Good morning out there. The dark is still settled in around me, even though I am getting started late. I love this time of year for just this good early darkness — I feel cradled by morning long into the day.
I have realized, once again, how much I — and our community — need the stories of everyday trauma survival. And I am here today to ask for yours.
Last night, in the latest issue of The New Yorker, I read an article about Elizabeth Smart, a young woman who, at fourteen, was abducted from her Salt Lake City home by a stranger and held hostage for nine months before she was rescued. The article is another example of our national fascination with, and adoration of, these (almost always) young, (almost always) pretty, (almost always) white young women who are taken by strangers, sexually assaulted over long periods of time, then rescued. Their assailants are not a part of their communities, and are jailed for long periods of time. The survivors are offered not simply justice but an entire nation’s support.
Can you imagine?
The response we give these women is the opposite of what many, many survivors of intimate trauma experience.
I have so much I want to say about the way mainstream media, and mainstream society, respond to stranger abduction stories as opposed to the more common sexual violence experienced by many, many more children. My concern, of course, is always that these posts will come across as critiques on the women, the survivors, themselves — I have no criticism of Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Dugard or the women recently freed in Ohio or Hannah Anderson or anyone else whose story the mainstream media has deemed newsworthy. These are powerful survivors whose experiences were horrifying. They are my kindred in violence, sisters of a sort.
It’s not that I think their stories don’t deserve attention. It’s that I think ALL of our stories deserve attention. My critique is of the cultural, media response to stories of abuse and trauma. Do you know what I want to read in The New Yorker? I want to read a story about the extraordinary resilience of the young woman who still has to live in the house with her rapist, because her mother denies that there’s anything abusive going on in the home and will not leave, and the young woman is still in high school, and manages to graduate and go on to college in spite of these layers of violence. I want to read about the extraordinary resilience of the young man who has the generosity of spirit to continue a relationship with his family even though they continue to attend the church where he was molested for many years. I want to read about the resilience of the kids who ran away and survived when the street was safer than home. I want to read about the resilience of folks who are required to continue to attend college classes with their rapists, or have to continue to serve with or under their assailants in the military. I want to read about the extraordinary resilience of young people trafficked sexually, by strangers or community or family members. I want to read about the extraordinary resilience of the siblings introduced by parents into a ritually abusive cult, who managed to survive and keep themselves alive and relatively sane in the aftermath. I want to read about those who got away and those who didn’t — about the resilience required of and manifested in each.
The story of the neighborhood molested child, or your local rape survivor, is a story of extraordinary resilience, though neither is considered as shiny or unusual or newsworthy as the child abducted by a stranger.
Of course, not all abducted children are considered newsworthy, either.
I’m repeating myself here, I know, but most of us aren’t rescued. Most of us are held hostage by families or other institutional systems that demand our compliance, threatening our safety and the safety of our families if we disobey. Most of us are left in these situations to fend for ourselves. Most of us don’t get national media attention and an outpouring of community support. Most of us, in fact, are silenced, denied, and shut down if we attempt to get help from our families. We are told that this person couldn’t possibly have hurt us. We are told not to make up stories. We are told that he probably didn’t mean it “that way.” We are called names, we are called liars, we are asked what we did to cause it. If we go to the police, we are asked if we were inebriated, or what we were wearing, or why we didn’t run away, or what we did to cause the assault.
And it’s within the context of these additional layers of violence and hostility that we live our lives, most of us with measures of happiness, connection and achievement. THAT, to me, is the definition of extraordinary resilience.
Resilience is getting a lot of attention these days. Those who study trauma survivors of all sorts want to understand why some people seem to bounce back more quickly than others. It seems to me, though, that resilience doesn’t take just one form — even those who are deeply depressed long after the trauma they experienced may be manifesting resilience. Do we define resilience as simply the ability to get back to work and perform our tasks without interruption? Or can resilience include the multitude of ways our bodies and psyches allow us to stay alive in the aftermath of betrayal and horror?
There are hundreds of thousands of extraordinarily resilient people in this country: your coworkers, your classmates, the woman you run into at the grocery store and the cashier, too, and folks living on the street and folks who have high-powered and well-paid jobs and folks who sit next to you on the bus and at church and at community meetings, folks who cut you off in traffic and others who smile at you when you’re in line at your coffee shop, folks at the dog park and who you meet on your daily run — and maybe you, too — people who are living their lives as fully as possible in the aftermath of sexual and other intimate violence from which they weren’t rescued, from which they weren’t saved, from which they — we — had to save ourselves.
The community deserves to hear your stories. We need to hear from one another. Let us reveal the gorgeous tapestry that is our ordinary, extraordinary human resilience. Resilience doesn’t have just one face or just one trajectory. Resilience manifests in as many different ways as there are humans to tell the stories.
To this end, I want to share your stories here on the Writing Ourselves Whole blog.
This is an open call to all survivors of intimate violence: child abuse, neglect, sexual molestation, sexual assault, date rape, domestic violence, military sexual assault, stranger assault, bullying, racist attacks, sexual trafficking, sexual abuse, abduction, emotional and verbal abuse, and other violence at the hands of family or close community — we want to hold your stories. We want to hear your resilience. We want to hold all that resilience can mean.
These are some of the questions often asked of the survivors in the cases that get major media attention, and so these are the questions I pose to you:
1) Do you identify as a victim or a survivor?
2) Tell us a bit about your experience of abuse — what was it like for you?
3) How did you survive?
4) Did you tell anyone about what was happening to you? Why or why not? What was their response?
5) How did you get free?
6) What is your life like now? Do you have a relationship with the perpetrator(s)?
7) Do people in your life now know about your past? Are you “out” about it?
8) What does resilience mean to you? Do you feel you are resilient?
9) What brings you joy now?
10) What message do you have for others who are still undergoing violence and/or are still recovering?
You might one or all of these questions as a writing prompt — maybe you just want to talk about your experience of resilience. Even just writing for yourself, don’t feel you have to respond to all of these (at one time or ever). Write exactly the part of the story that you are ready to share with the page — and then do something very kind and gentle and sweet for yourself. Go for a walk or a swim, spend time with a favorite animal, get tea with a supportive friend, watch a silly movie — do something to take care of you.
If you choose to do so, post your story in the comments section below this blog post (not on Facebook), and I will create a new blog post for each story I receive. Please share your first name (or a first name, or “anonymous”) and your location (as specific or as general as you’d like: your town or your state, or your country. Comments on each post will be screened — just as in our writing groups, only kind, generous, and positive feedback will be allowed.
Update: I will be accepting stories through December 1, 2013, and will publish them on the blog as they arrive, through the month of December.
You can also email your story to me (in the body of an email message — no attachments, please) at jennifer (at) writingourselveswhole (dot) org, and I will read and respond to your message, even if you don’t want your story posted. Let me know if you would like me to post your story under your name or under a pseudonym — otherwise, my default is to use just your first name.
Please forward this call to anyone you think might want to share their story.
Your resilience is already an inspiration to many, whether you are aware of it or not. Your writing makes a difference in the world, whether or not anyone else ever sees it — because it will make a difference for you.
Thank you for your story, for your mostly unwitnessed resilience. Thank you for your words.