I AM HERE
Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography.
~ Anne Carson
In the year when Rembrandt’s “Danaë” canvas was vandalized, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” topped the charts, Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union and the average cost of a home in the U.S. was $89k, I was a trampled twenty-one-year-old NYU transfer student. Recognizing my need for counseling, prior to the boon of the Internet, I let my fingers do the walking and flipped through the Yellow Pages.
The therapist I found was an enthusiastic Snapple Lady, her face smartened with oversized, fuchsia cat-eye glasses. When I begin to speak to her, words weld together then stutter out. At five I witnessed Dad straddle Mom’s body on a couch. His necktie wrapped around her throat. Stammered aloud for the first time are volatile episodes that poached my girlhood. Silence—its own graveyard character of my life story—settles in.
This is a big step she says to me, followed by her bridled breathy continue. I want to set myself free from the weight of my challenged childhood. I tell of the assault by a brother who at twenty-one committed suicide. I never told dead brother that I loved him. My fear of him was too great. At first I imagine that her giggles are nervous tics. But then I can’t ignore her theatrical hand-clapping each time I detail a more personal and uncomfortable truth about my life. Her response to my trauma feels perverse and voyeuristic. What happened to me is not meant to amuse.
How much do I owe you for this session?
I pay her with cash that stinks of refried beans and coffee from my waitressing at Panchito’s and hostessing at Café Figaro between and after classes. When she asks about future appointments, suggesting three times a week, I decline and say I’m not comfortable, unsure of how I know to say those words. Nobody should have lived my life. As a child, when I whispered to my stuffed animals that ain’t normal (the things taking place in our household), hope kept me alive. For days following my session with this therapist, she stalker-calls me, letting me know that my life would make a great movie. Each one of her sign-offs comes with a slap-happy burst of I can help write the script.
Trauma, a coiled beast, pierces a soul joltingly and cinematically. For me it was a leaking wound that corroded my internal wiring, leaving me with a mammoth distrust of others. When triggered by fear, I doggedly calibrate myself to be less irrational and many times fail. By disclosing harrowing information, I will be looked at in a myriad of disparaging ways—the cost of healing and reclamation.
To appeal to and fit in with others, I’ve curated a chipper online identity, posting birthday celebrations and prosaic lifestyle images of flaring sunsets, a dozen west coast oysters on ice, or my joyous pup—his shiny sable coat streaked with stray strands of chestnut. Cloaked in a rosy lens of optimism is the girl who, during arguments with boyfriends, flicked open door handles of moving cars. Twice I stunt-rolled to the side of the road after my crude warning was not heeded. Let me out of this car now. Initially you don’t think you have the guts to do it, but screams of No, no! fueled my determination and not doing it would have been harder to live with. It only takes a split second to eye the solid demarking white strip that separates the driving lane from the soft shoulder before thrusting a body to pavement and hurling hurt emotions to the curb. On both occasions the drivers sufficiently reduced their speed so I was left with only minor scrapes and bruises and the unexpected pleasure of a mind emptied by throbbing pain.
Trauma doesn’t get divvied up equally among survivors and their circumstances. Financial loss, social isolation, litigation, inability to maintain relationships, brain and body disruption, fragmented memories, and outrage that manifests itself in private and public life are often its brutal byproducts. Some days are better than others and it’s important to not be dismissive of the recovery process. Within the spectrum of chaos and abuse, others have dealt with far worse than me. Anyone that has taken in feral kittens knows that some adapt and others don’t. Sometimes claw marks on the arms of loved ones are the cost of sheltering a wild thing.
I understood two-time Olympian gymnast Aly Raisman’s thrumming and composed anger at Larry Nassir during his sentencing for sexually assaulting her and over 150 other female athletes. Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice. When I’m about to cry, my throat tightens and the most efficient messenger of emotion chokes up and becomes voiceless. As a child I often heard I can’t understand you. Do you mean x or y? The puzzled stares and language charades of adults were crushing. Not being understood cleaved my confidence. I’d default with “y” to end the torture of repeating myself. Mom said I had a lazy tongue. Alone with a mirror I’d examine my mouth in search of deformity. Lips, teeth and tongue produced inarticulate babble.
In grade school I became withdrawn when asked to read aloud. Go ahead, a nurtured nudge from a teacher, produced panic as sentences expanded into paragraphs that collapsed my voice. My eyes couldn’t focus, my hands sweated, and my face flushed the shade of a ripe radish. Teachers stopped calling on me and told my parents that I was slouchy with words. Discord lived in the folds of my vocal chords.
At fifteen, acting instructors praised my talent for sense memory. You hold fear beautifully in your eyes. To continue in theatre, work on your instrument. Their notes mailed home were specific. To better express herself she needs extensive vocal and diction work. We recommend she concentrate on her vocal verbal skills. A tongue twister was given to me. Good blood, bad blood, red leather, yellow leather—good blood, bad blood, red leather, yellow leather, good blood, bad blood, red leather, yellow leather—good blood, bad blood, red leather, yellow leather.
Born as Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, Marilyn Monroe was a Gemini and a stutterer. Monroe sounded as if she was just waking up, especially while singing. Her voluptuous voice was purr-style, throaty. It was one of her standout traits as an actress. She loved reading, did interviews in the nude, was an early devotee of yoga, and the second woman to head her own Hollywood production company. Once, for an arthritis benefit, she rode into Madison Square Garden on an elephant draped in pink.
First time was at the orphanage, and then later in my teens I stuttered. And I was uh-um – they elected me secretary of the English class — no secretary of the minutes of the English class — whatever you call it. Then I’d say, [to announce] the minutes of the last meeting, and I’d go m-m-m-m-m . . . Oh, it’s terrible.
Voices convey states of mind and hold traces of trauma locked inside the trachea. A broken limb if you will. Eight-year-old Norma Jeane tried to tell her mother that the boarder in their house m-m-m-m-molested—
When he put his arms around me, I kicked and fought as hard as I could but I didn’t make any sound. He was stronger than I was and wouldn’t let me go. He kept whispering to me to be a good girl. He then picked me up bodily, carried me to the sofa beyond the chair, sat down on it and dropped me on his lap. ‘Just take it easy and keep your mouth shut kid and I won’t have to get rough with you.’
Trauma clenched Marilyn’s good-girl throat. Muscle tension constricted her breathing. The cadence of her voice was altered by a withheld scream—a lynched larynx. She ran to her mother stammering I want to tell you something about Mr. Kinnell. He … he … Gladys smacked her daughter across the mouth saying He’s a fine man. He’s my star boarder.
He … he …
At seven, I was too choked up to speak about what my brother did to me. Screams stuck in my throat. At fifty-four, I looked up the mechanics of the voice and found a labeled diagram: vallecula, median glosso-epiglottic fold, epiglottis, tubercle of epiglottis, vocal fold, ventricular fold, aryepiglottic fold, cuneiform cartilage, corniculate cartilage and trachea. The image of a throat can be mis-mis-mis-mistaken for a vagina.
Rembrandt’s “Danaë” was slashed twice and irreversibly damaged by sulfuric acid on the morning of June 15, 1985. Homed in Leningrad, “Danaë” is to The Hermitage Museum what “Mona Lisa” is to the Louvre—a masterpiece that draws crowds and prints money through posters, calendars and t-shirt reproductions. A middle-aged man, reported to be a lifelong celibate, and twice hospitalized as a schizophrenic, took a knife to naked Danaë and lacerated her stomach and thigh. As guards responded to the screams of a woman admiring artwork on the opposite wall, the madman pulled a jar of acid from under his coat and hurled it at the painting. Rivulets of pigment and varnish gushed onto the floor. Danaë was taken out of her frame and rushed to a restoration studio. Aware that water was the fastest means of neutralizing acid, but total immersion would be too extreme, the restorers spat mouthfuls of gulped liquid at the canvas.
The Communist Party suppressed information about the severity of the damage, keeping it from the media and announcing that the painting would soon be popped back on the wall. There is no doubt that Danaë will return to her former place and the uninformed viewer will never even guess what happened to her. But Danaë was in intensive care and restorers were proceeding with extreme caution. An hour after water treatment, a mixture of sturgeon glue and honey was applied to the surface to reinforce the paint layers and prevent the paint from lifting from the canvas. As acid and water mixed with paint and varnish, an encrustation formed over the canvas. The now-cloudy painting was feared forever ruined.
On June 10, 1991, a grey car that appeared to be looking for directions pulled up to eleven-year-old Jaycee Dugard. His hand shoots out of the car window and I feel this shock. My whole body is tingling. I don’t know what it’s from (a stun gun). I fall back into the bushes. I lost control of my bladder. I wasn’t even embarrassed. No time to be embarrassed. A pinecone is the last thing she touched before going unconscious. When she woke up she was pinned to the backseat floor, facedown, by the driver’s wife. My throat felt very dry and scratchy like I’d been screaming but I don’t remember screaming.
In a San Francisco neighborhood 150 miles away from her home, Phillip Garrido, a convicted sex offender sentenced to fifty years in prison and released after eleven, stripped Jaycee of her tiny pink tights and white t-shirt with a kitty on the front. He put a blanket over her head and led her naked body to a ramshackle shed in a tree-cloaked backyard. The fuzzy handcuffs, he said, are the kind that won’t hurt as bad. During Jaycee’s eighteen years of sexual servitude, she gave birth to two daughters: one when she was fourteen, the other at seventeen.
At nine, pre-AMBER Alert, I was playing in a ditch a good distance from our house when a car pulled up to me. Three men—a driver and two in the back—were wearing hunting attire. The grandfatherly driver, with no teeth and a rifle resting upright by his leg, called out that he was looking for someone. Something didn’t feel right as I advanced closer to the vehicle to ask for the name. His hand reached out to grab my arm—my instincts were awake as I ran in the opposite direction of our house to confuse them if they returned. The car tires spun and spit-crutched loose gravel from the side of the road as the men peeled away. Everything I learned at seven and before had saved me. A few days later the local Penny Saver reported about a girl raped and killed two towns away—though that memory of a harmed child feels hazy and imagined yet all too possible. Regardless, real is the poem I wrote in 1986 that ends with: So don’t talk to me about trusting everybody. If I feel funny about a person that’s it. You’re not going to read about me dead in some paper.
Bellicose means inclined, or eager, to fight. At ten, savage strength took seed in me. I pushed a tiered floor-to-ceiling light fixture to the ground. Blind rage. I was an undersized, pigtailed 4th-grader who finally silenced Mom. Shards of amber-shaded glass shattered and scattered throughout the living room. The dulled, yellowing linoleum floor became bejeweled with richness.
Go to your room. Mom had recovered from the shock of my outburst.
My hands saddled around my hips in a fearless stance as off-the-rails anger enabled me to enunciate words with clarity and volume. Go fuck yourself.
Then and now, the exact cause of my temper is the least important detail. Unstable behavior was empowering and intoxicating. Mom needed to back away but instead she yapped that I’d broken a family heirloom, the tension-pole lamp. I laughed. Things weren’t back to normal. Inside of me, in a dangerous place, was immeasurable ire. Do you mean x or y? Not asked. A banana-hued plastic laundry basket spilling with clothes and towels fresh from the dryer was mine to whirl across the room.
The voice is a means of expression. Pitch, volume, timbre and tone produce telling sounds. I understood Uma Thurman when she spoke from the red carpet. When I’ve spoken in anger, I usually regret the way I express myself. So I’ve been waiting to feel less angry. And when I’m ready, I’ll say what I have to say. Her anger makes me want to say hard things.
Fear or mistreatment instinctually incites me to toss verbal grenades at those around me. I once shouted at an older woman who had hurt me. As COWARD left my mouth I felt shame—not in the first blink of a second, but in the one that followed when her eyes watered and exposed the certainty that she’d heard that remark before from a loved one. I stood on the concrete sidewalk and watched years of our closeness dissolve. She’d been a mother figure to me. Go fuck yourself would have kept a friendship. COWARD destroyed it.
When I’ve spoken in anger, I usually regret the way I express myself. I hold too much inside, let things fester, think that I—should-can-am meant to—take it. Then the tick-tocking, birthed, hostile, inherited time bomb detonates. Go fuck yourself and COWARD provokes alienation. Anger doesn’t provide an injured person with relief. It’s taken me a lifetime to recognize that belligerent behavior can’t be justified.
Bulldozing violence, our family heirloom, has been passed down from one generation to the next. I’m prone to anger the way others are musically inclined. Between passing storms in our marriage, when the air is crisp and pure, my husband declares: You enter a room wearing invisible boxing gloves. His words are a plea to stop the craziness that originates from never feeling safe. To get things done I become confrontational. I cobble together charm when looking for others to provide me with favors, but that feels fraudulent. Asking for what I need, or want, flings me into a life-threatening crisis. Bottomless misgivings towards others are ingrained in me and are twined with the certainty of immediate rejection. My vulnerable voice is loud though inaudible and muddled in a getup that appears bulletproof. Speechlessness is easier and safer than expressing desires knotted with feverish fear.
At the top of the carpeted staircase, arched in a stance that mimicked a fearful animal ready to dart away, I leaned forward to hear my older sister tell Mom and Dad about our eldest brother’s sexual attack on her. She wasn’t explosive. Her even-keeled words were direct as she avoided looping around the ordeal with abstraction. My sister’s disclosure was brave. I believe she spoke to spare me similar harm, unaware that it had already happened. Twice my brother had violated me. Not a third time. I learned to hide inside closets and nap underneath my bed with the duvet draped to the floor. Sometimes I holed up in the soft shelter of a cattail patch like a doe in a rainstorm.
On a Halloween night my brother was fourteen and sister eleven. The house was quiet and dark. Lights were on but something felt off. The door to her room was closed. I turned the handle like a prowler not wanting to be caught. Locked. Expected behavior goes out the window when terror stampedes. I didn’t scream or pound on my sister’s door. I ran outside not wearing a costume. Each time Trick or Treat was shouted near me I howled at the moon. It was Halloween so no one thought that was strange. When I arrived at a friend’s house she was wearing scarecrow overalls and a straw hat. Come on get ready. I already had the perfect mask. As we walked around the village, skipping houses that handed out loose candy corn, people asked about my costume. A normal kid, I quipped, which earned laughs and an extra mini Snickers bar.
Liar. You’re a liar. Not yelled or screamed by Mom, You’re a liar was followed first by scolding silence, then the crackling and shattering of glassware tossed at the Canadian pinewood wall. When Dad yelled Get out of my sight, a chair thunked to the floor as my sister raced to her room. With speeding stifled steps I scurried to the back of my closet. Nobody wanted the truth. Nobody—I’m nobody—that’s how I thought about myself for not standing with my sister.
At the age of fourteen, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped and, for nine months, repeatedly raped by her captor. Many people asked her why she’d want to relive her trauma by doing a Lifetime movie and a documentary. She explained:
What a lot of people don’t realize is that what actually happened to me isn’t that uncommon. Rape happens all the time. Kidnapping happens all the time. So often I’m asked well why didn’t you run? Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you escape? For years that question bothered me and I couldn’t understand why and then I realized it was because I wasn’t hearing the question. I was hearing an accusation. I was hearing you should have run. You should have escaped. You didn’t try hard enough. It must not have been that bad.
Pain and guilt occupy space in my fervid mind that is too quick to consider fists over wit. Too often my unsteady voice screams the warning sound of a whistling tea kettle before I pummel. Tell me that I’m an angry person and I’ll turn angrier. Call me reactive and I become volcanic. Shout Calm down and something strange takes over my mind. Suppressed anger releases the monster.
In a recent eleven-minute video clip that went viral, world-renowned motivational speaker Tony Robbins claimed to know a great deal about anger and what’s amiss with the #MeToo movement. When a woman addressed him for his misunderstanding of the movement, Robbins went into an aggressive rant. At times, he wrangled a stadium crowd of over 12,000 to cheer him on against a single woman. In a forceful tone, referred to as “engagement,” he commanded her to Come here. His 6’7” frame towered over the woman, whom he then directed to Put out your fists. Watch, he told the audience as he pushed into her. As she began to back up, he derided her with jeers and thug-like showmanship—Why are you resisting? The interaction was a horrific display of unrestrained bullying.
Robbins: When you push someone all it does is make them angry. The woman stayed calm and present.
Someone next to the videographer can be heard saying It’s awareness. It’s not pushing (regarding the #MeToo movement). Seconds later, another voice responds to Robbins’ outburst: So a minority is not supposed to protest? They’re not supposed to do anything?
Robbins wouldn’t hear any voice other than his own. He said If you use the #MeToo movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else all you’ve done is basically use a drug called significance to make yourself feel good. He piled on. I’m not going to be inauthentic and say I’m sorry about something I’m not sorry about. This is what some people are doing saying they’re sorry to comply. I’m not here to comply. I’m here to free people from pain.
Anger has been the coping mechanism I’ve used to deal with trauma. Similar to Robbins, in the right circumstances, my self-protective survival mode can be viewed as strength. Like me, Robbins grew up with abuse. His mother once chased him out of their house with a knife, smashed his head into a wall, and filled his mouth with liquid soap until he threw up. Trauma requires representation to resolve itself. Anger was mine.
On Fifth Avenue and 9th Street, three ventriloquists with their dummies were getting into a taxi. The limbs of two beloved sidekicks were folded with care then placed on laps. The third was gently positioned on its side and appeared to be asleep. Not throwing his voice, the ventriloquist with the dozing dummy yelled to the driver TO THE DOLL HOSPITAL AND STEP ON IT. The sight was funny and infused with the surreal swirl of a marvelous Manhattan moment. Later that night, that scene returned to me and reminded me that when something vital is broken, there’s an urgency to get it fixed.
With the goal of mending the broken part of me, in 2012 I signed up for my first writing workshop. It required a ten-page submission for acceptance. The teacher, an actress prior to becoming an author, had a sturdy, mid-range voice. Her early books explored identity, grief, and the reclaiming of a broken life. When it was my time to read aloud from my work, I froze. She knew not to say Go ahead, understanding that my underpinnings were sharp, saturated and still too timid to allow me to speak. Before that morning workshop I’d practiced good blood, bad blood, red leather, yellow leather. However, tongue twisters can’t compete with the psychology of the inner voice.
The tongue is a conglomeration of eight separate, intertwining muscles that create a flexible matrix called a muscular hydrostat. Its structure is similar to an octopus’s tentacles or an elephant’s trunk. It can twist, suck and swallow and when strengthened, improve speaking abilities—good blood, bad blood, red leather, yellow leather.
Would you like me to read for you? My eyes said yes with gratitude.
Exposure is terrifying to a survivor of any type of abuse. For me, disclosure released shame and gave my terror less significance. Fragmented pieces of my identity became more cohesive and stable.
Having forensic evidence, sober unbiased witnesses, a slurred voicemail and police at the scene, Emily Doe, the anonymous Stanford rape survivor, was told that she had everything needed to prosecute her case. Nevertheless, it was not a slam-dunk outcome for justice. A year later, named Glamour’s Woman of the Year, Emily would recount that, prior to the sentencing of her perpetrator, she’d felt that the hardest part of the trial was over. However, after three felony counts of sexual assault netted only a trifling six-month jail term, Emily, and many across the world, fell silent. I felt embarrassed for trying, for being led to believe I had any influence.
At the crime scene Doe was found unresponsive but breathing, her head next to a dumpster and her body facing the Kappa Alpha house in a curled fetal position. In the ambulance she remained unconscious and at the hospital when repeatedly asked in a loud voice Can you hear me? What is your name? it took three hours for her to respond.
A search for the mechanics of the voice revealed that by the end of the first trimester a fetus has a fully formed brain and vocal chords. The developing fetus is able to suck its thumb, feel pain and silently cry. In an interview with Glamour, Emily Doe told the magazine that, after the sentencing of her attacker, she yelled half of her victim impact statement. She was heard—no longer silent.
I am here. I am not that floppy thing you found behind the garbage, speaking melted words. I am here. I can stand upright. I can speak clearly …
During the summer of 1969, Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by Charles Manson and his cult followers. Her mother Doris, depressed and withdrawn for over a decade, finally became vocal when she learned that a Manson family member was up for parole and, in 1982, she founded an activist group that pushed through the Victims’ Bill of Rights. No longer were victims restricted to answering attorneys’ yes-or-no questions, or reduced to only recounting virulent play-by-play details of their assaults. Instead, they were permitted to write, or speak aloud, their victim impact statements.
What mercy, sir, did you show my daughter when she was begging for her life? What mercy did you show my daughter when she said, ‘Give me two weeks to have my baby, then you can kill me?”
~ Doris Tate, at a 1984 parole hearing.
It’s taken me a long time to find my voice. That day on Fifth Avenue when I saw the three ventriloquists and their dummies, I laughed then cried. I’ve been the broken doll in need of repair. There will never be a time that I don’t falter and revert to being a word-swallower who mangles discourse into a vegetative state. As a bricklayer would do, I place one word at a time on the page and stack them up to amount to something capable of taking on weight. That’s my brick-and-mortar comfort zone.
There was a debate over how Rembrandt’s Danaë should be restored. Some felt there should be no intervention, while others wanted to extensively repaint her. Minimum restoration was decided upon, ensuring that the viewer could enjoy the overall effect of the painting. The painstaking work, over twelve years, was slow, seasonal, and carried on only during daylight. Though the damage on Danaë was severe, admirers are now able to see Rembrandt’s working method. His “underpaint” is revealed: the foundational layers of paint applied to the canvas provide contrast and tonal values. People have said it’s still a wonderful painting as long as you don’t look too closely. There are the damaged parts, and the undamaged parts. We were very, very careful with the original pigments. Any repainting means dissonance.
A staff member of the Hermitage stated There are always people who want a complete reconstruction. We had to learn when to stop. Another museum official, from elsewhere, said If people are allowed to get close to a once-damaged painting, they will concentrate on the damage. That is what they will remember most. But if they are kept at a distance of twelve or fifteen feet, they can focus on what really matters—the overall poetic effect of a great masterpiece that has survived a terrible ordeal.
I understood Uma Thurman’s anger on the red carpet and the turbulent emotions of other women abused before and after me. Raised in close quarters and constantly exposed to domestic violence that spread its contamination through the airshafts, confining hallways and cracks of the floorboards, I had been sexually assaulted at seven by a brother who later committed suicide. Afterwards, I was buried in victimhood.
Dumbstruck and grieving at brother’s wake, my fifteen-year-old gaze riveted to the four hard black rubber wheels attached to the catafalque. The transport trolley, a raised coffin table, tasked with taking his casket to and from places—crime scene, autopsy room, morgue, funeral parlor, hearse and gravesite—was decorated in silky fabric of plum pageantry. My brother’s horrible death had been made presentable for public viewing.
Catafalque, then an unfamiliar word, supported me on that frigid February funeral day. Today, a community of women and men no longer silent about their trauma join me in becoming vocal. Survivors’ stories are powerful, and largely not about gaining self-significance. I want to avoid muting an individual’s sexual assault and conflating it into a chorus that speaks for everyone. Not sharing your story, however, doesn’t mean you’re not a survivor, or unable to have a transformational life. Sharing what happened to me has been central to my recovery and is intended to console the person spiraling in a padlocked place of loneliness. By speaking out, I’m reclaiming my once unflinching, fearless toddler voice that had wanted to know everything about the razzle-dazzle world encircling me. What dat? And dat?
Jaycee Dugard’s last memory of freedom before being kidnapped was touching a sticky, prickly cone. Before being violated, I remember listening to Romper Room as I was falling asleep on an upholstered couch that left geometrical marks on the backs of my bare legs. Miss Molly, the host of the show, had been holding her magic mirror and reciting: Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play? She called out names: Susie, Billy, Tommy and I can see Yvonne. I made myself believe Miss Molly pulled me through her magic mirror and cradled me during my assault.
Prior to the trial, when her story was first released, Emily Doe read an online comment she found hurtful from a parent. I hope my daughter never ends up like her—meaning that Emily’s life was to be pitied for its sad summation. After the lenient sentence was imposed on her rapist, Doe was decimated and again felt exposed and vulnerable. She turned off her phone that kept ringing and pinging with text messages. Then Palo Alto Online and BuzzFeed picked up her victim impact statement posted online by the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office. Within hours, 20,000 people had read it and, four days later, the number jumped to eleven million. Emails from Botswana to Ireland to India were forwarded to her.
To the parent that had hoped her daughter would never end up like Emily: we’ve learned that, within trauma, hope still exists. That you can become strong and able to assist others. That greater awareness prevails. As Ms. Doe declares: Victims are not victims, not some fragile, sorrowful aftermath. Victims are survivors, and survivors are going to be doing a hell of a lot more than surviving.
In 2016, Stanford University transformed the dumpster site where Emily Doe was assaulted into a peaceful space for our community by landscaping it with benches and a fountain. A memorial plaque with wording to be chosen by Emily was in the works, but two quotes supplied by her were both refused because the university felt they could be harmful to survivors of sexual assault. Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor, who has served as Doe’s representative, disagrees. What is triggering is that the attack took place at all, not the victim’s powerful words about it.
Stanford University had hoped that the garden would be a restorative place of comfort, healing, and purposeful reflection and countered with a clipped, out-of-context phrase from Emily Doe’s twelve-page letter. I’m okay, everything’s okay—words befitting a sickly-sweet pop song. Repackaging and censoring sexual assault into a palatable jingle overlooks the optics and realities that embody survivorship.
Doe’s first proposed passage was seven sentences, the second just one. “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Catapult, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, F(r)iction #5, Funhouse Magazine and is forthcoming in Longreads. Her author interviews can be read on The Millions, Electric Lit, The Bloom and Tethered by Letters. She has performed at The Moth in NYC, is a Pushcart Nominee and a finalist for: Penelope Niven Prize in Creative Nonfiction, Cutbank Literary Journal, Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff, Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction, Blue Mesa Review and The Raymond Carver Short Story.