Between Rocks and Hard Places
By Maribel Sanchez
Even as I raced down the shoulder of the expressway at 120 miles per hour, I could still feel him crawling over me, inside of me. I wanted it gone, wanted to douse my skin in soaps and suds, scrub him off, scrape him out; the only way to do that was to get to the police station as quickly as possible.
Every day there is an accident on the highway. Every day there is someone pulled over, arguing profusely with an officer about a ticket he doesn’t deserve. Every day, but that day. Beneath my breath, I cursed my luck. What’s that phrase? Where’s a cop when you need one?
Outside, the debris that littered the highway swept upwards, kicking the cars that I passed and the apologies that I wept remained contained, trapped against the dusty windows of my silver sedan – a belated ‘sweet sixteen’ gift from my parents.
My high school was a forty-five minute drive from my hometown. Before being gifted that used, beaten-up-but-unique-because-it’s-mine-all-mine 2004 Ford Taurus, my mode of transportation was the typical school bus. Even after receiving my license and vehicle, I would sometimes opt for the school bus route because gas was expensive and I had no means of income. I was seventeen but my parents forbade me to juggle an education and a job – the former always a priority. That day was different, however. I had concluded that I would be taking my vehicle as My Crush and I had discussed the possibility of going out afterwards – a secret from my parents that I thought I would take to the grave.
The entire ride was a blur; I couldn’t tell you how I made it home, how I knew which exits to take in my dissociated daze, but I made it in one piece. Well, a piece of a whole.
There were two females working the front desk of the police department, clad in a navy uniform and khaki pants that differed from the prominent baby blue uniform our officers wore. They were called Community Service Specialists who aided in the affairs of, well, community service. I would know because my father was one.
My fingers gripped the faux, black granite of the desk, the edge of which reached the bridge of my nose, and said as clearly as I could that I had just been raped.
Like the ocean tide, my body dispelled the burden of the word that haunted me my entire trip there, vomiting it onto the shoreline with the rest of the rubble, but just as quickly reeled me back into a sea of despair.
I said, My Dad works here. I’m his daughter.
I could hear the gears shifting in Bronze-haired Lady’s brain, heard the click when she registered names and faces, saw as her expression, which had been lined with annoyance, immediately dropped as she picked up the phone to dial a number from her memory. Her voice was hushed against the receiver, panic-stricken, brown-honey hues flickering over my frame as I lowered my heels and moved away, back towards the entrance. Against the large window, I pressed my forehead against the cool glass and watched the cars passing, fixated on counting by color. He couldn’t reach me here.
Unlike its surrounding neighbors, whose statute of limitations for sex crimes usually fall within a two to five year range, victims of sexual assault in Texas have up to ten years to file a report. This limitation becomes nonexistent, however, in cases where the defendant has had several other sex crimes under their belt or in cases where the victim is a child. Despite this window of opportunity (as some would see it) sexual assault continues to be the most underreported crime, nationally and state-wide, where, according to the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault with the University of Texas at Austin, only 18 percent of survivors report their sexual assault to local law enforcement as of 2020. Considering that percentage increased from 9.2 percent in 2015, it could be argued that amendments to Texas law have encouraged victims to come forward since. However, the negative stigma surrounding law enforcement, especially in more recent times, would disprove that theory.
In fact, it’s more likely that an individual will report their assault to local law enforcement, not to protect themselves, but to protect someone in the home or even the community as a whole. Even then, the faith in law enforcement is practically nonexistent, as most reports are cleared by exceptional means, left open, or closed without arrest. According to RAINN, out of every 1000 sexual assaults that occur within the United States, 995 of the perpetrators walk free. That means only 5 of 1000 are actually incarcerated – but for how long?
Approximately six years after my own sexual assault, a 22-year-old woman by the name of Chanel Miller would be brutally assaulted and raped beside a dumpster as she lay unconscious outside of a Stanford fraternity. Three hours later she would wake in a hospital room with needles of pine and IV’s stuck to her skin, and wrapped in bandages, the blood from her wounds brown from the small passage of time. She would endure a grueling trial, both inside of the courtroom and outside of it – put on display for the world – friends, family, strangers – to see and play judge, jury and executioner. Her rapist, Brock Turner, would be sentenced a year later to six months in county jail with a three year probation.
He was released three months later on “good behavior”.
When I envision the initial interview with law enforcement, my imagination takes me to a dark, steel-grey, twelve-by-twelve room with a metal table separating me and two officers. You know the one: a staple in every crime or detective television show where the theatrical interrogations occur as men and women in business suits watch behind a two way mirror. I know this is wrong though. I know this because some days after school I would walk to the police department and wait for my father in the lobby until the end of his shift. Sometimes, he would take me to his office and on the way he would show me parts of the building: the lunchroom, a new unit for the S.W.A.T team, an interview room. None of which remotely resembled the one from my memory.
One officer stands in the corner, arms crossed against his chest, as I relay every single bit of information that my traumatized memory can conjure to the other that sits, deadpanned, as she questions every word that falls from my lips. Her dark hair is in a bun, slick with gel or grease or mouse so that there isn’t a single hair out of place and her skin-tone matches my own, tanned from days on the field – except mine is from recess after lunch and hers is from patrolling the streets. (According to my mother I was wrong about this, too. There was no female officer, just one, lone male.)
The Officer said, some of these details are inconsistent. I need you to slow down. Let’s go over a few of them, see what will jog your memory.
I wanted to cry from frustration, exhaustion, everything. How many times would I need to repeat this story? Outside the windowless walls dusk had passed and black blanketed my small corner of the earth.
He said, there was a street sign. You gave me two different names. Which is it?
I sighed. When I spoke, my vocal cords strained against the vibration of sound and my voice came out squeaky and hoarse.
I said, it was either ‘Bridge Road’ or ‘Ridge Road’. I can’t remember, my eyesight isn’t the best.
He said, the problem is that there is a Ridge Road in McAllen and a Bridge Road in Weslaco. So you’ll need to tell me which one it is so that we can move on through the appropriate channels.
The weight of my future teetered on the balance of two, single uppercase letters. Two uppercase letters that, in the peripheral of a seventeen-year-old-aggravated-sexual-assault survivor, could be easily mistaken for either.
I said, well, I told you it happened in Weslaco so it must be Ridge Road.
His tongue clicked against his teeth.
I realized my mistake and fumbled, wait, sorry, no, Bridge – it was Bridge, that’s the one in Weslaco, right? I can’t – I can’t think.
The sound of pen scratching against paper echoed, reverberating off the walls and hitting me square in the chest, the heart in its cavity rapping quickly against its cage. I did something wrong; this would be held against me. My rapist would walk away a free man because I couldn’t remember a stupid street sign.
When The Officer looked back up at me, through long, thick lashes, he sighed. Let’s try another detail for now. You said you saw a gun. What color was it? How big? How small?
I blinked, I – I don’t know, I didn’t really see it.
So, there was no gun?
I hated the skepticism in his voice, as if it were setting the tone for upcoming interviews and court dates. He didn’t believe me, why would anyone else?
I stuttered, no, there was a gun – I just didn’t see it.
How do you know it was there, then?
I frowned, brows furrowing, because one second My Crush was talking and the next he was terrified and asked my rapist to put the gun away.
So, you didn’t see the gun – scribble, scribble – Okay, then what happened?
Anger in the form of bile rose up my throat as I continued, my rapist grabbed our phones and then told My Crush he wanted to watch us have sex or he’d fuck me himself or he’d kill us both.
More scribbles, more sighs, a glance at the hands ticking and tocking on a wristwatch, and a crack of a neck bone shifting beneath a winding breath.
One more time.
In almost every sexual assault memoir, the reader will find themselves smack dab in the middle of a police interrogation. Beginning, middle, or end, it is never easy and, for some, it is even more difficult to digest than the rape itself. Probably because we’ve associated law enforcement with “serve and protect”, the positives and negatives of its connotations intermingling so we’re left unsure whether it’s in regards to the victim or the suspect.
The time of the rape does not matter – be it midnight or 10 a.m. after a good night’s rest and a delicious cup of freshly ground coffee, even several days or weeks after the fact, anyone telling their story to law enforcement will find themselves under an immense wave of exhaustion. Reliving trauma is not easy for anyone, trying to hyperfixate on minute details while struggling to survive can be difficult, especially with the preconception that the mind protects itself from harsh reality by reshaping memory. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be immediate, gradual, eventual, but the symptoms are all the same.
During the interview, law enforcement requests the height, weight, eye color of
their perpetrator, the sights and sounds of their surroundings, the specifics, the tangible evidence that can be used to convict an individual. Things like “it hurt”, “I was a virgin”, “twisted my breasts” and “shoved his fist” are often deemed inconsequential, something meant for jurors, not officers. It seems empathy is eradicated from the case from the moment it becomes one, especially in the hands of law enforcement.
Controversially, it is a necessary evil.
Again, the percentage of rapes actually reported to law enforcement is 18 percent, which is already a significantly low number, and of those 18 percent, far fewer are likely to be false (around 2 to 10 percent). Still, some would argue, the percentage exists, and therefore the right to be skeptical during the interview with police seems warranted. Law enforcement must remain unbiased, they would add. While this is true, everyone deserves a fair and equal trial, there should be a general consensus to conduct these interviews with tact and with the victim in mind, not the suspect. After all, who was the system designed to help?
As seen in the case of Marie Adler, a woman who’s sexual assault was not believed by law enforcement, the dangerous preconceptions of how a rape victim should behave can cost the entire case. Because of these expectations of behavior, law enforcement during the interview process began interrogating Marie as a suspect, rather than someone who underwent significant trauma, like a victim. In the days shortly after her sexual assault, Marie’s every action would be scrutinized by those closest to her. They would describe her as aloof at times, commenting on her laughter or smile. At one point, when her foster mother took her to the store to have her bed sheets replaced, the same bed sheets she had been sexually assaulted on, Marie would throw a fit that she wanted to keep them. What wasn’t taken into consideration is that while trauma symptoms are similar, they vary in weight and in the way they are processed. Because of her behavior, Marie was constantly questioned by authorities, asking if she really had undergone the rape she was reporting. This revictimization by law enforcement led to her to constantly pull back and forth between pressing charges and moving forward with the case, which only led to further skepticism from those around her.
Reports like Marie’s are typically “unfounded”. This does not mean, however, that the report is false. Instead, an “unfounded” report does not meet the legal criteria necessary to be deemed “valid” to continue on as an offense report. While they are not denying that a sexual assault occurred, they are also not validating it either. Leaving reports “unfounded” can be detrimental to the relationship between victims and law enforcement and a victim’s overall mental health. Additionally, and most concerning, it leaves perpetrators roaming free.
She said, please remove your clothes and place them in this.
The nurse, olive-skinned with obsidian curls placed just below her shoulder blades and a warm but sad smile, jingled a gallon sized plastic bag with an outstretched arm. A label with my identifiers stuck onto the front, bold in black Sharpie.
My movements were robotic as I took what she offered – a thin, white medical gown, white socks to match, a plastic cup to pee in – and watched as she placed a pad of paper near my feet. I was instructed to remove my garments above it, careful to remain restrictive with my movements so that any evidence, fiber or otherwise, would fall onto it rather than around it.
It felt wrong, immodest, sinful, in a way, to be stripping myself naked in the middle of a room that wasn’t my own, for someone I did not know. It felt hypocritical. She didn’t give up much of a fight when asked to undress.
Shivers ran down my spine and my trembling fingers made it difficult to enclose the bag which now held my personal belongings. The nurse, who had been asking questions in the corner of the room, took the bag when I was done, leaving me nothing to do with my hands. Awkwardly, I snaked them around myself, using my arms as a shield from the warmth and the nightmare I was living.
Stealing another glance around the room, my eyes drifted over the examination bed, the roll of white paper lining that needed replacing – how many before me? – and the white, metal cart beside it with tubes and wooden Q-tips, long enough to reach the places he did.
I shifted, eyes fixated on the gown I wished to drape across my naked body, the gown that accentuates every curve, every thought that “yes, this was happening”.
She said, not yet, Sweetie. We need to take photos.
The palpitations of my heart began to accelerate and a wave of apologies crept up my throat, bitter on my tongue as I forced them back down. They were hot against my throat and tears formed at the corners of my eyes. My feet remained planted on the white square, eyes downcast, vision blurred as it followed the black grout of the 1-inch brown tiled floor.
The incessant clicking of the camera finally dwindled down but the tremors never ceased, only becoming more pronounced as I made my way to the examination bed where the thin paper dress had been placed, and I fumbled clumsily as I draped it over me and moved to sit atop the edge of the bed.
The nurse from before was now accompanied by another, her description however, I could not tell you, as I was too distracted by what was about to happen.
She said, okay, Sweetheart, I’m going to swab the inside of your cheeks and your gums with this, and showcased a long, thin Q-tip between two gloved fingers. Is that okay?
I must have nodded in agreement because she proceeded immediately.
She said, good job. Now I’m going to take this – another Q-tip – and just take swabs of your fingernails. Can you hold your hands out for me?
Absentmindedly, I did as I was told and she noted their length – did I bite them on the way here?
She said, you’re doing great.
There was a moment of silence, the only sound coming from the ruffling of papers and the scribbles of pen as items were labeled.
She said, okay, now here comes the more difficult part. I’m going to ask you to lie on your back, can you do that for me?
My ‘no’s” had been taken from me. The cushion of the bed was ice against my back, the thin paper doing nothing to mask it, and I winced at the contact.
She said, great job. Now just put your feet into these.
Her hands, gentle against my bare skin, never gripping, only guiding, helped my feet find the stirrups.
She said, If you need me to stop at any time, let me know.
She said, I’m just going to swab outside, on your labia, to collect any blood or semen. Comb through your hairs to see if there are any of his buried in there. Nothing is too small.
How long could I stare at fluorescent light bulbs before going blind?
She said, okay, Sweetie, I need you to relax.
She said, her tone edging on irritation, relax.
She waited for the muscles of my legs, pelvis, everything in-between, to visibly relax, reminding me that it was okay to be nervous but that it would be quick, she promised.
She said, okay, you’re going to feel a little tickle; I need to reach your cervix.
I don’t know where I went -whether it was along the burnt, yellow grass of the meadow from before, locking eyes with the girl who needed me, or if I had gone to that same black abyss in which she had escaped to – but it was the clicks of the camera that broke my reverie. How long had this taken? Seconds? Minutes? Days?
She said, in a muted tone, to her colleague, mark ‘minor bruises’ and ‘cervix trauma’.
The nurse exited the room as I stayed behind to dress in government issued clothing and said to my mother, her nose high, she wasn’t a virgin; she’s sexually active.
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs were initiated to help victims of sexual assault within diverse communities throughout the United States. Before this program was set into effect, most victims would report to local hospitals, receive basic care, and be sent home. Some, only slightly bruised, would sit in a crowded lobby for 4 to 12 hours beside people with food poisoning and headaches as they waited to be seen. Once finally ushered into a room, or a makeshift one with curtains for walls, they were poked, prodded, and probed, and done so with little proficiency.
In a documented case in 2000, a woman would be taken beneath a boardwalk to be beaten and raped. After fleeing from her captor, she would seek treatment from Coney Island Hospital, in which the evidence obtained from her, like underwear and vaginal swabs, was lost by the emergency department. Because of the hospital’s inability to conduct their examination and turn over evidence properly, the rapist would be sentenced for two to four years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted assault, a lesser charge.
With the SANE program victims have the opportunity to receive the proper care at any given time of the day and week, provided by specially trained forensic nurses. Because of their training, these nurses can not only help meet the medical needs of the victim, but their emotional needs as well. About 20 percent of victims of sexual assault are uncertain about reporting the crime when they enter the emergency department and leave with a finalized decision of not doing so.
Based on a report conducted by the Sexual Assault Resource Service of Minneapolis, Minnesota, discussing the implementation of the SANE program, 95 percent of women have felt empowered to report their sexual assault as they were able to discuss options, concerns, and other emotions with a specialized professional. For women who stand by their decision to avoid reporting, the SANE program will offer medications to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases as well as making referrals for any kind of medical care follow-ups and counseling, something lacking in the typical hospital setting.
When the unexpected knock at our front door came on a random Tuesday afternoon, I should have known. When my tired eyes, red from sleep deprivation and the constant tug from pressed palms, peeked through the venetian blinds of the window and saw a man adorned in khaki, complete with the staple cowboy hat to match, standing outside, I should have known. When I heard him address me by my full, legal name, voice firm and apathetic, as he extended a manila folder towards me, it should have registered.
Instead, I stood there dumbfounded, asking what I had done wrong.
He said, you’re being subpoenaed.
At seventeen, my only run-in with the law was an accidental warning for speeding in a school zone.
My fingers grazed the edges of the folder, pulling out the contents of which the deputy was referring to and seeing his name beside my own, sprawled out in black Courier New ink.
I said, what does that mean? Is he fighting this?
He said, no Ma’am, it just means you need to be at the courthouse on that day at that time. If you don’t, well, you might get charged with contempt, have a warrant issued, or the case could be dropped altogether. So make sure to mark your calendar and be there on time.
My heart sank to the pit of my stomach.
The last time I had seen my rapist was in the windowless office of the Sheriff’s department, hidden amongst an array of fourteen photographed men with similar builds and the same prominent scowl. Now, I would be seeing him in person.
In 1981, Alice Sebold, an 18-year-old student at Syracuse University was held at knifepoint and dragged into a tunnel of a nearby park where she would be beaten and raped among rocks and other hard places. She had a nonjury trial, meaning the judge would act as the jury, eliminating the opinions of twelve men and women. Alice, like Chanel, would also take the stand. Watch as photographs, Chanel with pine needles stuck to her skull and Alice with bruised eyes and bloody lips, would be displayed to the audience in the courtroom – to her mother, father, and siblings. Their words would get twisted by the prosecutor after they stumbled over the telling of the most important stories of their lives, the stories that dug the line in the sand of ‘guilty’ and ‘not-guilty’.
Whether in front of a jury or not, whether they have to testify or not, a rape trial can be difficult for the victim for various reasons. In fact, is not uncommon to hear of judges using anomalous verbiage in the courtroom, causing the negative connotations associated with sexual assault to be lost. In many cases, judges replace “forced vaginal penetration” to “acts of intercourse”, placing less blame on the defendant. As stated by Coates from Discourse and Society, “if we talk about sexual assault as if it were sexual intercourse or any other sexual act… then sexual assault and consexual sexual activity are in danger of becoming indistinguishable.”
That Monday morning, a dark cloud loomed above me, dispensing the sorrows it shared onto the white-painted metal of the car as it weaved through traffic, taking us towards the courthouse. My eyes followed the droplets of water as they raced one another, down, down, down the lightly tinted window, curious which would be victorious and finding the symmetry in it.
At least, that’s what it felt like. In reality, my eyes would be shielded by furrowed eyebrows, angry at the sun’s audacity for shining so brightly at eight in the morning.
It was March, which meant that all signs of winter had been eradicated by the bright buds and freshly bloomed wildflowers. Bees buzzed hungrily and butterflies fluttered merrily and the cotton-candy clouds were bright against the early morning sky.
It was March, which meant that it had been approximately six months since I had been raped.
In that time, I was told that my rapist had been sipping margaritas along the coastlines of Cancun, dancing beneath vibrant neon lights in Mexico City, and lavishing in the delicious tacos of Reynosa. When he finally crossed back into the United States, he was arrested on a warrant for aggravated sexual assault – my aggravated sexual assault – and was incarcerated until trial due to being a flight risk.
When I saw him, clad in the notorious orange jumpsuit with the metal wind chimes tying his wrists together, I hardly recognized him. Where he was once lean, chunks of muscle now clung. The same arms that had pinned me down, thin and weightless, now held force behind them.
I didn’t know him personally. The day we met, the day he raped me, I remembered large, white teeth to match a large, pink grin. I remembered a laugh, harsh and abrupt, as we joked and drove him around in hopes of finding someone who could help him remove his truck that was stuck in the levee, on the private property we had been trespassing on – his property. Now, where the line had been curved, it remained stoic and straight. I wanted to apologize.
I thought of my parents.
I’m sorry for being somewhere I knew I shouldn’t have been.
I thought of my crush.
I’m sorry for what I was wearing, it must have been inviting.
I thought of my rapist
I’m sorry for inconveniencing you.
I thought of his mother.
I’m sorry for reporting it.
There are only bits and pieces of the trial that I remember, my memory fades now as it did then, weaving in and out of the things my brain feels it needs to protect me from.
From what I do remember, it was quick.
My rapist had taken a plea deal, was found guilty, and sentenced to sixteen months in prison.
He would be released eleven months later on good behavior.
Maribel Sanchez is a creative nonfiction and fiction writer that occasionally dabbles in the art of poetry. When she’s not keeping busy with family, friends, school, and work, you can find her in the corner having an existential crisis. Her motto: “At least it will make for good writing material.”