That morning, Michelle presented her Psychology honours thesis on rape. It began: “A woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read…” That evening, celebrating her degree, she and a friend go to the beach, where they are both robbed, assaulted and raped. Within minutes of getting help, Michelle realizes she’ll never be herself again. She is now “the girl who was raped.” This book is Michelle’s fight to be herself again. Of the taint she feels, despite the support and resources at her disposal as the child of a successful middle-class family. Of the fall-out to friendships, job, identity. It’s Michelle’s brave way of standing up for the many women in South Africa, and around the world, who are raped every day.
“Compelling, clear and beautiful writing on such a necessary topic. She shatters rape myths on every page.”
—Jen Thorpe, gender activist, author of The Peculiars
“Michelle Hattingh gives us a coming of age story in our rape culture. Her generosity provides young women with examples of self care, solidarity and intelligence with which to grow and thrive in spite of the horror of male violence against women.”
—Lee Lakeman, feminist anti-violence activist and author of Obsession, With Intent: Violence Against Women
“A book that discusses the cross-cutting nature of the pain all women must feel when a man rapes them can only be welcomed”.
—Kathleen Dey, Rape Crisis, South Africa
Michelle Hattingh was born in South Africa in 1988 and holds an Honours in Psychology from the University of Cape Town. She works as a senior online content producer at Marie Claire SA. This is her first book.
As she starts telling her story, I look over her shoulder and see two well-dressed men heading in our direction. I don’t think much of it when one of the guys comes and sits on the bench next to us. It irritates me, but it doesn’t scare me.
“Are you tomboys,” he asks, but it’s not a question. He leans his upper body over his knees, folding his hands together in a cavalier manner. This is obviously some kind of lingo but I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“Are you lesbians?” he asks. Now I get it.
“No,” I say defensively. The other guy is standing behind us and we can’t see him. The guy who speaks to us is well-dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. The only rational thing to do in these situations is to get out. I am not scared. I am irritated with these guys for interrupting our important talk. I want to protect my friend.
“We are leaving now,” I say, getting up assertively.
“No, no, we’ll go,” he says and they start to walk away. For a moment, I am relieved. This is always how these situations end. Always. They walk about twenty metres away and I see them standing and talking about something. The waves continue to spray over us. “Mich, I’m scared,” my friend says.
“It’s fine, don’t worry, we’ll leave now,” I’m irritated with her for being scared. Haven’t I been in similar situations hundreds of times before? All we need to do is get out of there. I turn around from looking at them. I can’t see them. Then I hear them walking back to us and I know. I know.
They are on us. One grabs my friend, his knife against her throat. The other lunges next to me. Flashes his panga. Hands are on my bag. They are shouting. I won’t let go of my bag. I fall to the ground. He tries to jerk my bag away from my body. My heart is in my head.
This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
“Give me!” He holds his panga over my body.
I let go. I have no idea what’s going on with my friend. I can’t see her.
This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening
I’m the Girl Who Was Raped by Michelle Hattingh
reviewed by Manjeet Birk
Herizons – spring 2018
I’m the Girl who Was Raped is a memoir by South African Michelle Hattingh about her experience of rape and its aftermath. This a timely book in a #MeToo world where it seems as though every other headline is exposing a seedy underbelly of power-hungry men and the women they have victimized throughout their careers.
Despite the growing frequency of rape reportage, I still felt incredibly self-conscious while reading the book in public places. The title—including the word “raped,” which appears in bold, broken red letters on the cover—looks powerful and severe. I could feel the sideways glances of those around me who appeared to be uncomfortable with the subject matter of the book.
Yet this response to the word “rape” is exactly why we need more books that explore women’s honest experiences of rape and its consquences. Although the book’s jarring cover would make my hand shake every time I picked it up, the inside is actually easy to read and is filled with a soft, comfortable intimacy.
Hattingh describes how her thinking was affected by the assult, and she discusses the way in which rape myths clouded her psyche.
Yet I couldn’t help but wonder how a white woman who was raped by a dark-skinned man could write about rape in South Africa without providing an essential racialized context to power relations in that country—one that includes an analysis of the long-term effects of apartheid on its social fabric. While the author talks openly about her class privilege and her background, which included horseback riding, elaborate parties, educational opportunities, and travel, she does not analyze the origins of the privilege within a broader historic context of apartheid.
That said, I’m the Girl who Was Raped is nonetheless a brave book. Every rape story is an important one, and is worthy of being told, heard and shared.