"I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands."
The author in 2007, the year she graduated from college.
The author in 2007, the year she graduated from college.
Courtesy of Karen Smith

Note: The following piece contains descriptions of and potential spoilers about the film “Promising Young Woman,” as well as discussions about sexual assault and suicide. Names and some identifying details of individuals mentioned in the piece have been changed.

My identical twin called me last week from Los Angeles. “Trigger warning,” she announced. “We watched that movie last night, ‘Promising Young Woman.’ The character Al Monroe is Declan ― just, entirely, Kare. Don’t not watch it, but like, well, just ... watch out if you do watch it.”

Declan is the man that raped me, 14 years ago, and “Promising Young Woman,” starring Carey Mulligan and produced by Margot Robbie, has been generating awards buzz for its portrayal of a sexy, provocative rape revenge story. The writer/director, Emerald Fennell, created Cassie, the protagonist, who lost her best friend Nina to suicide after Nina was raped in medical school. The authorities didn’t believe Nina’s story after students and the university refused to substantiate her account.

Cassie spends the film attempting to avenge Nina by taking destructive and often-violent revenge on everyone involved in Nina’s trauma, culminating in her abduction of Al Monroe, the rapist himself.

I was intrigued, but I waited a few days before I watched the trailer. Then, after warning my husband I might be in for a rough night, I sat down and pressed play.

Trigger warning, indeed.

Many aspects of the story rang true to memories that once sent me into full-blown panic attacks and resulted in me curled into a ball on the floor. And yet, while I ended up watching the film with interest, some amusement, and yes, a heaviness in my heart and a feeling of all-too-tragic familiarity, there were major differences that left me feeling remarkably calm as the film rolled to its shocking end.

I did, and do, have a revenge story — you could say that revenge against my rapist is a central part of my life ― but not in the way you’d think. While there are similarities throughout “Promising Young Woman” to not just my story but to the dozens of rape survivor stories I’ve heard throughout my adult life — the loss of sense of self, the desire for revenge, loss of esteem, doubt, the journey to rebuilding life, reliance on friendships — ultimately, Cassie’s story was not my story at all.

My revenge story is a different tale entirely ― and it’s not over.

Like Nina, I was one of the 26.4% of female students who experience rape or sexual assault annually on campus (and that figure doesn’t include high schoolers). Declan was an acquaintance, not dissimilar to Al Monroe in the film. He was a true Ivy League prince ― sports star, elite frat boy, and playboy, the ultimate WASPy daddy’s boy in khakis and a polo shirt. We didn’t know each other well, but he was in a class I was taking. I was 21 and my assault took place early in my senior year. Unlike Nina, I did not have a reputation for sleeping around, but rather the opposite. Despite socializing with the popular crowd, I was known for my Midwestern innocence, and I now know that my assumed virginity was latently recognized by most around me.

Until that night.

As with “Promising Young Woman,” the exact details of my rape are not essential to understand its aftermath. I left Declan’s house feeling as if my entire self was shattered. In my case, the rape was also when I lost my virginity. Just like in the film, Declan’s friends ― and even many of our mutual acquaintances ― were quick to want to protect him and to dismiss me. Even I, while roiling in a cyclone of shame, felt a deep need to avoid derailing this “perfect” young man’s life.

In the immediate days and weeks after the rape, I was determined not to allow the experience to “ruin” my last year of college. My attempt to suppress my emotions led to more dangerous behavior, ranging from excessive drinking to suicidal thoughts.

Like Nina, I left school.

Unlike Nina, however, after a semester at home, I came back. I graduated with honors after taking seven classes during my spring term.

“I left Declan’s house feeling as if my entire self was shattered. In my case, the rape was also when I lost my virginity. Just like in the film, Declan’s friends ― and even many of our mutual acquaintances ― were quick to want to protect him and to dismiss me.”

Graduation wasn’t the end of my recovery. I had given up on my job offer after the rape because the city it was in was too close to Declan’s hometown. I enrolled in medical school but quickly dropped out. I took a job in advertising and quit weeks later. I moved across the country to a new city and took a corporate job.

Soon, like Nina, I was suicidal. Eventually, I found myself sitting on a bridge, so sure that I needed to end my pain but unable to accept that type of end. I felt quite different from that innocent Midwestern girl I had once been.

I finally went back to my university and filed a criminal report, which I submitted along with my medical and university records. The district attorney met with me to discuss my options. She empathetically told me that she had only won 3 in 10 cases she brought forward and, especially with Declan’s family’s wealth, the chance of an indictment was minuscule. She would not pursue the case.

A few months later, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. Declan needed to know what he had done to me ― and he needed to pay.

So, I messaged him on LinkedIn. I didn’t expect a reply ― but I got one. He responded quickly, telling me to call anytime, and I stared at his number pulsing in front of me, the font growing bolder and larger on the screen with each of my pounding heartbeats. I dialed immediately before I gave myself the chance to chicken out.

When he answered, I took my vengeance.

I did not cry. My hands were steady, my words genuine. I spoke slowly and calmly. My voice did not shake.

I told him the specific details of my story. I told him everything I’d been through ― everything he’d put me through ― since he made a choice to violate my dignity. I told him how it felt to fear for my life and how it felt to doubt every piece of myself. I told him about the cold I remember seeping through the hallways in the hospital and how they took away my tooth floss and my lotion to protect me from hurting myself. I told him that he had shattered a sense of self I had spent 20 years building. I told him that I was OK ― that I am strong and I will be happy. And I told him that my happiness ― my recovery ― had absolutely nothing to do with him because his choices were only about destruction. He couldn’t claim any of that — it is mine. I told him, in short, that I had won.

I didn’t cry. But Declan did.

During our own private reckoning, he begged for my forgiveness and I gave it to him. And with that, I wrote him out of my story. He doesn’t deserve another line.

Since that day, aside from the recent “trigger warning” my sister gave me and my subsequent viewing of “Promising Young Woman,” I’ve rarely had to bother with thoughts of the man that raped me 14 years ago. I certainly no longer wake up screaming after seeing his face in my nightmares, nor do I jump at the mere sight of someone with his build passing me on the street. He is now nothing but an unsympathetic specter amongst any number of bygone ghosts.

While I don’t think of Declan now, I can’t say I’m not still affected in a real way by what happened. The more tangible villain in my life today ― and also an important theme in “Promising Young Woman” ― is the impact that the rape and its toll had on my career. I’ve floundered in a stalled job for years now, often requiring time off to manage my mental health. I pay top fees for the best insurance, despite being a healthy woman in my 30s, just in case I need to be hospitalized again. The anxiety has led to bruxism, and I grind my teeth so badly that I have paid thousands in dental fees. I don’t even want to think about the multiple cars I could have purchased instead of paying therapy bills.

My family is financially affected by one night nearly 20 years ago, and too often, this tragic consequence of rape trauma is overlooked in the analysis and portrayal of effects on survivors and their families.

In the film, Cassie chooses to avenge Nina’s pain, her loss, her violation, through violating, hurting and taking from those who hurt her best friend. Cassie does this by targeting not only those directly involved in Nina’s rape but also targets men in clubs who are willing to take advantage of a seemingly incapacitated drunk girl. Cassie always gives these men the chance for redemption, but when they fail her tests, she chooses to inflict more pain and more hurt to magnify these feelings and to give these men firsthand knowledge of her interpretation of Nina’s agony, which, in the end, is actually Cassie’s pain.

It can be argued that Cassie does finally avenge Nina’s death at the end of “Promising Young Woman,” but there’s a twist and a big catch that I won’t spoil here. Ultimately, the film leaves viewers to consider exactly who ― if anyone ― “wins,” and much like in real life, there are no easy answers.

As for me, I continue to exact vengeance, but in a simpler and far less provocative way: Every morning, I wake up and I live my life.

I’ve made mistakes, had major wins, fallen down and stood back up. I’ve smiled and cried and danced and loved. I have lived. I moved overseas, got a master’s degree and met a man who loves me and my body and my right to choose what I do with it.

We have two sons. They are white and privileged and they’ll be Midwestern like me, but they won’t be innocent ― they will be informed. And they will be my warriors of vengeance because I am teaching them to hold the utmost respect for their own bodies and to honor that unique sovereignty in others. Right now, this means teaching my toddler that he can’t hit and that he has a choice about how he uses his body. Someday, it will mean sharing my story with them and teaching them to ask for and get consent and encourage healthy boundaries with those around them.

“I continue to exact vengeance, but in a simpler and far less provocative way: Every morning, I wake up and I live my life.”

My revenge story was different from the one in “Promising Young Woman.” It is different. And it isn’t over. I didn’t just survive (which, mind you, is more than enough in and of itself). For nearly 10 years, I have volunteered on evenings and weekends as a sexual assault advocate. The work has changed my life and my perspective and continues to teach me more about the extreme depths to which humanity can sink and the heights to which it can soar.

Each week I attend to survivors in the aftermath of their assaults, helping to empower them with the resources and knowledge to make their own decisions during the difficult hours and days following their life-changing experiences. In every case, I see a part of myself — and in every case, I continue to take back another small piece of what was taken from me all of those years ago. I hope I help them to start their own revenge stories.

The appearance of female-led voices in films and TV shows like “Promising Young Woman” and “I May Destroy You,” as well as the much-needed exploration of rape trauma syndrome in “13 Reasons Why,” has dramatically increased the amount of content available that recognizes rape and rapists in a new, more genuine and truthful light.

This is powerful, and the more genuine, nuanced portrayals and visibility we achieve, the more things can improve. Yet every 73 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States, and every nine minutes, one of those individuals is a child. We need to enable and empower parents with the knowledge to discuss these issues with their children and to normalize affirmative consent.

The Me Too Movement has brought incredible recognition to the plight of survivors around the world, and still, only 5 in every 1000 perpetrators end up in prison. We need exhaustive criminal justice reform to ensure that predators are held accountable and unable to strike a second time.

And we need better support and resources for survivors. Many have been assaulted multiple times, and not just physically: Emotional, financial and cyber abuse are all often prevalent and can cause just as much damage as the physical attack. Most survivors require ongoing counseling and support for their injuries. Some require safe housing, both temporary and permanent. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people who have been assaulted has increased dramatically at the center where I volunteer, particularly among children. Our nurses are overwhelmed and our resources stretched.

We need to take preventative measures through education and healthy and open discourse that coincides with these new perspectives and ideas about sexual assault. In particular, children and young adults ― as well as their parents ― need education on consent, respect and healthy boundaries, and they need to be empowered with the knowledge and confidence to trust their instincts and own their personal sovereignty. They also need safe, open forums where they can discuss these issues without fear and judgment. Schools and nonprofits need funding and support to drive engagement and community buy-in.

Most critically, we must believe survivors. If Nina had been believed by just one character in the film, Cassie’s revenge would never have had to be put into effect. I have met hundreds of people as they are in the process of reporting their assaults and sat with dozens of people as they underwent a rape exam. People do not choose to go through this, and, still, too few survivors are believed ― sometimes even by their own family and friends ― when they come forward about being assaulted.

Every survivor has their own story, and every story is different. Not everyone will choose the path I’ve taken. Some survivors never tell anyone about what happened to them. There is no right answer. But I wanted revenge. I wanted to take back what had been taken from me, and I have spent the last 14 years finding ways to do that.

Revenge doesn’t have to be about punishment. Revenge doesn’t have to be brutal or violent or ugly. It might not make for the most exciting movie plot, but revenge can be about finding the hope to wake up every day and live your truth. Revenge can be about dedicating your time or resources to those in the midst of a trauma. For me, doing this kind of work has given me a welcome breadth of perspective and it helps to keep me healthy and grateful. Revenge can be educating our children and our friends on the concepts of consent, boundaries and respect.

Who knows? Maybe my greatest revenge will be sharing my experience and publicly telling my truth to the world in the hope that even one other person reads it and feels they can tell theirs, too ― or feels even the smallest bit less alone.

Karen Lewis is an advocate for sexual assault survivors and a survivor herself. She lives with her family in the Midwest.

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Note: This story was updated to add more specific language regarding rape and sexual assault on college campuses.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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