When we checked our daughter Cassy into a four-story hotel next to Philadelphia’s airport last night, the petite clerk asked whether she had a floor preference. Cassy shrugged. I shuddered. Beads of separation anxiety dribbled, as I recalled the high fence outside and the sketchy terrain, as if I were placing my daughter in the path of an oncoming train.
“Well, I don’t like putting a single woman on too low a floor …” the woman petered out.
We all knew what that meant. The hoteliers couldn’t guarantee her safety from random brutalities, but they’d do their best. As Cassy nodded in relief and appreciation for an unexpected kindness, we three women joined in solidarity, a coven, skipping in a circle of hair and howls, silhouetted against the moon, standing our ground. “Thank you,” in unison.
And that’s the way it is for a parent. We cannot protect our children from the world’s random brutalities, but we do our best.
It has been three months since Cassy “came out” to us and the world as a sexual abuse survivor. Somehow it seems longer. My husband and I escorted her to the Free Library of Philadelphia. There, we would celebrate, along with more than 100 other survivors, survivor advocates, survivor support systems, the release of The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse, a 360-degree anthology of more than 50 first-person essays compiled by the editors of Philadelphia Weekly. They’re tackling the biggest, most pervasive stories of our day that no one is talking about. (Purchase a copy at amazon.com here.)
Nina and Joel Hoffmann conceived of the idea shortly after Joel’s own revelation of the abuse he suffered as a child and his long-fought struggle to heal — a fight that nearly decimated their marriage. Their stories are at the heart of the book, and as much as you might imagine reading the entire work to be like slogging through the muck of jungle combat during monsoon season, this diverse and courageous chorus of voices promises to lift you up — as a languid swimmer remembers suddenly to surface for air or a newborn gasps hopefully at its first breath, in a waul declaring, “I’m here.” See me. Hear me. Keep me safe.
Listening to the essays read aloud — one in particular, by Ari Benjamin Bank, a survivor as well as that swimmer, whose story had each of us lapping up tears — strengthened the group conviction that these accounts, these truths, beg a wider audience. One in four women, one in six men, a sexual assault every two minutes … grim statistics that became flesh and blood, my own flesh and blood, when I first awoke to the full weight of my daughter’s experiences last August.
And yet, as each writer who dares to draw on firsthand experience must, she first had to weigh how breaking the silence would affect not only her personal safety, vulnerability and validity, but also the impact on those who know and love her. Would they be disappointed in her? Would they see her differently? Would she be stigmatized? Could WE survive her pain?
The fact that a survivor wrestles not only with the physical injury and emotional hollowing out but adopts the burden of managing others’ reactions to their injurious news is part of the injustice. The burden of proof gets placed on the one who has suffered the crime of sexual abuse, then a dispassionate, blinders-on society inflicts more misplaced punishment. A gag order by way of our gag reflex. We do not want to know. We don’t want to hear. We don’t listen. We don’t wanna talk. Well, maybe just the gory parts, and then we turn away.
Several of the event’s speakers invoked the Sandusky case. Sure, we were in Pennsylvania, but, as a Philly native, I realize Philadelphia is as safely removed from Penn State as it is from Pittsburgh (random sports rivalry reference). Still, that case resonated worldwide not because of its prurient interest, but because of personal, statistical investment. One in four, one in six … sexual abuse has no doubt touched your life in some personal way. (As I write this, my phone wiggled and jangled with the news that even Elmo is a pedophile. Sigh.)
My eyes were opened to what each of us can do to keep from revictimizing those who have experienced sexual abuse. It could be as simple as me, a headline writer, not buying into the label of “Victim 1” in describing the 19-year-old who brought down the monolithic Lions with his bravery. Despite how the court documents refer to him, he had protested the use of “Victim 1” — and yet the news media took the easy (or non-objective?) way out. As a copy editor, the burden is on me to do no harm with the language we choose, to eradicate bias, including the bias heaped upon so-called victims.
For better or worse, when the news broke in our family, a decision was made not to let my octogenarian father know what had happened to his beloved granddaughter at college. Possibly he couldn’t take the grief, his heart wouldn’t hold out. He is legally blind, so he doesn’t read my blog. Things must be read to him, so it’s easy to filter out the bad news. When I phone my parents, I am instantly put on speakerphone, so I, too, must filter out what is inadvisable — such as my pride over Cassy’s profound, surefooted steps toward recovery; how she has decided to commit her life to helping other survivors emerge from darkness and make the public see the light; how the inclusion of her 28,000-word essay in The Survivors Project was something even the editors felt needed to be digested wholly, not in digest form.
As a wider audience embraces her voice, my wonderful mother frets over how she’ll continue to maintain my father’s news blackout, protect him from it, if this explodes.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few months, though, thanks to Cassy, is that hiding the truth can prove toxic. And we ought never pre-judge another’s capacity — whether that gauge is for pain, resilience or love.
It’s what drew me to journalism: Present the facts. We know objectivity is a lie — we are humans, after all. Still, our directive is to not sugarcoat it, not demonize it, be thorough, be accurate and let the readers/listeners discover their own truths.
We certainly can’t protect those we love from random brutalities. But armed with knowledge — and a full capacitor for feeling — we can surely do our best.
Or, at least, better than we’re doing.
• 50 Shades of Rage and Gray: The messy aftermath of a mother’s discovery