In a class that covers sensitive topics, a young woman shares her story of being raped at a young age. In tears, she speaks of a second attempt when she was older, of which she was saved, but she was still fearful. She is across the room, crying, and I am sandwiched into my tiny desk in my safe place, the seat I picked so I’d be furthest from the door, with my back to the wall, in a corner. A choice I often make to feel comfort and safety in an otherwise uncontrollable world. But I want to go to her, hug her, tell her how proud I am of her for being brave and speaking out.
Instead, I stay in my seat, rooted, because she’s already shrugged off the closest contact to her. Her arms are folded across her chest; she does not wish to be touched. I can respect that. So I just look at her and hope she sees me looking at her, because I want to share a knowing look. I want her to see that I am hugging her regardless, that I understand her pain (not her exact pain, but I can empathize), that she didn’t just throw words out into the world and they landed on uncaring ears.
A week later in the same class, as we settle in, nearby classmates – classmates who are in general disrespectful to the professor, who have side conversations and smirk often – discuss the young lady. “She should have just shut up. No one wants to hear about THAT! Doesn’t she know how awkward she made us all feel? Like, for real, are we supposed to cry with her?”
I am enraged. I feel my face burn, my heart race in my chest, and tears well in my eyes. I swallow a choke and go over a million responses. I want to turn and scream at them to grow up, to have a heart, to get a clue! Don’t they know how hard it is to speak out? Don’t they get how incredibly brave our classmate is? Why can’t they reach out to her instead? Why can’t they take away a lesson that everyone is hurting in some way?
But I do nothing. I sit there in my safe little corner, pretending I can’t hear them, perpetuating the cycle of allowing this kind of thing to go on. I don’t speak because I know I will do so in anger, and I don’t speak because I’m the “old” lady in class, and I don’t speak because maybe…just maybe…these two have something equally painful in their past and they haven’t found a way to share yet and instead of mocking the young lady, they really want to speak out, too.
I realize more than anything that their response is why I pull in every so often and decide I can’t or won’t or don’t want to write my own story anymore. I yank down sites I’ve built and stories I’ve shared because the mentality of blaming the victim is often too much for me to bear. I see the looks, the smirks, and I hear the words, the disbelief, the mocking. I feel the arrows of poison, their tips filled with words like, “It’s your fault” and “You need to get over it” and “You could have gotten out,” and they find their target every time, piercing my heart and soul, sending me into hiding, not speaking out, burning my words, trying to leave them behind.
But then this happens, this moment of raw courage from a young woman barely out of high school, and I am reminded that I may not have to be the poster child for rape and abuse and sexual assault and violence, but I also can’t let the attitudes of others who think I should just shut up dictate what and how I share. Maybe no one wants to hear about THAT, but THAT is happening. And in the same class, as the professor had us involved in an exercise (opting out was available) where we had to step forward if something she said applied to us, almost every single person in class stepped forward when asked, “If you know of someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted.” And I think that says volumes.
It is my responsibility as a thriving survivor to speak out and continue speaking out. I cannot hide in the corner seat with my back against the wall and pretend I don’t hear hurtful comments made about painful situations. I can’t hide in my office and burn pages of my story, or take down pieces I’ve written, all in the effort of keeping quiet.
Do I make you feel awkward? Well, doesn’t that say more about you than it does about me? I can hide in the corner all I want, but I can’t do it to save you from feeling awkward. Rather, I should come out of the corner and speak and speak and speak, so that instead of making you feel awkward, what you feel is “SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE!” We cannot blame the victims. We must STOP that and put the blame where it belongs – on the rapists, the abusers, the murderers.
I revisit this over and over, and I may have to again in the future, but … I WILL NOT BE SILENCED.