“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
“You see my Lord. There’s nothing to convince this court that my client, the accused, is a sexual predator. He is an upstanding citizen and an astute businessman, with no previous criminal record, especially anything to do with sexual assault.”
The courtroom; chockablock with observers, was sent into a flurry of loud murmurs. In the background, a few flashes of cameras added some colours to the room. The man in the dock was facing sexual assault charges and being a highly-regarded business personality, the press was having a field-day.
Kate stared blankly at the man in the dock as endless thoughts raced through her mind. She wondered what she thought of him. She was confused. He was a monster. Albeit; still her father… the only family she had. He was staring vacuously into the courtroom ceiling, sitting reclined to the wall behind him. He was deep in thought, seemingly oblivious of what was ensuing around him and given his predicament, he couldn’t afford to not give a damn. However, she did notice a faint smile appear as his advocate spoke… the only shred of emotion he had registered in the entire trial period.
Across the room was Christine. She had her face in her palms. The contrast of emotion was eye-catching. She was dressed in a black skirt suit, and her brother was whispering in her ear, with his arm over her left shoulder. The happenings in her mind were unfathomable. She raised her head to look at the Judge. Her eyes were red, as the print of a kiss might be. She looked groggy. Then again, one could possibly have deemed it as sorrow. She had been grilled by the defence counsel repeatedly, to an extent that it had visibly impinged on her. Akin to a distressed hedgehog, she had rolled into a ball of tears. Noticeably, she had completely avoided the gaze of the man in the dock.
She turned her eyes to the defence counsel and began to think of the many reasons she hated that man. She analysed his dressing and concluded that there was no flaw. Despite the subtle compliment she had about his pinstripe suit, the episodes of the cross-examination replayed in her mind, much to her horror. He had no limits to sensitivity, and that made her hate him even more. She turned her head to Kate and was met with the warmest of smiles she had ever seen.
Kate initially knew Christine as no more than an associate at her father’s investment bank, working especially under her father. She soon grew fond of her especially since they were both suckers for shawarma. They were best friends before long and were inseparable. It was as if they had known each other a lifetime. As most would say that familiarity breeds contempt, for them, familiarity was a catalyst for affection and loyalty. It was, therefore, no surprise, when Kate noticed the bruises her friend would show up with; which Christine would often pass off as small accidents such as falling in the bathtub. She had her suspicions; and until she provoked an answer out of her, she knew she couldn’t let her friend go through this. Her friend begged her to remain silent on the matter, as she had been promised doom of all sorts by her aggressor. Still, she felt compelled to blow her whistle.
Kate looked up at the man before her dressed in a pinstripe suit. She knew she had to say something that would at least, if not liberate herself, ensure justice for Christine. She felt a sudden overwhelming heaviness, with its origin rather unexplainable. A load is usually heaviest as you near your endpoint. It was time to let go.
“That’s not true.”
The room was, for a split second, dead silent. Even the slightest of farts could be heard. The man in the dock sat upright, also startled by the outburst. Kate too appeared surprised, as she expected no one had heard her speak. All eyes and camera lenses were trained on her for the moment.
“Is there anything you wish to share with the court?” The Judge asked, looking over his moon-shaped spectacles.
She turned her face to the platform before her, and slowly, like a dream, her mind was tossed into an avalanche of thoughts. Memories she had suppressed for so many years were playing out so clearly as if they were happening before her very eyes.
Her father sets aside the magazine he was reading on the bench and walks over to her. She’s happily playing with LEGOs at their backyard garden. He looks up to the figure before her and smiles widely at the man. He returns the gesture, but not so convincingly.
She tells him that she’s making a LEGO re-make of her future house as he sits beside her. She gets no reaction, except for a forced smile. She notices something different about his demeanour but ignores it. Everyone has those types of days – the ones that feel tightly stretched by pain that they seem as if they can allow no room for hope, and she was sure he’d get over it. She knew no one else as strong as her dad. He had tried his best to fill in for her mum, who had passed away five years ago, and as clueless as he was about parenting, he made sure she was alright every day.
He raises his hand to stroke her hair. She looks up, thinking he’s going to talk to her. He doesn’t, instead, he reaches out and gently caresses her thigh. She has a really bad feeling.
“Daddy, what are you doing?”
He lifts her up and unzips her dress. It’s as if she doesn’t weigh anything. He holds the small mound of her breast in a tight grip and slowly begins to explore it with his fingers. She is startled and dumbfounded. The LEGOs she had stacked up are knocked over.
“Daddy!? I don’t understand. What are you doing? Please stop it!”
It’s like nobody has spoken at all. Her tongue feels heavy and her breathing becomes recklessly intense. She feels a tightness develop in her chest. Her body is stiff and tense, like a statuesque figure. She silently prays for him to stop. If only she had the strength to get up and run. But where to? A tear freely flows down her cheek as she watches the LEGOs she had stacked up topple and pull apart. She was a day shy of her ninth birthday.
Kate looked up to see a flood of eyelids staring at her with a whiff of anticipation. This was her cue. Her few minutes of fame, as some would call it.
“Miss, we are waiting for your response. Why do you think what the defence counsel says is untrue?”
She turned her head and stared impassively before her. Her eyes seemed fixed somewhere in the distance, pensive, as though they were about to confess secrets of the heart without speaking.
“I remember I used to think the world of my father. That man in the dock was everything I had. I learnt, through him, and believed that nothing bad existed in the world. That was when the world wasn’t so big and I could see everywhere. I existed in this little cocoon where my father was a hero and not a human. I mean, the one thing that I considered remotely close to evil was the mere thought of a doctor holding a syringe.”
She paused and smiled faintly. She still had the spotlight.
“Still, he felt obligated to introduce me to the bad side of the world. All he told me was that it was a game we were playing. But he knew I was smarter than that, and the only way he could keep me quiet was by beating me and issuing threats. It became the norm day in and day out. I was afraid to speak. I felt like he had this hold over me like he controlled me.”
The courtroom was dead silent again, akin to a stadium where a penalty is being executed at the final minute of a football match. One could imagine the thoughts racing through her mind. Was I saying too much? Have I overstepped? I’m really doing it. I’m speaking up. I certainly can’t stop now.
She looked up at her father, who for the very first time showed interest in the proceedings. She cleared her throat and continued, amidst some sniffles.
“I dreaded my life every single day. Not because of what my father was doing to me, but because I couldn’t speak up. My father became a figure who would sit in a room and you could feel it: the simmer, the sense of some unpredictable force that might, at any moment, break loose, and do something terrible. And that could stretch out even in his absence. I guess that’s the reason why I didn’t speak up even after I moved out.”
The Judge leant forward. She had him in her grip. Christine had her hand over her mouth. She didn’t know this secret. A few of the cameramen had even stepped away from their camera stands.
“I was relieved to discover that what I was going through happened more often to other girls. Maybe not exactly like my case, but I realized that sexual violence happened all around in a way that we are blind to. I found it in bits and pieces everywhere around me in the architecture of my social world. I saw it in the way men touched girls without asking. I found it in the vocabularies and comments of men when they referred to a certain girl as a ‘whore’ and even in the sexism of their voices. From then on, I swore to myself daily though, that I wouldn’t let anyone else suffer. That I would help others survive sexual violence if I got the chance. I swore to myself that girls wouldn’t be blamed for the skirts they wore that are a few inches too short. That they wouldn’t be condemned for drinking just a couple of tequila shots at a bar while the person that assaults them uses the same as an excuse to justify himself.”
Her voice was breaking. She looked up at the Judge, seemingly looking for a signal for her to stop speaking. He was reclined in his seat, with one of his arms crossed and the other stroking his chin. It was like he was watching a movie, feeling no sense of urgency to fast-forward the proceedings. If he had the power, I bet he’d have put the subtitles on. He had taken his spectacles off and his eyes were filled with concern. Her father’s face was buried deep in his palms. Tears were starting to flow freely from Kate’s eyes, but she still retained her composure. Amazing, right? In the background, a muffled cheer from a lady was heard amidst one or two claps that were met with a stern look from the Judge.
“When Christine told me that my father had sexually assaulted her, she endlessly begged me not to speak about it, and I really understood where she was coming from. Because at that moment, this whole ordeal becomes like this evil enchantment from a fairy tale, where you’re made to believe the spell can never be broken. Sometimes, I look back and wonder why I didn’t speak out in all those years. It’s only now that I realize that it wasn’t because of the threats that I received. It was the fear of unbelief. It’s because, when you are sexually assaulted by a relative, it’s terribly complicated. You feel shock, numb, and powerless, and speaking out becomes like leaving an addiction. It becomes a traumatic norm. Do you know how scary that is? No amount of me trying to explain myself would do any good because I didn’t even understand what was going on, so how could I have explained it to them? And so I kept silent. It was all I knew and all there ever was. I kept quiet and pretended nothing had happened and that nothing was wrong. But that silence was slowly killing me. I felt powerless before him but I was certainly powerful enough to stop him from hurting another person… and that’s why we are here today, isn’t it?”
She reached for her handkerchief and wiped the tears from her cheeks and blew her nose. In the background, a few more women clapped their hands before being silenced by the Judge.
“But let’s face it justice never comes easy, right? In this system where one is innocent until proven guilty, victims remain liars until proven honest. I’m not saying this so that this court can ultimately punish my father for ruining my life and Christine’s, and there could be many others. No! Because I believe you were far from doing that than the opposite. I’m saying this so that you can be educated about what sexual abuse does to a person. It instils terror. The memories of it get carved in your mind that it leaves permanent scars and you get fixed in a trance of a residual haunting. What’s worse, we get blamed and faulted for such tragedies. And when we start to speak up, we get dismissed as playing the victim, being dramatic, over-sensitive and over-emotional. We are slowly indoctrinated into believing that surviving sexual abuse is a sin, that if you survive, you have to prove it was that bad; or else, they think you instead are bad.”
She paused for a second and looked around the room, shifting her eyes from the Judge to the audience. The only thing lacking was some dramatic music in the background, just like in the movies.
In the softest voice she had in the whole of her outburst, she continued to speak. “There’s no justice in the world unless we make it for ourselves. Justice isn’t just about punishing these perpetrators; it’s surviving this whole mess that happens to us. It’s about not losing a lifetime of happiness because of one ghastly ordeal. It’s about finding yourself after being so lost in a sea of despondency even though we may never see, feel, taste, or touch life in the same manner again.”
She turned to look at the man in the dock who appeared swept with emotion.
“I want to blame you for all the worse things that have happened in my life, but I realize I won’t heal enough if I dwell on the past. I realize that surviving is about how I treat myself. I want people to know that I am a real person who exists in a real world and not a raped girl or victim. I had a life before that evening and I will continue to have a life. What happened to me twenty years ago will stay with me but if it has not killed me, it has only made me stronger. I am a real survivor because I survived, even if some days it feels like I didn’t survive at all.”
She shifted her eyes to Christine and warmly smiled at her; a much warmer smile than before. She stood up suddenly and headed out of the room.
“Have a nice day at school.”
Kate watched as her son, Eric, ran off across the school compound. He stopped to look back and wave before disappearing into the school building. She smiled as she turned her head to look back as she reversed the car. A sudden piercing sound of her phone ringing tore the prevailing silence to shreds. She searched for it, hoping the caller would be patient enough. She finally found it.
The caller was from some correctional facility.
She answered it and whispered loudly, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
“Hello, Katherine Munene? I’m sorry to inform you that your father passed away this morning. The prison officers found him dangling from a rope in his cell. He named you as his next of kin. I was wondering….”
She never heard the rest of the words.
First published in ‘My Name is Sorrow: An Anthology of Poetry, Nonfiction and Fiction on Sexual and Physical Violence’ by the Creative Writers’ Club – Kongo.
I wrote this story, back in June, amidst school project deadlines. That tells you how much I got my priorities straightened out, yes? But anyway, I never thought it would go as far as being published because, in my mind, I was just writing something I would post here. I guess God had other plans.
So prudentially, gratitude is a must! First to God. Because in all honesty all of this would not be possible without Him.
I sincerely owe gratitude to the fine folks at CWC Kongo for providing such an opportunity to African writers and poets alike as part of an initiative towards allowing victims to tell their stories and hopefully heal in the process. I’m utterly grateful to them, for their commitment towards making this anthology a reality. It would be an understatement to say that I’m proud to be part of their inaugural Anthology on ‘The Survivor Stories’. Let me just say that the Anthology contains many other stories, as well as poems, created by a bunch of awesome writers. I’m in awe of the raw talent that some people have.
Also, it would be unfair of me not to appreciate Shelmith Wangari, both for her contribution and encouragement, because she was crazy (sorry…diligent) enough to push me to try submitting a story for this anthology.
This is the second storied post, part of a trilogy series based on sexual and domestic violence, that I had started in my previous post, New Blood (If you haven’t checked it out, please do so) The next one should hopefully be in December. Hopefully!!
Hope you enjoyed this particular one.
Till next time folks.