I Guess There’s Nothing I Can Do

When we first meet, I’m not thinking of myself as a rape survivor, but as someone with a taste for risk.

He is eleven years older than me – I’ve always thought that eleven was the funniest number, funnier than ten of anything. I’m twenty-two, young still, and he is thirty-three, more mature.

His apartment has the appearance of a flophouse created by a movie director with no imagination. Usually, he turns me onto my stomach and, while high on pills, he once punched me in the chest.

I had affection and optimism when I gifted him The Night Stalker, a book about serial murderer Richard Ramirez and the fear he spread through Los Angeles in the mid-’80s with a spree of home invasions.

He really enjoys violent films and real-life crime stories. As I watched from my parents’ window, I saw him walking off to the station, sporting a navy turtleneck and swinging the paperback in a lively manner.

I inquire of him, while we lay in his bed, if his sexual activity is “aggressive”–a term I choose since it appeared to be within the realm of the ordinary, unlike violent or perverted.

He tells me it’s not, rather, he’s just responding to the cues I’m providing. I guess this is the person I am and what I expect. I guess I will always feel anguish when it’s done.

These days it appears that it is impossible to turn on the television without encountering a female character being murdered.

Nearly every scripted show nowadays focuses on a heroic male protagonist trying to determine the perpetrator behind the complex, sexually-tinged deaths of various women.

On some occasions, the man is motivated to seek justice for the murdering of his wife, child, or mother. In other cases, he is seeking to atone for his own sins.

On rare occasions, a twist is present in which a female has to discover the identity of the murderer, and in the process, face her own demons.

Today, audiences seem to have an unending appetite for female corpses with marks of abuse and abuse-related deaths shown in an eerie blue-gray hue.

When her dearest confidante passed away, my mum swore off such programmes. “I’m already feeling bad enough,” she uttered, and it made sense. Her friend had tumbled down the stairs and been in a coma for a day before her kids stopped her life assistance. My mother was in no state to think about inert female bodies, and how suddenly losing someone can be forever.

My dad and I couldn’t help ourselves, so after the memorial service we snuck away to view The Fall.

This movie featured brunettes only, who were tied up, gagged, and strangled before their bodies were used in a sexual manner by a former Abercrombie & Fitch model (later to be in Fifty Shades of Grey). My mother was incensed: “Couldn’t you have gone one single day without it?”

From 1976-77 when David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz was on the loose in New York City, my mother had frequent dreams in which she was the one to capture him.

She fit the profile of the type of victim he was targeting (young, brunette women out on dates in the city) and thought of disguising her hair by buying a wig or bleaching it.

But instead, she dreamed she apprehended him and handed him over to the police, thereby potentially saving other women from becoming victims of his horror. Well done, Laurie!

In my first year at college, I’m still a virgin despite my liking for flashy high heels and risqué satin nighties. In my Creative Nonfiction 101 class, a senior named Joey takes notice of me and asks for my email address.

He then goes on to say, over AOL Instant Messenger, that he’d like to take me to a ball game and hold my hand. While the offer sounds nice, I’m uncertain if I’m ready to consider what it implies to hold hands with a college senior.

Joey comments on my attire in class and says he likes my “cute rabbit face” (which wasn’t the effect I was aiming for).

For our last task, we are expected to compose a five thousand-word true crime piece that includes information on the incident, those affected, the perpetrator, and the results. To begin, I searched the internet for “lady murderer.”

I have wasted many an evening down an internet black hole, researching the terrible acts done by those in positions of trust.

One of the most abhorrent tales I have come across is that of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, a young and attractive couple who jointly raped and murdered a number of teenage victims, including Karla’s sister Tammy (which I regret promoting on Twitter).

Karla, with her blonde hair, looks too much like she could be a calendar model rather than being charged with these heinous offenses. But yet, the story remains online, documented in graphic detail. Additionally, there is the story of Myra Hindley, a British woman with a bouffant hairstyle who helped her partner conceal the bodies of murdered children on Saddleworth Moor in England. Whenever I dye my hair, people tell me I look like Blondie, but it’s Hindley’s face I see when I look in the mirror. The most terrifying monster I can envision looking back at me.

In the end, I settled on the tragedy of Sylvia Likens. At the age of sixteen, Sylvia, the daughter of carnival-goers, was killed by her foster mother and group of kids in 1965.

She was subjected to starvation, physical abuse, sexual assault, and in the end, scalded in a bathtub and left to die on an unkempt mattress in a poor part of Indianapolis. It is an awful tale of children taking pleasure in acts of rape and torture. My paper about this event is despairing.

Our instructor encourages us to incorporate “strong details” into our writing, so I began my paper with this sentence: “Sylvia Marie Likens had a pleasant and freckled face with bangs that created distinctive cowlicks around her forehead.”

But soon I started to write in a hyperbolic style, like a journalist from the past who took Adderall: “[The murderer] is reported to have danced seductively and played music on her phonograph for a nearby boy, and let the strap of her dress drop down to reveal one of her white, fragile shoulders.”

Gertrude Baniszewski, who was thirty-six years old with seven of her own kids and a plethora of fosters, and no husband, had a stern and worn countenance. Additionally, she suffered from chronic bronchitis.

In my opinion, the crime was likely rooted in envy. Gertrude couldn’t keep up with the lithe teen boarder, so she took away the competition.

The reports suggest Sylvia was getting attention from the boys in the area, which may have been a source of comfort in her increasingly restricted life. However, perhaps this scared her. After months of mistreatment, “Sylvia’s body was an atlas of affliction.”

At the last critique, our professor pointed out the concept of the “map of pain.” She stated it was an ineffective metaphor, one that was often utilized by unimaginative authors just for the purpose of building suspense. If you dig deeper, it doesn’t make sense.

I was embarrassed since I had felt very proud of myself beforehand.

As Lucille, with her sharp silver bob, slowly disembowels me, Joey is busily sketching away on a piece of lined binder paper. When class comes to an end, he passes it to me.

Inscribed on it reads “map of pain” and it’s a representation of an imaginary nation, named things such as New Painston, Ouchville, and the Hurtland.

My instructor posed the inquiry, “What drove you to express this?” as they gestured to my lines of text: “The intensity of Sylvia’s account is so extreme that it can be disputed as an effective educational resource.

What rationale could someone have for disseminating this tale, other than its virtually voyeuristic appeal?… Despite deliberating over the narrative regularly, I was still at a loss to comprehend how it could culminate in such a brutal conclusion.”

The writer felt a flush of embarrassment and considered that there were certain matters that one must be aware of.

In a few years, I will once again encounter Joey outside his grad school building in the Lower East Side and invite him to my parents’ home. I will give him the opportunity to place his hands beneath my red satin baby-doll dress, and he will make noises of pleasure.

This will bother me more than being hit and more than viewing women being killed on television. I will understand it should not be this way, something is out of proportion.

I am an expert at pretending to be a corpse.

When I’m showering, I often relax by lying on the ground and allowing the water to fall upon my face; I imagine that the water is getting colder and colder until it is a raging flood by the time the police arrive.

To prove to myself that it was real, I once asked my sister to record the scene with my digital camera.

I don’t wish for death, but the female cast of SVU captivates me; the imperfections of their physical forms become insignificant when set against the cool, marble-like surface of their skin. Appearances are no longer the key, merely the raw elements of their bodies.

They remain in their state, never changing. Someone is going to remember them.

The opportunity I had to die on the screen came with a slit throat. I lay there, barely breathing, trying to make it appear like I was motionless.

Did I look believable? Did the time I spent prepping have a purpose? Could anyone see me? The crew went about their tasks, adjusting lights, moving set pieces, dusting the face of my killer, and even snacking on meatball subs. Everyone was just living their lives.

My captivation with true-crime continues and in my second year of school, I set out to re-write my Likens paper. I had envisioned it to be similar to the style of Joan Didion, with the intent to draw attention to the plight of females and their bodies. To further my understanding of the topic, I contacted John Dean, the man who wrote The Indiana Torture Slaying and who had reported on the case for the Indianapolis Star in 1965.

Natty Bumppo, now the name he goes by, is a lawyer from the state of Kentucky. He has crafted a guidebook for cribbage solitaire, and has been married five times.

He is renowned in his county and beyond for having written-in Big Bird on his presidential ballot instead of giving Reagan a second term, and he additionally backed youngsters being able to vote.

He has an imaginary assistant referred to as Hank, whom he uses when he doesn’t want to communicate with clients, and a genuine lady assistant whose plump posterior he talks about often. I was intrigued by his home-made website and extraordinary life (2005 was the peak of quirkiness), so I reached out.


Greetings Mr. Bumppo,


I am Lena Dunham, a student at Oberlin College. Last year I completed a paper on the Sylvia Marie Likens case and your book was a great assistance to me. After examining your online presence I find your life to be incredibly intriguing.


I am currently working with a college magazine that publishes long-form pieces, usually about extraordinary people. Would you be interested in participating in an interview or having an article written about you? In any case, I’m a great admirer of your work!


Best, Lena


The words of Natty Bumppo stated:




In the words of Lena Dunham,


Dear Mr. Bumppo,


I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to pick your brain. Everyone at the magazine is enthused about the article that will be featured in The Journal of Proper Thought, a new college publication.


My mates and I are students at Oberlin College in Ohio and we are thinking about taking a road trip to Kentucky during the weekend of December 16. Would you be open to me visiting your office for a brief audience? I have attached a few questions for you.


Sincerely, Lena


PS: Dear Mr. Bumppo,


I failed to proofread my last email and one query had an incorrect word. I apologize for using the word “seeked” instead.


Grammatically yours, Lena


Natty Bumppo stated:


Nice one! What would be the past form of “wreak,” like when you’re talking about “causing havoc”?


It was written by Lena Dunham that


Is it “wrought”? “Creating havoc” doesn’t sound quite correct.


Natty Bumppo composed:


You’re spot on. It rhymes with “sought”.


Remember the first words sent using Samuel B. Morse’s telegraph? They were: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?”


Has God ever caused chaos?


Absolutely. God can be likened to a terrorist.


It’ll be nearly two years before I’m in Kentucky. Before that, I experience a variety of sexual encounters, including being raped at a party. Shortly afterwards, I start dating a kind but troubled guy, who I’m in love with but cannot seem to make come.

At the same time, I’m also in love with his curly-haired best friend, who is attracted to a woman by the name of Lucy. Our friend Jeff joins us, who claims to have seen Bigfoot, and together, we drive to Kentucky for what I’ve now decided is a documentary.

We shoot the approaching Natty’s cabin like it was a scene from The Blair Witch Project, but when we arrive, he is friendly and shows us to our rooms with handmade quilts. Jadwiga, his Polish wife, speaks broken English and asks if we’re hungry, then lays out a plate of cold cuts and Wonder Bread.

For two evenings, we stayed on Natty’s land, drinking beer, shooting guns and enjoying the sound of banjos playing late into the night. I lay beside my partner in our single bed, imagining the curly-haired kid and Lucy in the nearby room, with Jeff snoring on the ground.

The sounds of Jadwiga and Natty arguing and someone else weeping could be heard. I was aching from the recoil of the firearm. I stared at the crescent moon through the open window, feeling a chill.

On the following day, Natty and I enter his office, where the walls are decorated with a vast collection of firearms and qualifications.

I assemble my faulty tripod before beginning to ask him queries concerning his vocations, spouses, and what drives him.

When we reach the subject of Sylvia Likens, I am taken aback to realize that it is what steered me here, to this room, with a person I scarcely know, for motives I cannot even clarify.

After some time, when I had become a TV star, Natty shared a paper he had written about me with me. It said that my appearance in photographs was more attractive than in real life.

The beginning of my fixation on Sylvia coincided with my lack of knowledge of Kate Millett’s work, The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice, which looked at the incident from the perspective of feminism.

I have tried to read the book multiple times but find it simpler to just read interviews with Millett about it. She is remarkable in her capacity to express the importance of the story, though I cannot say my understanding is as pure or political as hers.

The Basement is a story about the unfortunate experiences of Sylvia Likens, who is sexually abused and killed by her foster mother Gertrude.

I wished that I could have done something to help her, and I still hope that we will be able to make sure that a similar incident never takes place in the future.

Time and again, eminent figures such as Kate Milletts and Shulamith Firestones found themselves homeless and grappling with psychological issues, their legacy scarcely remaining in the discussion.

Upon the release of my first movie, I was given an elegantly packaged book by an unfamiliar woman. It was written by Maryse Holder, a bisexual, feminist academic, entitled Give Sorrow Words: Maryse Holder’s Letters from Mexico (with a forward by Millett).

The book was a compilation of Maryse’s letters sent to her best friend, who had edited and worked extensively to get it published, from her journey in Mexico in 1977.

She had gone there to discover her sexuality, but sadly was killed. Still, the book was a vivid representation of her life experiences. Maryse wrote of attaining physical strength from dancing in the nights, as well as her body becoming lean from cigarettes and coffee.

She also wrote of the various sexual encounters she had, some elaborate and some merely utilitarian. She was seeking to understand her purpose.

My best friend and I had been exchanging emails for months, making plans to meet up, until one day she sent me a message with a completely different attitude.

She told me she was a liar with no real principles, not a genuine feminist, and that she was using her newfound fame to discredit the movement.

She also said I had “cudgeled” her, implying that I had no understanding of any of this because I had not gone through it, and thus I deserved nothing.

I remove the email from my possession as I can’t help but keep reading it and I’m attempting to move forward. I hand my copy of Maryse’s book over to another person who is planning a trip to Mexico. “Do everything except get murdered,” I joke in an attempt at humor.

Around a few months later, I got an email from Millett in my inbox.


Dear Lena,


I understand that you are keen to learn more about Maryse Holder’s Give Sorrow Words. I am the author of the book’s introduction and I would love to hear your thoughts.


If you have time, could we meet for coffee and chat about how to bring the book to a new audience?


I look forward to your reply.


Kind regards,


Kate Millett


I inform her that I have gotten a very aggressive email from [redacted], so I’m not sure how much assistance I can provide. (I’m just going to have to put that in the category of things that are too short to worry about. It wasn’t a close friend of mine that got killed, thankfully.)


Dear Lena,


I agree, let’s get together. It was disheartening to be made aware of your unpleasant situation with [redacted.] It is best to look ahead…


Kate’s words about Gertrude from the aforementioned interview are still vivid in my mind. She stated, “We are failing our daughters, and Gertrude is passing on that feeling of defeat to Sylvia. She is not receiving the proper knowledge.”

In a rather subtle way, the elderly feminist was trying to get her point across to me: no matter what you say, they will never take it in. They won’t ever evolve. Don’t act as if you’re content. Brace yourself.

My friend suddenly visited me the day after I experienced the trauma of being raped.

I was tidying my room like someone on stage performing a task given to them, with an air of distraction. “Hey there,” I said, trying to break the monotony of the task.

Remaining in the doorway, he explained to me that the individual who had assaulted me was, in reality, seeing someone. “She witnessed you going away with him,” he said. “I believe she’s quite disturbed. But, their relationship is rubbish anyway.”

Terror suddenly swept through me as I thought of her surrounded by her understanding friends: “Oh no, no one can be trusted. I would have never thought that she was a problem. That is who he was sleeping with!?”

When I wake up from surgery, the first thing I notice is the uncomfortable sensation of the catheter inside me. I moan for pain relief and it is administered to me in the form of an injection into my backside, the nurse massaging the area afterwards.

The doctor then informs me that my cervix is dilated and that I’ll likely be bleeding for a few days or possibly a week. As it turns out, I’m an outlier and I bleed for a whole month.

He further explains that there was a considerable amount of endometrial scar tissue found within me, on my organs and the walls of my abdomen, but that most of it was able to be removed, some of it through my vagina.

At this point, I jokingly remark that he could have at least taken me out for dinner and a drink first.

Once I’m back at home, my partner assists me to the bathroom, where I sit for forty-five minutes, attempting but failing to urinate. I’m leaning against his leg while he checks his text messages.

I recall that right before I was put under anesthesia, the doctor raised my gown and lowered my gauze underwear, then proceeded to shave the area from my navel to the top of my vagina.

The bandages were removed after three days, unveiling the marks on my lower abdomen. They were more like openings, red and purple in color. If one had a close look, they would notice that my belly button had been cut and put back together.

Even though this was meant to be less invasive than a traditional cut (“Oh, laparoscopic? Incredible!” everyone says with enthusiasm), it seemed like a scene from a low-budget horror movie.

The marks that used to be there are gone, now indistinguishable from the minor bruises I get on a daily basis; like when I collide with a coffee table or push myself too hard in a yoga class which is too difficult for me.

Those same bruises used to come from his hands, pushing me down into the mattress.

The photograph of Sylvia Likens that appears on her Wikipedia page, which was used to accompany all the news stories about her, shows her with her head slightly cocked and a faint smile on her face.

She appears to be a little disinterested, perhaps seemingly not very intelligent if one is feeling unkind, but also stunning like the daughters we would see on Nick at Nite. Above all, though, she looks innocent and naive, unaware of the things that may be coming.

On that day, and the days to come, she will consume sodas and engage in flirting, possibly wearing a skirt slightly shorter than her usual. She will push away any boys who attempt to get physical with her before she is ready.

She will learn how to do her own hair. She will learn at her own pace, and has nothing to fear.

Sylvia’s corpse is unrecognizable in a grainy photo. Her arms are crossed over her stomach, and her hair is disheveled and covered in dirt.

Visible on her body is a crude carving that reads “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” written in the handwriting of a young child or a madman. Supposedly, when her attacker asked her what she would do, she replied “I guess there’s nothing I can do. It’s on there.”

I have faith in women and when they extend their hand to me, I will take it. When they ask for my assistance, I provide it.

How could I understand the darkness that may exist in the heart of another female? I can’t truly comprehend this without going to the “map of pain” which my professor wasn’t too fond of. Be kind, I thought. I’m a girl too.

But she wasn’t obligated to do anything for me because we are both female, was she? She didn’t even flinch when I wrote about a fifth grade teacher who attempted to make me touch his shirt.

In seventh grade, I experienced a kind of strength I had never felt before. Natalie Schimmel and I confronted Hunter Barker in the cafeteria, who had broken up with us in succession – two weeks after the other. When on our own, we were dejected, keeping the cards that had come with the flowers he’d given us for the school play and Valentine’s Day. However, when we stood together, we felt invincible.

We had faith that the heartache would gradually diminish as long as we stayed united. Ever since then, I have been striving for that same sensation. Women standing with each other, defending each other from all forms of aggression, alternating in providing security to one another.


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