Optimism, courage, and hope are not words you would typically associate with the tragedy of rape and sexual assault. Barb’s story illustrates that survivors of sexual assault should admired for their courage and treated with respect, not pity.
Note: This article discusses sexual assault and thus could be difficult for some to read.
This is Barb’s story:
“There’s going to be nothing left . . . nothing left. . . . Oh my God, there’s going to be nothing left.”
I must have said that to myself a hundred times as he was raping me on the cement basement floor. “There’s going to be nothing left . . . nothing left . . . nothing left of me.”
There was plenty left. Of course, you couldn’t have convinced me of that at the time. I felt totally void, as cold as that cement floor. But I was not destroyed by this experience. Instead, I am stronger than I was before. After my rape, I played over and over again a favorite song that gave me strength. One line in the song resonated for me: “Spirit is something no one destroys.” I fell back on those words all the time; still do. It is a belief that has held up through talking with other survivors of sexual assault for the past eighteen years.
Often, I am asked how I can work as an advocate for women who have been sexually victimized. “Don’t I find it depressing and sad?” I reply no. I am inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit. We are women who have endured one of the most degrading acts that can be perpetrated against us. Even worse, these acts are usually committed by our boyfriends, husbands, male family members, male friends, or acquaintances. Yet, here we stand, our spirits intact.
Being raped by a stranger is horrific, but when we are raped by someone we know, someone we trust, someone whom we thought knew and respected us, we face an overwhelming sense of betrayal. It is highly personalized. Self-blame runs deep. I’ve learned through my own experience and from listening to other women that self-blame is usually the last thing we give up. While it may sound odd, I’ve come to realize that remorse is a coping mechanism. As long as I felt I was to blame for being raped, I felt I had control over what had happened to me. Believing that I may have had some role in the assault gave me an illusion of power at a time when I felt I had none. The hardest thing for me to do was to admit,
“No matter what I did, no matter what I said, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop him from doing what he did to me. I couldn’t stop him from saying what he said to me. I couldn’t stop him. I was powerless.”
That was humiliating for me.
But more difficult was the point in the healing process when I was ready to admit that I was not to blame. That was very frightening. At that moment, I was truly stripped of my sense of power, even though that sense had been only an illusion all along. Suddenly, I was faced with my own vulnerability; there was no way to deny that the same man or some other man could do this to me again.
Talking with other survivors has taught me that while we aren’t totally destroyed by this violence committed against us, we are forever altered. We will never look at the world the same way. We will never be the people we were before. For an entire year, I was tormented by the idea that I had to get everything back to the way it had been before. It took me a long time to accept the fact that this was an impossibility, that I must grieve the loss of my previous self.
I am convinced that my sense of powerlessness over what had been done to me set the stage for my eating disorder of anorexia nervosa. It makes perfect sense that eating disorders occur in survivors. Invariably, we feel that our right to control what happens to our bodies has been taken from us. What better way to regain a sense of control over our physical selves than to rigidly restrict what we eat? I often find myself getting exasperated with anorexia “experts” who focus only on issues of body image and self esteem. I wasn’t concerned merely with how I looked or how I felt about myself. For me, the disorder was about reclaiming control over my own body.
But there was a price to pay. After the rape, I felt an indescribable sense of unworthiness and ultimately, anorexia was a form of self- inflicted punishment for being such an awful person. My thought process at the time was that food was healthy; food was good for me. But I believed I was not worthy of anything good and I certainly didn’t want to nourish my violated body. Anorexia allowed me to prove to myself that I could decide how my body would be treated, even if that meant punishing it. But while I may have reclaimed decision-making power over my own body, I was slowly committing suicide; I wanted to die.
A teenager I was working with after she had been assaulted summed it up best. This young woman, who had been raped about a year earlier, was taking risks with her health by being promiscuous. I recognized that in addition to being a normal reaction to assault, promiscuity is often caused by poor self esteem, and I attempted to address that problem as I had been trained to do. I was going by the book and she became exasperated with me. She looked at me with her hair hanging down in her face and sneered,
“You just don’t get it, do you? It’s just easier being a thing.”
Now, that I could get. She was right. It is easier to be a thing than to take on human emotions and feel intense pain. To face that depth of despair is to enter a deep, dark, frightening chasm. But it’s worth it, for when we emerge, it is into a place of light and calm. The result of surviving that dark place is an amazing strength.
Although we are made stronger, we often have a hard time maintaining the interpersonal relationships we had prior to the rape; if we aren’t the same, then how can we fit into the same relation- ships? Often, despite the incredible support we may have from a significant other, we end up severing ties to that person. By the same token, the changes that occur during the aftermath of an assault also explain why significant others may withdraw from us. I often hear, “I just want her to be like she was before.” I hate to be the one to break the bad news, but that’s not going to happen. That certainly doesn’t mean that as survivors, we won’t rebuild and heal; it simply means that “healed” is not the same as “restored.”
People seem to be more understanding about other kinds of tragedies. My sister was twenty-three when she died. I was twenty-two. It was a beautiful September day when I got the phone call that she had been in a car accident. The doctors tried to stabilize her for surgery but were unable to do so. The next day, she was unhooked from life support and died. I am not the same person I was before experiencing her death; I am not able to look at the world the same way. I was immediately and forever changed by the loss of my sister, and people understood and accepted this. No one expected that I would go on as if nothing had happened. No one expected me to be “normal.” No one expected me to be in class the next day and to keep up with my academic work. My friends knew that I would have days when I was overwhelmed with pain and angst. My family expected that I would have nightmares. It was okay that I would need to speak of that experience again and again. No one expected me to “just get over it;” they understood that it was only natural that I go through the grieving process. Why should the process of grieving the loss of the girl or woman you were before the rape be any different?
I want to give survivors, including myself, permission to feel whatever it is we are feeling. I want to empower the significant others in our lives with insights that will help the women in their lives. While I understand that our feelings and reactions can be frustrating, even downright exasperating, perhaps when our loved ones better understand us, we will be able to grow and heal.
Our friends, family members, and significant others aren’t the only people who can benefit from learning to be patient during our healing process. Service providers, especially within the criminal justice system, need to have patience. As an advocate of survivors, all too often I hear from police officers, detectives and prosecutors that they are unwilling to further investigate or to file charges in sexual assault cases due in part to the victim’s initial response to the assault. This may include a delay in reporting the assault, removing or cleaning physical evidence, an inability to recall quickly and clearly the events that took place, and withholding information about the assault. These reactions are completely normal, yet I’m afraid to recall the number of times I’ve heard criminal justice personnel say with a shrug that because of these reactions, there is nothing they can do. We need to be more creative in how we investigate and prosecute these cases. We cannot simply throw up our hands in exasperation. Author John Brunner wrote, “If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing.” Survivors face this kind of evil when they are sexually assaulted. We often face it again from investigators, prosecutors, and others who may consider us “cases” rather than people. We deserve more respect as we face the after- math of sexual assault. The normal reactions of survivors are not going to change. Therefore, we as a society must change our response to these reactions.
As a survivor of many years, I feel whole and healthy. I have for a long time. I think a lot of that has come from my speaking out, but more importantly from listening to the wisdom of survivors. While I still work in the field of advocacy for survivors of sexual assault, and while I feel a great sense of support in doing so, it is not my own experience that compels me to do this work. What drives me is a strong sense of justice. I am affronted by the attitudes in our culture that condone these acts. I am offended that these acts even occur. I am outraged that little or nothing is done to hold many rapists accountable.
It all stems from women not being equally valued in our society. Until we are fully valued for who we uniquely are, not for how we compare to men, women will continue to be subjected to humiliation and degradation in every aspect of our culture. Until society fully values women, we will continue to have men who rape, a justice system that does not respond adequately, and women who are treated as “things.” The current state of affairs is simply unjust. Something needs to be done and I vow to be one of the many working to end the violence.
This was an excerpt from Voices of Courage, Inspiration from twelve survivors of sexual assault as they share their stories of hope, courage, and strength in the journey toward healing and survival.