The details of those poems may be his first inkling that I know what he did.
I could write here
I May Destroy YouThe dialogue! Michaela Coel’s face; her beautiful face. Her expressions! The way she portrays friendships and drug use, and oh! When Biagio picks up the thing. Wait! I can’t tell you about that. You just have to watch it.
I also balked at my friend’s recommendation because I was putting the finishing touches on a book that said some things I didn’t want to say, not just about my trauma, but about myself. The first poem in the sequence I mentioned above is also the final poem I wrote for it, a piece titled, “my rapist once said he didn’t need anything from me.” In it, I highlight one of my biggest shames: the fact that the person who raped me was also involved with someone else, a woman who had herself been raped, and who he slept with between relationships but never dated because he didn’t think she was good enough for him. During one of our breakups, I said, “I think she’s in love with you. Don’t you think you’re hurting her?”
And yet, in the weeks before my assault, when I seesawed between letting him go and begging him to come back, sometimes I begged because of her, to spite her. I didn’t want her to get what she wanted, no matter how bad she was hurting. When my rapist answered my question by saying, “No, I’m healing her,” I wasn’t appalled, as I should have been. Instead, I told myself that I wanted to be healed too, from disastrous past relationships, from my own deep insecurities. Whatever I May Destroy You’s storyline was, I knew I would make comparisons. Is Bella terrible like me? I would ask. Is she flawed? Will her healing throw mine in stark relief for its inconsistencies? For its admissions of selfishness and harmful miscalculations? And if it did, how would I deal with that?
For all intents and purposes, Negotiations was set in stone long before my friend suggested I watch the series this summer. The poems that were in it would be in it forever—at least in the first edition—so the only changes I could make then were cosmetic: a replaced word here and there, or a semicolon instead of a period or comma. I couldn’t take anything back, and I couldn’t soften the truth of what I said, no matter how much I wanted to. I didn’t want to watch I May Destroy You because I didn’t need that kind of regret in my life.
But my fear of regret wasn’t nearly as strong as my curiosity, which got the best of me one night when I couldn’t sleep. With the covers over my head, I propped up my phone with a pillow and opened my HBO Max app. Just one episode, I told myself. But ninety minutes later, I’d devoured the first three.
I’m an empath, so watching callouts is excruciating, even when they’re justified and necessary. And when I have to do them to myself? I always feel disgusting. Un-woke. Slightly nauseous. But I had been diligent in Negotiations. I had been brave. Writing “my rapist once said he didn’t need anything from me” was the most difficult of my confessions about the ways I’d been complicit in toxic masculinity, but it was a complicity I’d left in the dust years ago. I certainly thought as much. But then, a few weeks after bingeing the first part of the series, I watched Episode 5 of I May Destroy You, aptly titled “It Just Came Up.” In it, Bella learns that, in addition to her being drugged and raped in a local bar, her newest sexual partner, Zain, is also guilty of rape under UK law because he secretly removed a condom during intercourse. In a split-second decision, Bella announces Zain’s crime to the audience at a prestigious literary summit, where her work-in-progress was slated to be performed by her best friend, Terry Pratchard. “He placated my shock, and gaslighted me with such intention that I didn’t have a second to understand the heinous crime that had occurred,” Bella says with aplomb to the confused crowd, who wasn’t even expecting to see her at the podium. Zain runs from the room as Terry films him on her phone, and before the night ends, he is a viral internet meme.
Watching this scene made me cringe, and not necessarily for Bella, who deserved all of my sympathy in the moment, if not my loyalty. In the hours before the summit, she is so shocked by the realization of Zain’s duplicity that she walks the streets of London barefoot and shaves her head before arriving late to an important meeting. I’d felt the exact same way when I realized what happened to me. Suddenly, my anxiety went through the roof and nothing that moved my body independent of my own hands and feet felt safe. I had trouble being on amusement park rides or elevators. I had trouble driving my own car.
But I wasn’t necessarily cringing for Zain either. I never liked him; he was a poor man’s Biagio (Bella’s long-distance fling), who was cuter and more interesting, even if he was tragically non-committal. What I cringed at was this: that she told. She told a room full of people who could determine her professional fate without even reading her masterpiece because she hadn’t finished it. And then I thought of my own book, with the sequence nestled in it like a ticking time bomb. It was midsummer 2020, a little less than twelve weeks before my book’s publication in October. What the fuck did I do? Why did I tell? And in so doing, why did I delve into one of my most shameful acts of anti-solidarity? And whose secret was I really telling—my rapist’s or mine?
The truth is that, when you’re a rape victim, everyone is watching you. Skeptics are looking for ways to discredit you. Fellow victims are, at times, looking for a roadmap for survival, someone who can perhaps model what it means to make it through. And sometimes, people who are suffering deeply are looking for someone to tell their story to. They ache with it, and they don’t know where else to put it, so it bursts forth at inopportune times and in unexpected places, like in your inbox.
At other times, the person watching your every move is yourself. Underneath the somewhat typical (and I’ll admit it—uninteresting) fear of being pigeonholed as a woman who writes about rape is the contradictory fear that I’m not doing any of this the right way. Like Bella, when I learned the name of the crime that happened to me, I was floored, but I called it what it was. I never consulted my rapist about it, or confronted him privately, or warned him that a book was coming. (And let me be clear: I don’t owe him the courtesy of a warning because he never gave one to me.) The details of those poems may be his first inkling that I know what he did, and though it’s true that I couldn’t care less about his feelings, that realization does feel a bit—like a story gone off the rails. What happened on our last night together wasn’t supposed to happen to us; we were sophisticated and in love and . . . That wasn’t the way things were supposed to end. But perhaps the truer admission might be that I, drunk and disoriented, wasn’t supposed to remember the way the story ended.
Except it’s not a story. It’s been my life for the better part of a decade.
One of my poetry teachers once said, “When you write your first draft, that’s inspiration. Everything that comes after that better be craft.” In other words, art should begin in its most natural state, even if that state is uncontrollable, unruly. But everything you do to the work after the first draft should be deliberate, measured, poised. I believe in that creed, and, for the most part, it governs the way I write. But I don’t always live that way. When I wrote “my rapist taught me the proper way to cook bacon” on Thanksgiving Eve, I lost track of what I was doing in the kitchen as well as on the page. I just needed to say the thing. I wasn’t thinking about the repercussions for myself or anyone else. When I went back to the draft later, testing its strength against my hypercritical eye, it stood up under scrutiny, which is exactly what I want my art to do.
But when it comes to me, the artist, I feel very differently. I don’t want to be constantly policing myself. I want to feel free to make whatever I want without trying to fit into a mold of perfection, of respectable representation, or appropriate survivorhood. There are already so many constraints placed on every other aspect of my life—as a black woman, as a person with albinism, as an illness sufferer. I want to just be, and maybe that also means that, after they’ve been combed through and revised again and again, I also want the poems to just be. I don’t want to obsess over how they’re received. And I don’t want to agonize over how they shape people’s perceptions of me.
I want to feel free to make whatever I want without trying to fit into a mold of perfection, of respectable representation, or appropriate survivorhood.
And yet, I do agonize. My grappling with how I saw Bella in the moment she tells the audience what happened to her, potentially ruining Zain’s career, made me reassess how I see myself, but I’m not writing this because I’ve resolved that struggle. It continues in sometimes contradictory ways. In another poem in the book, “Love Poem with Stockholm,” the speaker—who, in this case,is me—assaults her assailant in hopes of making him better understand her pain. I can’t tell you if writing (or publishing) it was a good decision, since revenge only multiplies suffering, but I can tell you that the poem represents the wider, unintended repercussions of sexual violence. The act that was committed in an attempt to control me made me more unpredictable, more fiercely autonomous, and more protective of my space, my time, and myself—sometimes, I fear, at the expense of others.
I would never commit the acts “Love Poem with Stockholm” describes, but recently, I did ask a few people to stop sharing with me the graphic details of their sexually abusive relationships. I don’t need to see those violent images when I close my eyes at night, but also, I’m not sure I am those people’s safest space, because they haven’t always been mine. A few of them have said deeply hurtful things to me in the past: some things about my albinism, others about my family. And while I certainly owe them my compassion and empathy, I’m not yet convinced I owe them my time, which slides into my intimacy and my vulnerability. Plus, it feels like an indulgent revision to refuse them access. I like telling them “no” because in the moment of my rape, I didn’t get the chance to refuse harm. It’s healing for me, if not for them, and the knowledge of that makes me feel as monstrous as the speaker in my poem. But I do it anyway, because that time, I couldn’t protect myself. This time, I can.
But this still isn’t the right way, I think to myself, which is what I felt when Bella made her statement before a crowded room. And perhaps what I also felt was a kind of weariness for her, of what would now be required of her, and of the impossible perfections she would now be expected to aspire to in spite of what people knew about her. And, in some cases, because of it.
There’s a frightening moment in a later episode of I May Destroy You when Bella’s publisher, Suzy Henny, who was in the audience at the summit and who has, unbeknownst to Bella, published Zain’s book under a nom de plume eerily similar to Bella’s name, asks pointedly, “Where’s your draft?” It’s a question whose callousness and brutal efficiency haunts me. (Okay, so part of the reason is that I’m working on another book!) For me, it represents how, in spite of all that happened to Bella in the preceding year, she was still expected to produce work, to render a service for others. The exhausting work of healing often pales in comparison to the work it takes to be in the world. And in spite of every version of the #metoo movement we’ve seen in the past two decades, the work never stops for survivors, and the world is not kind to us when we don’t deliver. And so many times, we are not kind to ourselves.
And yet, I still find myself asking the unkindest of questions: Is there a right way to do this? I have perfected a number of things: how to clean the apartment I love (I’ve got it down to a three-hour frenzy, four if I clean the stove), how to go grocery shopping in a pandemic, and how to make deviled eggs, but I still don’t quite know how to be a survivor. Or perhaps it’s better to say that I haven’t yet found my way, which may be more frightening because my book is out in the world, and I’ve already been asked to discuss all the poems in it, ones about racism and misogynoir, state-sanctioned violence, and yes, my rape.
And as brilliant as I like to think my book is (another attribute I can’t take full credit for—the book taught me more than I ever taught the book), it was not written by someone as outrageously talented as Michaela Coel, who was herself the subject of an internet firestorm for her interview with The Economist, in which she explained how an acknowledgement of responsibility for her own safety helped her regain a sense of power in the wake of her assault. As brilliant an actress and screenwriter as she is, she wasn’t given the grace to be messy in her own healing, or to say anything that contradicted public perceptions about how rape victims should behave. I have no idea what people will think when they read those poems. I can only hope they offer me the grace that comes with newness, with uncharted territory, with the messiness of survival. It really is a meal you make and remake for every occasion: Sometimes it turns out perfectly, and sometimes, shit goes up in flames.
Recently, a friend and I lamented about how people often treat rape like an apartment you move into that just needs a little sprucing up, maybe a little sage. “They don’t understand that, one day, someone broke into your old place and told you you had to get out right then,” said the friend. “You might have grabbed your toothbrush, maybe even a change of clothes, but for the most part, you’re completely unprepared for survival, and you can’t go back for anything because your old place has burned to the ground.” I think of the night I burned the bacon, and how the narratives of trauma can take over moments, explode them, or make some things new while others disintegrate into smoke and ash. And the smoke never clears well enough for you to decipher what is still burning, and what is safe. And healing from rape doesn’t always shed light on how to salvage what is salvageable.
I don’t know that I’ll ever figure any of this out, but I do think of the Daft Punk song, “Something About Us,” which Bella sings to Biagio on their first night together. This might indeed not be the right time, and I might not be the right one for this kind of work. And yet, I’m doing it; I’m sharing my secrets with you. I’m telling my particular truth. I don’t know if there’s a right way to do it at all. But if there is, I hope I’m somewhere in the neighborhood.
Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Poets & Writers, The Paris Review Daily, Boston Review, African American Review, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published by Tin House Books in October 2020, and was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection. Her debut novel, Nobody's Magic, is forthcoming from Grand Central in February 2022. She earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University.