My obsession with animals preexisted any trauma in my life. As a five-year-old I wrote a fully illustrated book titled Tigger Maskkir about circus animals that revolt and eat the clowns. My teachers thought I was becoming deranged but my mom explained that it had been going on since before the divorce. I interviewed neighbours about their dogs. I put my teddy bears and stuffed lions to bed every night under blankets of washcloths—I couldn’t fall asleep until they were safely arranged like Tetris pieces on the floor, covering every inch of carpet. I once stood for an hour with my face against the glass at Sea World, trying to make meaningful eye contact with a manatee.
My ritualistic obsessions are no longer limited to animals (currently, they include Diane Sawyer, The Slender Man Stabbings, and eating bacon every day for lunch). I never look for things to grab me. They just do, and once they do, the obsessions usually continue until I’m so sick of them—or of myself for enacting them—that suddenly, and with a sense of great relief, I’m repulsed.
On other occasions, it’s as if I can’t stop. Like on my 18th birthday.
The night was raucously fun—I must have stolen the karaoke microphone 11 times—but as dawn broke, my friend asked if I could please stop singing Limp Bizkit. She needed to sleep.
“Believe me, I’d love to, but I physically cannot.” I was tired, too. I’d sung “Faith” twice, but five was my number and I was halfway there.
And sometimes I worry that telling the story I’m about to tell you is a compulsion, like counting. Giving testimony under oath was supposed to bring closure. But here I am, so sick of my own voice. The urge persists.
"Playing possum" means "pretending to be dead.” The idiomatic phrase stems from behavioral traits of the Virginia opossum, which is famous for feigning death when vulnerable. —Ann Bailey Dunn, "Playing Possum." Wonderful West Virginia
This instinct can be counterproductive: for instance, opossums scavenging for roadkill may ‘play possum’ in response to the threat posed by oncoming traffic, and consequently end up as roadkill themselves. —"Virginia Opossum." Mass Audubon
It was my first day of college. After unpacking, my mother and I went to the Habitat for Humanity sale and bought a broken futon for 20 dollars. We carried it back across the quad, up a few flights of stairs and into my new common room. And then my back started hurting. Flustered by the fact of our impending separation, my equally obsessive mother became fixated on the idea of getting me a massage. A fan of free massages, I traipsed alongside her through Harvard Square, looking for options.
Every place was booked except for a store called About Hair, which offered haircuts and massages in addition to selling antiques. The store was so stuffed with secondhand items that some of them were arranged outside. A dark-haired, sullen-looking girl around my age was keeping an eye on them.
“The masseuse isn’t here today,” she told me in a thick, Slavic accent. “But—”
“I can definitely fit her in,” Duncan Purdy interrupted, ducking through the front door of his shop. He was pale and muscular and bald, like an albino snake. You could see the blue veins in his cheeks.
“Was that place creepy or artistic?” I asked Mom as we walked away after making the appointment.
“Cambridge is very artsy,” she said, sounding distracted. Travel makes her nervous.
I nodded. We were from out of town—from Wisconsin, specifically—and I was self-conscious about how my Midwesternness looked against the backdrop of Cambridge, Massachusetts. As I would later explain in my cross-examination, “I was trying very hard to be open-minded and not be sort of like a country girl, like a country bumpkin who didn’t understand the big city.”
I returned to About Hair after putting my mom in a cab to the airport. Duncan Purdy was the only person there and he led me down a short flight of stairs, past mountains of antiques, to a dark, windowless room. A stool stood next to the massage bed. There was an industrial canister of massage oil on top of it. The cap was off. “I’ll give you a second to undress,” Duncan Purdy said, giving me a hand towel.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“To cover yourself.”
At home, a family friend had often given me back rubs on a portable massage bed that she kept in her car. She and I knew each other very well, and even she covered me with a large bed sheet during massages. But as I told myself, things were different on the east coast.
Hognose snakes will often roll onto their back and play dead, going so far as to emit a foul musk and fecal matter from their cloaca and let their tongue hang out of their mouth, sometimes accompanied by small droplets of blood. If they are rolled upright while in this state, they will often roll back as if insisting they really are dead. It has been observed that the snake, while appearing to be dead, will still watch the threat that caused the death pose. The snake will 'resurrect' sooner if the threat is looking away from it than if the threat is looking at the snake.
I gave the account of what happened next so many times in preparation for what would become my sworn testimony that during the actual trial I could tell the story with no emotion whatsoever. I once admitted to the prosecutor that while I never actually questioned my version of events, I’d relayed them so many times that on good days the incident felt more like something memorized than a genuine memory.
“That’s the point of testimony,” she said gently.
But I get nervous, even after all this time—not because I can still feel his hands on my body, but because so many people questioned or cross-examined me even before the trial that I have learned to expect incredulity. Despite what we say about sexual assault being a crime of violence rather than of sex, the knee-jerk response is: If it wasn’t a home run, it doesn’t count. I had internalized that logic—and still have, at least insofar as my anxiety about sharing is concerned. Until I found out what counted legally, I didn’t know how to categorize my experience emotionally. I thought of it only in terms of his name: Duncan Purdy. In my gut it registered as a gross, sweaty thing that wouldn’t leave. I didn’t know where to place it.
So that’s the big reveal, and here’s the quick and dirty chronology: I lay face down on the table underneath the hand towel. Duncan Purdy came in fully clothed and yanked my arms behind my back until I thought my shoulders would dislocate. He tugged the towel off, flipped me onto my back, and leaned over me in a 69 position so that his crotch was in my face and his face was in my stomach. I could hardly breathe. He was tugging at my tits and working his way down to my thighs. Unlike the hognose snake [heterondon platirhinos] I didn’t shit myself or spit blood to make my lifelessness appear more real, but I did lie there frozen, with a detached sense of shock at my own paralyzed reaction. I felt his non-erect penis through his pants at one point—a fact that stuck in my craw for a while afterward as one of the grossest parts—but I never saw it. As the defense attorney said on the very last day of the trial, “It’s not quite the same as the worse of the rapes that one can envision…for instance, if he had actually, you know, thrown somebody on the ground and raped them with his penis.”
The details of which body parts he touched and in what order seem mundane and boring to me now—irrelevant on the witness stand—though I still remember the overwhelming need to tell myself, over and over, that it wasn’t bad so long as he wasn’t looking at me (and he wasn’t; he was staring at the ceiling the whole time). As he raked his rough fingers over my skin, slathering me in waxy-smelling oil, I clung to the notion that his contemplating something other than my body was polite and professional. He couldn’t see where he was putting his hands, I reasoned. I was overreacting. It wasn’t happening. He didn’t mean to.
I had made an appointment for 30 minutes but the whole thing lasted 45. When it was over he left the room and I wrapped my arms around my legs to cover my nakedness. Then I looked up and saw a mirror on the ceiling, tilted in such a way that if someone were lying naked on her back underneath it, you would be able to see clearly between her legs. He hadn’t been looking away, he had been watching from a strange remove.
It started to sink in that I was in danger. Nobody knew where I was except for my mother, who was on a plane. I looked up and there was Duncan Purdy with an industrial bucket and a sponge, blocking the doorway. I let him wash me. He cupped the sponge in his hand and shoved it inside of me multiple times. He fisted me basically, with a sponge in his hand, and I didn’t make a sound.
“Go ahead and get dressed, I’ll be upstairs,” he said finally. “I’ll be upstairs.”
I put on my skirt and tank top—an outfit I remember only because Duncan Purdy’s attorney would later ask me multiple times what I had been wearing—and met him by the cash register. In my mind, and in that moment, handing over the money my mother had given me was the last step to safety, the end-piece on a very close call. I hadn’t yet wrapped my mind around the fact that getting out alive might not be the only issue, or that paying would hurt my chances of being taken seriously in a courtroom. At that moment, my instinct was to quietly survive.
“You have a very athletic body,” he said, ringing me up. “Here’s my card. If you come back I’ll give you a discount.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling dazed as I slid his business card back across the counter. It was my only act of defiance that day. “Thank you so much.”
As soon as the sun hit my face, I laughed. My knees were shaking and oil was dripping off the tips of my hair. I called my high school ex-boyfriend and giggled uncontrollably. “Why in God’s name didn’t you leave?” he asked. Fifteen minutes later, I collapsed on the broken futon in my common room and gave one of my roommates the abbreviated version. “When I was ten, a man pulled down his bathing suit and masturbated at me,” she responded. “In my opinion, it’s best to forget about it.”
The last person I told that day was my freshman proctor, a 33-year-old man with braces who lived in the suite below ours. I pulled him aside at our dorm’s meet-and-greet said, “I think I was molested.” I wasn’t sure what to call it.
“Were your breasts touched?” he asked sternly. I blinked at him, not knowing where to start. I wandered away and found myself in the sleep aid aisle at CVS. It was light out but I wanted to be dreaming. Fifteen minutes later, I was back in my dorm room, my eyes droopy from NyQuil, spending what would be the first of countless hours Googling animal factoids. Feral hogs can grow up to eight feet long and four feet at the shoulder. An anaconda’s prey can ostensibly remain alive up until the digestion process. There were worse things out there than Duncan Purdy.