By Michelle Cahill
“…an overwhelming number of rape claims are false.”
Looking around, I realized I wasn’t the only one who heard it. I certainly wasn’t hallucinating and I hadn’t fallen asleep. I was definitely in a nightmare — one I’d had right after I was sexually assaulted, one I continued to live in for years after. A nightmare shrouded in the pervasive belief that no one would believe me. That I would be accused of lying. That the validity of my experience, my assault, was subject to the opinions of people who knew nothing about me. But I was going to take the power back. I would do it. Stand in front of him and say, “Police officers like you are why I didn’t report my rape.”
It’s hard to know you’re making the right choices when you’re always doubting yourself. Especially on mornings when you’re getting ready for the day ahead, stepping out of the shower, wrapping yourself in a towel and looking at the briefest glimpse of your naked body. Just like that life slams you back, twelve years into the past. And with a churning stomach and a guttural surge of humiliation, you are forced to start the day feeling vulnerable and insecure. Survivors live with the after-effects of an assault for years. There is no rulebook for when the healing begins or when you’re going to start living without flashbacks and nightmares. When you won’t feel like you need to run because you hear footsteps behind you.
I was sexually assaulted when I was 21-years-old, the details aren’t important except these — my assailant was a police officer and I was at a party at his home. I chose not to report it because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I mean who would believe me over the word of a police officer?
I remember sitting in the bathtub looking at the bruises on my legs, when I finally called my mother, she dragged me to the hospital saying that she didn’t care if I pressed charges or not, I needed medical attention.
“I chose not to report it because I didn’t think that anyone would believe me. I mean who would believe me over the word of a police officer?”
At the intake counter, before I’d even gone to triage, four police officers arrived. They began yelling my name across the waiting room, and when they figured out who I was they came up behind my chair. My mother, furious, was arguing with one in particular, demanding they leave me alone. The officer behind me was swearing and calling me names. I was sobbing, and the intake specialist was apologizing. The scene was chaotic, a nightmare. The nurse kept explaining that the hospital had to call the police, it was protocol. I was dealing with so many things in that moment and not a single one of them had anything to do with me recovering from my assault. Not one person cared about what I wanted or what I needed.
I promised myself, in that moment, I would do everything I could to help survivors be heard. I promised myself I would get my power back some day. And I stayed true to my promise.
I’m beginning to wonder if trekking through a surprise, late March blizzard is worth it. I’m at a conference meant to help colleges develop strategies that will make it easier for students to report a sexual assault on campus and develop solutions to a nationwide crisis. In attendance are campus and community advocates, members of law enforcement, and a small group of students. The panels include campus Title IX coordinators, lawyers, and community advocates. The final panel of the day includes campus police and law enforcement.
A previous comment from an activist argued police officers lacked empathy for survivors of sexual assault, and that most shouldn’t be working with women. As soon as he sits down one of the officers, a Detective from suburban Chicago, leans into the microphone in an attempt to support his colleagues and their methods by saying “an overwhelming number of rape claims are false.”
I feel the blood leave my body and pool at my feet. I can only imagine the look on my face as I sit aghast at what I’d just heard. I kept shaking my head and doing my best to keep it together. Despite a flurry of comments from students and advocates that the Detective is wrong, he insists the opposite — his numbers are correct and he’s right, “at least 20% of rape claims are false.” I do my best to sit through the rest of the panel but eventually I can’t hold back my tears, or rage any longer. I need to leave.
“I’m trying to pull it together while also giving myself the room to feel. I don’t know what I want to do, but I’m not leaving. I need to confront the Detective. I need to do something.”
I’m in hallway sobbing. I remember being entrenched in this feeling of despair — an overwhelming sense of aloneness, that no one would believe me, ever. There is a pervasive culture of disbelief and, for me, the Detective and his false words embody the way survivors are silenced by suspicion. I’m also enraged someone in a position of power — someone who has the ability to change law enforcement protocol by believing what women tell officers — sat in front of a room of sexual assault advocates and survivors and said: an overwhelming number of rape claims are false.
I’m trying to pull it together while also giving myself the room to feel. I don’t know what I want to do, but I’m not leaving. I need to confront the Detective. I need to do something. I begin to recognize what I’ve held close to me: I still walk around feeling powerless; that my sexual assault twelve years ago left me without a say. This is an opportunity, I realize, and the moment is mine for the taking. I head back into the auditorium and wait. With a purpose, with my power.
I stand in the doorway behind the detective, putting my thoughts together, I want what I have to say to be effective and I want the Detective to know he’s wrong. And even if he doesn’t walk away believing, I know he’ll remember my face and how upset I am by his words. I pray he won’t simply see me as an emotional woman, but a survivor who finally has the courage to stand up for herself.
I can’t process what I want to say, so I just put my voice into God’s hands — I know giving it over is the only way I’ll be coherent. I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual, and I would like to think decades and generations of survivors are about to lift my voice as I begin to walk.
I stand behind where he’s sitting and tap him on the shoulder. He turns around startled but stands up. I shake his hand and introduce myself:
Hello, Detective. My name is Michelle Cahill and I just wanted to say that police officers like you are the reason I didn’t report my rape. I hope in the future you will remember this and it will change the way you treat survivors. Maybe you’ll start to listen to advocates instead of the boys’ club. Have a nice day.
I was shaking, but I focused on walking back to my table with a steady stride. I wanted to appear confident in what I said, and I knew that I’d been right to say it. When I got back to my table, I was immediately surrounded by the people I’d sat with all day. They were kind and encouraging, and they rubbed my back, telling me how brave I’d been. Their support meant the world to me, but all I could think of was my 21-year-old self. Alone and scared, being berated by my “friend” who drove me home after my assault. Telling me it wasn’t rape, that I was asking for it, what did I expect hanging out with the guys, drinking with the guys? All the while tears falling.
I stood up to the Detective for survivors, but I also did it for myself. The young woman who had no one to stand up for her when she was dealing with the aftereffects of her sexual assault.
I kept my promise.
Michelle Cahill is a full-time student at DePaul University in Chicago, where she also works as a writing tutor. She is a founding member of SLATE, a student leadership committee at DePaul University that advocates for survivors and works to prevent sexual and relationship violence on campus. She has also been volunteering as a medical advocate with RVA (Rape Victims Advocates) in Chicago since 2012. In her spare time she enjoys reading and relaxing with her hoard of crazy cats.