Passed Notes & Poems
a feature by Kristin Garth
18 & Elavil
prescribed post-sexual assault & then
perpetually dreamlife/death — no glow,
opalescent, of arms around a thin
almost-a-virgin neck & you-don’t-know-
if-he-will-kill-you-in-this-desert strange man
you met inside a van, a camping trip
reforesting protected land. That hand
misunderstanding while you slept now rips
through lips, its mate around your neck so tight.
You’re limp & wet in places he’ll dissect,
mock, mention when he shhhs. Wet cheeks, corpse white,
as arms, round pills you swallow will beget
this coed zombie he decides to phone.
That day you flush this bottle of tombstones.
I wrote this poem about my sexual assault my freshmen year at Brigham Young University. I’ve written another poem on this incident that is published at Rising Phoenix Review. It’s entitled "Puritan U", and you can read it here.
The poem Puritan U really establishes my mental state arriving at Brigham Young University. I’d never been away from “home” before, and I didn’t want to go to a religious school that I did not believe in. Begged, pleaded – even lied to my father that I’d prayed about it (as I was told to do) and that God didn’t want me to go to Utah. It was the one time in my life my Dad ever said, “Well, then God is wrong.”
Deposited in a dorm in Utah with a truckload of my belongings, I had to figure out a way to live. The only good thing I focused on was that my abuse was now states away. I wouldn’t be beaten, touched or constantly ogled. I would, instead, have to deal with institutionalized puritanical repression and loneliness.
There wasn’t much to do to combat the former. I didn’t make the rules, and they were not negotiable. You couldn’t buy a Coke, a cup of coffee on campus. You couldn’t watch an R-rated movie in a theater in the entire town of Provo. I was a huge David Lynch Fan, and Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me was released while I was in school, and I rode a bike (though I’d never been much of a biker) to Orem, a neighboring city just to be able to watch the movie.
To combat the loneliness, I joined a variety of clubs. 18 and idealistic, I was a political science major with dreams of becoming a lawyer. I joined Amnesty International, a debating club, and I made the very dire decision to join a benign sounding organization entitled EcoResponse. EcoResponse was an environmental club composed of many political science majors like myself, the more liberal, idealistic set among the overwhelming conservative populous of Brigham Young.
Among their other activities, EcoResponse took van loads of college students out to the desert in Utah to do reforestation. My father loves to camp. Growing up, I was endlessly complaining on the occasions I was forced to camp. I love the outdoors but not sleeping on the ground in tents. I knew he’d find it so ironic that my first activity at school I voluntarily signed myself up for was not even tent sleeping but sleeping overnight in a cold desert in just sleeping bags with a bunch of strangers.
Such was the state of my loneliness.
In the van on this trip, I quickly connected and sat with three older girls, seniors, and I was a freshmen. They were confident, outgoing, accomplished and invited me to sit with them. It was the actualization of all my hopes for this trip. They were all poli sci majors and liberal, and within an hour we were laughing and joking like we were old friends. They’d introduced me to their male companion in the back of the van who they described as “a feminist,” “married with a newborn,” “an honorary girl.” We’ll call him Mitch. Mitch seemed to like me, too, but no more than the others. I felt very comfortable and safe.
So comfortable that hours into this ride, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I felt between my legs a hand. Semi-frozen, I peeked around and noticed that others were asleep, too, including Mitch. My cheeks burned with shame at my first thought that he had been touching me in my sleep. It had obviously, I thought, been an accident. We were thrown together in these cramped quarters, and here I was accusing him in my mind. I moved my body, and his hand fell away.
We reached the campsite, and everyone disembarked, sleepy. It was very late and incredibly dark and now very cold in the desert. We were told to find places to put our sleeping bags, and I chose – maybe out of an instinct deep inside not to sleep near Mitch and the girls. I put my sleeping bag by a group of strangers and got inside of it.
When I woke, it was to the sensation of a sleeping bag being dragged. I was terrified. I had no idea where I was being pulled. I couldn’t see a thing, but I knew who was pulling me. I started to cry out, but he threw himself on top of me, his hands going to my throat. Of the various physical things that had happened to me in my young life, I’d never been choked, and something about the act of it spoke to animal urges to live inside me. When he said shhhhh in my ear as his one hand left my neck to go inside my jeans, I did quiet. I truly felt I might be killed in the desert by this stranger. Everything I had been told about him was the opposite of this beast whose hands hurt me now.
He kept touching me and speaking of my body’s reactions, how wet I was as evidence for how much I wanted this. I knew that he was going to fully rape me, and when he backed off of me to take off his pants, I was horrified but not surprised. I think I disassociated a bit there in the desert at this point, because I honestly don’t know what scared him off – was my crying too loud? Did he hear something – movement from the other campers? All I know is he left me a sobbing mess in the fetal position in a sleeping bag in the desert darkness.
The rest of the camping trip was brutal. We spent the entire day doing rough manual labor, digging holes, planting trees. I did all this having had virtually no sleep, crying all the time, feeling his menacing eyes on me. I know he was worried that I would tell. I didn’t though. I wouldn’t tell until my bishop (all BYU students are assigned wards and a bishop; church attendance is mandatory) did some investigating after seeing my emotionally-wrecked affect over the next few weeks. Having been sexually assaulted in my sleep, sleep was elusive to me now. When I did sleep, I would wake up with vivid nightmares of his pale arms almost glowing in the darkness. It’s the only thing I could see in that darkness. When I closed my eyes, I saw those glowing arms all the time.
At BYU, students were encouraged to be candid about other students’ behavior, misconduct. No one was allowed to have sex before marriage in the Mormon religion. Boys weren’t allowed in the girls’ dorms. It was common for students to “help” other students come back to Heavenly Father by telling on any known sexual activity. My bishop had decided that my emotional devastation was probably the result of some consensual sexual behavior for which I felt remorse.
Eventually he found a girl I had confided to in my dorm about the incident. He asked her, “Has Kristin done something that is upsetting her?” My friend told him, “Someone did something to her.” I was called in and cajoled to tell the story. My Bishop was a counselor by profession, and when I told him the details, he guilted me with the statement that this assailant sounded to him like a child molester, his behaviors in this incident. He said he would probably do these things to his own daughter, now a baby, without an intervention. I succumbed to the pressure and named him.
What resulted from that was the following: I was told I would be going to counseling. I wasn’t opposed to the help and knew I did need it. My bishop referred me to the counseling center. The center set me up with a psychiatrist who prescribed me Elavil. I’d never taken psychiatric medication. These pills numbed me out and made me want to sleep endlessly. At first, it was a pure relief not to feel – not to be in the “hyper-vigilant state” that my doctor described I was rightfully experiencing due to the trauma. Sleep was long, easy and devoid of any painful imagery.
My life became sleep and sleepwalking. Even in this zombie-like state, I knew that it was wrong that I was not hearing anything about Mitch and what was happening to him. I was still concerned about being on campus with this man. The pills, however, made everything seem subdued, less urgent. The size of the school and the fact that he didn’t even know my last name made me feel anonymous and safe, hiding in plain sight.
Then one day, after I’d skipped class as I was now very prone to do and slept more – no longer dreaming of Mitch’s pale arms the way I used to before the medicine, the phone rang. I answered it. It was Mitch. Even in the sedation of the medicine, my whole body shook as he spoke in a rapid monologue of apologies, an invitation to dinner so that he might apologize even more for what he tried to do peppered with equivocations, that he thought I had wanted it but obviously didn’t. All I could manage to say to this animal was, “How did you get this number?” I was 18 on Elavil, numbed out, being phoned by an attacker who’d found me on a campus of 30,000 people. He said, “Your bishop gave me your number.” I hung up the phone.
I realized then the terrible situation I was in. Whatever vigilance my body was feeling was actually very necessary. My body was in a place where it was likely I was going to be repeatedly victimized by men abetted by institutions. I flushed those pills down the toilet. When I confronted my bishop, he would tell me that when he spoke to Mitch’s bishop, he was told Mitch had already confessed his sins and was very contrite. The two bishops decided, without consulting me, to not only give this man absolution but also my phone number. I eventually would leave the school altogether. It was a terrible, rotten place as I’d known deep in my soul it would be. Twenty years later, my time there still haunts me.
I wrote this poem to describe what it felt like to not only be sexually abused but to have an institution conspire in stifling, drugging and silencing me. Before I left school, I would come to find out that BYU had reported zero sexual assaults on campus. I would meet others like myself who had reported incidents to campus police, bishops (who we were instructed, at a religious school, were our first responders in situations like this). I know that psychiatric medications help many in cases just like mine. Had I been in a healthy environment, it might have helped me, too. I was however in a toxic environment, and the vigilance my body felt there was appropriate. I was in danger, and I would be until I finally did the appropriate thing to do when one finds oneself in a toxic abusive environment: leave.