I have been posting some pretty intense poetry and fiction lately about shame, rage and flashbacks. These are pieces I have to write– they will not leave me in peace. They shouldn’t leave you in peace either.
I started this WordPress site in early October after posting a personal essay on Facebook in reaction to videotape of Donald Trump’s now infamous statement, “Grab them by the pussy.” The bones of this essay had been taking shape in the back of my head for some time. However, that Saturday morning in October, after watching that footage, there was a fire in my belly to articulate everything I had been thinking about Trump, American rape culture, our casual acceptance of it and my rage and grief that I was in turn forced to teach my children, the next generation, how to protect themselves in such a culture. This piece, What Every Woman Knows, was surprisingly resonate for many people and I received many requests to post it somewhere more public for others to read and share. With that encouragement, Brave and Reckless was born on October 8, 2016.
Since that date, 2,368 people have visited these pages to read this post. I think that it is one of the best personal essays that I have ever written and that part of its power is that it made the unseen seen. I personally have many good men in my life, but until reading that piece, even my own husband had not realized how pervasive and entrenched this culture is and how profoundly it affects the lives of women and girls in this country on a daily basis. I think that this essay and the many others like it that came out around that time served an invaluable purpose in changing the national dialogue about rape culture. Suddenly everyone was talking about what every American girl and woman already knew.
It is incredibly moving to me to know that sharing What Every Woman Knows inspired other women in my orbit—and possibly beyond my immediate orbit- to publicly share their experiences with rape culture. These stories must be heard, the unseen must be seen. The sheer volume of these stories, the universality of these experiences must be known. As a culture, we need to start making the connections between the subtle ways we socialize our children from a young age (“oh, he just hit you because he likes you,” “be polite and kiss great Aunt Marge,” “I know you think you’re hungry, but I know you aren’t,” “she didn’t really mean that”) and the messages they are receiving about trusting their instincts, bodily integrity, setting and enforcing personal boundaries and consent.
I have been very impressed and at times awed over the last two months with the sheer volume of women- and men- on Pantsuit Nation who have shared their deeply personal stories about sexual abuse, incest, rape and sexual harassment. Many have told their stories for the first time. This type of disclosure helps to change the dialogue that is happening about rape culture. I have seen incredible courage and incredible compassion displayed through this storytelling on Pantsuit Nation. I suspect that many of you have both read and responded to the types of stories there that I am talking about.
For the last month I have been working on a series of poems and pieces of short fiction that had a very clear and specific goal. So much of what I have read over the last few months has been coming from people’s heads, their intellects. I am a former therapist—I understand that survivors need this distance when telling their stories, particularly for the first time. But to live with a history of sexual trauma—whether it is a single, catastrophic incident or a lifetime of small episodes where our bodily integrity is threatened and/or our boundaries not respected—is to inherit a visceral legacy. No matter how well adjusted a survivor is, no matter how effective the treatment they receive, there is no statute of limitations on unpredictable flashbacks, on intense feelings of shame, on episodes of deep rage, directed inwards or outwards. Sexual trauma lives on not only in our heads, not only in our hearts, not only in our souls but it literally lives on in our bodies.
I know that much of what I have posted in the last few weeks such as Ink, Flashback, Shame, The Name They Call Her, Further Musings on Shame and The Anger Within have been tough reads, uncomfortable reads. They were meant to be. Quite frankly, they were pretty damn uncomfortable to write. These were the pieces that would not let me rest. These were the pieces that kept me up at night and reminded me that I had only told half the story. We are not done changing the dialogue about rape culture in this country. We CANNOT be done with changing the dialogue.
I want each and every person who reads one of these pieces to think, to feel. I want you to understand on a gut level, on a heart level, on a soul level what it is like to carry a history of sexual trauma. Sexual trauma makes our very bodies a battlefield, territory that we must fight to reclaim and learn to make peace with. Sometimes over and over again. It impacts every intimate relationship we will ever have, from our romantic partners to how we will interact with our children. It gets written into our skin, our blood, our neurons. Survivors already know this. But we need the rest of you to know this too.
I have one more important thing to say right now but this could be a whole essay on its own. When a woman or man or girl or a boy that you care about tells you their story of sexual trauma you will be affected. You should be affected. Those of you who have your own histories may be triggered. You may be ready and able to offer your empathy and compassion or you may need to be self-protective and to tend to your own feelings. Do what you need to do.
Those of you who do not have a history of sexual trauma may want to do something, anything, because being active is more comfortable than feeling helpless. There will be circumstances where people’s immediate physical or emotional safety is an issue or legal charges need to be considered. If that is case, by all means ask, “What can I do for you? What do you need from me?” Educate yourself about resources. Let your loved know that you are there for them.
The reality; however, is that many if not most of these disclosures come days, weeks, months, often years after the trauma. Someone who discloses their truth to you months or years after a trauma is not asking you to fix anything. They are not usually asking for advice and they are definitely not asking for platitudes. They are asking you to bear witness. They are asking you to listen, to hear, to be with them in holding whatever feelings this disclosure brings up for them, to help them sit with and carry these feelings. Not to judge them, not to try to fix them. They aren’t broken. Some days are harder than others, but survivors are incredibly resilient and they deserve your awe and respect. Your job is to feel honored that they chose to disclose to you, to understand that your relationship with them is important enough to trust you with this piece of them and your job is to listen more than you talk. Let me repeat that: your job is to listen more than you talk. And then say thank you and tell them how honored you feel that they trusted you with their truth.
And then later, when you are alone, your job is stay uncomfortable, to start thinking about your place in this culture and what you can do to confront it, to change it starting in your own home, and then out in the world. Help me, help us, rewrite this legacy.