Entering the Mind of My Rapist: An Exercise in Extreme Empathy

Entering the Mind of My Rapist: An Exercise in Extreme Empathy

Entering the Mind of My Rapist: An Exercise in Extreme Empathy

What would it be like, I suddenly wondered, to put myself in the head of my rapist?


The essential dilemma after a date rape is also the essential dilemma before the novelist: Who’s in charge of the narrative, and what is his or her perspective?

My rape was 26 years ago, in 1988, on the eve of my graduation from college. I’ve already written about that rape here, here, and in my memoir. It’s a typical story of acquaintance rape, no more or less interesting than any other. I was advised by a college psychologist whose advice I sought in the immediate aftermath not to press charges because (a) it would be brutal, in terms of name-smearing; and because (b) it would delay my life at the exact moment it was supposed to get started. So I took no action whatsoever. This is also typical. Especially for back then, but still today. Seeking justice in a date rape will always be messy and prolonged, no matter the era, because it will always come down to a question of he said/she said. And we, as a society, are really good at blaming the victim and saying boys will be boys.

A few months ago, after reading this article in The New York Times by Ariel Kaminer, a profile of the classmate whom mattress-carrying Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz has accused of raping her—replete with an unbelievably empathic quote toward the accused by Sulkowicz’s mother as well as self-incriminating quotes by the accused student, now suing Columbia, himself—it suddenly occurred to me that, as empathic as I consider myself to be, I have never tried to stand in the shoes of my rapist. He was always the other, the transgressor, the bad guy, the demon. What would it be like, however, I suddenly wondered, to put myself in the head of my rapist?

As a novelist, it’s never been hard for me to put myself in the heads of others. I invent not only characters and their actions but also their private thoughts. Yes, sometimes these characters are based a little bit on him, her, or you, and all of them, especially the pathetic and needy ones, bear some stamp of me. But most of the time my characters are made-up people who, over the course of writing the novel, become as real to me as my own friends, whose minds I’ve also been known, with often frightening clarity, to read.

Attempting the same empathy with my rapist seemed suddenly imperative after reading that article: a psychologically useful exercise in processing the still noticeable weight of that long-ago night.

She said: We met at a graduation party. I was drinking but not drunk. I was on crutches, in pain from a sprained ankle, wanting to go home and ice it but also wanting to prolong the last night of college. I was chatting with him, flirting a bit, sure. He was handsome and interested in my photography thesis, “Shooting Back.” Really interested. He said he was upset that he’d missed seeing it when it was exhibited in the Carpenter Center. I was flattered he’d even heard about my work. I thought to myself, Huh, that’s too bad. He seems like a nice guy. Why didn’t I meet him until tonight? Oh, well. Next life.

He said*: I saw her across the room and just went up to her. “What happened to your foot?” I said. Perfectly reasonable, since she was on crutches. She said: “I ate some mushrooms and thought I could fly.” Then she shook her head and rolled her eyes in self-condemnation. I laughed. There was definitely an instant connection, a spark, whatever you want to call it.

She said: Yeah, there was definitely a spark. No question.

He said: I immediately started asking her questions about her photography thesis, which a friend had told me about. The images were of men in areas dangerous to women. My friend had told me that she’d gone into those neighborhoods specifically, as a dare to herself, after dealing with a bunch of assaults and muggings.

She said: I explained the rules of the game: whenever a stranger came on to me in the street, I’d turn the tables on him and say, “No, thanks, I don’t want to fuck you, but I do want to shoot your photograph.” Then I’d shoot him up close with a wide-angle, 28 mm lens, inches from his face, so that it would come out distorted.

He said: I asked her why. She said she wanted to turn her hunters into prey, to change the power dynamic of the interaction and therefore of the dialectic. Or something like that. Badass, right? I told her so. She blushed. From that moment, I knew we’d end up in bed.

She said: I was really tired. It had been a long week of final exams and parties. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” I said, “but I have to go home now. My ankle’s killing me. What time do we have to get up tomorrow for graduation, like 6, right? That’s nuts.” I turned to leave, and he said, “No wait. You can’t walk home on crutches. That’s nuts.”

He said: She was on crutches. And I had a car. It was the gallant thing to do plus it would give us the chance to be alone. Win win. “I’ll drive you,” I said. I tried to look as sober as possible. I wanted her to get in that car with me. It was the night before graduation. Everyone was getting some, even those who never got any. The sexual tension at that party was intense. She knew that. I knew that. People were pairing up on the couches all around us. Everyone was jockeying for a last-night-before-reality-hits roll in the hay.

She said: He offered to drive me home. I was in a lot of pain at that point. Not just physical, psychic. The last night of college: what a melancholy thing. What would become of us? He seemed a little tipsy, but I overlooked this for the sake of expediency. I wanted to get home. And it was nuts for me to walk there. Was I lonely? Sure. Yes. Probably. Who knows? I’d just broken up with my boyfriend and was feeling adrift. It’s actually hard to recall my exact feelings before in light of what came after. “Sure,” I said, in response to his offer. “That would be great.”

He said: We got in the car. I had the new Tracy Chapman album on cassette, so I put it on. The girls were going mad for that album, especially “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution.” Everything was going great. The world was spinning a bit, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. I’d driven much more drunk before.

She said: Once we were in the car, he suddenly seemed a bit drunker than I’d assumed. Thank God we’re only a mile away, I thought. As a distraction, I sang along to that new Tracy Chapman song. It was so good. But I’d never be able to hear it again without associating it with rape.

He said: Fate was kind to us. There was a parking spot directly in front of her apartment. Before I parked the car, I said, “Hey, would you mind if I came in to see your thesis? I’d really like to see it.” She knew exactly what that meant. I might as well have said, “Let me come upstairs to see your etchings.”

She said: I was flattered he was interested in my work but a little wary. Plus it was already after midnight, and we had to be up by 6 am. I hate not getting enough sleep. “Okay,” I said. “Five minutes.” I meant it.

He said: She showed me the photos on her bed, for heaven’s sake. If she’d wanted to keep it G-rated, she would have shown them to me in the living room.

She said: The box of photos in my bedroom was large and heavy. I said, “Let’s take it in the living room,” and he said, “Nah, let’s just look at them right here.” I couldn’t carry them by myself and still use the crutches, so I said, “Okay, fine.” I was too tired to argue. When we got to the photo of the flasher, he said, “I bet you liked it when that guy did that.” What? Was he joking? I couldn’t tell. The only thing I could tell was that, in the harsh light of my room, I could finally see how drunk he was.

He said: The photos, let’s be honest, were sexually charged. One man had a tattoo of the word “sex” exposed. Others were leering at the camera. I know it was supposed to have been this intellectual table-turning thing she did, but the sex was there, right in the image, and she knew it. She probably got off on it on some level. In fact, I’m sure she did.

She said: He took the box of photos, practically threw them on the floor, and pushed me down on the bed. He was strong. I had a bum foot. He was determined. I was blasé. I was both surprised by this turn of events and not. I kissed him back, more out of inertia and curiosity than anything else.

He said: She was totally into it. I could tell.

She said: He started getting too aggressive. Biting me instead of kissing. His mouth tasted sour, of gin. The situation, too, turned sour, from one second to the next. From okay-why-not to no. Just NO! “Stop,” I said. “No. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m tired. This is making me really uncomfortable. I want you to go home. Now.” I was very clear: enough. That’s when he ripped open my blouse.

He said: She did the usual thing that all girls do, saying no when they mean yes, but it’s not like she was fighting me off or kicking me in the groin or anything. She was just playing the normal role. I got her blouse open somehow, then her jeans, and we got down to business.

She said: I couldn’t fight him. My bum leg was pinned under him. I was in a lot of pain. “No!” I kept saying. “Please stop! Please leave!” But my roommate’s mother was in the other bedroom sleeping. I didn’t want to wake her up. I know this sounds crazy, but that’s what I was thinking, at the moment of penetration. If I screamed too loud, I’d wake her up, and she’d come running in and see this shameful thing that was happening. The whole thing was over before I’d even had time to process it. Afterwards, he passed out, drunk. I tried to wake him up, but he wouldn’t budge. He didn’t even use a condom. Thank God I was on the pill, but still. It was at the height of the AIDS epidemic. What was he thinking? I took a shower. I had to rid myself of him. Immediately. I could barely stand. My foot was throbbing. My soul hurt worse. I felt filthy and pummeled. I spent the rest of the night rocking back and forth on the floor of my room, crying.

He said: We had sex. Whatever. It was fine. Nothing memorable. She must have just been really tired. The next morning, I woke up in her bed. If I’d raped her, wouldn’t she have kicked me out? I mean, come on.

She said: I hated that he was passed out in my bed. And I hated him. But I couldn’t move him. He was dead weight. And he wouldn’t wake up, no matter how hard I tried. After awhile, I just gave up.

He said: When I woke up, she was sitting on the floor, staring out the window and kind of rocking, like an autistic kid. She looked really tired, as if she’d been up all night. It was a weird day, definitely. I mean, our entire childhoods had been leading up until this moment, and now what, right? Everything was a bit topsy-turvy. I knew she was moving to Paris in September, but I figured, what the hell. We had fun. Maybe we could find one another again during the summer. I wrote my number on a Post-It note and put it on her computer screen. “Give me a call sometime,” I said.

She said: When he wrote his parents’ phone number on the Post-It note, I couldn’t even speak. Did he not realize what had just happened between us? Was he that stupid?

He said: She just stared at me, as if she were possessed. She didn’t even have the courtesy to answer. She could have been high for all I knew. Whatever, chicks are weird. I had to go find my cap and gown.

The author on the morning of her graduation, Cambridge, MA, 1988 (Deborah Copaken)

It’s hard not to wonder now, from my perch of more than a quarter-century later, staring at the pinched look on my face in the photos from that rainy graduation morning, why there hadn’t been a third option besides either pressing charges or doing nothing, neither of which felt like an appropriate reaction to what had happened to me in that bed. What if there had been a way for me to report the date rape to the administration, to define that crossing of boundaries in front of my rapist and a panel of well-trained adults, and to express, in a safe forum, my extreme disgust with his actions in such a way that my rapist would have been forced to at least listen to and ponder the hurt he’d caused, followed by sensitivity training and reeducation?

What if, better yet, he’d been given that training in high school? Or even in middle school, just as he was hitting puberty? Would I have been raped in the first place?

Two years before my date rape, a stranger had broken into my dorm room, where I was typing a Shakespeare paper alone. He threatened to rape me. He was so drunk or high or both, who knows, I was able to think on my feet and trick him. “I’ve already called the police,” I lied, when he entered my bedroom and locked the door behind him. “I saw you in the alleyway”—this was true, I had seen him from my bedroom window—“and immediately called them. They’re on their way.”

He cursed me and fled.

An hour later, after actually having notified the police of the break-in and threats, I received a call telling me a man fitting my description had been arrested. He’d been caught shoplifting from the Urban Outfitters in Harvard Square. I was escorted down to the police station to identify him. I then hired a lawyer and went to court to be a witness during his trial. Make no mistake: I wanted him to go to jail for what he did to me—breaking into my room, traumatizing me like that—but because no rape had occurred, just a thwarted attempt via the locked bedroom door, he was released on personal recognizance and never even showed up in court.

On the other hand—this is an important distinction—I did not want my date rapist to go to jail for what had happened between us. Even though, unlike the thwarted attempt by a stranger, this one was consummated. I didn’t even want him not to graduate. I wanted to confront him in a safe place in front of others. I wanted him to understand that what he did to me—penetration against my will—was wrong, really wrong! I wanted him to express remorse for having crossed a moral and legal line, so that if and when he ever raised a son, he could teach him not to cross it.

I wanted, in short, an apology.

Am I delusional? Is this line of thinking the product of too much empathy and not enough rage? Maybe. But I don’t think so. No matter how my rapist (and I will always call him that, “my rapist”) told the story of what happened that night before graduation, the fact that one of us experienced it as a rape should have been enough to force an immediate discussion in which proving guilt, beyond a shadow of a doubt and at the expense of my reputation—a second rape, if you will—was not the goal. In fact, our goal should have been to explore that shadow, that doubt, and to bring it into the light in a safe forum, where it could be better inspected, because therein lay the bridge to the gap between “he said” and “she said.”

When she was alive, the late Deborah Levi, one of my childhood friends, a lawyer who succumbed to breast cancer too young, wrote and thought extensively about the role of apology in mediation. What if we applied Levi’s theories about the power of apology to the aftermath of a date rape? I’m not saying this is the answer to the thorny question of how to prosecute acquaintance rape on campus, particularly when GHB or other date rape drugs, premeditation, or a whole gang of young men are involved. Those types of acquaintance rape must be prosecuted in the same manner and with the same severity of punishment as stranger rape.

I am saying, however, that “date rape” is a rather large umbrella, and in the often divergent narratives of the kind of date rape that specifically begins with a consensual kiss and ends with penetration against the penetrated’s will, apology might be an avenue worth exploring. At the very least, I have to believe that seeking and receiving a formal apology from my rapist would have offered enough closure on that night that I would not still be writing about it or hauling around my own psychic mattress 26 years later.

In a recent 2014 study, “Campus Sexual Misconduct: Restorative Justice Approaches to Enhance Compliance with Title IX Guidance,” authors Mary Koss, Jay Wilgus, and Kaaren Williamsen propose various well-constructed models for restorative justice—a k a “RJ”—in the handling of campus date rapes that I hope are at least being thoroughly read by university officials if not carefully and respectfully implemented as policy. It’s an excellent paper with excellent ideas. And it offers that elusive “third option” I was denied, post-rape, on that sad and painful morning of my college graduation.

I’ve heard through mutual friends, though I cannot confirm this, that my rapist, soon after graduating college, entered a 12-step program and has been sober ever since. Step 9 of those steps involves making amends to all the people whom the addict has harmed as a result of his addictions. The fact that I’m still waiting for my amends from this man speaks volumes: He still has no idea that what he did to me that night was wrong.

*All of the he said’s are obviously imagined.


Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy