In her debut memoir, Neesha Arter shares the year of her life that followed a harrowing crime. When she was fourteen years old, she was sexually assaulted by people she had no reason to mistrust. She tried, subsequently, to reconcile feelings of guilt and shame by searching for a means of control. In a whirlwind of legal proceedings, family conflicts, and loss of identity, Arter succumbed to anorexia as the only way to find her childhood self in an unraveling world. Ten years later, she is able to look back with healing insight about the importance of speaking uncomfortable truths. Our Editor-In-Chief author of Fame Shark, Royal Young spoke with Arter about young voices, survival, therapy, Planned Parenthood and how life can change on the drop of a dime.
Do you think there is an important lesson to be learned from young voices? What is it?
I think young voices are some of the most courageous voices out there. The odds are stacked against young writers. When it comes to young authors of memoirs, I think it’s a little foolish to assume that nothing meaningful happens to the young.
What are your most positive means of survival?
I am very lucky to have such a wonderful support system in my life, so spending time with my friends and family has really been the reason I was able to get this book published.
Is writing (or creating in general) the best form of therapy?
For me, writing this book was incredibly therapeutic, that being said, I would not be here if it were not for therapy. Dealing with trauma is not something you can really successfully do on your own, in my opinion.
How can our lives change in an instant for good or bad and how does sudden change impact us?
Life will always turn on a dime and I’ve learned that it really is how we react to it. After a few years, I decided to turn this traumatic year of my life into a way to help others, so I think trying to turn the negatives into positives is really important.
What do you get the most joy from these days?
I actually have found great joy in helping others when it comes to my social activism because of this book. I recently spoke at the National Planned Parenthood Conference in DC this summer and had many young girls come up to me and tell me about their own sexual abuse stories and how much it helped them to hear my story and read this book. I also get great joy from the people in my life and my incredible family. I am so very lucky to have the support system that I have.
If you could give advice to your younger self and/or young people experiencing similar turbulence to what you went through, what would it be?
I would tell them that it’s okay to ask for help. I would also suggest telling someone you trust because you shouldn’t have to go through this experience alone.
Prelude december, 2006
There’s a soft sound in here, the sort of sound that no one can hear but you—the sort of sound you feel. It’s the hum you make up in your head when the boy you like brushes your hair out of your face with his fingers and kisses you. I hear something ever so faint, but it might just be the immense silence of my room. My shoulder quivers as if someone tapped me, but no one’s here. I am alone with this memory.
On my fourteenth New Year’s Eve, the only desire I knew was longing for the boy I liked to touch my hand as he walked by. I was petite and pretty then—or at least I thought I was—with long, straight, black hair and dark brown eyes against my tanned Indian skin. But on that New Year’s Eve, a chilly night in Houston, I secretly wished for even more smoldering looks. I could never have imagined that by the next morning my dreams would be shattered, my mind poisoned, and my body raped.
Before that night, a year ago now, I never once pictured myself as the victim. Yet, as I look at my familiar bedroom walls and feel the weight of pink cotton sheets on my motionless body, I’m transported back to Houston. The sheets feel scratchy against my skin, but I don’t move to adjust them. It hurts too much to look at my own body. Inadvertently I spot my kneecaps poking through the thin material, and the sight makes me tremble. The white curtains that have shut out the world remain closed, leaving me alone in my claustrophobic room.
A ray of light peers through the curtains, but still this room feels like a trap. I want to escape from this room. I want to escape from that night.
That New Year’s Eve, the threshold of 2006, brings with it the shaking apprehension I felt all last year, when I was fourteen. That night I remember shuddering, but most of all I remember the paralysis, the terror of being violated. As I toss and turn in these pink sheets, those feelings plague me once again.
My body tingles like it would on a first date, except there’s no excitement or anticipation. I rub my stinging eyes, but I cannot rub away the image of the boys’ faces. As I lie here, I don’t feel like myself. Something’s wrong. My heartbeat won’t slow down. Bubbles and bubbles fill my stomach; like adding baking soda to vinegar, they just keep overflowing, but I am here alone.
1december 31, 2005
A group of us girls sat on one of the couches in the living room eating chips: my cousin Anita’s friends from school—Lisa and Kate— and me. Anita, my closest cousin, the sister I never had, stood across the room with her older brother, Rob.
“Hey, what movie do you guys want to watch?”
Such an inconsequential question, but it’s the first clear thing I remember about that night. My cousin Rob looked over at Mark and Will as he asked it. Rob, two years older and cooler, was always off with his best friend, Mark. I had grown close to Mark over the years, and like Rob, he treated me like a little sister. He always gave me the best hugs, asked me about volleyball, and wanted to know if I had a new favorite movie. I didn’t; it was still Miss Congeniality. I loved this sweet charm he had about him. I’m sure every girl dreamed about being with him, but I had never thought of Mark in that way. As boy-crazy as I was, I never felt the urge to kiss him or anything like that, but I will admit he wasn’t bad to look at with his dark skin and those piercing golden-brown eyes. Mark was tall, like all the boys, but I knew him all my life and always thought of him as a little kid. Rob and Mark were practically brothers. They bought the newest video games every time a new one came out and would play it for hours while Anita and I would be outside passing a volleyball back and forth. We shared our passion for the sport and both played the same position: setter.
I glanced at the black clock. It read 11:00 p.m.—one hour until the New Year!
“I don’t know,” Will said. “Anything.”
“Anita, come over here,” I yelled across the room. “I want to talk to you.”
I waited until she walked over, her black hair bouncing behind her in a tight ponytail. She settled down on the couch between Kate and me.
“Do you think Will’s cute?” I whispered, blushing. I did—I thought he was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. With dark brown eyes and the longest eyelashes that flicked in my direction, he didn’t look like any of the boys I knew from my school. He had a sharp jawline like the actors do in the movies, and his hair fell perfectly, though it was slightly short—not a buzz cut but not quite long enough to run your fingers through it. Will was older, maybe even one year older than Rob, and almost six feet tall. He wore dark jeans and a fitted button-down black shirt. “I can’t stop staring at him.”
Anita’s eyes lit up, and a smile spread across her face. “Neesha! Yes. You guys would be perfect together. He’s older, cooler. More mature.”
“He’s like seventeen!” “Exactly.” “I don’t know if he even likes me.” “He totally does. Rob was telling me that he thinks you’re cute.” I felt my blush return and excitement dancing through my whole being. “No way!” “Yes!”
I glowed. “I so hope you’re right.”
The movie Fight Club started playing in the background as everyone sipped champagne out of plastic red cups. The giant living room had four different couches in it and the biggest flat-screen television I’d ever seen. Leather chairs and glass coffee tables made me feel so adult, and champagne bubbles tickled my tongue when I took a few sips. The stereo system played music in all ten rooms of my aunt and uncle’s house, including the kitchen. It was like being in a hotel, right down to the water slide in the backyard pool and the massive sauna. With fifteen minutes to go, we turned off the movie in favor of the New Year’s Eve countdown. We all topped off our champagne and laughed away the last strokes of the year. I stood between Anita and Rob, each with an arm wrapped around me. As the clock struck midnight, we jumped up and down in tipsy glee. “Happy New Year!” we shouted in unison, and I hugged both my cousins. I glanced over Rob’s shoulder across the room to find Will staring at me, his eyes twinkling. “Happy New Year,” he mouthed as he winked at me. My heart somersaulted in my chest in the most childish way, and I knew he was my new crush.
We settled down onto the couches and put the movie back on. An hour or so went by before I heard a creak and saw the front door open. Rob and Anita’s parents—my aunt and uncle—walked into the living room, all smiles as they passed through on the way to their bedroom. We used to play the most intensive games of hide and seek when we were younger because there were so many clever hiding spots. I would usually hide in my aunt’s closet in the very back corner behind all her saris and Indian scarves, but the options were endless with two floors of rooms in this house.
“Happy New Year!” my uncle yelled. “Happy New Year!” we shouted back. My aunt paused in the hallway. “You guys really should go to bed soon. I’m sure everyone’s had a long night.” “Okay, Mom,” Rob said, mild irritation in his tone. “I mean it, kids,” my aunt insisted. Rob let out a big sigh but clicked off the television by remote.
“Fine, we heard you.” She smiled at her son, and then she gave the rest of us a wave.
“Good night everybody!” Rob sat up and stretched, then he fell back onto the couch. “You guys just want to sleep in here?” he asked Mark and Will. They did.
Anita and I walked to her room with Lisa and Kate. Their giggles were subdued as everyone changed into their pajamas and climbed into Anita’s bed. After a while, Lisa and Anita slept in her bed, while Kate and I both had sleeping bags on the floor. As kids, Anita, Rob and I used to have sleepovers in her room as if we were camping, tucked into our favorite sleeping bags; mine was a perfect shade of blueberry blue, and here I was snuggled up in it again. Moving back and forth, I remembered those days that felt like everything was simple. At that moment it still did. I turned to look at the bed and saw the girls now resting, their murmurs ceased and their breathing slow and even. I shifted my legs beneath my sleeping bag and stared at the clock. It was 2:04 a.m., but I wasn’t the slightest bit sleepy—and I couldn’t get Will out of my head. His eyes glimmered in the darkness of my mind, his smile brightened my face, and his wink sent shivers up and down my spine.
Rustling around for a couple minutes longer, I realized I couldn’t bear the curiosity of what he was doing anymore. I slid out of my sleeping bag and tiptoed from Anita’s room back to the living room.
“Not the best New Year’s,” Mark complained as I crept down the hallway.
The floor creaked beneath my feet. Mark and Will jerked their heads toward me. Blushing, I came out from behind the wall. “Oh, hey, Neesha.” Will smiled. “What are you doing up?”
“I can’t sleep.” I returned the older boy’s smile. “What about you guys?”
Will muttered something, but I couldn’t catch his words. My confidence started to falter. I dropped my eyes to his shadow and shifted my weight from foot to foot. I was wearing my favorite red volleyball shirt from the summer camp I went to the year before, with black-and-white striped pajama pants. Beneath that favorite shirt was a black bra from Victoria’s Secret and matching pink lace underwear.
“Did you have a good night, Neesha?” Mark asked me.
He appeared the same as always, with a look of care, almost brotherly, but when I lifted my gaze I saw a grin I had never seen before. I didn’t like that grin; it made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.
“Yeah,” I said uneasily. “It was really good.” “Nice…” Mark said, with sort of a snotty tone. Will came over to me and grabbed my hand. “Come with me,
Neesha—I want to show you something.” What could I do but follow? As he led me out of the room, I wondered what he could possibly want to show me in the rarely used exercise room. But I didn’t say anything, didn’t listen to that little voice of warning inside my head. I could only focus on the feel of his fingers wrapped so tightly around my hand.