It was a tepid autumn evening in the West Village as my platform heels stepped over cracks in the sidewalk, my body hugging its east side as the street parted like lips into Waverly and Christopher.
I was making my daily single city block commute from the 1/9 subway where 7th Avenue went South, then later called itself Varick. Fiona Apple’s Tidal piped through black headphones I wore like a headband attached to a purple Sony Discman buried in my messenger bag. Her heavy piano chords and moody musings synched with my steps as I ascended the five flights to apartment 15, inserted a key into the front door, and froze when I felt metal on my throat and heard another, darker voice spit in my ear, don’t yell or I’ll cut your throat.
You’ll remember me, like a melody
Yeah, I’ll haunt the world inside you
The metal blade followed us into my home; its owner held me ever so closely, clipping the heels of my feet in a delirious waltz. Throw your keys into the hallway… and don’t scream, bitch. I’ll kill you.
So I stretch myself across, like a bridge
And I pull you to the edge
Thinking it was a robbery, I spilled quarters and nickels from my wallet onto the kitchen countertop as he systematically severed every electrical wire in my home. Fiona knew what was happening before I did. The earphone wire broke free as my bag dropped to the floor. I watched her spin out across the floor and land underneath a round distressed table. Take off your clothes. My world went silent and dark.
And all my armour falling down, in a pile at my feet.
I was a recent college graduate working in the music industry the night that I was raped. After hours of tearing out my insides, he left me tied up on my knees, my face pressed into my roommate’s naked mattress, only when he was certain that he had extracted every molecule of the person that I used to be. I sat on the ground as a swarm of men and women in blue uniforms dusted for fingerprints and stretched yellow tape across the front door. My home was now a crime scene, everything I owned was evidence. I watched the light go out on the bright, outgoing, creative 22 year old and a ghostlike shadow take her place. As a female detective held her hand over my head, I ducked into the back of the police car that drove me to the hospital and said goodnight to my home, my hopes, myself. I felt nothing except a buzzing from the nerve damage sustained in my right hand that opened doors and held forks and wrote stories. I would soon stop doing all three of these things.
Tidal was released on July 23, 1996. I highlighted the Rolling Stone review and promptly bought the stark white disk at Tower Records on Broadway, across the street from the building where I had taken all of my photography classes at NYU, majoring in the art of seeing things and watching them develop. That summer and fall, Fiona was on permanent rotation as I ingested her unapologetic words on love, loss, and confusion tethered by a thick layer of sticky, complicated angst that coated her songs like molasses, a kind of adherent you couldn’t help but get stuck in.
The more I listened to her unresolved thoughts on coming of age, sexuality, and broken promises, the more I believed that it was okay to be not okay. And while I could have believed that Fiona abandoned me the night of November 18th, I was relieved that she had escaped him. This time. I knew that she too had been raped, and was diagnosed with depression at a young age. After the rape, I could barely walk a city block without thinking I was going to die. Her songs were neither an anthem nor a call for me to acquiesce, but an anchor to hold on to while drowning from the weight of a pager ringing every time I was summoned for another lineup, the countless nights I unconsciously rolled out of bed and woke up on the floor, the countless mornings trying to separate myself from the earth when there had been no sleep at all.
Fiona was interviewed in the New York Times a few days after I looked at the last line of faces behind bulletproof glass, when my detective told me that the case had gone cold. She confirmed that the song “Sullen Girl” was about being raped at age 12, but in same breath, she declared that she didn’t want to be a poster girl for rape. As an artist who used self-portraiture to regain control over the labels that inked my body — privileged, blond, thin, anorexic, bitch, apathetic, lucky, and now, rape victim — it wasn’t just Fiona’s music that divulged her complicated thoughts, but the way she raged against the media and made it abundantly clear that while people may try to define her, she was going to have the last word.
My recovery involved me becoming what Fiona Apple never wanted to be: a survivor. I am eternally grateful to the support organizations and the vast circle of survivor friends that held me, but I wasn’t healthy or educated enough about this new world I was living in to have boundaries. There is no survivor handbook for remaking your life. I had lost my home, my job, many of my friends; I was fading away at 82 pounds when I desperately needed to be seen. I let men whose names I barely knew take me out to dinner because in public, I at least pretended to eat. Alone, I starved. I went on talk shows, attended galas, read at speak-outs organized in parks and on college campuses. I needed a new identity, so I zipped myself into a hand-me-down survivor dress. The fabric chafed my skin, the boning was too tight around my chest, and a hook and eye, intended to provide some kind of closure, dangled by a thread. The dress that never fit me became my uniform.
All the while, I kept pumping Tidal into my head, finding relief from someone who seemed to understand just how unmanageable and scary my life had become. Still with the earphones, even though a close friend told me that she would never have been raped that way because she never wore headphones on the street. Still with earphones, even though friends and family thought that it was morbid and depressing for me to “sit in my sorrow.” That I was trauma-bonding with Fiona. But the music didn’t make me relive the crime, the rape itself did. I was an anorexic, blackout binge drinker with acute panic attacks and PTSD who hid under the facade of fun girl, party girl, easy girl, activist girl. I looked good on the outside and people preferred this version of me. The one who didn’t just survive, but was thriving, so the script said.
In the fall of 1999 Fiona’s follow up album, When The Pawn… was released. She wasn’t just feeling her feelings, she was seeing red and didn’t give a fuck what people thought about it. In A Mistake, she says, Do I wanna do right? Of course / But do I really wanna feel I’m forced to answer you? Hell no. We were growing up and life was even more complicated. But it was okay. What society called crazy was actually quite normal. I was going to fuck up, other people were going to fuck up, I would leave them, and they would leave me. Most importantly, I needed to heal; I was not in a state to be anyone’s idol. In being an example for others, I skipped over processing and healing and mourning the loss of who I used to be. I had survived, but I certainly didn’t feel like a survivor.
It was then that I began to realize that I needed to take care of myself before I helped others. And while I was most certainly a rape victim, it wasn’t my story, the end. I had other stories to tell. I submerged myself in Tidal again, pressing repeat on “The Child is Gone”, a song I hadn’t paid as much attention to in the past. Now it made perfect sense.
Cause there’s no kind of loving that will make this alright
I’m trying to find a place I belong…