The solution came to me while watching the evening news: guns. I’d heard of people doing fire walks, beating pillows with baseball bats—even taking hallucinogens in the Peruvian rainforest. But I needed something more potent than an Amazonian shaman could provide.
At 23 I was raped. Fresh out of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, which at the time revolved around working a few shifts a week as a bartender, going out afterward—and debating whether I had enough money left over at the end of the month to buy those discounted designer shoes. (The answer, true or not, was always yes.)
One night, I went to the apartment of guy I knew from work to smoke a joint and listen to music. I only liked him as a friend, but I let him kiss me anyway. He lived in a studio, and I decided to take a quick nap before attempting to drive home. I never would have worried about being raped by someone I knew. Why would you?
When I awoke, I found that he had unzipped my pants and stuck his fingers inside of me. I froze. He kept going. While it was happening, my mind completely checked out. Afterwards, I told myself that it had all been a big misunderstanding—because that was simply easier than confronting the truth.
My denial allowed me to ignore the panic attacks I suffered over the next year. Even now, as a 33-year-old woman living in a different city with a successful career, the hair on the back of my neck still stands up whenever I’m in my office building’s elevator alone with a group of men.
But pretending like it never happened worked so well for so long. I didn’t even wonder why I hadn’t gone on a date for almost a decade. Instead, I had two long-term relationships with men who had both been my friends, and I married the second. He became the first person I ever told—and only because I felt I owed him an explanation after bursting into tears during sex.
“I was raped.”
The words just fell out of my mouth.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” he responded.
I wasn’t willing to discuss the details—I found them too painful. And he didn’t push me. Eventually, I went to see a therapist for my chronic anxiety. When she asked if I’d ever been sexually assaulted, I offered only a “maybe.” Still, it took whole year for me to tell her what exactly had happened.
Talking about it was like draining an infected wound. And after several months, I saw the first flaky signs of a scab—in the form of anger.
The original twinges arrived by way of violent revenge fantasies. Like the flashbacks I’d experienced when I first started talking about my sexual assault in therapy, they crept in from uncharted corners of my mind. I found myself picturing my rapist’s head—except it was no longer attached to his body. Having been violated in an irreversible manner, I wanted to somehow do the same to him. Also, I happened to be binge-watching The Walking Dead. My anger presented itself as a form of healing. I wanted to pick at this new scab, and relish my newfound ability to bleed.
I would have never even considered guns, had they not been constantly popping up in my Facebook feed between photos of my baby nieces at a pumpkin patch and family portraits of people I barely knew in high school. The stream was unrelenting: article shares, status updates, and daily comments. Guns had become so embedded in our culture that I was almost surprised curiosity hadn’t gotten the better of me sooner.
Sure, a kickboxing or self-defense class may have offered a similar release, but what I really wanted was access to something that I felt had been taken from me when I experienced rape: control.
As a young liberal living in city with strict gun laws, it had never occurred to me that there might be people attending target practice just a block away from my office on Fifth Avenue. A quick Google search revealed that the only shooting range in Manhattan happened to be down the street from where I’d been working as a copywriter for three years at a women’s fashion brand.
I imagined myself presenting snappy headlines about this season’s Italian cashmere in the morning, firing off a few rounds over lunch, and then returning in time for my afternoon e-commerce connection meeting. I thought that if I took on a new secret—like leading a double life as a markswoman—it might somehow override the shameful one that had lived inside of me for so many years.
The range required that I pass a background check and attend a short safety lesson before I could handle a .22 caliber rifle. The laws in NYC restrict citizens from even renting a handgun without a license—a disappointment for my fantasy, which had me in red lipstick and leather pants, my legs hip-width apart as I fired bullets out of a silver pistol and into the heart of a shadowy male figure.
Instead, I wore jeans and a sweater and recruited my husband to tag along.
“But you hate guns,” he said.
He had a point. After the shooting in Sandy Hook, in my mind guns had gone from a danger to society to downright detestable. If owning a firearm led to either nothing or death, why take the risk? As a proponent of animal rights, I also despised hunting. When confronted with a spider of almost any size, my response was usually a loud squeak followed by, “Don’t kill it!”
I’d never even seen a gun up close. But suddenly couldn’t wait to get my hands on one, in this desperate attempt to reclaim something that I’d lost. I scheduled our safety session for the next available Saturday, and we arrived 15 minutes early to a basement on 20th Street lined with photos of gun-wielding celebrities like 50 Cent and Robert De Niro. A group of mustached men sat near the check-in window discussing Texas’s open carry laws, their sentences punctuated by loud popping noises from the shooting range.
“Rifle lesson?” one asked.
He pointed us toward a classroom that reminded me of middle-school detention, except with weapons training. The first thing we did was sign releases stating that we understood our visits might result in death.
Fine, whatever—get to the guns. My hyperactive safety instincts tried to kick in, but I kicked them straight back out, only momentarily picturing what my parents’ reactions to the news of my untimely death might be.
“She died at a gun range? And without protective eyewear? There must be some mistake.”
A man with full-sleeve tattoos and Vans slip-ons gave a 20-minute demo, during which I learned how to load my weapon, operate the safety, and probably avoid accidentally shooting anyone. The experience was surreal: grasping the basics of handling a firearm alongside four other couples who would appear less out of place squabbling over thread count in the bedding department at Macys.
Next, we moved on to filling our magazines, which I learned meant shoving bullets into little plastic containers that looked like powder-keg Monopoly hotels. I was nervously lining mine up along the table when I noticed our instructor setting up the lanes with standard archery targets. I raised my hand to ask the goblin tattoo on his neck a question.
“Is there any way I could shoot at the outline of a person?”
This felt important to my healing process.
He disappeared into an office and reappeared with a stack of shaded-in male figures. “Take as many as you like.”
I needed only one, which I clipped to the cord above my shooting booth and wound out into my lane about 25 feet. I loaded the first rounds into my rifle, set my line of sight at the center of the silhouette, braced myself, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Oops—safety. I clicked the switch to red (“red=dead,” I’d learned in the lesson), refocused my aim, and then pulled the trigger again.
The bullet went straight through my target’s neck.
To free yourself from blame after a rape, you have to get rid of the idea of alternate possibilities—to accept the absence of any thread connecting you to an alternate universe in which you may have had access to a different fate. For me, that thread was spun from fibers like “I didn’t have to drink that night,” “I didn’t have to go into his apartment,” and certainly “I didn’t have to kiss him.” Fear of whatever grief might reveal itself once that thread finally snapped was precisely what kept it in place.
Shortly after my original lifeline of denial and Xanax broke, I found myself grasping for any proof that that I could have somehow prevented what happened. Only when I let go of the self-blame was I able to let in the anger. It washed over me like a torrent. I suddenly wanted to scream at every person I passed on the street. I was angry that my life had been forever changed for reasons I would never understand. I was angry that for years, instead of hating the person responsible, I’d actually hated myself. I was even angry that I hadn’t gotten angry sooner.
I had falsely assumed that shooting would work out for me like bowling or darts—that is, poorly—so I was surprised when I was able to hit my target at all, let alone 50 times through the chest. Who’s incapacitated now? It felt oddly serene, looking down the barrel of a rifle while holding my body as still as possible and calmly pumping out a round per second.
I was interrupted only when the gun jammed—if a bullet loaded incorrectly or a shell casing failed to expel properly. By the time I’d ripped through all of my allotted ammo, there were two extra bullets from failed attempts. I pocketed them as souvenirs and swept up the brass-colored casings from the floor.
I decided then to check in on my husband in the next booth over, who seemed to have forgotten why we were there in the first place. He was gleefully pulling the trigger on something called a bolt-action rifle, which had a slower fire rate and was taking longer to unload all of his ammunition.
He had to manually pull a lever (the bolt action) before each shot, which caused the gun to kick back into his shoulder. It released .38 caliber bullets, which blew visibly larger holes in his circular target than my .22s, which suddenly appeared puny by comparison.
I decided I wasn’t quite ready to go home either. Perhaps I feared that my anger would be fleeting. That if I let my rage slip away, I would fall back into sadness. Or maybe I was even more afraid that I might get better. That one day I would move on with my life and no longer wonder if the man who raped me had a wife or a daughter or if he even remembered my name.
I went back to my shooting booth and pulled out the bullets that I’d saved in my pocket. I pressed them into one of my empty magazines, slammed it into the chamber of my rifle, and shot the paper silhouette twice more through the chest.
When I originally suggested the shooting range to my husband as an outlet for my healing, I had been attending a 12-week group therapy for sexual assault survivors. In the first session, a woman said something that stuck with me. She felt like a piece of her soul had been stolen from her and hidden at the bottom of the ocean—and that no matter what she did, she would never be able to find it or get it back.
Over the next weeks, we all were asked to share the details of our assaults. When I told my own story, I thought I might die from shame. But when I heard what had happened to the other women, I became angry on their behalf. When they expressed feelings of self-blame, I felt a long-overdue conviction. If they were clearly not to blame, then neither was I.
When we talked about how to move on with our lives, one woman said to the first woman: “You’re like a phoenix, rising from the ashes.”
This made me wonder what my own life could have been like, had it never been reduced to ashes.
There is a certain finality that comes with having shot a gun. You cannot unlearn how easy it would be to actually hurt someone. You remember that nothing in life can be truly taken back.
I didn’t return to the range in the next few weeks, although I considered it. I kept my shiny new three-month membership card in the outside pocket of my leather backpack next to my keys, secretly hoping it would fall out while I was mid-conversation with a friend or a colleague.
“Oops,” I imagined myself saying with a blush, as I leaned over to pick up the card from Westside Rifle & Pistol with my name on it.
Maybe what I really wanted was to have a reason to have to tell people why I’d taken up shooting in the first place, so that they would understand I was mourning something real. I had lost someone: the version of myself who had not been raped; the person I could have been for the last ten years; a young woman who felt safe in the world. This is the kind of grief you don’t just drop casually into conversation. Sexual assault makes others uncomfortable, which is part of why surviving one can feel so isolating.
Guns on the other hand are somehow fair game. So I sat at home on a Saturday, scrolling through photos my husband had taken of me at the range while I unwittingly focused on my posture and aim. I picked my favorite—one of me in pink noise protector earmuffs, rifle in hand—and texted it to a close friend with the caption channeling my rage. Next, I sent her one of my target, which had been shredded by the tiny bullets. I had to admit, it looked good.
Sarah Kasbeer lives in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in multiple online publications and received a notable distinction from the Best American Essays 2015. She is currently working on a book of personal essays. Read more on her website.
Illustration by Jim Cooke