Hey, I want to let you know this episode is about sexual violence and it includes a description of an assault. Please take care while listening.
CHLOE: Hello, my name is Chloe and I recently had a Zoom call with my rapist.
This is Death, Sex & Money. The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
ANNA SALE: Hi Chloe, it's Anna.
C: Hi, Anna.
Chloe is an artist who lives in California… we’re just going to use her first name. We spoke after she sent us a voice memo about the Zoom call she had with a man she says raped her. She talked with me from the loft space where she lives and works.
C: I split a big studio with my roommate and friend. She is a printmaker and I'm a painter.
Chloe’s paintings are muted and swirling. She does a lot of self-portraits. And she’s done several series about body image, sexual assault and loss.
C: I've used my art as a way of being able to process these things that I've been through.
Chloe was in art school at the time of her alleged assault. She was 20. We talked to the former classmate who she says raped her… but you won’t hear from him in this episode. He declined to talk to us on tape.
We're not going to use his name. And Chloe told us she didn't feel compelled to identify him here. That classmate was never charged with a crime. And because of that, Chloe says, it’s been really hard to move forward.
C: I had this huge impact from what he had done and it felt like it's like this phantom or like this ghost that was just wreaking havoc in my life. I kept feeling like, "Well, I'll write about it and I'll paint about it and then I'll have it processed and it'll be over and I can just cross that off of my to-do list." And, just, trauma doesn't work like that. It doesn't work that way at all.
AS: What time of year - when was it that your assault happened?
C: It was right around Valentine's Day. It was at a Valentine's Day party.
AS: Can I just ask you, in the words that you would use today, can you tell me what happened?
C: Yeah. That's actually a really interesting way of framing it because when it did happen I feel like I didn't have the words to describe what had happened to me. What happened is that I was at a party. My best friend invited me to her party at her apartment and I went with my other really good friend and roommate. I was at the party for several hours until it was really late at night and I got to this point with my roommate where we're sort of talking about should we walk home? It felt like walking home at 2:00 in the morning would be not safe so we decided to stay over. And in the morning I woke up to someone touching my body, fingers inside of my body and not really realizing even - you know, when you're waking up and not really realizing where you are. I didn't really know where I was or who was touching me. And when I started to shift, and then these hands shrank away, and when I really got up and looked around and I saw my rapist and just felt so disgusted. Because this person was someone I had gone to school with and he had continually creeped me out and was constantly infringing on my boundaries of space. It was this shocking thing of both hardly being able to believe what he had done and also not being completely surprised, and shortly I got up, I went to the bathroom. I came back and he was pretending to be asleep. I touched him on the shoulder. He woke up. I asked to talk to him in the hall. I confronted him and said, "If you ever touch me again -" I don't know. I think I said I'd hit him or something. I don't know.
AS: Did he acknowledge that he had touched you?
C: No. He bumbled through saying that he had gotten so drunk and so high and he didn't know what he was doing. Which I - from the moment he said that, I didn't believe him because it was just - having somebody touch you like that and then when you start to show that you're awake, having those hands shrink away so quickly, it just felt like he was hiding behind these substances because it was a convenient excuse.
AS: What did you do after you left there?
C: I was walking back with my roommate who's also a very close friend of mine. I started to say that my rapist had touched me, that I had woken up with these hands on me. My friend just didn't say anything. It's almost like he didn't hear what I had said. It's like, I knew he did. But there was just no response. It started to make me feel like maybe this isn't a big deal. And I kind of tried to just forget about it. That lasted a day.
Chloe decided to report the assault to police. She called them the week after. They sent an officer to her apartment.
C: There's this female officer. She had this very confrontational manner with me and immediately asked me why I had waited so long to report. Thinking of that now, it just is so ridiculous. A lot of people can take years to report. And so she took this report and then it was several weeks later that I was also able to meet with a detective who basically just told me that - first told me what I experienced was rape. He gave me that word. He said that this was digital penetration. This is a form of rape. This is sexual assault. I didn't know what to call it before he had said that to me. I was just saying like, "He touched me. He molested me." I didn't know that I could call it rape. That's also when he told me, "This is also a he said/she said situation and this probably isn't going to result in anything but I can call him and try to scare the hell out of him for you."
AS: Did you ask him to do that?
C: Yeah. I liked that idea. [Laughs]
AS: It's interesting to me what that must have felt like to be told both by a detective, "Here's a word for what happened to you. You really did suffer something significant," and then also to be told, "I'm not going to be able to do anything about it except make a threatening phone call."
C: Right, yeah. And I mean, I did feel comforted by him at the time. I think giving me a language, something to be able to actually describe what had happened to me, to name it, was a powerful thing for me. There's also things now where that whole situation, it's - he was telling me that before even really beginning an investigation, he was telling me that before he had even talked to my rapist, talked to my friends, talked to the people that had been there, and it had taken several weeks to even get to this point of really beginning this investigation. It just makes me go, why is it the automatic assumption of I can't do anything about this? Is it "I can't" or "I won't"?
Chloe says she also told her department head and campus security what had happened. But there wasn’t much they could do because her classmate was no longer enrolled at the school, and soon left the area completely.
Chloe felt really isolated. And even though she didn’t have a great relationship with her parents, she reached out.
C: I called my mom a couple of days after to tell her what happened and she told me that, that would teach me to go to parties. I had called my dad and he got really upset, not upset at me, but just he felt really sad about it. That's what I remember from that, but following those conversations I was then just alone in this still-new city to myself, just trying to grapple with it and feeling like my friends either didn't believe me or didn't care.
My friend who had thrown the party at the time, she at first was supportive. She was also friends with my rapist and eventually, she ended up citing with my rapist and stopped talking to me. It had put me in this head space of living in dissonance. I knew what I was going through was really painful, but the feedback I was getting from other people was that I was either lying or it wasn't a big deal, or it wasn't real.
Coming up, what happened when Chloe did find support. And then...got the chance to talk to the man she says assaulted her.
C: For so many years, I had these fantasies of confronting my rapist and cursing him out. I'm a tennis player and I remember right after it happened, I wanted to break his legs with my tennis racket [chuckles], but when I got into this call, there was this realization of my story is more than enough.
I want to tell you, the Death, Sex & Money inbox is a happening place. A couple of weeks ago, we opened it up to find an email from a listener named Charles. He’s 65 and lives in North Carolina. And he wrote to tell us that while he and his wife are good friends and co-parents, it’s been 15 years since they were sexually intimate.
He wrote, “I feel as if I don't have the kind of companionship I need at this stage in my being. And I wonder if she is going through the same thing as well.”
We included Charles’s email in our newsletter last week, and a LOT of you responded. We heard from other people in marriages without a lot of sex, from therapists with advice for how Charles can start a conversation with his wife, and from adult children... who could tell their parents’ marriages lacked direct communication and wanted more for them.
We’re going to include some of those responses in next week’s newsletter, and I wanted to give you a heads up because they’re really good. And it gives you a sense of the conversations we are having off the air all the time, in our inbox and through our weekly email newsletter.
If you’re not already a subscriber, you can sign up. Go to deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
Chloe finished art school, and eventually moved to California in her mid-twenties, where she started connecting with other sexual violence survivors through activism. And she noticed how her experience of sexual assault and what happened afterward followed a predictable pattern.
C: I was able to talk to all these other people that had also lost their best friends when their best friends sided with their rapist, who had also been victim-blamed by family members, or not supported by their schools or whatever. It was different details, but same structure which is both very depressing in a way because you see how huge the problem is, but it was also like, "Wow, I'm not alone in this."
Those private conversations really helped. And she also started speaking out publicly about what had happened to her, at her art shows, through writing, and on social media. As the Me Too movement took off… and during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings… Chloe posted about being raped by her former classmate, and used his name.
C: Naming him wasn't even - it wasn't like a vengeance thing or even I didn't have - it wasn't like even wanting him to face something exactly, but it was just saying like, "This is yours. You are the one who should be carrying this, not me." I think it was just, I didn't want to feel like I had to protect him in any way. That if I wanted to talk about my assault, I should be able to name the person that did that to me. Why do I have to hide things for him?
AS: Do you know if he was aware at that point, that you were saying he raped you?
C: I don't think so. I don't think so.
AS: Did you want him to be punished?
C: Um. Yeah. Yeah, I did. I wanted something to happen. It feels crazy to go through something so painful and have so much put on you and just seemingly nothing put on that person. It felt completely wrong and unfair for me to carry so much.
Chloe continued to occasionally write on social media about what happened to her. And last year when she put up a post, someone new saw it.
C: Hi Erik!
E: Hi, I only see a bunch of squares, are we--?
C: Do you want to see me? [Laughs]
AS: There she is.
E: There's Chloe.
C: Hi Erik!
This is Erik. Chloe started dating Erik’s son in 2019, and she quickly got close with his family, too. So close that when she and her boyfriend split up for awhile last year she stayed in touch with Erik and his wife. They even did yoga together over Zoom.
C: My boyfriend's mom said that, "Well, you two may have broken up, but we never broke up." [Laughs]
It was during that break in her relationship that Erik saw a post from Chloe go up on social media.
C: I had made this post on Facebook about seeing my rapist graduate in the arts, which was very annoying to me. And how it's frustrating to see someone just go on with their life as though nothing has happened when you have to face the consequences of their actions.
E: Right, yeah.
C: Yeah. And Erik, I know we had both texted about it and then also talked on the phone.
E: Right. It did have a very strong impression on me, even more so when you disclosed about how checked out your parents were when you reached out to them for help.
AS: Erik, I want to ask you, I think when you're in the position of someone disclosing a really deep violation to you. There are the questions for the person listening of like, how can I listen to this story? And then, is there something I can do? And I'm curious for you, when did you start to feel like there was something you needed to do to support Chloe?
E: I think it was when I heard or I learned that Chloe's mom had blamed her and that her father was unresponsive to her need for parental support. I just - it is such a foreign parental behavior to me, and I think it wasn't very hard for me to think about, "Well, how can I be there for Chloe?" I thought about how do you shame somebody to make them face what they ran away from and take responsibility for it, and given that I had his email address, I did write to him, and I told him how enraged I was in his behavior. And for some reason, I started getting all sorts of junk mail asking me to sign up for a bunch of different stuff, Publishers' Clearinghouse and a Walgreens gift card. So I just decided everything that came in asking for me to sign up, I would sign him up. But instead of signing him up for his name, I signed him up for, his name was: "Ima Rapist."
AS: Oh, my goodness.
E: I thought if he saw - I don't know how I came up with that, Anna. But for some reason, I thought this could be one way to get under his skin a little bit and encourage him to take some responsibility.
AS: Erik, I have to say, I don't know you and I only am hearing your voice but your personality from your voice sounds unflappable, thoughtful, warm. This is a surprise to hear this. [Laughter] Was it a surprise to you? Is this something do you sometimes just if it's an issue that you see very clearly as not right, that you are willing to take a stand in a way that's forceful like this?
E: Sure. I don't like it when people walk away from responsibilities or cause harm.
C: I think Erik, I definitely see that in you, of being if you see that harm doing something about it. And I think that was also combining with, I know just from your family, that there's this kind of prank - like you pull pranks.
E: Oh, with each other. [Laughs]
C: Yeah. I feel like what you did was this combination of being upset with this injustice and it was almost combining with your propensity for pranks and your sense of humor. I don't know when you told me about it, I found it very funny.
AS: Erik, when you did this, was it a secret at first? Did you tell anyone?
E: Well, I asked Chloe if she was okay that I did that.
C: It felt like what I wish my own parents, that my own dad would have done. I wish my own dad would have been so upset and angry and also just wanting justice for me to do something. But I didn't have that before. It felt like, wow, this is what I wish I had had before.
AS: Hm. It felt like backup.
After Erik didn’t get a response to the junk mail or his first email, he wrote a second email, telling Chloe’s former classmate that he needed to apologize to Chloe. And then he got an email back.
E: And he said, he'd asked me if I would put him in touch with Chloe. At that point, I thought, oh my goodness. [Laughs] I actually was really impressed that he responded. I offered to set up the call and to be on the call with them. Not to be part of the call but rather just to be there for Chloe.
C: The reason I chose to do it was just, well, maybe this, it will just help me to know something more. It just felt like, I tried all these other avenues to get closure for myself, including reporting this to the police and trying to have something done in that way and that didn't happen at all. This felt like this crafting closure for myself.
AS: Can I ask you both to just tell me what the Zoom call was like?
C: It was really surreal. I felt like I had to stop myself from launching into my Zoom pleasantries.
AS: [Laughs] Yeah.
C: I mean, I felt nervous until I just started talking and then I was able to just be present.
E: You were so eloquent. I was so proud of you, Chloe, because you stayed centered. You didn't devolve into name calling. If you were nervous, you did not come across as nervous, you were incredibly eloquent. And I was just so proud of you.
C: Thank you, Erik.
E: And I did take some notes and that's why I can remember this. [Laughter] The first thing that you said, "You really harmed me when you sexually assaulted me when I was a sophomore." You said, "I don't think you know how it affected me."
C: I told him, not only how what he did to me, assaulting me, how that violated me and how that really hurt me, but also all of the other repercussions from that, being blamed for my assault by my mom and how hurtful that was. It's not that my rapist caused my mom to do that, but it's like he started this action that had all of these ripple effects in my life.
AS: Erik, as you were listening, did you hear him take responsibility?
E: In so many words. I think he was very careful and guarded with the word choices that he was using. I think he did say something that he was sorry that he hurt you, but he didn't say I'm sorry that I raped you. So he didn't want to admit to it.
C: Yeah. He said "I'm sorry" multiple times, but he said that he didn't remember exactly what happened. Yeah, he didn't say, I'm sorry that I raped you.
E: And at one point, you said, "You were able to pretend that it didn't happen and move on with your life." And his response was equally remarkable and surprising. He said that it has. He said he has had a lot of therapy since then. And that's when he disclosed that he was assaulted as a youth, and that through therapy that he had learned, or he had come to terms, if you will, that he had hurt a lot of people. But he said that he allowed that cycle to continue.
AS: Chloe, this is a big question, and it probably has a complicated answer. But, you said that one of the objectives of wanting to name him and then talk to him was to say, I refuse to hold all of this because it's yours.
AS: Did talking to him over Zoom change that feeling for you?
C: I think it's still something that he has to hold. It's still his to be responsible for and also I just made it clear that I didn't forgive him. Because forgiveness to me, I don't believe that forgiving abusers is helpful. It doesn't help me process my trauma, it doesn't make me feel better and there are things that I think are unforgivable. But I also - a thing that I realized in talking to him and seeing him and being able to see him hear the things that I was saying and seeing it impact him, that made a difference to me. And it was something where Erik was there the entire time seeing this thing play out as well and I was able to have that reality confirmed by somebody else. It was like the opposite experience of what I had gone through when I first was assaulted. I had this person there who was there to mirror my experience. And it wasn't this perfect moment of justice, but I guess to the extent that I can have closure for this thing, it felt, okay, I don't have to think about him so much anymore. I don't have, he's not like a question mark any longer, it's like that information is actually filled in.
That’s Chloe, with Erik, her boyfriend’s dad.
When we spoke with Chloe’s former classmate, he confirmed that he got on a Zoom call with Chloe and Erik and that he apologized to Chloe. And he told us that he doesn’t remember the events of that night ten years ago. He said he has always taken Chloe’s word for what happened, and believes her.
He also confirmed that he was sexually assaulted at a young age, and said the pain of those incidents is life-altering in the worst way.
If you’ve been the victim of sexual assault, we’ve compiled some resources at our website, deathsexmoney.org, and there’s a link in our show notes.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Katie Bishop. The rest of our team includes Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Sarah Dealy. The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. I'm on Instagram @annasalepics that's P-I-C-S and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
And thanks to Olivia Coyne in Broomfield, Colorado, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Olivia and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate, or by texting “DSM” to 70101.
Chloe and her boyfriend, Erik's son, are back together after taking that break last year. And Chloe told me that reclaiming her sexuality has been another really important part of moving forward after her assault.
C: I deserve to experience my sexuality on my own terms, and I also use my artwork to express that. So in the past year or so, for example, I've been making these kind of ridiculous and silly still life paintings of all these different vibrators and dildos. [Laughs] For me, my sexuality is also very much, I think, linked to my sense of humor. I like having a levity and like a silliness with it.
I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex and Money from WNYC.
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