The JRB presents a new short story by Khanya Mtshali.
The Survivor’s Group
Every Friday morning, just before her earliest lecture, she posts in the sexual assault and rape survivors group on Facebook. Her messages are usually fun and uplifting. She shares screenshots of relatable mental illness tweets with captions like ‘be kind to yourself’ and ‘don’t forget to breathe xxx’. She includes funny astrology memes mocking Cancers, or warning people about the next Mercury in retrograde. And occasionally, she sends the group articles about high-profile men being outed as predators and abusers, remembering to add the necessary trigger warnings. Like most of her peers, she is relentlessly online. Though she doesn’t like Facebook much, she figures a closed group is the only way to protect members from misogynistic trolls. Before the survivors group, she could go days without looking at her Facebook profile. Now she spends much of her time waiting for a notification to go off—a sign that the group is alive, well and thriving.
She created the survivors group six months ago after her English professor groped her in his office one late afternoon. At the time, she hadn’t considered herself political. In fact, she found most discussions about racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia and whorephobia—whatever it was!—boring and predictable. Sure, she disapproved of bigotry. Of course, she hated prejudice. But it didn’t seem to unnerve her the way it did her friends. Often, she felt like the only adult in the room as she listened to them parrot trendy online jargon, cringing at their flamboyant, all-knowing tone of voice. They all seemed so self-possessed, so eager to impress their righteousness on anybody who paid them a lick of attention.
Privately, she wondered whether her friends looked forward to seeing online displays of discrimination because it made them appear virtuous and good without having to practise those ideals offline. While they identified as every shade of radical and adopted new political identities every other week, she was mostly indifferent about things she was encouraged to be upset about. She appeared nonchalant about the minor inconveniences of being an unremarkable-looking black girl with medium brown skin, a twitchy brain, a disinterested father, a long-suffering mother and a selfish boyfriend who regarded their relationship as some kind of great injustice foisted upon him.
Her indifference went untested until the day her professor decided to slip his soggy hand underneath her skirt. She recalled gasping loudly as she pushed his arm away. When he tried again, she told him to stop, prompting him to apologise and blame his actions on misread signals. ‘I thought you came here for something else,’ she remembered him saying, as she squeezed out of the door and dashed down the empty hallway. The walk back to her res had been a blur. She may or may not have taken an Uber to the liquor store for some Black Label. She may or may not have sprinted up the two flights of stairs to her room because she feared her professor was following her.
What she did remember was feeling strange and despondent as she lay on her bed that evening. How could this man, with his lively career, bespoke tweed suits, foreign degrees and devoted wife make a pass at her? She felt insulted that he thought she would be so easy, that she would be keen to receive his advances. She didn’t feel violated per se, though she knew there was some aspect of that going on. She did, however, feel out of sorts—as if she had been transported into someone else’s reality and yanked back into her own again. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but she needed to do something. It didn’t have to be grand or consequential. She just wanted to make sense of everything on her own terms.
That evening, she decided to write a status about the incident on Facebook. In high school, she had written long, rambling reviews of her favourite television shows, earning her a large following and a reputation as the school’s resident TV critic. It had been years since she wrote a post longer than three lines, but she got into the groove of things quickly. Within 30 minutes, her status had 15 likes. Over the next hour there were 20 more, with some people leaving comments expressing their shock and sympathy. One guy in her class, a man who always wore a silver kaftan to lectures, doubted her account of things, but swiftly deleted his comments after two women accused him of gaslighting her. Around the two-hour mark, the status had 52 likes and seven shares. About an hour later, it went up to 89 likes with 11 shares. She also found herself with four new friend requests. She started monitoring the status more closely, watching the number of likes climb as people rushed to commiserate and convey their solidarity.
By midnight, she had received over a dozen messages from women wanting to share their equally creepy encounters with the professor.
‘i can’t imagine what you’re going through rn, but i hope you’re good sis. what you’re doing is soooo brave!!!’ one message read.
‘I hope that fucking predator burns in hell. He’s so fucking gross. Kept looking at my tits during meetings. V. v. sleazy. Solidarity all the way, babe,’ another one read.
‘ughh i hate that you have to go through this. you shouldn’t have to be strong but thank you for doing it for those of us who can’t!!!!’ the last message read, moving her in ways that she hadn’t expected.
When there was a lull in activity on the status, she experienced a resounding sense of guilt over the possibility of ruining another person’s life. She questioned whether she was being reckless by sharing the incident on social media. She contemplated deleting everything and claiming a lapse in sanity but soon realised a retraction would only fuck her life up more. No one had ever forgiven a woman who cried wolf. The doubts retreated as more people commented. Something about this moment felt different to any other in her life. She had never bothered to align herself with any beliefs or causes, but the incident had evolved into something bigger than her, swallowing whatever indifference she had tacitly accepted before. Two days after the incident, the dean of the English department requested a meeting with her. About a week later, she received an email informing her that the professor had been fired after an investigation by a special task force. The decision was hailed a victory by the women who had supported her throughout the ordeal. Among the friends she had once refused to take seriously, the event was referred to as a watershed moment for victims of sexual harassment and assault, which they celebrated by getting drunk on rum and box wine in her room.
Almost immediately, she became a recognisable face on campus. She was invited to speak at the AGM for the feminist society. She was given an honorary committee membership from the LGBTQIA society. The student newspaper named her the most influential person of the year. A couple of reporters from local newspapers asked to interview her, which she found flattering.
Her social media accounts were filled with death and rape threats from faceless trolls who called her an unfuckable feminazi whore and a retarded cock-sucking black bitch. Death threats were also sent to her boyfriend, who broke up with her days after the incident, citing ‘immense emotional distress’. It was the least exotic accusation he had lobbed her way. She apologised for the harm caused and wished him the best of luck before blocking his number.
She announced the launch of the sexual assault and rape survivors group through a Facebook status. In the description, she wrote that group would be a space for ‘healing, love and radical accountability’. After consulting with her friends, including the new ones she had made on the activist circuit, the group was declared to be open to women (which she now wrote as ‘womxn’), non-binary folk and ‘femme bodies’. Cisgender straight men were barred from joining. There was no explicit requirement for anyone to be a sexual assault or rape survivor but they have to be committed to understanding rape culture. Within hours of creating the group, she had over 103 members. By the end of the week, 238. Most of them were black women who identified as black feminists, black socialists, black lesbians, or just as womanists.
During the first three months, there was some debate about the role of the group. The more radical members wanted it to expose alleged rapists and abusers on campus and elsewhere, while more moderate members believed it should be a place for survivors to take their mind off the trauma of sexual crimes. Some questioned how she would ensure the voices of survivors were centred, since there were non-survivors in the group. She didn’t have an answer to these concerns, which caused some members to inquire about her fitness to stand as the sole admin. She decided to appoint three other admins: a straight self-proclaimed brown woman with decidedly middle-class origins, a poor, black, non-binary lesbian, and a queer white woman. She was later forced to remove the white woman as an admin after she admitted to lying about being a scholarship kid. A mixed-race black woman was appointed to take her place. She had neglected to check whether the identities were intersectional enough, which irritated members of the group who felt stifled by how ‘aggressively bourgeois’ the admins were. About 26 of them severed ties to form their own survivors group, mainly comprising poor women, non-binary folk and femme bodies of colour. She accepted the split; she didn’t want to cause any conflict with the other group. By the end of the week, the number of members of her group went down to 208, with four more people leaving for the breakaway faction.
Despite these early challenges, she regarded each group member as a relative, if not a sister. There had been small disagreements about some things: namely her reliance on ableisms and fat-phobic, wellness speak. She once posted an article about women reclaiming their periods that attracted mass criticism from members. She was told that periods weren’t solely the experience of cis girls who treated womanhood and femininity as their exclusive playground. She immediately apologised and deleted the post, promising to do better. Now she used the term ‘menstruaters’, which sounded more badass than whatever the hell she had been saying before.
She hoped they could see how hard she was trying to be good. Yes, she fucked up—more often than she would have liked. But she was learning and unlearning, as some of the group members liked to say. She hated being wrong but was more than prepared to repent for it. So far, the group had outed about 25 alleged rapists, assaulters, harassers and abusers. Of the 21 men and four women named, only two had been suspended from campus. The others just kept a low profile. When rumours began to circulate about her former professor securing a job at a neighbouring university four months after the incident, the group initiated a week-long protest supported by the feminist and LGBTQIA society. The neighbouring university was forced to release a statement denying they were employing the professor. She treated the announcement as a victory, even though she knew better.
Around the group’s six-month mark, she noticed herself being excluded more than usual. Whereas her regular Friday morning posts had usually received at least 30 likes, they now barely left single-digit territory. Whereas she once shared the latest gossip and in-jokes about group members with the other admins, they now said things that went over her head. She wasn’t sure what she’d done to make people think, ‘ugh, it’s her’. She considered messaging the black lesbian admin to ask whether she had offended anyone in the group but decided against it. She didn’t want her to think that she, a straight black girl who oscillated within the middle class, was demanding emotional and political labour from a poor, black, non-binary lesbian. Plus, being that vulnerable and desperate would arouse suspicion and invite searches into her flawed internet history. She was fairly sure that she had deleted all problematic content but there was a chance she could have missed something.
When she returned to her room after her final lecture of the day, she scrolled again through her social media accounts, looking for anything incriminating. She found the following: a tweet from 2013 calling Michael Jackson a genius (bad), a Facebook status about how terrible Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was (she knew she shouldn’t have watched that shit, fuck) and another tweet about the Jackson Five being one of the best bands of all time (was the Jackson Five off limits because of MJ now? She had no idea).
The following week, the group made plans to celebrate its six-month birthday, which she found ridiculous but participated in anyway. Her suggestions were more or less glossed over. She found this hurtful but reminded herself that her job was one of facilitation, not friendship. Maybe the full group hadn’t seen her posts yet? She wouldn’t know. She told herself this was the cost of being the founder, but wasn’t quite convinced.
After much consideration, which included the park, the zoo, a night out, and a braai at some unsuspecting boy’s house, the group chose to host the anniversary party on a Sunday afternoon at the mixed-race black woman’s ‘rich uncle’s house’, with its big, Olympic-sized pool. She suspected there was no rich uncle. In fact, she was sure that the mixed-race black woman was actually just a rich girl who lived with her rich parents, but kept this to herself.
‘Thanks so much girl. Really look forward to seeing you all,’ she posted in the group, getting only eight likes.
‘Is your uncle single,’ a fairly inactive group member commented, followed by three side-eye emojis. The comment was liked 48 times, with plenty of laughing emojis.
Shamefully, it made her heart sink. Against her better judgement, she replied with the line, ‘leadership^^^’ under the comment. It was completely hilarious to her, but only received four likes. She logged out of the app on her phone and laptop, choosing to migrate to Instagram where she could just be a pleasing image, enthusiastic admirer or jealous lurker.
She tried to stay off Facebook for the rest of the weekend. Her insecurities about her likeability were getting the better of her and she felt a social media detox was necessary. On Saturday evening, however, she caved and logged into the app, telling herself that she was just trying to make sure she didn’t miss any details about Sunday’s party. She was greeted with a raft of notifications, but none from the group. She searched for the group name on her profile. It didn’t appear. How strange, she thought. She refreshed her page but the name didn’t come up. She looked through all her groups again, going as far back as 2009 when she started her first group, ‘***!~~jOhNnY dePp rOcKs!~~***’. She refreshed again and again but nothing showed up. She began to ask herself the unthinkable: Have they removed me? No, she told herself, no way. No fucking way. She refreshed and searched once more. Not a single survivors group in sight. How dare they remove me from the group I started, she said to herself, kneading her fist against her head then punching it against her desk.
She scanned her notifications and discovered she’d been tagged in four statuses. She read them, and it was made clear that she had indeed been kicked out of her own group. The reasons for her dismissal were vague and declarative, expressed in snark, irony and passive aggression—the young internet’s three official languages.
‘Your fave declared herself the Head Girl of a movement yet lacked the range to make sure her own house was in order. You hate to see it!!’ one status read.
She recognised the name from the survivors group. ‘Fucking bitch,’ she said out loud, fixing her hands to type a message before realising how deathly that would be.
‘YOH YOH YOH! Imagine making “sexual assault survivor” your brand when you’re also rapey? Make it make sense? The gall. THE. GALL Y’ALL,’ another status read.
Rapey? Her? Rapey? The word rang in her ears like a noisy school bell. Never had she been called that … the very word disgusted her. What the fuck? How? Had she unknowingly remained friends with a rapey guy whose rapeyness had rubbed off on her? Did she maybe touch someone by accident as she was running around campus after the incident with her professor, prompting them to think she was rapey? She was stunned but frightened that she might have done something wrong without knowing. She attempted to find the admins to see what they’d said about her. She quickly realised she’d been mass blocked. She typed their names in slowly but they continued not to show up. She went to her inbox to see if there was a message from anyone to explain what happened.
With the exception of three people who wanted to interview her about featuring in some slick corporate feminist campaign, she saw a message from the black lesbian who she quietly resented for being popular. She confirmed what was becoming increasingly apparent: that she had been removed from the group and blocked by most of the members because of a sexual assault accusation. A couple had written to the group on Friday afternoon, right when she logged off Facebook. They wanted to inform members about how Lindiwe Ndlovu, founder of the group, had assaulted them in their own apartment more a year ago.
The evening was supposed to be calm but it got out of hand. Lindiwe had come with a mutual friend. Lots of liquor was consumed and the couple got drunk very fast. Lindiwe seemed to be the most sober out of everyone. The mutual friend took an Uber home and left Lindiwe alone with the couple. After her friend had gone, Lindiwe became more rowdy and out of control, trying to force the couple to drink more, despite them saying no. She called their mutual friend a queer slur which confused and offended the couple. When they told Lindiwe she would have to leave if she continued to be queerphobic, she apologised then told them she wasn’t ‘straight-straight’ in case they were interested. The couple ignored her and looked for something to eat so they could sober up.
Lindiwe followed them to the kitchen where she began slapping their asses and touching their boobs. The couple told her to stop but she laughed them off, calling them weak lesbians for being scared of a tiny straight girl. The couple told Lindiwe she had to leave but she refused, telling them she would only leave if they ate her out and had a threesome with her. The couple rejected the idea and Lindiwe began to break down and cry, telling them how ugly, undesirable and unlovable she was. The couple felt awkward while eating their sandwiches. They tried to call the friend but she wasn’t picking up. They asked Lindiwe for the number of another friend but she pretended not to hear them.
The couple tried to walk to their bedroom but Lindiwe stood in their way, demanding a goodnight kiss from both of them. While they didn’t want Lindiwe in their apartment, they weren’t going to throw a young woman out on the street at night. They told her she could crash on the couch. Lindiwe finally agreed to sleep but still demanded a goodnight kiss. They pecked Lindiwe to get her to go to sleep and she slapped their vaginas and ran back to the couch laughing. Though she seemed drunk, the couple was certain she wanted to make them uncomfortable. The next morning, she asked for a threesome again but they threatened to get the security guard to kick her out. She eventually left, taking half a bottle of red wine with her.
The couple claimed there were more women with similar stories to theirs about Lindiwe. The black lesbian informed Lindiwe that she was only messaging her because she had asked why she was kicked out of the group. Her allegiance lay with the survivors. She also told her that the group intended to release a statement about the couple’s claims. Lindiwe put down her phone and banged her head against a wooden door frame. There was nothing more for her to say. It was true that she had done all of those things, but she had done them when she was depressed, lost, drunk and ridden with self-hate. She had not regarded herself as a predator, merely an obnoxious straight girl who said dumb shit to lesbians when she got drunk. She knew there was no way to explain herself out of this behaviour, so she decided to go to the party to make them see how sorry she really was.
She arrived at the party later and drunker than everyone else. She lied about her identity to the security guard at the complex, who was amused at how warmly she was dressed, in such oppressive heat. She slurred her words, grinning, which prompted him to ask whether she had a cold. She said no. He let her Uber through. She got out and stumbled up the pathway towards the house, walking with a heavy limp. She knocked on the door and was greeted by the mixed-race black woman who tried to shut her out as soon as she saw her face.
‘Please, Doreen! I want to apologise to you all, seriously. Let me in,’ she pleaded. Doreen struggled for a bit.
‘Fuck off Lindi. You have no righ—’
‘Please, please. Just let me in. I won’t take more than five minutes, I promise.’
‘Okay fine. You have five minutes then I want you out. ASAP!’ Doreen said.
Lindiwe walked into the house and made her way to the pool area where everyone was congregated. The pool was indeed Olympian—large and deep with an Art Deco design on its walls. She walked towards the group, who started whispering among themselves when they clocked her coming. She opened her arms as if she was going in for a group hug before turning slightly and walking past them.
‘I’m still unlearning you guys, just bear with me’, she yelled, before tossing herself towards the deepest end of the pool and letting her heavy coat drag her to the bottom.
It didn’t quite.
Her body kept sinking then rising to the top. She took a few breaths before trying to anchor herself down towards the pool floor. It didn’t work. By this time, a few members of the group had jumped into the pool. They took the small bits of brick out of her coat and swam with her to the shallow end. Everyone went quiet as Lindiwe was propped up in one of the pool chairs. She kept crying and crying as she choked up bits of water.
She had just tried to kill herself in front of a group of people—and failed. She wanted to run away but that felt like an even more cowardly move. She would just have to stew in the dramatic humiliation of it all. The mixed-race black woman threw a towel over Lindiwe’s back and held her hand limply.
‘I’m sorry about this, guys,’ Lindiwe said. The rest of the group remained silent, staring at the ripples in the pool.