On Thursday I had the opportunity to speak at a conference on Violence Against Women which was sponsored by a university near where I live. It was a larger conference than the ones which I had previously spoken at, probably 60 women in total, and 5 speakers. There was a Muslim woman who spoke of witnessing her sister's death after her husband threw acid in her face, and there was an African American woman who must have been close to 60 who spoke about her experiences living in shelters for years after leaving an abusive relationship. Two of the women were sisters who were raped dozens of times during their childhood by their father, and spoke honestly about incest and the unique issues that come from being abused by a caregiver.
I was awed by their stories. Each of them were victims of such varying circumstances, and shared such incredible stories of survival. I felt honored to be asked to participate on a panel with them, yet wasn't sure whether or not what I had to say was worthwhile in comparison.
I spoke about the struggle that many women face when trying to decide who to confide in about their abuse. Who do you tell first? Second? Do you tell anyone? How do you tell them? I remember grappling with these questions, terrified of the reactions that I would receive from friends and family. Terrified because these reactions, at least in part, shape how you will ultimately view the abuse. You try to anticipate their reactions, anticipate what their faces will look like, what they'll say following the period of silence during which they attempt to recover from the devastating blow. You try to imagine positive reactions, but you also conjure up all sorts of alternate scenarios. What if your family or friends don't understand, or sympathize, or what if the blame is directed towards you alone?
The possibility of this scenario occurring is enough to make anyone resort to silence. It's enough to leave anyone unable to face the smoke and the realization that you may be standing alone once it clears.
I can't count the number of times I've had "the rape conversation" with friends, family and most difficult of all, boyfriends. Initially, I would write out exactly what I wanted to say, scripting the pertinent information in a way that minimized the events, while skirting the details under the rug to be available for my own private viewing pleasure. I waited to tell them. Waited for the right time, for a moment that was capable of handling the enormity of the truth, deceived by the notion that such a moment actually existed.
More often than not the news was delivered in a blunt outburst: "I was raped." Period. What I wish I could have said was: "I was raped. And that's why I'm afraid to be outside at night. That's why I'm scared to be alone, even in my own house, and why no locks or alarm systems can appease that fear. That's why sometimes I wake up sweaty, or screaming, or sometimes why I can't sleep at all. That's why sometimes I can't pull myself out of my own depression. That's why I make excuses to avoid having sex, and why I can't just relax and enjoy sex, because for me sex isn't pleasure, it's pain. That's why after this conversation you may leave me. "
Many people react heroically, vowing that they will protect you. But what is it they are planning to protect you from? From your attacker? From future attackers? From yourself? The last having the potential to cause the most damage.
Others react with understanding, they've experienced it before, they or someone they love has been raped. And some people react with skepticism, this is the reaction that every victim fears.
My mother reacted in this way, she spent hours questioning my every action, my every utterance, looking for something that I said or did that would qualify as consent. And suddenly, an event that was so cut and dry became convoluted with questions of intent, and underlying wants. These questions inevitably birth some degree of doubt--- doubt in your own story, doubt in your own role in the situation, doubt as to whether or not your own emotions over the events are even justified.
Being a survivor of anything, whether it be a survivor of a terrible disease, the loss of a child, whether a survivor of a freak accident, or simply a survivor of circumstance, you have to prepare yourself for the gaping distance that the trauma creates between you and everyone else. It's a lonely place in which to sit, the seat of a survivor. You have to prepare yourself to be looked at differently, to be talked about. You have to prepare yourself to be treated with a certain amount of fragility which is ironic considering the internal strength it takes to pick oneself up following such situations, it's ironic when you consider the strength that it takes to survive.
Speaking and attending conferences on violence over the past year has absolutely contributed to my healing. It's nice to stand before a group of women and men who are there to listen and learn without judgment. I rarely have to worry about being faced with the questions of: why didn't I leave sooner, why didn't I tell someone right away, why didn't I fight back. It's nice to be honest without being defensive, to be candid as opposed to choosing carefully calculated words in an effort to create minimal upset.
All I can do is talk about it, write about it, to articulate to others the effect that it has had on my everyday life; to accept that this happened, and accept that it has become a defining part of me as much as my religion, my cultural heritage, my gender. All I can do is try to teach, to educate, to create dialogue around this otherwise taboo topic, and hope that others are inspired to do the same.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006