Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why Can't I Just Shut Up?



There was a time I convinced myself that sharing my survival story was only self-serving, just another way for this attention hound to get people to listen.  I trashed the computer files of my written word, convincing myself that nobody wanted to hear it and that holding on to them only restricted my ability to fully heal. (All the while knowing that I still had a printed copy deep in my closet, just in case.)

Encouragement from a friend inspired me to reach out to the therapist I had seen at Rutgers after I was raped. That rekindled relationship led to my first speaking engagement at one of the classes she taught at the University. That in turn led to dozens of other presentations there.  I spoke to all different types and sizes of groups from small SCREAM Theater (Students Challenging Realities and Educating Against Myths) training sessions up to the entire Rutgers football team.

Afterwards I would open myself up for questions or comments. As crowds often do, they mostly just looked around at each other and remained silent. It would make me wonder once again if there was any purpose to sharing.

Then the feedback starting rolling in via email:

·     The speaker taught me how to react to a rape victim; what to say and what not to say, which is something I was unclear about.
·     A victim could be a survivor with power.
·     I learned to look for safety features when choosing housing.
·     The presentation highlighted how rape affects everyone related to the victim and how rape victims respond differently.
·     I learned that rape is a lifelong healing but that people really can overcome it and that it is not just what people write, it really is true.  It helped me put everything is a new perspective.
·     It was powerful to hear this story straight from the face of a survivor (not victim!).  I also learned to call these women survivors.
·     There are women, regular women, who go through this and it could be your best friend, for all you know.
·     This hit me hard because the speaker mentioned she had 3 sisters and I do too; then the statistic of 1 in 4 women will be assaulted really kind of hit home – me or one of my sisters could become a statistic.
·     I really think men need to hear stories like what Gina has told us.
·     This was the best class.  I learned the most and related to the info the most.  Amazing speaker!

They liked me; they really liked me!

So I kept going. What I really wanted to do was to speak at the high school that I graduated from. I felt that having the shared high school connection would make me and my story more real to them. Maybe it would even help chip away at that invincibility that young people seem to think they possess (I did too) and have them consider their personal safety when they went off to college.

I wanted to do that for about two years before I got it to happen. I finally managed to arrange going to my alma mater and speaking to the seniors during their health class. When I stood in front of the classroom of rowdy 17 and 18-year-old girls and boys, I had another moment of panic. Oh god, they’re not going to want to listen to me. They’re going to think what happened to me could never happen to them. They think they’re Hunterdon County street smart, like I did. Shit.

Take a breath.

Proceed.

The minute I started talking, they politely settled down. And they stayed settled. And they listened. Some cried. Afterwards, with the prompting of their teacher, they asked questions. When they left, one approached me and shared her own survival story. She thanked me for speaking out. Their teacher told me she never saw them so rapt before.

It’s important; it’s really important. I need to keep talking.

And so I kept talking. Take Back the Night events, more trainings and classes, radio interviews.   Somewhere along the way I stopped worrying that my speaking served no purpose.

Instead I started worrying that my story was…boring. Cliché. Unnecessary.  Then an opportunity came my way to rework my story and present it with an emphasis on racism and white privilege. While still a story of my survival and resilience, it also became a vehicle to talk about the racism I confronted for the first time after I was raped.

The audiences, to my delight, reacted positively to it. I was reminded that even if my story has become boring to me, there are always new angles to talk about it from. Also, it’s always the audience’s first time hearing it. It does have an impact.

News stories continue to crop up of young women being assaulted by increasingly younger perpetrators. Male politicians claim to have insight to what happens to women’s bodies during a rape. Survivors speak out and then get death and rape threats. And that’s just in THIS country.

People that make up my community read these stories and are outraged but then become frustrated or ambivalent—after all, these stories are just bad things that happen somewhere else, somewhere far away, to someone they don’t know. It doesn't touch them at all.

But then this local mom that they know, they’re friends with on facebook, starts a blog and a lot of it has to do with her own sexual assault survival. Suddenly they realize they DO know someone that has been affected by this. The statistics don’t lie, the stories are real, the causes become personal. Then the issues are discussed online, in person, with their families. Progress inches along, one family at a time.

And that’s why I just can’t shut up.


11 comments:

  1. NEVER shut up, Gina. You are the voice of those who can't speak up. You ARE a survivor, and no matter how many times you tell your story, it will always touch someone. <3 Thank you.

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  2. Wow Gina, you took my breath away. I am so sorry you were invaded in this brutal manner - but my goodness you have prevailed, and have you ever! I am so glad you included high schoolers among your rapt audiences. We so want our children to be safe and, as you point out, their sense of immortality often prevents them from staying safe.

    I did not quite understand how you experienced racism after you were raped. If you feel comfortable explaining, I would like to become more aware of that angle.

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  3. I'd love to expound....as an educated young white woman I understood that there was racism in the world, but I hadn't ever witnessed it before. When my cousin flat out asked me, "Was he black???" and never, ever once asked me if I was okay...well it started to open my eyes. Another relative said to me "It was bad enough what happened to you but that it was done by someone of ANOTHER RACE!" (I told her "yeah I wish it was a white asshole that did it to me" and that shut her up).

    I always thought the police and the court were particularly kind to me. Now that I'm older and have learned even more about racism and white privilege, I cannot help but wonder how much of that could be attributed to the color of my skin.

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  4. Thank you Gina. I should have known what you were going to say, given that I am raising a son who is black, I have a former foster daughter who I am very close with who also is black, and I usually am acutely aware of the stereotyped notions and unequal treatment they can expect to face in their lives. Yet I needed to be reminded of it, so thank you.

    I wish you continued healing as you carry on inspiring people!

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  5. I hate that these are things we still need to teach our children.

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    1. I hate it too. On Saturday Nina, Lenny and I were talking about Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery and Nina said, "I'm not black, I'm BROWN." What do you say to a little girl who already senses enough around her to not want to identify as black? And then today Lenny said at the dinner table, "Do some white people still want slaves? But you won't take me to where those people are, right?" I teach the children a lot about equality and respect for all, but I know they will encounter situations where they will have to fight for that equality and respect.

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  6. Whenever I find myself in a situation in the kids like that--when they say something that absolutely breaks my heart or makes me cringe or want to overreact--I take a minute and breathe. Then I wonder if I'm only hearing it through and adult filter and the child filter has a completely different meaning. Then I ask my child for clarification and take it from there...for example Nina's child filter might really just have meant that her skin looks BROWN to her and not the crayon-color black. (We say brown skin all the time in this house.) And as for Lenny's question...just keep talking and fielding those hard ones. These are the practice questions for us parents because they are only going to get harder.

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    1. All good points, Gina. I do know Nina faces tough identity issues as she is being raised in an all-white family (for example, her family only buys her Barbies and when I bought her a black doll, she wanted to know why it wasn't as pretty as her other dolls). We talk about equality and how all colors are pretty, but I don't get too worked up about it. The kids are little, I want them to grow up happy and carefree - then as you say, we'll be there for them when they face the harder questions.

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  7. Gina, thank you for sharing your survivor story... never shut up, especially among teenagers... at that age and even older, we think we are not vulnerable to many things. I enjoyed your wonderful stories of family... you are indeed lucky to have such a beautiful family. May your little ones keep you laughing and smiling.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. The positive feedback only serves to make me feel even more secure in sharing my story.

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