Michelle Renee Hoppe
I remember treading water in snippets, like an old broken movie reel, something so old fashioned that it exists only in antiques, binaries, and old school sexism.
He lasted three months, although it would take me years to find my way out of that bottomlessness. I was twenty-eight. He was thirty-four. It was the summer of 2012. We were in Seattle, Washington, and #MeToo hadn’t hit the literary scene or even come close to being a thing.
He was versed in vulnerability. It began when I said, “This tastes funny.” I guzzled instead of sipped.
He asked, “Do you want to get out of here?” I wobbled out the front door of a glistening Seattle bar.
He told me he wanted to write me. He told me he was a famous poet. He told me he partied with Patti Smith and guitarist Thurston Moore. He told me a charming story about how Smith blew a cigarette into the face of a younger man. The younger man had been standing under her brownstone begging her to love him. Guitar and dreadlocks in tow, the young musician could not woo Patti Smith. He screamed, “Patti, noooooooooooo!”
She told him, “You’ll be alright, kid.” Then she looked at the poet and asked him how his work was going. He said he hedged away, intimidated and terrified of her spells.
He told me I was everything. When I bled into the clear tub water, my vagina spilling in a way I had never experienced before, bleeding out, he looked down on me. I looked up and asked, “What does this mean to you?”
He told me, “Everything.” I cried. I couldn’t stand. I splashed the water up my naked body and down again. Blood poured from me. All over me.
He told me he was raped when he was young. He told me he saw his mother raped when he was five. He told me his mother was a prostitute. He told me he was an alcoholic. He told me pretty things when I gave him money, and he told me ugly things when I did not.
He told me he could shoot a man at the top of the Ferris wheel. He told me he’d kill me. I said, “I’m afraid you are going to kill me in my sleep.”
He told me, “I would do that while you are awake.” He told me he bit two men in the face in Texas. He told me he could write a novel about the three months we spent together. After the rape, he told me, “You disgust me. I’ve been inside you, and I’m disgusted.”
I told the police, after three months of rape in a hostel, that he raped me. I told The Stranger, Dan Savage’s newspaper. I told everyone to protect myself. I didn’t care about being seen as “crazy.” The poet retreated to Vegas. To his mother’s house, I assumed.
I told him, “If I am somewhere, you better make sure you are not there.” The Space Needle and Ferris wheel defined the skyline. Seattle told me I won. I won Seattle: the ending of a horror story where the reader was left wanting so much more.
I did not tell people I put a cigarette in my panties and gave the cig to him during the rapes, that I gave him five thousand dollars, that pleasing him to calm him dominated my psyche. I was an educated and feminist liberal who had been subjugated. I told myself all that could make rape look like romance.
Years later, doctors I frequented for PTSD told me it was a hostage situation. Neuroscience research told me my hippocampus, the memory center of the brain, had shrunk from trauma and the rest of my synaptic currents surrendered to my limbic system.
The limbic system can make a body freeze. It can make a body faint. It can make a body shiver. It can make goosebumps. It can make psychosomatic illnesses. It can cause the body so much stress that one dies early of a heart attack. It can make a body sick, like a cold, and lead to red runny noses. The limbic system rules the fear section of the brain. It grows wild and liquid and electric all at once, seeping into everything from the language center to the prefrontal cortex where judgments rest.
The limbic system is a biological current we all have to some degree growing and shrinking, ebbing and flowing, inside us. Fear and loathing exist inside the limbic system. Fear is the basis of all hatred. Hatred grows wild within us, like streams that lead to rivers and then waves. We describe fear as washing over us, and all the water leads to rain.
After I escaped, I called a hotline. RAINN, the leading center for sexual assault, told me I was seventy percent more likely to be raped again. My civil lawyer told me there were men who waited outside domestic violence shelters looking to sexually assault women who had been assaulted by other men. She warned me of ending up in one, told me to move on and protect myself, and that no one would believe in me as a victim.
I told my reporter at The Stranger, “He knew he could do this to me, and he planned it.” He told me he’d get me Melinda Gates’ lawyer.
He told me, “I believe you.” He also told me, “Some women just do nothing.”
I replied, “That is not fair.” It wasn’t any woman’s responsibility to report, like RAINN claimed back then. They made it seem so simple: report and he’ll stop. They made it seem like it was my responsibility to out, catch, try him and recover on my own, which was literally an impossible thing. They made it seem like I should do it to stop other women from being assaulted, like that was my job.
It wasn’t my responsibility make sure to take care of the other women he would go on to assault. It was not my responsibility to protect them or guide them or whatever. I was my only responsibility. My life was my responsibility. His actions were not. There were cops and therapists and social workers in the world, and people made it seem like I needed to be an Amazonian alien of superhuman strength for others, not myself. Surviving wasn’t enough. I wasn’t a good rape victim. I wasn’t a self-sacrificing character. I was not the savior of all women. I could barely stand it.
I leveraged the power of the press to save my life. I told anyone who tried to victimize me, from the hospital staff that sent me bills to a local grocer who wouldn’t stop hitting on me, that the Stranger and Dan Savage himself was waiting for them. This was a lie. This was a lie that saved my life. I was savvy enough to pretend to be one of the politically protected rape victims. It forced professionals to forgive my medical bills. I pretended for six years until #MeToo came out, and I didn’t need to pretend a famous liberal man had my back all the time to survive. I hated doing it every time, knowing a woman was nothing to each person I frightened with “Dan Savage.”
I rode the Ferris wheel at the end of that summer. I watched rainbows attempt to bounce off my pale skin from the waves below. I hovered over water; I walked home in the rain. Seattle fought for me, and I fought for it, and together we won back an unknown number of sunrises over the Puget Sound.
One legal advocate I spoke with about five months after the escape told me not to get a restraining order. She told me that could trigger a reaction. She told me, “Sometimes the best thing to do is to play dead.” At this time, I had moved into an apartment around the corner from the poet. I had escaped the hostel, but I had not freed myself of the neighborhood. I ran by the bay where the seals played. I told myself I would not run from him.
A Harvard Ph.D., who studied psychopaths from our Starbucks and the Seattle Police Department’s brutality from his corner chair, whose presence in our lives was nothing short of a transcendent blessing, told me I needed a restraining order. He told me to leave the internet, to hide. I said, “Like, if I get a great job he might kill me?”
“No,” he said. “If he sees you’re in a new relationship. If he sees that you are happy.” He showed me footage of the Green River Killer, and he told me about men like the poet. Truthfully, being in another relationship felt so foreign that I hadn’t considered it a possibility, although at this time I had already started to date. I had lost my post-rape virginity to another writer. It was a half-assed suicide attempt. He drove me out to a cabin in the woods, and I was disappointed when he didn’t kill me. I was in. That. Much. Unacknowledged. Pain. I decided not to get a restraining order. I wanted to die, and I did not want to admit to myself or anyone else that I wanted to die.
The man I lost my virginity to after the poet said, “You must be brave to come all the way out into the woods with me.” I thought, I’d have to care about what happens to me to be brave at all.
Months after I escaped, in February of 2013, I saw the disheveled poet. I saw him from across the street the day after I posted a Yelp review about where I went to lunch. I told myself I would not hide. He had his hands in his pockets and a cap with a hood on his face. I crossed the street to the opposite side of him and folded my arms. The poet jumped. He was afraid of me. His limbic system fired off a warning signal from my direction. I had learned a few terrifying things from him, like how to make a reptilian stare. Our brains connected without words. He ran, physically, in the opposite direction. He regrouped and crossed the street. I stared and froze until he was out of sight. I went home to collapse. I cried for eight hours, and my salty tears ran up my nose and into my open mouth.
Years later, I received a phone call. I did not know how. I had changed my number six times due to absolute terror, although up until then he had not called me. I was terrified he’d show up and kill me and my new lover. The man on the other side of the line told me, “This is Mitch, and I really love you.” I told him I would call the cops if I ever heard from him again.
He did not repeat this behavior. My friend told me, “He raped the wrong woman.”
I told her, “Every woman is the wrong woman.” I had no self-esteem about this fight in me. I just wanted it done. I told my lover about the call, and he said he was afraid. Then he never mentioned it. We let this fear of him die with silence, but I had nightmares. I could see the rapist coming to the house one day with a pistol. I could feel this creeping fear: everything and anyone you dare to love will be taken from you because of him.
I picked up neuroscience texts, and I put myself through my own rape recovery boot camp that lasted six years. I ran two times each day, morning and night, and I researched sexual assault. Research was my everything. Research was control.
Right after the three months of rape were over, three friends came to Seattle to speak me whole again. One put me in a Hyatt and fed me. She told me I was good. I was whole. We danced on the bed to “Call Me Maybe” and laughed about how Honey Boo Boo was the new America. I brought the poet’s book with me. I wasn’t ready to let go, to turn around and face the words “sexual assault” or “rape.” She wrote on it, “Why did you bring this? Why would you want to remember that monster?” It was then that I felt strong enough to call RAINN. I called for help.
I told the operator what I could remember. She replied, “That is sexual assault.” I put down the phone and called the police from the safety of a Bellevue Hyatt.
Another friend told me I would write an epic book about this one day and it would be made into a movie or something. A high school friend, a crime journalist, told me, “I feel like if someone were going to play you in a movie it would be Jennifer Lawrence.”
I told him, “No one is going to make a movie about my life.”
The poet wrote to me through Facebook Messenger once when I tried to leave him. I tried many times, always held back by fear. What would he do if I left? Where would I go anyway? These questions paralyzed me. I’d imagine myself running to the hostel managers, where we both lived and worked, and telling them all with the bloody sheets. I then wondered how I would be safe. He knew how to find me.
He told me he was a trained former NSA sniper and a Marine. My own father had told me one of his old military associates, and this was years before I met the poet, drowned his wife in the bathtub. Death was not paranoia. It was fucking me and telling me it loved me every night. It was waking me up and telling me to pretend to be happy or else . . . It was human and it was trained. It was brown-eyed and white and five-nine, and I used to jump every time a man of that description passed by me.
He wrote me a love poem through Facebook. The last line said, “It ended like a movie.” His work was anthologized in The Smithsonian. He read aloud on YouTube, staring at the camera with those dead and broken eyes, “The name of the movie is not known . . .” He told me repeatedly, “In the movie of my life . . .”
I told myself nothing ended like a movie. It ended like an essay. It ended a whisper. It ended a scream. It ended a report. It ended a secret told in the dark. It ended a confession of sins done to me—not like any poems that sang.
My friend said nothing when I cried as we shared a bed and I woke three times at night to bathe myself. I sat in the tub looking at clear water, waiting for it to turn red. I never did.
“Did I wake you up?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said.
At the end of the week, we both got extremely drunk. One of the contestants from The Bachelor served us tequila sunrises all night long. Another friend offered me her home in Denver. She worked closely on the college level with rape victims and said, “I cannot guarantee that men like that aren’t here, too. It did not.
I said, “You mean to tell me there are face-biting psychopathic sons of murders and prostitutes roaming the suburbs of Denver?” She laughed. What I thought was, no matter where you are in this world, church or prison, there is a rapist in the room. I would meet people and immediately think, have you been raped? When? By whom? I could think of nothing but this human secret, this darkness we as people had created, coddled, and spoiled into running things. This seeping entitlement.
The hostage situation started two weeks into the relationship. It started when he drugged me. He had been sweet for two weeks—too sweet. He had been attentive for two weeks—too attentive. He had been studying me. What I saw as romance I later knew as grooming. He refused to allow me alone time. He walked me to work, which I would later see as a set up. If I tried to leave, he knew where I worked. He was a professional subjugator. I found out that he had made a living off abusing women who had families with money.
He thought he deserved me. He told me, “You are my karma. You are my gift for taking care of my dying father. The universe has given you to me.” I was more afraid of the unknown pain he could inflict on me if I disobeyed him than the familiar rape.
The poet held me hostage through this terror. I was never locked in a dungeon, but he built one in my mind. A few days after he raped me, he used my computer. He went to delete his internet history, and I wasn’t allowed to question why. He read, “What does GHB do to the body?”
He told me upon seeing questions about sexual assault in my search history, “You want to take away eight years of my life for five seconds of yours? Who are you, dude? Who do you think you are?”
I told him, “I am Michelle Hoppe.”
He told me, “I’m going to tell them you’re crazy. I’m going to go out there and tell everyone how fucking crazy you are.” He asked, “Do you want the names of the eight virgins I slept with in high school?”
“Yes,” I said. “I want all their names.” I knew I couldn’t be the first. He panicked and hedged and ran down the hall of the hostel. I was in survivor denial, but I was fighting. If someone had offered me a place, I would have run from him. I would have gone anywhere. Anywhere but home to my conservative parents.
In my research, I found out that I was four times more likely to be raped because I was beaten as a child. All violence was all violence. The pattern of fear was the same in all cases from genocide to domestic violence to destruction of the planet. Rape was a piece of the puzzle that messed up humans created. It wasn’t the whole. The little thing about it was that it refused to be isolated. Like all violence, it existed in connection. With no sex education or experience with intercourse, could anyone blame me for not understanding that this was not love? At least at first, I was more than ignorant. I was worse than ignorant. I was naïve.
I checked out of my body while I was raped by the famous poet. I checked out when he glanced my way. Forgotten weeks turned to forgotten months. I felt the truth in my body even more than I verbalized it. My whole body started to shake. Uncontrollably and for weeks, I shivered.
Before the raping me part started, the poet told me, “My mother saw your Facebook page and said, ‘You better be nice to her. A girl like that isn’t going to put up with anything.'” His mother, the woman who put him to sleep with second-hand refer and drank herself numb while pregnant, told him to be careful. It embarrassed me to realize too late, but she knew what he was. She loved him anyway. I told myself, how many teenagers can pull off consensually sleeping with eight virgins? I was a virgin when I met him. That was his thing.
I asked him why he still spoke to the woman who beat, neglected, and let her clients rape him in their home. He cooed and said, “Because she’s my mom.” I had cut myself off from my abusers, but I realized I was so vulnerable as a woman from a conservative patriarchy. Isolated. Discredited. Shamed. Ignorant. Already traumatized in a domestic violence household. I signaled victim to him. I learned through my research that predators could sniff out anxiety in victims, and would target those they felt were already targeted by others. If hardly anyone believed a victim once, no one believed that same victim twice.
He told me something ominous during the three months he held me hostage. He said, “But you’re going to remember me. I guarantee that.” He told me, “Little ones. That’s when you have a life.” He tried to get me pregnant. I used to wake up every month to my period in horror, as I woke up that first rape morning. He told me, “You’re a narcissist.” He jumped up out of bed. My clothes were ripped. My skin and blood were in a panicked comet formation up the sheets. My tears in a haze, he told me, “You’re going to have to find me in the morning.” He told me, “What have you done with your life?” He told me, “When I die, they’ll light candles for me in New York City and Boulder. They’ll say, ‘We lost a great one.'”
I wonder if I will see lights out my windows for him one day when we are both grey, like a million cigarettes lighting up the night. Or will the few flames lit for him blend seamlessly across of never-ending horizon, like tiny stars on concrete?
I remember the blood swirled and turned all the water in the tub red. It left constellations on the sheets of blood spots. A comet formation of blood went up the sheets.
I started bleeding and he kept at it. I backed up all the way to the top of the bed when he forced himself on me. I told him to stop, and then he really hurt me. I told him it hurt. He said, “I know.” He continued.
There were little purple bloodied rings of jelly flesh left everywhere. He said he’d never seen such a thing, that the blood scared even him. I woke later in extreme pain. I was rushed to the ER. A nurse asked me in front of him if it was consensual. She wanted to take me into another room. I refused. I had no idea what had happened, and in true codependent fashion I worried for months about saying someone was a rapist instead of being raped. I worried about my words. My own military father had trained me to worry about them.
What I didn’t tell my rapist was that I came from a military family that were thanked for helping to end WWII in Italy, and who were friends with a former President of the United States of America. I wished I could have said that they helped me. They didn’t. I didn’t use them as connections to scare anyone. I used Dan Savage. The fear of Dan Savage saved me multiple times. Dan Savage said things. “The family,” as we called it, was a silent partnership with America. “The family” was its own untouchable entity. It wasn’t there for me. I was supposed to be there for it. Always available to make it look good. My father told me, about a year after the assaults, “I believe that you think that you were raped.” My instincts about them not helping were accurate.
When I made plans to escape him, I wrote down every word he said. I wanted to remember him as he was and not how I felt he was. I wanted proof. Each quote was something I clung too when the PTSD got so intense that I questioned my sanity. I turned to his words. Language was power. Power was control.
I never spoke with Melinda Gates’ attorney.
I didn’t need a celebrity anything. I had no aspirations to chill with Patti Smith and Thurston Moore. I knew it wasn’t their fault. I knew it was not them. Maybe it took someone on the outside of fame to take out a famous rapist
The poet said to me, “I wish I had met you when I was nineteen. I would have loved you all my life.” He used to say something I loved. Truly. I loved it when he told me, “I know about that.” I told him that my father had broken my nose as a teenager, and he kissed it and said, “I know about that.” I was hungry for someone to know. He told everyone, “The sun rises and sets with Michelle. Rises and sets.” He oscillated from idealization to devaluation in seconds.
Someone somewhere along the way told me that the evidence of him is gone. She said, “The body has this amazing ability to heal itself.”
I feel clean. I feel baptized in scars.
I learned to love even the skin cancer scars, signs of bravery outside me, kisses from the sun on my skin from swimming in Kenya from One Love Island to the mainland. I called upon the summer of 2009 to rebuild my brain. I decided what to remember and how.
A group of boys playing soccer on the beach froze to watch me emerge from the perfect water. I froze then turned and swam another hour back. The sun at my back and the patchworked sails in makeshift ancient skiffs jutting across the turquoise current at my front, Kenyans waived at me with fishing nets in tow. My swimsuit was a red one piece, a professional swimmer’s suit. I was in Kenya years before the rape. No African man raped me. I was in Kenya in my mind again after the rape, trying to tread my memories of water.
When the rains came and One Love Island flooded, the Peace Corps representative I was visiting, Will, and I returned to the village to chanting. The villagers called me “The Fish” in Kiswahili. They asked me to sign a book as proof that I existed. I existed. Existing was everything. Existing was the beginning.
I call upon these moments like spells when his memory arrives in my mind, and I feel him washing down the drain. Off the shores of Mombasa, far closer to the Sudan, there are pirates who kidnap. There are real pirates in the ocean that I swim. I splash myself, washing him away, turning ink and paper into an ocean of tears.
Time is no longer linear for me. It goes in whirlpools and waves and it doubles back on itself. Complex trauma means I relive moments like a nonfiction Catch-22.
There is a place in Kenya named One Love Island, where a Rastafarian man lives with seven wives, where water comes from a well that gives Peace Corps volunteers giardia, where the matatus don’t even go, where they make squid soup for tourists, and I remember the sun there, the rickety boats with makeshift patched sails, the treehouse I could barely fall asleep in, the best meal of my life, the fire show, the learning how to throw fire, real fire, and the water. There is pure baptismal African water, and that poet can never have that. I am something slippery, quick and primeval in Mombasa. There are real pirates in the ocean that I swim, and perhaps I am a siren. I steal pieces of places and moments and fragments of sounds from ships to build my anchor.
I finally talk to him in flashback when I am staring directly at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I tell him in the glossy fog, the steam rising, my face dripping from yet another bath, “It is anchor time. I will anchor your memory. I will take you down to the depths of that turquoise water with me, and I will leave you there to die. I may get hurt on my way back up, gasping for air, salty and broken from the bottom of the ocean that I swim, but I will live. I will love. I will eat again. I am a competitive swimmer, and you, steely killer, sink so easily. I steal your words. I make them the armor that drags you down. Maybe some treasure hunter will find you centuries from now and wonder how you got there. Maybe they’ll put you in a museum and gawk.”
He told me when I started to escape, “They’ll read my work for centuries. I’m fine with dying. I have lived my life.” He didn’t know I was taking notes.
He begged to write me. He told me, “I can make you immortal.” I didn’t allow it, and he never crossed that boundary. Perhaps he could not. Perhaps he was no god. He told me, “That’s who you remind me of. You’re my Jennifer Connelly. You’re my Natalie Portman.” He told me to insult me when I told him to stop hurting me, “You are an actress. You are a brilliant actress.” It rained that summer he had me. It rained all the time in Seattle. All the waters led to filthy oceans, led to a rainbowed sky, and turned into purified mist.
I went home to watch dolphins play off the coasts of a Floridian island two years after it happened. I stopped taking baths, and I stopped telling myself the blood would not come out of me again. I stopped telling myself it was over, because it was over. I moved to New York City six years after him, where the rains felt like sprinkler water falling in an infinite current down a massive steel drain.
The poet yelled angrily and drunkenly one night, half drowned already, his arms flailing about, “You woke me up while I was sleeping!”
I am not Jennifer Connelly. I am not Natalie Portman. I am not even Jennifer Lawrence in the movie of my life. I am Michelle Renee Hoppe. I am “the wrong woman.” I am a reckoning.
His words drowned me a little bit. But there were mythic gatekeepers to this human world. We women sang. We swam. We were our own forever.
I turned my rage into action. After publishing an essay about how his top literary critic unknowingly outed him as an abusive personality in 2010, he ran from me. He hid, deleting his internet presence in 2019.
I force myself to let go of him in the water. I let him sink with his grandiosity and his pain. This anchor I’ve built can drown me, too. I could easily tie my worth to fighting him instead of creating a new life, wrap myself in rope and die there in the wet. Off the shores of Mombasa, far closer to the Sudan, there are pirates who kidnap. There are real pirates in the ocean that I swim. I place one palm in front of the other, and I head to the beach, unafraid of the sharks that swim peaceably in the below. Bottomlessness beneath me, I turn toward an unending sunny sky, the fragments of me merging into a new kind of day. A primitive love. One that existed before I was even born.
Michelle Renee Hoppe holds a BA in English from Brigham Young University, where she edited two literary publications and ran a nonprofit. She is an MA candidate in TESOL at The New School, where is a Dean’s Merit Scholar. She has lived in six different countries as a nomadic child and adult. Her work can be found in HoneySuckle Magazine, Helen Literary Magazine, and others. Her paintings are collected and shown around the globe. She is the Founder and Creative Director of Capable Magazine, which is a VC-coached publication dedicated to illness and disability literature. She was the lead strategist for Teach North Korean Refugees, and she now works with The Kite Zine to help bring the very best English and creative writing curriculum to underserved populations.