not have a knife or a gun. I was lying next to him in a tent, asleep. I woke up when I felt his fingers in my underwear. I didn’t scream. I pretended I was still asleep and rolled away from him. I crossed my legs. I clenched my thighs, trying to close the space between them. I didn’t know what to do. It was my first sexual experience. It was the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade. My mother thought it would be so much fun to go camping with my uncle. I thought it would be so much fun, too. I wore flannel pajamas. It rained that night. I remember the rat-a-tat of raindrops against the tent’s canvas. After I rolled away I felt his hand slip between my legs again, insistent. He probed my vagina with his middle finger, over and over and over. I remember thinking that if I feigned sleep, I could pretend that what was happening to me wasn’t happening to me. He was married, the father of three children. He was beloved by my grandparents, my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins. I knew that if I told my family, no one would believe me.

I was right. They didn’t.

I was told I was not raped, not molested, not sexually abused.

I did not scream or slap my uncle. I was to blame for what my uncle had done to me. This was what my grandfather said. He equated my inaction with consent. I was a pretty teenage girl. I had “tempted” my uncle.

In the raw, early dawn, I awoke to the realization that I wasn’t safe anymore. I also discovered I couldn’t talk. No sound came out.

There was a lot of hand-wringing about what would happen to my uncle if his wife found out. He could lose custody of his three wonderful children. He could get fired from his very important job.

Victim blaming and the normalization of sexual violence against women define rape culture. “Rape culture affects every woman,” writes Rebecca Solnit. And, I learned, every girl. I didn’t know what rape culture was the night I went camping with my uncle. The next morning I had a better idea. In the raw, early dawn, I awoke to the realization that I wasn’t safe anymore. I also discovered I couldn’t talk. No sound came out. When at last I resolved to tell my mother, I still hadn’t recovered the power of speech. I shook my head, yes or no, to her questions.

Was it something that happened when we were camping? (I nodded.)

Was it something that happened in the tent? (I nodded.)

Was it something that happened with your uncle? (I nodded.)

I no longer speak to my grandfather. My relationship with other family members is irrevocably damaged. I was told to get over what happened. I was told to remain silent. And until now, I’ve kept my mouth shut like a good girl.

Rebecca Donner graduated high school when she was sixteen, and holds a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from Columbia University. Her debut novel, Sunset Terrace, drew on her experience growing up in Section 8 housing. Her graphic novel, Burnout, is a collaboration with the DC Comics artist Inaki Miranda. A Yaddo fellow and a member of the National Book Critic’s Circle, her essays and criticism have been published in The New York Times, Bookforum, and The Believer. She recently completed her third novel and sings in a band.

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2 comments for Rebecca Donner: Blaming the Victim

  1. Comment by mahmuda on June 22, 2016 at 1:45 am

    I think it was a common experience for every women. Every girls have to face this type of sexual abuse with their male relatives when they were child or teenage. Most of them can’t share this abuse incidents with their close persons even MOM, for their shyness or fear. Its the tragedy of our women-hood. Thanks Rebecca Donner.

  2. Comment by Suzanne on June 22, 2016 at 9:49 am

    Such a brave, piece Rebecca. And so powerfully written. I’m sorry this happened to you. But I’m glad you’re speaking out now. It’s important, and this way of doing it is so effective in conveying your message.

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