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  • Unpinned
  • Heather Gemmen Wilson (bio)

Ten years ago I wrote a memoir about being raped. “Rape takes too much,” I admitted in my book Startling Beauty, “but I, for one, have gained more than I have lost. I have been startled by beauty in places it doesn’t belong. I see it on the face of the man who keeps his vows to me, and fear releases its grip. I see it in the graceful dance of a child who was so unwanted, and hope revives its song.”

And you closed the book thinking about how the rape connected me to my inner-city neighbors for the first time. How my loveless marriage had been transformed by our commitment to overcome trauma together. How something beautiful had risen up from the ashes, a perfect little girl.

And you felt good.

Rape, though, is not good. Nothing about it is beautiful.

You didn’t hear the rest of the story: I moved out of the neighborhood. My marriage failed. And my beloved daughter is a pain in the ass.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story either. [End Page 53]

Life is not static, so is it even possible to write our stories? To capture moments? Has hope revived its song or has it been drowned by sorrow? Ten years from now, or ten minutes from now, the answer may change. When I put words on the page, I sometimes feel as though I’m jabbing a pin through my earlobe and sticking myself to a corkboard: an insect, a specimen. I write more words, and more pins tack me in some bizarre display. By recording each detail with meticulous attention, the story—now frozen, splayed—becomes false. It no longer represents life. The movement of the story, like the flight of a butterfly, may be harder to study than when the subject is pinned—but without movement, we have no sense of the thing as it really is.

I want to re-pin the story I wrote ten years ago. More accurately, I want to unpin it.

Pin No. 1

I was raped.

The newspaper article released the day after the rape used the qualifier “alleged,” but I have no use for the word. I was there. I remember what I blurted out when I discovered him in my bedroom, rousing me from sleep. “Who are you?” I asked, without fear. I felt only confusion.


I won’t say confusion. It may have been denial. When I first moved into the inner city, a newlywed in possession of my first home, I rolled around on the carpet, luxuriating in the burgundy bliss of independence. I bought dishes and thrift-store couches. I draped pretty valences above each window. “You need blinds, Heather,” my brother told me. “Anybody walking past can look in and see you.” But I opted for beauty, allowing the richly stained woodwork to gleam unhindered. “Think about where you live,” my brother said. “You’re not in Dorchester anymore.” Back home we didn’t even have a lock on the front door. Everyone knew each other. The post office once, correctly, delivered mail to my parents addressed with just the words “Mom and Dad, Dorchester, Ontario.” I knew my inner-city neighborhood was different, but I found the people to be interesting, exciting, funny, kind. I would [End Page 54] sometimes take a picnic blanket on warm summer nights and lie on grass in the schoolyard across the street to watch the stars while my husband slept or worked or read back at the house. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be unsafe. I simply made myself at home. People, I unconsciously believed, are primarily good. Four years of friendship with my neighbors, the birth of two perfect sons, and engagement in a vibrant church a few blocks away fastened that truth firmly in place.

“Don’t you worry ’bout that,” the rapist said, simultaneously pinning and unmooring me.

I can still smell him. Beer and rancid body odor. I can feel again the disgust I had for his clammy skin and roving hands. I can hear my cries, my...