Editor’s Note: This is the second installment by writer Tristen Phipps in her series that focuses on sexual assault and domestic abuse for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is observed in April.
Neesha Arter, 23, is a sexual assault survivor, published author and a freelance journalist in New York City. In Arter’s memoir, “Controlled,” she recounts her assault, the legal case that ensued and how she coped. The memoir will be released in August 2015, 10 years after the assault.
Arter has been published by The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue and Interview Magazine.
At 14 years old, Arter was sexually assaulted by family friends while visiting for New Years in Houston, Texas. Her aunt, uncle and cousins laid the blame at her feet. Upon her return home to Albuquerque, New Mexico, her parents expressed their support for her and pressed charges against the 17-year-old perpetrators. After nearly a year of legal investigations, a legal resolution could not be met due to a lack of evidence.
Arter indicated that she is currently working on her second book, but she is also focusing on preparing for the launch of “Controlled” and her work as a journalist.
The following is an interview with Arter:
Q: At 14 years old, how did you deal with sexual assault?
A: It was really, really difficult. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone about it. I really just wanted to pretend like it didn’t happen and go back to being a normal 14-year-old. Luckily for me, my parents were really supportive, my friends were really supportive and they were just there for me even though I didn’t really want anyone there for me. I didn’t want it to be a thing. I developed anorexia when this all happened. That was my coping mechanism. When you’re so young you don’t really know how to act, what is going on, if you’re a child or an adult or who you are after this big thing happens.
Q: At what age and why did you decide to write about it?
A: I was 18 years old. I was in college in California at Chapman University, a freshman, and I had written an essay about it after my first semester and it was something that I had never thought about. I just wrote about it and then I was talking to a professor and I said, “I really want to write a book about this but I don’t think I’m ready.” And then I had someone in my life that was really inspirational to me and he just really believed in me and I told him about this book and this experience and he really encouraged it. So I went home over winter break and I wrote this whole draft of this book, which was very cathartic, and then it became not cathartic at all after I did that first draft. And ever since then, it’s six years of just pushing pavement on it, but it’s totally worth it. It was very hard but it was worth it.
Q: Tell me about the title of the book.
A: It really is about losing control. Whether that was being controlled by these two boys, or the legal case, or being controlled by the eating disorder.
Q: How long was the drafting process?
A: I wrote the very first draft in a month and a half, and then editing I did in a matter of years. I moved to New York right after graduation and I worked with an editor. It probably took four years to get to the final draft.
Q: What was the writing process like? Did it cause emotions to resurface or was it a healing process?
A: I think it was a bit of both; it was very challenging. I always said to myself, “Once I get this out there, once it’s published, I can move on with my life,” and little did I know that this six-year process would be my healing. Just being vocal about something that is so hard to talk about was probably my way of healing. After talking to so many people about it, I was able to distance myself from it and be a stronger person, and be a voice on the issue.
Q: Since you wrote the book, what else have you done as an advocate for sexual assault awareness?
A: I worked with Joyful Heart Foundation and I did the social media for the Brave Miss World documentary. There’s something called Campus Speak, which is doing a sexual assault initiative, and I spoke about it. I’ve written a couple articles on the subject and I did an interview with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a spotlight for sexual assault.
Q: Tell me about what you have faced in writing this book about a topic that otherwise goes unspoken.
A: I’ve actually gotten great support. I really have only had a few instances that were shocking. I had a publisher at a book party look at my book cover (me in a sequined dress) and ask me if I was raped because of the short dress I was wearing. It just goes to show that society needs to change the way they look at this issue.
Q: How do you respond to the adversity that you face?
A: I was dumbfounded at that; I didn’t know what to say. I think moving forward I would be a little tougher. It shouldn’t matter what you’re wearing or how you look…I don’t think the price of being a pretty girl should be rape. Sometimes beauty results in these horrifying crimes. I would like people to know that even though this did happen to me, it’s still OK to be pretty and dress however you want. I don’t want to live in fear.
Q: Would you do anything differently if you could?
A: No, I wouldn’t change anything in my life. I wouldn’t take anything back.
Q: Has the conversation surrounding sexual assault changed since your assault at 14?
A: Yes; I do think it’s much more in the forefront. I’m sure it was just as prevalent as before, but no one talked about it. I think we need to keep talking about it.
Q: What is your message to survivors of sexual assault?
A: You are not alone and don’t blame yourself. You can get past this and you can lead a happy life. This doesn’t have to define you.
Q: Is your success a product of what happened to you?
A: I went to college for creative writing and I learned to refine that skill. Did I write a book about what happened to me? Yes. Writing is my passion and it’s my biggest talent. I was lucky because I have something every writer is looking for: I had a story to tell.
Q: How did you manage to accomplish all of this by 23?
A: I move a mile a minute. I just have an exceptionally high level of energy. I have always been a very passionate go-getter. Even in college I was working a bunch of internships. At the beginning I just really wanted to get involved in the city life. I kind of just threw the rulebook out the window and decided I’m going to do things my way. I knew I was really young. I just looked up where a published author was going to be greeting in New York and I would go by myself and ask for advice. People responded really well because no one does that. I took a lot of chances and it worked out for me. You have to be pretty damn confident to think that you are going to get a book deal at 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23. I am out of my mind; no one does that. I think moving to New York was one of the best decisions I’ve made. You’re surrounded by all of these people that care about so many more things than Hollywood. Getting out of my own way was very important.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
A: Network as much as you can. Get an internship. If you have an opportunity to go to a bigger city, definitely try to do that. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I ask everyone for advice, everybody I meet. Don’t cut corners.
Q: What’s it like to have this amount of success at this age?
A: I’m tremendously overwhelmed. I’m very excited; it’s crazy and very surreal that this dream that I have had for so long is finally coming true. I get to see this come to volition. It’s great, mainly for my family and friends who have listened to me complain every day for years. This book is for them. I have been so lucky to have such a wonderful support system and such wonderful family and amazing friends to be there for me. At the end of the day it’s not about success for me, it’s about the people that I get to share it with.