My experience took place when I was seven. I’m not going to go into detail, partly because over the years I’ve pushed a lot of them out of my mind. It almost feels like a weird nightmare at this point, 20 years later. Also, I take trigger warnings seriously and wouldn’t want anyone to be affected by the violent details I do remember. What I will say is that it involves being locked in a closet with two younger brothers while the older brother played video games with his back against the door. All of the perpetrators were under 15. And because of something some people familiar with fundamental religions call “the two witness rule” no one was ever charged. My attackers grew up and moved away unscathed. No one ever knew.
Keeping all of this in left a huge psychological strain. I would go back to that neighborhood where they lived years after they’d moved or catch a random smell and burst into tears. My parents didn’t find out until I was 14. My dad was yelling at me about something or other when I was hit so hard by a flash back that it sent into a panic attack. I’m sure it must’ve been confusing to my parents. Unable to say the words out loud, I pulled my diary from under my pillow, handed it to my dad without a word, and locked myself in my room and cried. He and my mom read about what little I remembered and how it scarred me. They read about how I constantly felt dirty and ugly and wrong. They read about my several suicide attempts and how much I looked forward to being able to die.
After finding out about the assault and reaching out to several well meaning but ultimately useless religious leaders, no one in my family ever spoke about it again. The relief of my parents knowing what happened and understanding my feelings was short lived. I had convinced myself that it was enough because the people around me gave me the impression that it was enough. It took years to gain my confidence, to stop blaming myself, and to develop a healthy idea of my sexuality.
For years, I blamed my parents in one way or another.
They should have told the police.
They should have insisted that the religious leaders do something, even if it wasn’t secular punishment.
They should have been angry.
As an adult, I now have a more rounded idea of how my trauma’s effect on my parents. Yes, I still wish they had done any or all of those things. But I also now know that both of my parents had their own experience with sexual assault and abuse. My dad was heartbroken that he couldn’t stop the cycle with his own child, that he had failed the ultimate goal of a father in failing to protect me. My mom felt crushing guilt that she hadn’t known, hadn’t been able to tell, hadn’t done more in the moment. I now know that she and the boys’ mother had gotten into a huge argument later. My mom thought my leaving disheveled and crying was the result of bullying but nothing else.
I don’t blame my parents as much as I used to. Because I now know that for them, just being able to tell their story was the victory. They didn’t expect justice, so they didn’t seek it. I get the feeling that’s another cycle they learned from their parents. What I wish my parents had realized is that by not giving me an outlet to process and express the feelings about my experience, they also unknowingly passed on the shame. They never implied that what happened was my fault, but their silence did. They specifically told me I had done nothing to feel guilt over, but the silence told me I should feel guilty.
I’ve since gone to therapy, a huge factor in what changed my view of my parents. I’ve worked hard not to let my assault define me. There was a time in my life where it lived in my mind every day. Then every other day. Now, it exists as any other memory that I can choose to recall. I still have triggers. I value trigger warnings because I avoid assault scenes wherever possible. Sometimes, I’ll test myself and not skip through a scene in a movie if it looks like it’s going south. Sometimes I’ll do that and find myself regretting it. Twenty years later, I’m still learning my way around my trauma.
I write all of this, though, because on my road to recovery I realized that society as a whole reacts to assault almost the same way my parents did: with silence.
The typical depiction of the woman who survives is that at first bursts into a flood of tears at the drop of a hat, recovers from the trauma of her assault as a capital “s”, Survivor, and then moves on through her life never speaking about it again because she’s overcome it and the past has no hold on her.
Please don't misunderstand, I do completely understand why someone would choose not to speak about the most painful moment of their life. And no one should have to if they choose not to. But our collective silent doesn’t feel like it’s allotted for survivors’ sake so much as imposed for the sake of propriety. How many times have you heard an uncomfortable joke, or heard someone discredit another survivor’s story simply because they liked the person he or she was implicating? How comfortable would you feel starting a sentence with “As a sexual assault survivor…”?
I remember once getting into a debate with someone trying to defend a perpetrator with numerous accusers. Her argument was that a man as good looking as him wouldn’t need to force women into sexual encounters. I refuted her with “As a sexual assault survivor, the logic you’re using is flawed and dangerous”. She looked like I had thrown her across the room. How dare I make her uncomfortable by sharing something so personal, even if it was something I was comfortable sharing and pertinent to the discussion? It’s something I've talked about with my husband, family, and friends, openly but not often.
When I was 17, my mom and I watched an interview with Mary J. Blige that changed my life. In it, she says that she refuses to carry shame after the abuse she survived. He, she says, is the one who did something shameful that did deserves to feel guilty for. So why should she carry the shame? I tried to tell myself that until I could believe it. Those words changed my life. Why would I carry the shame and guilt of someone else’s actions? Both I and my attackers may have to live with their actions but I will live without shame, guilt, or fear. And the more I’ve spoken about it that way, the more I’ve been able to present myself that way.
I know it’s easier said than done. And our society doesn’t make it easy. As I said, our society seems to lead toward either being a sobbing mess, or a strong silent hero. Being a strong silent hero is convenient, though, because the “strong and silent” are expected to carry on with their life instead of speaking out and shifting our culture. Being a survivor and daring to speak about it is not a “card”. You are not “pulling out the victim card” if you speak on your experience or if you defend other survivors.
You don’t have to be some traumatized broken woman. Or a capital “s” Survivor. You have a right to need trigger warnings or have bad days or have good days. You a have a right speak out as much or little as helps you heal, whether it’s days or months or decades later. And you have a right to be heard if and when you do.