Note: I originally wrote this for a newsletter with a theme of Nonviolence as empowering. I am copying it here after a few requests. This is my personal story. I do not presume that my feelings are universal or that the path toward healing and power that was right for me is what is right for everyone. Each of us who have been victimized by sexualized violence needs to find the path toward healing that works for us, and to support one another along that path. There is no one “right way”
A woman at a nonviolence training once told me that as a rape survivor she could only embrace nonviolence when she knew she could defend herself physically – even violently – if necessary. As a survivor of sexualized violence I “get that” – I understand it and respect it.
For me, however, it was the opposite. Or at least very different.
Let me back up. I was 16 years old when I was raped. Spending the weekend babysitting, a friend’s boyfriend had come over to “talk about how to best remain friends with her after they broke up.” He was flirty, and flattering and “in need of my help.” And I was insecure, needy and thought my only worth was in “fixing things” for others.
At the time I didn’t define it as rape. I felt awful, and knew something awful had happened. Yet, in spite of the fact that he had held me down and forced me while I cried and repeated “No”, I somehow thought it must be my fault. I mean after all, I had invited him over. I had initially enjoyed the flirting, and had been flattered by the attention. I told myself “you did kiss back at least at first.” And besides, *“Jim” * was “a friend”. Wasn’t rape what happened when a stranger jumped out from behind the bushes?
I told no one. Not for years.
A few years later I was volunteering, answering phones for a crisis hotline. At the training we were told the legal definition of rape, several survivors came and shared their stories with us.
It clicked. I cried. I got angry. And I started to find my voice. I started to tell my own story – at trainings, at “Take back the Night” rallies, in classrooms. I began healing.
Still, something was not quite right. I had started to find my voice, but not my power.
And while I stopped blaming myself I did want to acknowledge that I had a role in what had happened.
I needed a way to reconcile the reality that the choices I made, and the actions I had taken had put me in a risky situation with the new and certain knowledge that I was not to blame. I needed to separate “responsibility” from “blame”. Or more accurately to take responsibility for my decisions and actions without blaming those actions for the choices “Jim” made, without blaming myself for the violence. I needed a way to differentiate being victimized with being a victim. I needed a way to be able to say to myself, “that was a dumb decision” AND to say “that decision did not give someone else the right to hurt me.”
I also struggled with the fact that in spite of how everyone around me seemed to think I should feel, I didn’t hate “Jim.” I didn’t (and still don’t) wish him any ill.
It all just seemed so confusing, so muddy.
Friends suggested I take a self defense class. I tried it. But that didn’t feel right, and didn’t seem to help for me. I didn’t feel right. And it all remained so muddy.
Then I started studying nonviolence. It embraced muddy. As I read Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Gene Sharp I started to appreciate muddy. Barbara Deming especially rocked my world. Yes, we could hate patriarchy and the violence against women that is a part of that system without hating all men.
I began to see how we are all victimized by such a system of violence and oppression. “Jim.” was victimized by this system also. I began to see how I too helped to maintain this system – most often in ways I was completely unaware of. This knowledge left space for me to hate what he did, without hating him as a person; to hate his actions without feeling guilty for not hating him as a person. It created the space for me to feel okay with two contradictory things ; remembering the good times we had together, without diminishing my feeling violated, and pained and enraged by his actions.
And as I started trying to live my life by principles of nonviolence I started to understand a difference between being victimized and being a victim. I started to see power differently – as something we have WITH someone, not only as something we have over someone. That – power with – was something I wanted to cultivate, to claim.
I find, it is easy to forget I am powerful, that we are powerful. It is easy to fall in to thinking in “this or that” terms and to forget that muddy is okay.
But to me –nonviolence is empowering and a reminder we sometimes have more power and more choices in how we react than we might first think.
Fast Forward several years:
In November of 2001 I traveled to Columbus, Georgia as I had for several previous years to take part in the annual demonstration at the gates of Ft. Benning to call for the closing of the US Army School of Americas/ Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (check out http://www.soaw.org/.)
I had planned to help out with nonviolence training. For a variety of reasons I finished up early.
Some friends were supposed to meet me later, but since I finished so early I decided to walk over and meet them. I left the theater where the training was being held – the street was well lit with several restaurants and lots of people walking around, many who were in town for the demonstration the next day. I turned the corner and walked a little way before realizing the street I had turned onto was not so well lit. In fact, it was fairly dark. It was also not so full of people. Rather, it was fairly deserted. And I realized I only mostly knew where I was going.
As I continued to walk, two men approached me. They looked to be in their early 20s, average height (but since I’m 4’11” and was scared they seemed pretty tall). They weren’t super muscular, but definitely in shape. They stepped in front of me, not quite blocking my path completely, but making it impossible to pass them without pushing them out of the way.
They started talking to each other about me:
“Oh, here is one of those people who come to town to tell us what bad Americans we are.”
“Yep, we don’t like people like that in our town do we?”
“No, actually she’s probably here to tell us how bad America is – let’s show her what happens to people like that in our town.”
They continue to talk about me : a “stupid woman” and “anti-American bitch”, and started to poke at me in the shoulder as they said it. I was wondering how I was going to get out of the situation when I heard myself talking. I remember thinking “hmm… I wonder what I’m gonna say”
And what I heard myself say was:
“Oh thank god you guys are here. I grew up with a lot of people who joined the military and they all think my politics are screwed too. They are always teasing me about it – just like you are now, so it’s sort of comforting. But, my friends are expecting me any minute and I just realized how stupid it was for me to walk over to get them on dark streets alone. And I hate to play in to all the stereotypes you have about women being helpless, and needing men… but … I’m wondering if you might be willing to escort me to meet my friends.”
Suddenly things changed. After a few glances over my head back and forth that seemed to imply that the guys clearly thought I was the dumbest person ever to walk the earth, the voice of the 2 guys seemed to change, become a bit kinder as they said “Of course maam, we’d be happy to, we wouldn’t want anything to happen to you when you were here in our town.”
They then walked me over to the hotel where my friends were, “chatting” with me the whole time.
Somehow, it felt like a circle had come ‘round.
(* Not his real name)