Whether you’re traveling on a bus in New Delhi or drinking at a teen party in Steubenville, Ohio, rape is never far, it seems. Nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States has been raped at some point in her life, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; most cases occur before age 25. Across the planet, more than 1 in 3 women will be physically or sexually abused by men.
But whatever the grisly statistics, the number of people damaged by rape is much higher. Those devastated by sexual violence against women far outnumber any official tallies.
I know this math intimately.
In 2001, my identical twin, Cara, was raped by Edgardo Hernandez, a stranger, when we were 24. It was a violent act that destroyed her. And then it almost destroyed me.
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After her rape, Cara took drugs in quantities that would prove to be lethal, doses she felt she needed to help her forget. She died from an overdose on a late spring afternoon – June 13, 2006. And even though her death was an accident, no one who knew Cara doubts that Hernandez, though he didn’t murder her, took her life nonetheless. It just took four years, seven months and 26 days.
Cara said it best from the witness stand during her rapist’s sentencing: “Edgardo Hernandez is the worst kind of thief. He did not steal my wedding rings, yet my marriage has dissolved. He did not take my legs, yet for over a year I was afraid to leave my house, to walk around in broad daylight. Oct. 18, 2001, was the day I died.”
My sister died from a rape. She is that rape’s core victim – its axis of suffering, of torment, of woe – but she is not its only victim.
I don’t know how our mother, who raised us alone, has managed to endure. Mom was the one who bandaged Cara’s badly injured back where Hernandez bit it during her rape. And Mom was the one who found Cara’s body when she died.
But she was not the only person touched by her. Cara’s high school teachers and her college professors loved her. Her husband loved her. All of them lost her when she died.
Researchers speculate that when a twin dies, the surviving twin’s life expectancy is shortened. I barely survived Cara’s death. The agony of losing her was inescapable. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw her. Whenever I spoke, I heard her. And then, because I missed her so and wanted her back, I tried to become her.
I took drugs. I attempted suicide. My first marriage ended after Cara died. Now my second husband must hold me and listen to my version of Cara’s story whenever the anguish wells up again.
I survived, but it was a close call.
Cara’s rapist struck every person who ever loved her. Then he hurt every person who ever loved me.
“I’m not the same,” my sister often said after her rape, “but you want me to be.” She was right. There was a Cara before and a Cara after.
This isn’t easy to admit, but when Cara was learning to navigate the world as a changed woman, I pleaded with her to move on. I found myself replacing the word “rape” with the word “attack,” sanitizing the truth. But rape gains power in the shadows. Cara said we must never look away.
When you hear or see a story about rape or read a statistic about sexual violence against women, multiply the number of people harmed. Be conservative, if you must. Assume that two other women loved or depended on each woman or girl who was violated. So, for one rape, three are injured. And 1 in 3 women is assaulted worldwide. So, what’s that?
Three in three women are harmed.