When I was 15, a girl named Anna got up in English class to give an oral presentation. I don't remember what the assignment was, but other kids that went before her, spoke about things like their position on the death penalty and the political climate of the country. Anna got up and talked about being raped by her uncle. Looking back now, I'm absolutely appalled at what went through my 15-year old mind. How dare she expose me to that "explicit" content without any warning. How inappropriate for her to talk about something so personal in such a public setting. I didn't offer her support. I walked out of that class incredibly uncomfortable, and just eager to shove all of those horrific images out of my mind. Because I had the privilege to do so.
Twenty-five years later, I find myself directing a local rape crisis center, one that is in the midst of a 40th anniversary. For the last 12 months, we've been planning our signature celebratory event, and it finally took place last night. And it was grand. It was held at a castle. There was a red carpet. There was a community art piece where attendees were able to share their connections to the anti-violence movement. People passionately poured their hearts out affirming the courage of survivors and offering them heartfelt encouragement. There was a special program honoring the most extraordinary advocates over the past 40 years. There was a live and silent auction with all proceeds benefiting survivor services. This all probably sounds much like any typical charity fundraiser you've attended. Except for one thing - we invited two survivors to talk about their experiences.
You've probably been to plenty of charity events where students are asked to speak about the impact a college scholarship has had on them, or where children with disabilities come out and thank guests for their support. While it's easy, maybe even inspirational, to hear someone talk about overcoming things like poverty or physical limitations, for the most part, it's still excruciatingly uncomfortable for us to hear someone talk about overcoming a sexual assault....just as it was for me to hear Anna share her story with me over two decades ago.
You see, there's no good way to talk about rape, and there's no way to sugarcoat a survivor's experience. It's horrific. It's painful. It's uncomfortable. There's just no getting around that. But for some survivors (and we honor the different healing journeys of all survivors), being able to share their voice is the very difference between seeing oneself as a victim and seeing oneself as a survivor. Imagine the freedom you might feel, not carrying that burden around with you all by yourself. Imagine being able to reclaim your silenced voice by owning that part of your story. Imagine the power of a community of people surrounding you, affirming to you that it never was your fault, that your courage is inspirational, that your very willingness to speak out could be helping someone else right there in that room. That YOUR STORY is not unworthy and has a place at a fancy charity event for a non-profit whose mission is to eradicate sexual violence.
So we didn't ask the speakers to focus merely on how they "overcame" such an atrocity - you know, to focus only on what happened after their rape. We didn't ask them to keep it "PG". We didn't ask them to try not to "bring the mood of the party down". In other words, we didn't ask them to tell their story in a way that wouldn't make others feel uncomfortable. Because let's face it, rape is uncomfortable. And everyone should be uncomfortable with the fact that every two seconds someone is sexually assaulted in America.
Last night, two incredible survivors spoke - one about being raped by her boyfriend's father, and the other about being molested as a child. And we honored their healing journeys by encouraging them to express the real and raw emotions that they experienced, and continue to experience. We encouraged them to tell their stories in a way that was authentic to them - not in a way that would make it easy for the rest of us to hear. Because after all, isn't that what the 250 people in attendance were there for? To support survivors and to raise funds for programs that provide counseling and advocacy for them? A friend of mine who attended came to this conclusion - we, as a society, seem to have a low tolerance for raw exposure to certain realities. When we watch atrocities in movies like Schindler's List or Slumdog Millionaire, we can just turn it off and not face it. But it's harder to do so when someone in the flesh and blood is telling you what they experienced. It's even harder when you're at a charity event whose sole purpose is to raise funds to prevent those atrocities from happening in the first place.
Maybe if we allow ourselves to embrace the discomfort, we might start talking about rape and sexual violence more. Because no matter how much we want to pretend that it's not happening, it is. A lot. Maybe if we talk about it more, a greater number of survivors will come forward to seek help. Maybe more offenders will begin to hear how intolerant we are of sexual violence - how we refuse to accept this as our norm. Maybe by finding our voices in this movement, we might help survivors find theirs.
I think about Anna often. I long desperately to go back in time and catch her at the end of class to tell her how much I admired her courage. How brave I thought she was. How her strength might have made it possible for others to find the courage to speak out and seek help that day. I still hope for that one in a million chance that I have the opportunity to do so. Until then, I hope we all are willing to experience a little discomfort, and to hand the mic over to any survivor who is ready to have their voice back again.
Note: At the event, we provided trigger warnings to those in attendance, and crisis counselors were available throughout the night.