Waiting for Metamorphosis

Lily Holloway looks to women in ancient literature as a way to understand trauma, transformation and recovery.

Posted on
16.07.20

Content Warning: Rape and sexual assault

As an ancient history major, I quite frequently encounter violence against women in ancient literature and its mythical/historical landscape. Mostly it’s jarring. But sometimes it’s illuminating. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, is riddled with stories – around fifty, in fact – of women who are transformed by sexual assault. These stories take the form of tragedies, parables, warnings and etiological myths. The women in them are changed irreversibly: during the pursuit of Daphne by Apollo, Daphne is turned into a shrub; Callisto is morphed into a bear initially and, later, a star; Io becomes a cow. 

It has been two years since I was assaulted by my ex-boyfriend in an alleyway adjacent to his father’s driveway. I still struggle to afford myself terminology like ‘assault’ because it wasn’t physically forceful – it was underhanded, manipulative and I was more easily coerced because I was very drunk. He called it our ‘last hurrah’.

I find myself seeking relevance and meaning in Ovid’s ancient stories of metamorphosis. Perhaps, too, the transformations of the victims in these stories reflect something that many sexual assault victims experience in common. By transforming into something like a plant or an inanimate object, it appears that these women are protected from the deep and rippling ramifications of assault. Throughout the Metamorphoses, this transformation is often viewed as preferable to living life as an unvirtuous woman. Sometimes the transformation happens just before the assault takes place, thus protecting the person’s purity.

Perhaps if I were a wild animal, I could rage, untamed, without judgement.

I relate to this feeling of isolating transformation – of becoming something outside of yourself for protection. My assault was an experience in extreme dissociation and I often remember it from the perspective of somebody sitting on the nearby streetlamp rather than in the first person. Dissociation was my body’s survival response to what was a horrific severing of past and present, a distinct line I can draw down my life between pre- and post-rape. I often pretend that the person I am today is different to the person who was assaulted, that the person who woke up the next day was only the next in a series of selves taking up the mantle. A few months after the assault, my dad and I started going for cold-water swims at Waiake Beach. The sensation of swimming in the winter ocean and having your blood rush to protect your organs reminds me of the focus rushing away from my body to sit on a lamppost, and my body’s ability to withstand.

After reading some of Ovid’s stories, I begin to feel as though I was promised some grand transformation, a comeback from tragedy so publicly extravagant it would also serve as revenge. My transformation was of a different kind, harder to articulate, awkward and amorphous. I do feel there are similarities in our transformations – being objectified like a beautiful bovine (Io) or coming to hold an untethered and raging pain like a bear (Callisto). Perhaps if I were a tree, I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by my feelings of rage and pain. Perhaps if I were a wild animal, I could rage, untamed, without judgement. Even if I could transform, like the women in Ovid’s poem, it would be an isolation, a sacrifice and a compromise imposed upon me by my rapist. It is amazing what feels like a choice, but actually isn’t, when you are backed into a corner.

Syrinx, who is chased by Pan, is turned into marsh reeds by helpful river nymphs but, instead of this proving her salvation, Pan then crafts her into the first pan flute. In this way, the power relationship between Syrinx and her attacker continues, outside of her control. Though nothing came of their investigation, the police found a video of my assault on my attacker’s phone. It was in a folder made to look like the Settings app. I already knew about this porn stash – it was where he stored GIFs of Taylor Swift bending over while performing on stage, filmed from the perspective of someone standing below in one of the front rows of the audience. These transformations, both within myself and in the eyes of others, are strange and uncomfortable. The video perpetuates an image of me in a moment where power has been taken from me, where I am no longer in control. I hate the idea that other people, even the cops who examined the footage, have seen me like this – transformed without my consent.

Rape teaches you to keep your mouth shut because it can always, always be made worse.

Of course, the transformation into something inhuman also serves as a silencing – the voice that comes out of Syrinx is no longer her own. Pan makes music without her consent. In a modern context, the act of assault is also inherently silencing. Talking about your assault risks the devastating blow of people invalidating your experience or even suggesting your culpability. In my experience, people privilege the narrative that is easier to deal with. One of the most devastating experiences I have had recently came in the form of someone who not only talked about my assault to people I hadn’t told yet, but also questioned what she called my “villain narrative”. After all, the person in question had never done “that sort of thing” to her. This was someone I had known my whole high-school life, who had been in my debate team for three years, who proudly calls herself a feminist. I trusted her. I took notes for her in the university classes she missed and sat with her in a café to go over them. Rape teaches you to keep your mouth shut because it can always, always be made worse. Like Syrinx, your song and your narrative can be carried on outside of your control. The only certain way to keep your narrative from being warped into a weapon is to keep silent; rape culture’s silencing of victims is pervasive like that. Rape culture both perpetuates and relies upon the shame and subsequent silence of its victims.

The silencing in the myth of Philomena is more explicit – she is assaulted by her brother-in-law and he rips out her tongue so she cannot tell anybody. To overcome this, Philomena knits a tapestry which her sister is then able to decipher. My assault left me feeling smaller than I had ever felt, unseen, unheard, misunderstood and insignificant. At the 2019 Laneway Festival, I ran into my ex hanging out and having a great time with some of my old friends, people who knew about what had happened to me but, for reasons I will never have the closure of knowing, didn’t believe me. Perhaps, like Philomena, I can find my voice in art. Perhaps I will create something for others to decipher, or perhaps just for myself, that will explain why something like this could happen and what I am meant to do about it.

I feel angry and cheated at the idea that assault will always be flowing beneath my art

I feel angry and cheated at the idea that assault will always be flowing beneath my art, just under the surface. When I share my story, I am often filled with a deep sense of shame afterwards, as if I have exposed myself like a naked fool. Yet writing feels like the only way to come to terms with what I am experiencing – a way of taking the narrative and its transformations into my own hands. (I have had the misfortune of having other versions of my story told back to me. Interestingly, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is also prone to retelling, some translations blurring the lines between consent and assault, while the Latin is quite unambiguous.) Sometimes my creations are tragic, violent and downright harrowing in ways that mean I cannot show them to my mother. More recently, though, I have found myself being able to connect with specific moments or images, and my writing serves to ground me. I write about the landscape and the bizarre imagery of dreams.

At least the women in the Metamorphoses have legacy – a thought I have while writing this. They are afforded a story because of their destruction and pain. Their stories result in the creation of trees, animals, constellations, mountains and rivers. All I have now is the inability to walk around the North Shore, and a deep distrust of people. I can’t watch certain movies and I wake up in cold sweats. Imagine the new plants and constellations we would have if every person assaulted had mythical currency.

It has taken a lot of time and therapy but, in a way that surprises me, I can see the silver lining. Hitting rock bottom allowed for reevaluation and rebirth – like pushing your feet off the bottom of a pool. After taking time off university I realised that, if I wanted to get better, I had to drop the law degree that I lacked all passion for. I have cultivated my friendships carefully and, while I have few Facebook friends, they are empathetic go-getters who make me feel happy to be myself when I am around them. Perhaps most significantly, I have come out as gay. My girlfriend (of over a year now) is the person I find it hardest to write about in a way that does justice. Small towns make her feel uneasy, her sweatpants are old and pilly but (out of a dislike of fast fashion) she still won’t buy herself a new pair. She looks amazing in 80s shirts with large shoulder pads, like the kind of person you wish you could approach at a hipster party.

I’m learning how to live in this body again, as a friend and not a hostage.

For the first time since I was sixteen, I am reducing my antidepressant medication. There isn’t much research on this period of the medication journey and it was certainly interesting to undertake during lockdown. It is hard to determine whether sensations are a product of extended periods inside or the medication. The withdrawal hits fast with each reduction – 300mg, 150mg, 75mg, now 37.5mg – but I feel as though I am reconnecting with the physical. I notice each semiquaver hop of the pīwakawaka outside my window and walk down the driveway after rain just to feel it on my bare feet. It’s strange to have a body. It’s strange to have a body that responds and remembers in surprising and uncooperative ways. The healing process makes me feel like a child all over again, like I’m learning how to live in this body again, as a friend and not a hostage.

*

I live in a flat in a room connected to a sunroom. My tomatoes are close to death because the heat is too intense in summer. Their curvy green stems and bursts of leaves and yellow flowers are now crispy and brown, bent in apology. I keep watering them and was rewarded today by a peek of green growth. When I pointed out the hopeful leaves to my girlfriend, the tip of my finger knocked the whole young stem off.

It is hard to articulate what recovery means to me, especially to those who have never been assaulted. Mostly I am trying to frame it in a way that is more forgiving towards myself, that allows for backwards movement and that doesn’t rely on others’ responses of approval or remorse.

There is no modern-day Ovid to collate my story among the masses of other stories, to canonise them in the mythology of Aotearoa or the world in general. And even if there was, it wouldn’t be my story but one in a series of retellings that are not victim-centric. It should not be my responsibility (or any survivor’s responsibility) to stand against the trend of silencing victims but, when I have the strength, I will tell my story. I refuse to sit down simply to avoid others’ discomfort. I refuse to tolerate the systematic and historic silencing of assault victims. I carry Daphne, Callisto, Io, Syrinx and Philomena with me in my tote bag. I carry their unheard stories. We say: look at the transformations I have endured, look at the pain I still carry, and see my strength.