I did not expect the outpouring of support the publication of my rape story generated. It was published online and later picked up by my local weekly paper. Seeing it in print, in an actual newspaper, was a shock I also did not expect. Neither did I expect hugs (not unwanted) from grateful well-wishers at the grocery store, the library …
But the most surprising response so far has been from women who have not told their stories. Their comment to me has often been: “You are so courageous; I am not there yet.” My response has been: “You’ll do it when you’re ready.” And “We’re in this together.” But not in the way I thought we were.
I’ve had some time to think about the women who do not tell their stories. One of them, a college friend who lives in another state, recently called to thank me for telling mine. We talked generally, about life and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, until she told me that she had her own rape story. She has told no one. I was the very first. The honor of being the chosen listener is without parallel. All ears, I cried silently as she recounted.
She told me she was sexually assaulted when she was 13 by a friend of the family. She did not give details of the rape; I did not press her for them. She did, however, describe her family’s closeness with the family of her rapist. “We went to the beach together. We had picnics, dinner parties, events. My sister was best friends with his sister …” Each family event challenged my friend to keep her mouth shut, to keep her emotions in check. They have stayed that way for 40 years. They are that way now.
This keeping in check caused my friend to retreat. She began to overeat in order to hide behind the protective pounds surrounding her heart, her femininity, her gender. She did not date. She did not tell. Her parents now in their 80s were and still are protected. “The truth would kill them,” my friend maintains. Though she thrived and continues to thrive as a talented, successful woman, part of her is always shut down.
Her quiet suffering makes me wonder about my own coming out about rape. I feel better, relieved. I love my body. I have better sex now. I feel stronger. But who did I trigger in my need for this unburdening? What harm did I cause? I’m victim-blaming myself, here. How is that fair?
As a yoga teacher, I think about harm often. In Sanskrit, the word Ahimsa translates as non-harming. Ahimsa is one of yoga’s ethical guidelines laid out in the Sutras of Patanjali, a 2,000-year-old book of aphorisms for meaningful living, aka yoga’s Ten Commandments. Ahimsa is listed first among the disciplines; Satya, meaning truthfulness, second. Think about that. In this ancient philosophical practice, non-harming is more important than truthfulness.
By keeping everything in check, my friend became the Ahimsa Queen in regard to her parents. Certainly, she harmed herself in her silence, but she had and still has the courage to make this decision. The tenacity she shows in protecting the people she loves is awe inspiring. How many other women exercise such determination? In my public disclosure of rape, my courage took an equal and opposite trajectory: full disclosure. They say that the truth will set you free, but in my current crusade for that truth, I have become such a fanatic that I feel the need to explain to little kids that there is no Easter Bunny. In the pursuit of my liberation, my disclosure may have harmed my loved ones and probably some people — maybe even little kids — I will never know. This was my decision.
We’re both guilty, my friend and me. Even as rape survivors, we cause pain. Perhaps this is the source of the shame associated with it? We have internalized an age-old oppression of women and thus are ashamed of our choices: disclosure or nondisclosure. The shame I felt in telling is the shame she feels in not telling. We are caught together in a Catch-22 of expectations. As women, mothers, and daughters, we are held to unrealistic standards. We are expected to protect others, to do no harm. But how can we free ourselves from the cycle of harm caused by the assault?
We really are in this together. Women who tell their stories need the aegis these silent women offer. And vice versa. Either way the choice is fraught, but it is our own. In making it, we start to reclaim a tiny bit of the power stripped away from us.