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“Hope,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, in her recently published diaries, “can only be realized through despair.” Our emotional lives are characterized by feelings that appear to be contradictory but are often co-dependent. We most long for freedom after we’ve been fearful, peace after a period of restlessness, words when we’ve been told, for too long, to be silent. Our desires—our hopes—are our histories unmasked.
This book is a story of hope. In its pages, you’ll meet a community of rape and sexual violence survivors—gorgeous, accomplished, funny, all-too-human women and men—who have been shaped, but refuse to be defined, by their histories of violence. They are brave, and they are outspoken—these qualities are perhaps self-evident—but mostly they are hopeful. The hope at the heart of these stories has less to do with the narratives themselves, however moving and even inspirational they may be, and more to do with the fact that these survivors are here to tell them.
The sharing of a story, especially a story of having survived rape or sexual abuse, is inherently an act of faith in the listener. We do not testify to our experiences because it is healing—although it can be—but because it is necessary in a world that too often underestimates the scope and scale of sexual violence. The women and men in these pages are believers in the power of testimony—and in the power of you.
This book is a story of hope, and of truth. There is nothing beautiful about the violence that has been visited on the survivors profiled in these pages. Violence in the real world far, far away from a Quentin Tarantino film, is never beautiful. Returning imaginatively to the place where someone has been harmed is painful—and it should be. But through the lives that they are living today, the survivors in this book remind us of all that remains possible in the wake of the -terrible.
Separately, each of these stories can be read as an account of an individual who lived through sexual violence and emerged changed but intact. Collectively, they are something greater: a window into a world where rape and abuse are breathtakingly commonplace. Sexual violence is the ultimate shape-shifter. Today it is rape in the United States military, tomorrow female genital cutting, next the trafficking of women and girls around the corner and across the globe. Yet all violence is characterized by one constant: it will leave devastation and loneliness in its wake.
Loneliness is the quality I most associate with my own history of violence. For all of the ugly details of the night when I was kidnapped and raped, the memory that remains most powerful for me is not of the violence itself, or the exhausting and stupid degradations—you bitch, you whore, if you say a word, I’m going to kill you —but of the distant sound of a neighbor’s stereo playing Madonna’s “Lucky Star” as I was assaulted. Years later, I found a way to distance myself from that moment, turning it into irony—“Madonna! I was a Clash and Bowie girl, so it was such an indignity”—but in reality, that Madonna song, however banal, became the outside world to me. Her music was a stand-in for life itself, a reminder of all of the frivolous things I wished for and suddenly stood to lose. I knew as I listened to that song that I was no longer of the world, but outside it, watching myself being raped, knowing that if I lived, I could never go back to the place I was before.
Hearing the sounds outside of my apartment that night—the voices floating in from the street, the playing of a pop song I loathed but suddenly wanted to hear a thousand times more—was unbearably sad. I have never felt, before or since, more alone. When I was released hours later, the sheer joy I felt rivaled nothing I had ever known. It was the joy of life being returned to me, the sense that however altered I might be, I was still there. In the months and years that followed, I sometimes longed for that moment of first freedom. I was at a turning point but could not yet see the difficult points in the road ahead. I knew that I was going to live, yet had only an inkling of how different my life would be. It was a perfect, temporary elation.
I come from a family that believes in the power of silences. “You don’t have to tell all that you know,” my grandmother would tell us. Her words were meant to encourage humility, but they carried with them the faintest whiff of a warning: the world would be kinder to me, and I more appealing to it, if I kept to a minimum the exposure of any uncomfortable truths. Like her monogrammed black cashmere sweaters, her ever-present pink lipstick, or her good jewelry, this was silence as a form of presentation: a way of showing the world who you were by declining to speak of what you had lived through. Such an imperative took on a new and troubling significance after I lived through rape.
People are comfortable with—even encourage—the silence and invisibility of those who have survived sexual violence. When the mainstream media covers rape, it most often declines to use the names or show the faces of victims, a necessary practice that protects privacy, even as it renders us faceless and further isolated. Of course, privacy is a small and important mercy to offer to those who have already lost so much, and rape victims choose anonymity for a variety of psychological, practical, and professional reasons. But anonymity does not lend itself to community, and it was a community of survivors, with a community’s collective power to challenge a world in which such violence exists, that photographer Patricia Evans—herself a survivor of rape—and I went in search of when we began the project that became Lived Through This.
According to a comprehensive World Health Organization report released in 2013, one in three women across the globe has been a victim of rape or physical abuse. One in five women in the United States will be raped at some point in their lifetime. Nearly one in six boys will live through rape or sexual abuse before they turn eighteen. Yet when we encounter these crimes, we experience a sort of blindness. The violence that is before us should not be difficult to discern—its symptoms and signs are often quite visible—but because it is easier for our psyche and conscience, we choose, and it is often a choice, not to see. Thus the devastation that is childhood sexual abuse becomes a “family affair,” the near-epidemic rates of rape at colleges and universities merely part of “campus life,” and rape and torture during armed conflict part of the inevitable, expected “messiness of war.” Behind these euphemisms are the stories you are about to read, stories that make the human costs of violence painfully clear.
I have spent most of my adult life in the presence of a shadow self. I am a woman who has lived through rape, haunted by the specter of the person I might have been if I had never known such violence. I am deeply in love with my life—perhaps more in love than I might have been had I not come so close to losing it—and I have had the rare privilege of living that life fully and with more joy than I once thought possible. None of this has stopped me from wondering who I might have been if I had never been raped. Wanting my pre-rape self back has been a senseless, impossible exercise, but the longing, like most unrequited longing, has been difficult to shake.
Yet in the writing of this book, as I have listened to and learned from the remarkable women and men you are about to encounter—and many others not in these pages—my two selves have finally come together. How can I wish for the person I was when it is the person I am who has been entrusted with the telling of these stories?
Copyright Anne K. Ream, excerpted from Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors.
April 10, 2014
April 9, 2014
March 31, 2014
April 6, 2014
"The atrocity of sexual abuse as told by a captivating, diverse collective of survivors… A sad reality graced with hope, humanity and compassion."