[TW: Sexual assault]
Life of Cyn, a novel about a woman’s journey of recovery after sexual assault, explores themes of revenge and healing. The book is fiction, but the characters are based on real people. In our interview, Caitlin shares what inspired her to write this story of retribution for the #MeToo movement.
Can you please share the blurb for Life of Cyn?
Some say life begins at forty.
Cyn Mckinley hopes so since her former life is over. Home foreclosure, a cross-country move, and a hidden drinking problem pretty much killed it. Being crushed by crippling anxiety doesn’t help.
When she discovers that her husband’s new boss is the monster who raped her in high school, she spirals further down. Struggling to process this revelation, she conceals it from her husband because they need his job. Instead, she numbs her pain with too much wine, drives drunk, and her husband threatens to divorce her. She reluctantly quits drinking, hoping that will save her marriage.
But clarity from sobriety brings something unexpected to Cyn – the need for justice or revenge. If only she can find a way to make the demon pay for the trauma he inflicted, and the ripples it sent through her life, then maybe she’ll find peace.
What was your story in real life?
It wasn’t a guy hiding under a bridge – although it was similar in its aggression – it looked different from how I imagined “rape” at the age of seventeen. But I knew what he’d done was wrong, I was certain about that. It just took a long time for me to call it rape.
I was attacked at a party, preyed upon by an alumnus from my high school who was home from college for the summer. I’d never even spoken to him when he assaulted me. I defended myself physically and verbally without success.
In the days that followed, I confided in a couple of friends and my boyfriend but didn’t tell any adults. It never crossed my mind to report it as a crime.
So, I had some support but it still took a toll on my life. I needed years of therapy to find healthy ways to deal with this assault.
When did you first speak publicly about what happened?
I wrote a memoir in 2002, Lightning in my Wires, that detailed the assault. It was a chronicle of how I learned to love myself after years of negative self-talk. Published in 2010, that was the first time I publicly opened up about my rape, but I didn’t share his name.
Years earlier, I’d heard about two other woman he’d assaulted and assumed there were more. So, I decided to expose him in 2015, and I posted about my assault on Facebook. I used his initials because it was before the #MeToo movement had begun, and I was worried about libel. Many alumni of my high school guessed who he was. He had a reputation for being aggressive.
After I posted on Facebook, several people contacted me to say he’d done the same to them or to someone they knew. Within twenty-four hours I knew about 10 victims. The situations were similar. We were all younger than him and had been cornered by him. For weeks I received messages from women who wanted to share their own stories of assault with me, not just about this guy, but across the board. Being inundated by tales of rape kicked off my PTSD.
Some of his friends contacted me to say they knew his behaviour wasn’t okay back in the day, and they were really sorry about what happened. That didn’t make me feel better, it made me mad.
And I wasn’t the only one – people wanted him to pay. There was talk about staging a protest outside his home or place of work. A local cable news reporter approached me for an interview, and one of the other victims published a blog that detailed her assault.
What were the repercussions of speaking out?
I was afraid to partake in the protest or interview because I was worried that he’d sue me for slander. I thought he might come after me with a lawyer or violence. I started driving around town with a bat in my car for protection.
An alumnus offered me free legal counsel. He said I couldn’t be charged with libel if I was telling the truth, but if I continued to put pressure on this guy, he’d be forced to respond. And he’d be pulled into my life.
That was a turning point. I didn’t want to interact with him at all, so I decided not to pursue further punishment. I decided shaming him on Facebook was enough.
What happened to your rapist?
He was forced to tell his fiancé about the situation, and she ended their engagement. I contacted his ex-wife at her law firm to tell her what I’d learned about him, but never heard back.
Aside from the woman who blogged about him, none of the other women were willing to publicly address what he’d done to them. There was zero evidence and the statute of limitations had ended, so he never faced legal repercussion.
He’s gotten in trouble with the law a couple times. He’s been arrested for driving under the influence and recently got arrested for stealing a boat. But he always seems to get off. It’s ludicrous. This guy lives in one of the wealthiest communities in our country and has a highly paid job. It appears the life of this serial rapist remains unchanged. It’s unacceptable.
What were your goals in going public?
I wanted to shame him, validate his other victims, and warn the community about him.
I achieved my mission at the time, but after the dust settled it seemed inadequate. He’s gotten away with this for thirty-three years. My power resides in my ability to shine a light on his tendencies. If broaching the subject rattles his nerves, that’s an appropriate punishment.
What do you wish could have happened?
I used to have so much hatred and wished I could do things like wring his neck and get even, but I don’t feel that anymore, although I can see a case for chemical castration. I’ve reached the stage of forgiveness where I’ve let go of anger. I want to use my truth to keep him in check and show other victims that the shame belongs on the rapists.
I hope the next generation understands the importance of consent. I have a son, and I teach him that asking permission is simple. Can I hold your hand? Can I kiss you? If you’re not comfortable saying that, then you’re not mature enough to do it. Just like if you’re not brave enough to buy a condom, you’re not old enough to have sex.
How did the #MeToo movement impact you?
When #MeToo started on Twitter in 2017, I felt like I needed to listen to the stories because it’s hard to get up the courage to say all those things, and those people deserve to be heard. It was difficult for me to watch though. The movement served a purpose because women could validate and share, but I suspected nothing would change in the long term because I’d made noise and my rapist never got punished. The rapists still aren’t paying for it.
Did it help to talk about it?
Talking and writing about it has helped tremendously. I started therapy twenty years ago and can talk about it now without having an emotional or physical reaction. For a long time, the assault suppressed my personality but I’m fine now. I was raped at seventeen and am almost fifty, so it’s been a long time coming.
These days, my vengeance is based on exposure. It’s like somebody mugged me, so why shouldn’t I tell people this guy might still be out there mugging people? I’m not to blame, so I have no shame.
Rapists need to understand the consequences of what they do. A short-term power trip for the criminal can wreak havoc on the victim for decades.
What inspired you to write a book about it?
I wanted to write a story about a survivor with a more satisfying ending than my own experience. If nothing else, I hope Life of Cyn validates the experience of others, so they feel less alone. It’s okay to be upset and feel devastated. But Life of Cyn has an inspirational tone. It’s about how to move forward with grace. One of the themes is cleaning up your side of the street when it comes to conflict and resentments. Because one thing you have control over is your reaction to trauma.
When Life of Cyn begins, Cyn’s response to her rape is drinking herself to sleep every night. It’s an addiction that’s hard to get beyond, but it’s one thing she can change. Just because she’s been traumatized by her past doesn’t mean she should create trauma for others and make their lives miserable. Often when people behave badly, they have legitimate reasons to lash out, but you shouldn’t hurt people because you were hurt.
I wanted to show that rape doesn’t just impact the survivor, it affects their future relationships. The book has two points of view: Cyn and her husband. Her husband suffers from Cyn’s bad behaviour around drinking, and their sex life is damaged.
For the first ten years after my attack, I had to confide in men I was in relationships with about my assault, but I couldn’t even say the word rape. I called it the R word. I’m comfortable calling it rape now, so it’s ironic that I’ve been suppressed on social media lately when I speak about it. Words are powerful and some social media sites want me to tone it down, use more subtle terminology.
In what way are you being shut down?
A couple of my recent videos where I discuss my rape caught on fire on TikTok. In one of them I offered advanced reader copies to people, and a huge number of women responded. I was particularly thrilled when Rosie O’Donnell said she’d love to read it. But then I suddenly stopped getting views. When I investigated further, I noticed my videos had been removed from the main feed (aka, the FYP), which means I’d been shadow banned (a way to hide controversial posts without notifying the poster).
I’ve since learned there are words I’m not allowed to say on that platform: rapist, rape, sexual assault. The term sex is off limits. I need to be creative with my terminology in order to get heard. But I won’t stop. Women have been silenced for centuries about this. I’m reaching out to every connection I have to try and get book interviews to get my story in the news.
I’m currently at work on the sequel to my last novel, award-winning adventure thriller, The Last Cruz. I’m doing everything I can to market Life of Cyn and have outlined my fifth book. I recently started a newsletter and people who join receive a free short story as well as insider news about my writing. You can join my newsletter here: Caitlin Newsletter
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Booksales link: Amazon
Next time: and interview with Elizabeth Shick on The Golden Land and writing about expat life