Not long ago, writer Emily McCombs received a friend request from a man who had raped her in her adolescence. She talks to Brooke about how you handle that particular social networking quandary, and about how the interaction was ultimately a surprisingly positive one for her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So he says Facebook offers the means to help manage the horrors that life throws your way. But it can also potentially throw you into the path of even more horror. Emily McCombs is the executive editor for the website xojane.com. She recently received a friend request from a man who had raped her in her adolescence. She says that even though the event happened a long time ago, seeing that man's name on Facebook quickly brought her back.
EMILY McCOMBS: In that moment, I was that 14-year-old girl, he was a monster and he was terrifying to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you messaged him to ask him if he would talk to you.
EMILY McCOMBS: I did. One of the hardest things for me to process was just believing that this had happened. That's not uncommon with rape survivors to sort of blame yourself —
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
EMILY McCOMBS: — that you've done something to cause this to happen. I literally didn't believe myself. I mean, I did intellectually, but I couldn't sort of emotionally accept that something so horrible had happened to me. And it was worsened by the fact that I had blacked out large parts of it, which is also something that happens when there's a large trauma. A lot of it was fuzzy, there were pieces missing, which made the whole thing seem a little bit surreal, a little bit like a dream. I wanted to talk to him because I wanted someone to verify for me this is real, you're not crazy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. And he wasn't willing to have a messaged conversation about it —
EMILY McCOMBS: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: — you think maybe because he didn't want anything on the record, but —
EMILY McCOMBS: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: — he was willing to talk to you on the phone.
EMILY McCOMBS: First of all, like when he said he wanted to talk on the phone, that was paralyzing [LAUGHS] like that was — you know, the idea, I had mustered up all this energy to email him and ask him these questions, and then he wants to talk on the phone, which is like a whole different thing. I was really scared to get on the phone with him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you took notes on the conversation and, and as you write, it began with you asking him, "I just want to know if this really happened, 'cause sometimes it feels like I'm going crazy."
EMILY McCOMBS: Right, and he said, "Okay, I remember. You're not going insane, you're not delusional, it happened. I was there, I remember." And I said, “Thank you.” And then he said, "I don't know how much you want to hear." I said, "It's okay, just tell me whatever you remember." And he said, "You must have just turned about 14. It was like 1997. We were in this warehouse." And I said, "I can't believe we were really in a warehouse." That was one of the things that I could never explain, because I pictured a warehouse but I thought why would we have been [LAUGHS] in a warehouse? He said it was a warehouse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then other details. Some of it had to do with restraints and —
EMILY McCOMBS: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: — and, and really mean behavior.
EMILY McCOMBS: Which I remembered a lot of it but I m — I mean, like the warehouse thing that was — that was so moving to me because that was one thing that I could never make sense of. And then to have him verify that, I think — it was hard for me to speak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this guy was part of that.
EMILY McCOMBS: He was part of it but honestly I was so grateful to him. When he said that first thing, when he said, "I remember, it happened, you're not crazy" I — I just immediately started sobbing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did he send you a friend request?
EMILY McCOMBS: You know, I think that he was honestly in such complete denial about what had happened that he thought that he was just sending a friend request to any other friend. I mean, he remembers all these things happening but in his memory it was all consensual. His explanation is, "When they led you over to me in a dog collar and handcuffs, I thought that you were into it." I think that's just how he rationalized it. There are moments when I'm speaking to him where it's obvious that he knows there's a little more to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like the fact that he recalls you saying "no" repeatedly.
EMILY McCOMBS: Well, that - he said that without really any inclination that that might mean [LAUGHS] that something wasn't consensual. You know, he says, "Like oh, but then it seemed fine, after you said no." But there, there are times when he said, "Oh, I've wondered about you over the years and when I heard that you weren't doing so well, I wondered if maybe I was responsible," you know, which doesn't make sense, unless he on some level realizes that he did something to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you got his message, part of your reaction was that oh, this is one of those horrible Facebook effects, people showing up in your life —
EMILY McCOMBS: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: — the last people you might ever want to talk to. You said that you've been friended by the dude who threw your glasses over the fence in elementary school —
EMILY McCOMBS: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: — a friend of your mother's who knows weird stuff about you and leaves comments on random photos and estranged relatives, and, and then this guy! In the end, do you feel grateful to Facebook or, or resentful?
EMILY McCOMBS: You know, [LAUGHS] I actually am very grateful. It's funny because it sounds like the most extreme example of the person that you wouldn't want to friend you on Facebook. But speaking with him really allowed me to process some things that had happened and, and move on. I mean, I'm obviously still dealing with it. It doesn't ever go away. But once he said to me that it had happened, I was able to get past that place of just doubting myself and blaming myself and move onto just processing what had actually happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He has kids.
EMILY McCOMBS: He has two daughters and a son, which I was able to see on his, his Facebook account. And so, I just — the last thing that I said to him was to — you know, to teach your daughters how to value themselves so they don't end up in that same situation, which, of course, they might. I mean, having good self esteem and loving yourself obviously doesn't protect you from being raped. But — and teach your son that at the first sign of "no" stop. I don't care what you may think about why she's saying no or what you may think she really means or how she's saying it, if you hear the word "no" stop.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I still think it's really weird that he contacted you.
EMILY McCOMBS: I mean, maybe he was looking for some kind of absolution. I mean, he apologized. He was sorry. You know, although he never admitted "Yes, I, I raped you," he apologized for what happened. He was genuinely sorry, you know, and this is also a, a young guy when this happened. He's not a monster.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
I mean, that was the other lesson in this, was like this is just a guy on Facebook. [LAUGHS] You know what I mean? This is just a guy who listens to Bob Marley [LAUGHS] and likes Scrubs. He's not some monster, he's a person who did a bad thing. And it's not too late for him to accept responsibility for that and apologize. And you know what? I can accept that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily, thank you very much.
EMILY McCOMBS: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily McCombs is the managing editor for xojane.com.
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