Lucy Dhegrae, now a 31-year-old professional singer in New York City, was raped when she was 18, less than two months into her freshman year at the University of Michigan. She kept the rape a secret for 10 years—until she couldn’t any longer. Here, Lucy shares her powerful story of facing profound pain in order to move forward and become the woman she is today.
STYLECASTER: How did your rape happen?
Lucy Dhegrae: I was at a house party with a friend nearby campus. I’d had one beer, and was dancing with a tall, handsome guy, who I then left with. I felt extremely intoxicated, but I was a super inexperienced drinker and didn’t know what being drunk was supposed to feel like, since I never drank or did drugs in high school.
I remember leaving and waving goodbye to my friend, who kind of gave me a thumbs-up, before I stopped being able to walk, and the guy put my arm over his shoulder, holding me up for the rest of the walk to his dorm. Looking back, I think it’s pretty clear that I was drugged. As soon as we got to his dorm room, he began to remove my clothes—there was no kissing or anything, but he kept saying ‘It’s OK,’ as I went in and out of consciousness.
He wore a condom and used his own spit as lubricant. I remember being disgusted by this, but also in a lot of pain because obviously my body didn’t want to be having sex with him. I didn’t even know the guy’s name, but later looked him up and discovered that he was a freshman baseball player.
After it happened, I woke up to lying on a cot under a blanket, mostly naked, and he had the lights on and the door open. I believe he had ordered pizza. At least one friend stopped by and chatted with him, and he kind of showed me off in a weird way, which was probably the most humiliating and traumatic part of the whole thing, since I was more conscious—I felt like an animal pelt, some dead trophy.
I waited for him to crawl up to his lofted bed and go to sleep, and then found my clothing and left. I walked the mile back to my dorm in utter shock, freezing, around 5am. I told my roommate what had happened but didn’t know how to characterize it. I’d had sex with someone I didn’t want to have sex with. He hadn’t asked for my consent, but I wasn’t able to resist either—I wasn’t able to scream ‘no,’ or ‘help.’ I told a few other friends, and my hall monitor, and their advice was to go to the health center and get STD testing, so that’s what I did.
The doctor seemed annoyed to see me, annoyed that I wanted STD testing, and asked some obligatory questions like ‘did he force you,’ to which I replied no, because again, how can there be force when you aren’t in control of your body? Interestingly, her doctor’s note, which I saw 10 years later, read: ‘Had sexual encounter this weekend that went further than she intended.’ So obviously I made it clear to the doctor that I was confused, and yet she gave me an extremely rushed and painful STD test, showed no care for me as a human, and sent me on my way. She called a couple of weeks later and said everything came back negative.
Did you consider reporting the rape?
I knew the university absolutely valued its athletes 100 times more than its average student, and even if this guy was no big deal to the U, that if I had taken him to trial, my history would be completely picked apart, I would basically be smeared, and it would be an uphill battle that I would lose. I had a bright future ahead, and I figured if I just could put the incident behind me—or something—that I could move on with my life. I didn’t want anyone to know what had happened. It was too humiliating, too vulgar. I certainly didn’t want it to be in any newspaper anywhere.
I had also just gotten out of a two and a half year relationship, and I didn’t want my ex to find out that I had been with someone so quickly after we broke up. And I was worried that people in my life—this ex, my dad, or others—might try to act out some kind of vigilante justice on this guy, and I felt like I was protecting them from that.
How did your life change immediately after the rape?
Immediately following the assault, I numbed myself with alcohol, partying, studying, pushing myself. In high school, I was a straight-A student and varsity athlete; my freshman year of college, I think I averaged a C. No one knew my GPA, and no one cared, because it was such a big school. And of course I wasn’t going to let my family know.
I began drinking heavily after that night, becoming a full-blown alcoholic for the better part of a year following the rape. I binge drank several nights a week. I partied. I tried to black out. Unconsciously, I tried to re-create what had happened to me: get so drunk that someone would take advantage of me, but no one ever did. In hindsight, I was trying to put myself in control: I was the one drinking, knowingly, to the point of incapacitation. I was the one dressing up and going to parties. I remember passing out on the floor of my dorm bathroom one night, and girls coming in and just stepping over my legs, like, no big deal, just a girl passed out in the bathroom. We all thought this was normal behavior.
Looking back, my biggest surprise is how obviously in trouble I was, but how no one could do anything about it— or knew what to do about it. If you had known me, you would have realized how extreme this behavior was for me. This is part of why freshman girls in particular are so at risk. None of us had the word ‘consent’ in our vocabulary. That wasn’t a thing at the time. The idea of consent now is so strong, so teachable—had we had the current definition we do now, I believe my friends—and myself!—would have been able to recognize what had happened and would have supported me more. But basically they were just like, ‘So… you had sex with someone? Score!’ Very strange.
What were the long-term effects of being assaulted?
Ten years after the rape, when I was 28, I was living as a professional singer in New York City. I had just completed a large, stressful performance, and suddenly found I was unable to sing. Every time I tried, my voice was so tired. It took an incredible amount of energy to make sound. So I went to a laryngologist, and there I was diagnosed with a nerve disorder affecting both sides of my vocal cords. I asked the doctor what this could have been from and he said that this kind of disorder can happen from anything, even a cold virus.
I was completely confused and beside myself. I knew a career as a professional would be now impossible. I didn’t sleep for two days, reading about vocal disorders in medical journals, and came across two articles about victims of sexual assault who had not spoken out about it losing their voices, and instantly, I knew: That was me. The emotional and psychological weight of it was clogging up the one place in my life where I actually communicated. It was like I was being stopped by the universe: The one thing I needed to survive and earn money was going to be taken away until I addressed what had happened to me ten years ago.
I decided I would do anything to get my voice back, even if the process was emotional and fatiguing, not to mention nerve-wracking in terms of how it could affect my career. In the singing world, you can essentially be blacklisted for having had an injury at any point. I don’t know any other singers in my field who have been public about overcoming an injury, and I don’t blame them. It’s a reflection on our society that does not believe in healing. We don’t even think healing is possible: We think people should be imprisoned for their entire lives, or go to therapy forever. And I just don’t think that is right—real healing is possible.
I started reading up about rape survivor support groups, statute of limitation laws for the state of Michigan, and I joined the speakers’ bureau at an anti-sexual assault organization called RAINN, which stands for Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. Joining that network of survivors, educating myself about the effects of rape, and speaking to students and groups about sexual assault were huge steps for me.
I read a book called The Body Keeps the Score and learned what kinds of therapy I could take to heal my brain and body. I sought out every single kind of therapy that I could. I had been doing talk therapy for many years and it just hadn’t helped at all. I began doing breath work classes; I got some really deep tissue massages with a wonderfully empathetic masseuse; I did somatic experiencing therapy; PBSP therapy; Neurofeedback; I began meditating every day; doing yoga; and journaling. When you have PTSD, you avoid everything: your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Therapy means feeling all of those things again, in safe spaces, and learning to re-feel. Now I am in what they call Post Traumatic Growth, which is using your trauma to grow, heal, and be the best possible version of yourself.
Three years and $25,000 later, I can really say I have healed a huge part of myself. My voice is back and stronger than ever. I am happier than I’ve ever been. I am way more compassionate and open. My smile is literally bigger, and muscles on my face that were frozen are now flexible! I am just more alive now. It’s not that I am grateful that I was raped, but I have used what happened to me to grow. I was told that the nerve damage to my vocal cords was permanent and irreversible, and now, looking on a scope, you can’t see the injury at all. That’s pretty incredible.
How do you feel about talking about your rape?
I didn’t talk about it for 10 years because it brought huge shame and feelings of vulnerability that felt very scary. Now that I have done a lot of therapy and work, and truly healed from it, I am 100 percent okay talking about it. But you have to know that for anyone, if they haven’t healed a trauma in their brain, then every time they retell the story, they actually re-live it, and re-traumatize themselves. So telling the story can be dangerous for your body and your health.
What I appreciate when I tell people about it is their support, and their recognition that it’s an extremely personal thing to share. Also, as a listener, never make it about you, and how traumatizing it is for you to hear or how hurt you are that you didn’t hear about it sooner. That’s one of the worst possible reactions to have.
What would you say to any of our readers who are experiencing the traumatic effects of rape?
Believe in complete healing, in becoming stronger than you ever were. Learn what therapies are out there to heal physical and emotional trauma. Once you heal yourself, you can help others heal, and there is always a need for that in the world. Also, give people the chance to show you how beautiful they are. Some people will not handle your story with love and care, and that is purely a reflection on them. Not you. But some people will hold you, support you, love you, and cheer you on—you just have to give them a chance. More often I am overwhelmed with love and not disappointed.