I’ll admit, I went into “Promising Young Woman” in the utterly blind way that trauma victims probably shouldn’t go into anything.
My decision to rent it was inevitable after reading rave reviews on social media from a wide cross-section of colleagues, young and older, which is perhaps why I also made the mistake of watching it with my mother. The lip-sticked, candy-colored promotions allured and deceived me exactly as director Emerald Fennell intended (just as the film’s protagonist lures unconscionable culprits). I’d imagined we were in for a rom-com.
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We collectively cringed in the opening scene, when Seth Cohen — rather, Jerry (Adam Brody — how brilliant was the casting of archetypal “nice guys” in these predatory roles?) escorted a seemingly blitzed Cassie (Carey Mulligan) out of the club.
We both held our breath, even as he redirected the cab to his place. I refused to meet my mother’s eyes.
But when he seized her with his tongue and led her limp body over to his bed, plopped atop it, that’s when my mother turned to me. “Are you OK watching this?” she said.
“Yes,” I lied, not wanting the blame for having wasted our time and 20 bucks.
At the grand reveal — that Cassie had actually tricked him, feigned her intoxication to impart an edifying lesson about consent — our shared sigh of relief was so palpable you could hear it.
But we later paused the film, anyway.
“I don’t know how you can watch this. I have a hard time watching this,” said my mother — who’d lived through my sexual assault at an L.A. nightclub, my resultant move home to New York and the array of medical and psychological problems (PTSD, broken teeth, TMJ, hearing issues and sex and disease phobias) I’d suffered in the decade since.
“It’s extremely upsetting, of course,” I said. “But I’m grateful films like this are out there. I want people to be having this conversation.”
Had we been having this conversation 10 years ago, things might have gone otherwise for me. When I was assaulted in 2010, it was a totally different time.
It was before Chanel Miller and Brock Turner — when “rape” was an attack by a stranger in a dark alley (a la Alice Sebold’s memoir “Lucky”), not by peers after one too many at a party (a la Jessica Knoll’s “Luckiest Girl Alive”).
It was a time when nightclubs were populated by stigmatized “party girls” (Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan), whose sloppy after-hours activities the media recounted with schadenfreude. It was before “The Bachelor” contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes recalled being drugged and raped at a party, on primetime, and auteur Michaela Coel vividly depicted her experience in HBO’s “I May Destroy You.”
Back then, when I woke naked and sore in the bed of a nightclub promoter — who, the previous night, had brought me a glass of champagne during an event I’d been covering on La Cienega — I didn’t immediately feel angry. I felt petrified.
I’d grown entirely too expectant of men to lavish free drinks. A native New Yorker should have been smarter. At 29, I didn’t have a husband or kids; my social-media profiles flaunted celebrities and parties. I wasn’t the girl you’d feel sorry for.
In my dizzy, defeated state, I donned this armor of delirious apathy. I strived to keep myself from feeling anything at all. I lay curled up tight in a lifeless ball on my bathroom floor, as I vomited through the morning and afternoon.
My sister prompted me to research emergency rape centers. I even made some fruitless phone calls and left cryptic messages, wondering which words I’d use to make sense of this. But when no one called me back, I chose denial. For far more terrifying than getting a positive result to a drug test, was the prospect of not getting one — because there, I assumed, would be the indelible proof that I had done this to myself.
Instead, I dragged myself to cover a Kardashian event that evening. I thought I could simply decide to not allow this to disrupt my life, to forever bisect it into a “before” and “after.” As if it were merely an exercise of mind over matter. But it replayed through my head like a horror movie jammed on repeat, manifested itself everywhere, in everything. I lived in a perpetual state of paralysis — viewed every aspect of the world around me as wildly dangerous and precarious, couldn’t trust even my own footsteps to land safely on the ground when I went anywhere. I no longer had trust in anything. I was broken, and the worst part of this was, I believed I’d broken myself.
A chilling moment of “PYW” for me was when Cassie confronts her former med school dean, and we learn the classmate who’d raped her inebriated friend was absolved in what was ruled a “he said, she said” matter. A year after my assault, this promoter was arrested for drugging and raping another woman. I gave my account to the LAPD — planned to serve as a supporting witness in the imminent trial. But after he spent a single night in jail, his case was likewise dropped as a “he said, she said” conflict. This defense is one we must immediately retire.
Even harder to watch was how Cassie, to avenge her friend’s crime (by posing as the kind of defenseless target in which it was difficult not to envision myself), continued to put herself in dangerous predicaments. This is a course of action commonly taken by rape victims themselves: they’ll try to re-create a similar situation with a similar type of person, in hopes of giving it a different ending. This is something I did afterward, too: I walked purposely toward the danger I should have been striving to avoid. It’s called a counterphobia. But I learned: when you fraternize with bad people, bad things happen. Which, for Cassie, ultimately did.
Following her friend’s rape and suicide, this thriving medical student dropped out, returned to her parents’ home and slung coffee while wreaking vengeance on men. My sexual assault also changed the course of my life completely.
After just relocating to L.A. months prior, I booked a plane ticket to move back home to Brooklyn. I sank into my seat at my parents’ dining room table, into this lugubrious state, as if weights pulled me. For years, I hid — from men, and from life. I moved back to L.A., then back to N.Y. again, in an incessant loop, dipped my toe in but absconded before anything bad happened. Eventually, I realized my life would only continue to spin in circles unless I planted my feet firmly and met my trauma head-on. Each day, we face off anew.
Did Cassie, once this “promising young woman,” allow her friend’s assault to ruin her life, or did she become a “promising young woman” by doggedly confronting the misogynistic crime everyone else was willing to forget? Did being raped ruin mine, or did it simply steer it down a different path, giving it new purpose?
While Cassie’s efforts at retribution came to a staggeringly violent end, I’ve found the best recourse for rape revenge is through education. By promulgating these stories, creating visceral art which, over time, has helped to change the narrative and conception of what “rape” even is. I began sharing my struggles on social media, raised $3,000 for anti-sexual assault network RAINN and served as a resource to the astounding number of female victims who’ve confided in me.
My first novel was about girls partying in the Hamptons. Now, I write graphic, disturbing assault accounts that have been considered “too dark.” I conjure this one life-altering night again and again, in myriad forums and a million different ways. I’ll drop it into a conversation unbidden, when you never see it coming. And I pledge to keep doing so, until this most pervasive criminal offense — which RAINN reports happens to 1 in 6 American women, and probably more — loses some of its shock value.
I hope you continue to consume these stories — mine, Emerald Fennell’s and other women’s. I hope you talk about them and never stop.
Most of all, I hope they make you sick to your stomach.
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