When he raped me, he beat my name from me. When he raped me, in a dorm room at the Institution Above The Trees, he promised he would kill me.

“No,” I said, after he punched me, after he knocked me to the floor, dragged me to my bed by a fistful of my hair. “No,” and he hit me again. “No,” and he tightened his hands around my throat.

Three noes. A knocking. An unanswered call.

No, No, No rattled in my head as he tore into me and I spilled all over, and I cried, and I wanted my momma, and I hovered on the edge of unconsciousness, little bursts of light with each blow.

His body, a cannon firing into me.

Three noes, one for each of us: my rapist, the Institution, and me.

I begged to be moved from that dorm room—where my things were shattered to glass on the floor, where clumps of my chestnut hair curled in puddles of blood and piss and bile, where there was blood in the bed, and semen in the bed, the same semen I had scraped off my face and chest.

“No,” said the chair of student housing from across his big, sleek, wooden desk.

“We can’t move you,” he continued. “No one’s been convicted yet. Technically, we don’t have a reason.” He surveyed my bruises, my black eye, the purpled imprint of my rapist’s hands around my throat. Tears stung my fat, split lip. He did not offer me a tissue, but he offered to show me the door.

I spent hours trying to cover those bruises with makeup so I could escape that room, so I could walk across campus and not be stared at, not be a thing broken. It was easy to mask my black eye with heavy shadow and even easier to hide the bruises along my ribs, the tearing between my legs. But nothing could hide the darker parts, where twilight flesh deepened to midnight.

I wasn’t lucky like the Institution: I wasn’t practiced in the art of covering up.

Once, I was a child in a bed in the dark: I imagined phantoms, bears scaling cliffs of starlight, blue-moon rain falling against my window.

Once, I was still a child in a bed in the dark: I found fists worse than phantoms, no rain but my blood, my rapist’s body hard and rigid as a cliff I couldn’t surmount.


I was battered in a dorm at the Institution On The Hill with the Big Football Team. I was neither young nor a college student. There was no precedent for this story.

The man who hurt me was my husband then, and he still teaches at the Institution now.

In the apartment where we lived and worked, on the first floor of a recently remodeled dormitory, there was a walk-in closet where I used to hide while he raged. I would climb behind the suitcases stuffed into one corner. I knew he would find me, but I would hide anyway.

I wondered how the guy who sat behind the front desk just outside of our apartment—the guy who talked too much and loved Star Trek—didn’t hear my screams at night, despite the fact that I could hear his chair scraping back and forth across the floor.

After my husband was handcuffed—in the back parking lot to preserve his privacy—by men in black uniforms and taken away. After the EMTs examined my foot, swollen and blue. After I signed a form declining transport to the hospital. After everyone had left. After I limped to the kitchen to sweep up the ceramic shards from the bowl that only an hour earlier my husband had shattered against my body. After I collapsed onto the cold kitchen floor. After I laid my cheek on the tile and keened a low, hard cry.

And after he came home to me in that apartment and brought me crutches. And after I slept next to him that night. And after the assistant provost sat at our table the next morning and told us that the Institution had a zero-tolerance policy on violence and we would have to move out by the end of the week. And after I realized that I was a part of that “zero tolerance” policy. And after I looked around me and knew that everything was owned by the Institution. And after I realized that I had nowhere to go.

And after I realized that I, too, was owned by the Institution.

After all of that, there was only more after. I was only ever an after.

Silence / Silences / Silencing / Silenced.

When I was a little girl, I had a lisp, but after years of speech therapy, I now have a sibilant s.

The word “silence” is sibilant; it hisses.


Maybe it was because I couldn’t scrub off the feeling of his hands—

or maybe it was the Xanax—

or maybe it was because it only took him a week to meet me and then rape me, and I hadn’t yet made any friends—

or maybe it was because, so soon after, I let all those men fuck me, just to have their hands on me instead—

or maybe it was the early autumn snow that fell lightly over my rapist and another girl, how I watched from across the street their earnest embrace, the tenderness with which he brushed her hair from her eyes before she revealed her neck and let him kiss it—

or maybe it was how he put himself between her and the wind, but I was alone, so the cold barreled through me—

maybe that made me resolve to kill myself—

because I wanted to be gone: off to wherever lost things go.


Survey of the Damage:

One ceramic bowl shattered.

One busted foot.

One marriage over.

One fatherless son.

One homeless mother.

One career ended (hers, not his).

One yellow flier with a list of services available to victims.

One phone call to the community domestic-violence shelter.

One email from the director of residential services. She wanted her parking permit back.


Three months later, the Institution expelled him. At the hearing, they asked for photographs of my battered body, which I didn’t have, and they asked if I was drunk, which I wasn’t, and they asked why no one had heard me scream. They asked my rapist how his classes were, how all of this was affecting him. My rapist answered nicely. My rapist was an Eagle Scout.

They had us in the basement of the Institution’s most famous hall, the one on all the postcards, with the clock tower. I heard it chime while the panel worried over timelines, over what I meant when I said, “He held me down,” over how, specifically, his knees dug into my thighs while his penis burned through me. They wanted me to leave it all there, in that dark basement, hidden away from the rest of their world. They didn’t want to be tainted like me.

He brought two lawyers, and I only brought my momma.

I have a photograph of a little girl who wears my face. She sits alone at table draped in white cloth, dotted with pink party hats and plates. A birthday. Her birthday. Behind her, a whole array of purple and pink balloons kisses the living-room ceiling. Before her, a strawberried cake. I can almost taste it, the mawkishness of it. I can almost hear all those hoorahs and ahhs and awws. She is frowning because someone else has blown out all her candles.

I will never be her again, no matter how homesick I am for my own body.

Can I shed everything before and leave it behind? Is there a name for that? To never return?


I was only ever leaving. The word “leaving” implies an action, a propelling forward. I was leaving when he hit me, when he screamed at me, when he called me names. I was leaving my mind; I was leaving my body. I was leaving, but never gone.

I was leaving when my husband chased me into the street in front of the dormitory. I was leaving when I begged the resident assistant to call 911. I was leaving when the resident assistant laughed, then froze with his hand above the phone and said, “Wait, are you serious?” I was leaving when the resident assistant didn’t call 911. I was leaving when the same resident assistant took my husband’s class the following semester because everyone knew that my husband was such a great guy.

I was leaving when the assistant provost called me into her office. I was leaving when, although my husband had been suspended with pay from his nonteaching position, the Institution was trying to convince me to quit. I was leaving when I told the Institution, “You have no reason to fire me, and I am not quitting. I need this job to support my son. We live alone now.”

I was leaving when what the assistant provost seemed to perceive as strength was merely my ability to leave.

I was leaving when the assistant provost experienced what seemed to be a moment of compassion and asked me, “Is that what he did to you?” while nodding at the boot on my foot. Suddenly, I was not leaving. I was right there, and it hurt. She saw my pain, but because she didn’t want to know that pain, she turned away from me.

I stood up, and then I was leaving again.


I passed signs boasting “98% of Our University is Nonviolent!” while on my way to a sexual assault survivors group to meet with twenty other women who were raped on campus in the last year.

Hers: four men behind the science building, her face grating the asphalt, turns taken from behind. Two officers found her, they took no notes, they asked her to calm down, she was hysterical.

Hers: a rapist with a name engraved on some campus building, a rape kit that showed her lacerations, a rape kit that showed his semen, a rape kit that was thrown out prematurely, a rapist that walked.

Hers: a professor, but he was tenured.

Hers: a long walk to the police, freshly raped, dress wadded between her legs, bloodied from all that tearing. The officer asked if she was sure it wasn’t her period. “Are you sure?” he pressed. “Are you sure? Are you sure?”

Hers: a drug in a drink at a frat party, her body left between the cars in a gravel parking lot, a mandatory alcohol-education course courtesy of the Institution. The class met on Fridays; she heard the frat parties’ music through the cinder-block walls.

Once, we counted all the other rape survivors we knew. There should have been two hundred of us there, not twenty.

And at the end of the semester, the Institution reported zero assaults. They hung banners in the halls.


Maybe it was the way the first police officer—the young one—said to me, “It’s okay. People fight. Things get crazy”

or maybe it was the Ambien—

or maybe it was because the second police officer said to my husband, “Did she hit you? Because we can arrest her too,” and I knew that he was offering my husband an out—

or maybe it was because, every Friday afternoon, the assistant provost made me return to the apartment where my husband had battered me, and I knew that she was punishing me—

or maybe it was the way, at one of those meetings, the resident director slammed his hand onto the counter for emphasis, and the noise startled me into a panic—

or maybe it was the way, at every one of those meetings, I would try to leave, leave, leave, so that the other faculty members would not see my shaking—

or maybe it was because, on dark nights, I would open my computer and see on the dim, blue screen that his arrest report had been scrubbed from the campus-police website—

maybe that made me resolve to kill myself—

because I wanted to be gone: off to wherever lost things go.


Survey of the Damage:

One, two: punches to the face.

Two hands around my neck. Two gulps of air before I was under.

One jewelry box, shattered on the floor, a blushing ballerina loosed from her spring.

Two new text messages the morning after.

        8:05 a.m., from Momma: “I hope you had a good night.”

        8:09 a.m., from Momma: “I love you.”

Two nurses to conduct the rape kit.

One speculum plunged inside me.

Two letters in my mailbox: a citation for a noise violation and a bill for the damage done to the dorm room bed.


Before we moved into the dormitory, my husband and I sat in the backyard of our home and watched a lunar eclipse. The moon moved slowly, but I could track it with my eyes. My husband’s tender gaze beside mine.

I surrendered to the beauty.

I prayed.

I begged.

Save me.

I feared that it was a bad idea to move into the dormitory, but wasn’t it a worse idea not to? Maybe I would finally be safe there.

Save me.

As I was praying, the moon moved behind the earth’s shadow, and my husband reached his hand across the distance between us. His fingers grasped mine, and the darkness obliterated the light.

The moon didn’t save me, and neither did the Institution.

In the end, I was no longer leaving; I was the one who left.

[M, K]

Silence can be so loud. How to drown it out? How to quell the screams that build inside?

Speak up.

Once we were alone—in the dark / in a bed / in a closet / before an officer / before a judge / warmed only by another’s pity/ warmed by our own arms wrapped around our heads / our own arms to block out the silence / the silence / at the Institution / Above The Trees / On The Hill / with the Big Football Team.

Once our mouths were stuffed with glass and bedsheets. Once our mouths were packed up like a suitcase and zipped tight. Once, we emitted nothing but sibilance: a cry, a plea, a soft wheeze of slowing lungs.

And so silence became our second language.

Silence / Silences / Silencing / Silenced.

But we spoke, and we heard each other, and we knew we were no longer alone.

Survey of the Damage:

Two women named.

Millions still nameless.

The Institution unchanged.

Melissa Ferrone

Melissa Ferrone's nonfiction has appeared in Brevity, The Pinch, The Collagist, The Normal School, and The Colorado Review, among many others. Her work has been nominated for the 2014 AWP Intro Awards as well as the Pushcart Prize. She attended the 2015 Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference as a nonfiction contributor, and her essay "Touch" was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2015. She has work forthcoming in The Cimarron Review.

Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg is a doctoral candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. Her essays appear or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Guernica, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay, "It Will Look Like a Sunset" was included in Best American Essays 2015, and another essay was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2013. Her memoir about domestic violence will be published by HarperCollins in 2018, and she blogs about domestic violence at kellysundberg.com.

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2 Comments on “I Was Raped / I Was Battered

  1. Thank you for such a beautiful piece of writing. I probably no longer should be but am forever shocked by peoples appalling responses to sexual violence and domestic violence. So many opportunities lost to hear and see and help. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Thank you for writing your story. You are both brave and beautiful souls. Thank you for ending the silence. Herstory!

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