23 Mar Don’t Shame Us. Don’t Shut us Up. (How to better support and empower a survivor of Sexual Abuse.)
This blogpost needs a content warning for rape, abuse and swearing. And it’s really long.
Since writing publicly about my abuse four months ago, I’ve had to deal with a myriad of different reactions – many positive, some negative, and a few downright horrible. Some of the fall-out from my writing caused shockwaves that I didn’t anticipate and a few personal relationships in my life didn’t survive. I’ve had to do a lot of self-care to cope. I went back to therapy (YAY! for awesome therapists who help you make sense of stuff), put my novel on hold, spent time with my amazing sisterhood of friends (YAY! for the compassion and wisdom of friends who help you navigate the storms of life), focused on my little family and getting the Fab5 settled into their new home and schools, prayed more, and treasured being with the Hot Man more. (When he wasn’t running/swimming/biking…)
Life is back on a more even keel for me now and as I reflect on the messy last few months, I’d like to share some examples and insights of HOW we can support and empower survivors of sexual violence when/If they speak out about their experiences. This is very important to me, and not just because I am a survivo
Fourteen years ago, I was a teacher in a Samoan high school. I’d made it a habit to include abuse awareness in at least one (if not more) of my class discussions/topics, every year, for every group of students I taught. Part of the discussion would always include the encouragement to seek help if they were being abused, to not keep silent. That year, a young woman responded by writing an essay for my eyes only – about the fact that she was being raped at home by her brother in law. She’d told her mother and gotten slapped in the face for her “cheekiness”. This student wept in my office and pleaded with me not to tell anyone. Not the police, the Principal, her parents, no-one. I arranged for her to meet with a local therapist but she wouldn’t go because of fears her family would find out. I badly wanted to report her abuse, to get her away from her family. But at the time, there was no Support agency for young survivors and I’d heard horror stories about how the system in Samoa was failing young people in similar situations – families that beat and rejected their children who made the mistake of asking for help. The situation weighed heavily on me and after many meetings with this young woman, I chose to honor her request and do nothing.
I’ve regretted that decision ever since. Regardless of the inadequacies of the Samoa justice system, I failed that young woman and I’m ashamed I didn’t do more. I’ve often wondered what could I have done differently? Every time I write about this issue – either directly via my blog or woven into one of my novels – a part of me seeks to atone for my failing, and hope that somehow, in some small way, my words can help someone out there who may be in a similar situation as that former student.
Encouraging people to speak out about their abuse is one thing. What we DO with that and how we respond is another. I’ve made mistakes in how I support and empower the women in my life regarding this issue and I’m still learning how to be a better ally and advocate. I’m guessing we can all do better and be better at this. Which is why I’m sharing the following –
What you should (and shouldnt) say or do to an abuse survivor. (According to Lani because everyone’s experience is different and so these may not be true for others.)
1. Don’t get angry and confrontational, demand, “Why didn’t you tell me?!”
It can take an incredible amount of courage (and pain) for a survivor to tell someone, anyone – about their abuse. Many keep silent for years about what was done to them. We battle feelings of shame and fear. We worry what people will think of us if they know the truth. So it’s not helpful to react with accusing questions. You may be shocked by their disclosure and you’re hurting because you love them but you need to deal with your hurt/anger separately and not rage at the person. THEY are the survivor and their feelings and safety should be your priority. I had people react with anger because I’d never told them about my abuse – it hurt their feelings. Because they didn’t agree with the public way I chose to talk about it – it embarrassed them. For them, my abuse was buried under a mountain of their angst.
2. Don’t victim-blame. “Why were you at that party?…Why were you in a car with him?…What were you wearing?…How were you dancing?…Why didn’t you fight him?…Did you scream for help?…How many beers did you have?…” It doesn’t matter what a person wears, how late they are out, where they go, how loud they laugh, or even how much alcohol they consume – it is never their fault if they are raped. I have friends who have been assaulted and then had to deal with questions like these, from family, friends, police and doctors.
3. Listen with your heart and offer validation. My abuse article was read and shared by many people who then used social media to discuss the issues. Some of them said things like this: “How do you know she hasn’t made this up just so she can get extra publicity?…She’s probably just trying to sell more books…So typical for a celebrity to say she was abused…Yeah, if she really meant it, she would name her abuser and take him to court…Even if it’s true, why would she talk about something so private unless she wanted attention? She’s only trying to further her career by being open about something so shameful.” Yes, people really do say things like this about, and to, abuse survivors. There are some people in this world who really do believe that a woman would invent a rape/abuse experience for attention. ( Because yeah, everyone wants to run out and buy a Young Adult romance novel the minute they find out it was written by a woman who was sexually violated when she was a kid. I always feel that way about child rape, don’t you?) And yes, it makes you famous when you go public with child abuse. So “famous” that for a while, everywhere you go, it’s like you have a brand stamped on your forehead, a flashing neon sign: “VICTIM HERE…SOILED GOODS…DAMAGED… CRAZYWOMAN WHO WON’T SHUT UP ABOUT YUCKY STUFF…” And sometimes, people aren’t sure how to talk to you, and can’t look you in the eye because the whole thing makes them uncomfortable and its so triggering perhaps, for their own experiences and issues. So they avoid you. Or call you a liar. Or try to make you shut up. Anyone who’s spoken publicly about abuse can tell you that it’s not fun. It’s not the kind of attention anyone wants.
Many survivors have spent a lifetime questioning their feelings. Repressing their memories. Some have spent years pretending that abuse never happened. So when they finally are strong enough and brave enough to admit it, to themselves and to others – please don’t doubt them. Don’t shame them. Don’t shut them up and shove them back into the darkness. Some of us aren’t seeking retribution or that elusive thing called ‘justice’. It’s not about WHO abused us, WHO didn’t protect us better, and what should be done to those people. We just want to be listened to. We just want to be believed.
4. Don’t try to dictate a survivor’s journey of healing. An example – a journalist that I didn’t know, contacted me via Facebook, asking if I would do an interview with her network, about my abuse etc. I’d already done several interviews with journalists that I have worked with in the past, people I was familiar with and felt comfortable about talking to on a very sensitive topic. I didn’t want to do any more media so I politely declined this woman’s request. She wasn’t happy and accused me (among other things) of only wanting to discuss the issue in forums that I could control. Like that was something bad. I’m disappointed that a female journalist would try to pressure/bully me. I made the mistake of assuming another Pasifika woman would have more empathy.
It’s vital that a survivor feel safe and empowered. She knows what it’s like to not have control over her body, to be violated and manipulated. Never pressure a survivor into talking about her experiences. Let her disclose information at her own pace, in her own space and time. Let her decide how she wants to proceed, what she wants to do next about the abuser etc. Trite advice like, “It’s in the past. We don’t need to talk about it.” and “You need to forgive him/her so you can heal and get over this” is not only superficial but also offensive.
It’s amazing to me how some people think it’s okay to tell a survivor how she should feel. One friend said, ‘You’re so angry these days. You should stop being angry.” Another friend said, ‘Why do you have to let people see your hurt? You should keep it to yourself. It’s making people uncomfortable.’ My response to them? I’m not here to make you feel comfortable and I won’t deny my feelings so you can keep pretending that abuse doesn’t happen.
The thing is – some days, yes I’m angry. That I was raped. That I thought for years it was my fault. That I believed for the longest time it made me damaged goods. I’m angry there isn’t more support for survivors in Samoa, particularly for children. I’m angry when teachers perpetuate rape culture and tell my daughters they need to cover their shoulders so they wont tempt boys to sin. I’m angry when people who are supposed to love me, continue to treat my experience with contempt, dismissal and avoidance.
Other days, I’m just sad. That I carried this secret burden for so long and let it shadow my life in so many ways. Sad about how it has impacted on my marriage to a pretty awesome man. Sad for survivors who continue to suffer in silence because they haven’t got the support networks I’ve got, helping them to heal.
Then, other days, I’m happy. Grateful for the healing my faith offers me. Exuberantly happy that I’m not afraid anymore. I used to think my abuser was watching me all the time, standing outside the window waiting to see if I would tell on him – because then he would hurt me. I truly believed that, right up through my twenties and early thirties. When I finally wrote about it and told “the world”, I broke free from the fear he’d chained me with. I rejoice in my strength and give thanks for the love of a patient partner and truly fabulous children. On a good day, I give thanks for being a woman, and glory in my fierce, fiery (often chaotic) creativity.
I get more happy days now then sad, angry ones and I’m able to be more at peace with all that has happened. But I will never give up my right to feel whatever I need to on this journey. As one survivor expressed it –
I will talk about MY abuse when and where I want to. I will be angry as much as I need to. I will grieve for as long as I have to. I will be happy, how and when I
fucking well please.
5. Be kind and compassionate. (A little obvious I know but trust me, some people need it spelled out for them.) Apart from the negative stuff detailed above, I received many messages of support and encouragement. Extended family wrote to share their love and concern, some apologizing that they had been present in my childhood and never knew what was happening. Friends called to listen, laugh and cry with me. Some brought me love in the form of homebaked delicious treats. Total strangers shared their own stories of abuse with me and thanked me for being a voice for that which they couldn’t share themselves. I’ve been so moved by the wave of kindness I’ve received. Darren and the Fab5 literally kept me alive in my darkest moments in the last few months of mess, with their love and support. A couple of examples from outside the family, that stand out for me:
*A boy I dated over twenty five years ago, who I haven’t seen since, somehow read my blog and wrote to express his gratitude for sharing my story. He has daughters now and this issue is such an important one, he said. He went on to add, “I’m sorry I didn’t know about your abuse. I’ve been trying to think back to when we dated and remember if at any time, I may have done something or said something to you that made you feel uncomfortable or hurt you in any way. If I did, please forgive me.” Considering that we were fourteen back then and “dating” in Samoa meant we only saw each other at church and exchanged notes – his sincere message meant a lot to me. If your partner is a survivor, she will need buckets of your patient understanding, especially when it comes to intimacy in your relationship. Some days she’ll be totally fine with everything your sexilicious self has to offer her. But other days, she may not even stand to be in the same room with you and your touch may make her physically ill. Therapy can be a big help for both of you. Respect for her boundaries is key.
*A beautiful niece said, “I didn’t know that happened to you Aunty. I’m sorry. I love you and Im so proud of you for what you wrote.” That’s it. No long speeches, nothing flowery and expansive. A few simple words is all it took for me to feel validated, loved and empowered. Her words made me cry. Especially when contrasted with the utter wall of silence…or the spewing vitriol of others – who I thought would offer compassion. When a loved one tells you her story, and you are at a loss how to respond? Keep it simple. Tell her you love her. “I’m here for you. What do you need from me?”
*I went to an Awards dinner in Auckland and a TV3 journalist/news presenter who I’d done an interview with before, was the MC. At one point in the evening, he came to our table and was introduced to everyone. He complimented me on my blog. People wanted to take a photo and so he stood between me and another woman. The photographer told everyone to move in so we’d all fit into the picture. The others obliged by moving closer together but then the man turned to me and hesitated. “Is it alright if I put my arm around you and move closer?” he asked politely. I said yes, so he moved for the photo and then asked me again, “Is this alright?” That’s when it hit me. He was being mindful about my comfort level with people getting in my personal space, especially man-people. He’d read my blog about abuse. And possibly my blog about hating social greeting hugs and kisses. At first I was mortified by this realization. I felt like I had that neon sign on my forehead: FRAGILE and DAMAGED. For a frantic moment, I wished I’d never told anybody about my abuse. See Lani, now everyone thinks you’re a freak! But then, I shoved that remnant of shame away because there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have clear boundaries for one’s body or personal space. I shouldn’t be embarrassed that I don’t like random people hugging or touching me without permission. That man’s simple act of courtesy and respect for my boundaries and my experience, was an empowering thing for me. A reminder that being a survivor is not something I have to apologize for. Thank you Mr Campbell.
Supporting a survivor isn’t easy sometimes, especially if you have your own unaddressed issues with sexual violence in your past. Knowing this, helps me to be more understanding about the people in my life who haven’t been able to walk with me on this journey. It’s my hope and prayer they will find the strength to seek the help they need to deal with their own painful experiences.
I’m grateful for the support and understanding I’ve been given from so many different people. May we all strive to be better allies to the survivors in our lives and better advocates for their empowerment.
(I’ve used the pronoun ‘she’ throughout this blog post but only in a general sense because as we all know, boys/men and fa’afafine are raped and abused also.)