Everywhere #Paris #WallsBearWitness

Photo and video by Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin
Photo and video by Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

We spent three days in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, there to see an exhibit of Mackenzie’s photos at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of their Our Walls Bear Witness series.  The photos and a video, projected on the outside walls of the Museum, brought the faces and stories of imperiled minorities in Northern Iraq in to stark focus.  Organized by the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, there was a panel discussing the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s violence against religious and ethnic minorities, followed by the photo exhibit, part of efforts to hold true to the Museum’s imperative, “Never Again.”

And yet here we are, another morning of mourning, as we face the reality of terrorists calling their lethal violence “miracles,” religious extremists whose moral priorities somehow justify killing innocent civilians.

David interviewed people who were watching the video and loop of photographs on Monday night, not realizing how powerful and true their words would be by the end of the week.  An Iraqi refugee woman who is now a “proud citizen of America” said, “Sadness, sadness, because we have seen it and history repeated itself, every time since ages is the same.  It’s all sad.  Have you heard anything good in the news?  Always bad.”

A Kurdish man, who came to the panel and exhibit to support his “fellow Yezidis,” though he isn’t Yezidi himself, said, “It’s everywhere.”

Indeed.

Triple Silence Broken

 

child-abuse-silence

“I have a story, but I need someone to write it,” a friend said to me recently. Here’s the story, some details imagined and names changed but the facts are all true.

“I know why Cassie is having such a hard time.” Jean wasn’t surprised by the phone call from her ex-sister-in-law, but she was surprised Alice thought she knew what was wrong with Jean’s daughter.  Cassie had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt, which came after years of struggling with alcohol and drugs.

“You do?”

“My brother molested her,” Alice said and suddenly everything made sense to Jean. She’d been divorced from her husband, Cassie’s father, for over ten years, but during those years when her children came back from visits with him they often had trouble sleeping and behaved erratically. Jean hadn’t known then what she did now about abuse of children, and even with what she knew, she still hadn’t thought something from Cassie’s childhood might be driving her terrifying behavior as a young adult.

“How do you know?”

“Because he molested me,” Alice said. “I’d like to see you to talk about it.”

Jean and Alice agreed to meet and Jean called her best friend Elizabeth to ask her to come along. Jean was anxious and scared, and while she believed Alice and had always gotten along with her, she felt like she needed the support of Elizabeth who she’d known since childhood.

Jean, Alice and Elizabeth met at a dark bar near where they’d all grown up. They ordered drinks and Alice began talking first.

“I’ve never told anyone about Michael, that he molested me when I was a kid. But watching what Cassie’s been through I had to tell you. I see how she’s struggling and recognize the struggles I’ve had. If finally talking about what happened to me can help her, then it’s worth it. And it will help me too.”

Elizabeth watched Jean as she began to cry, then Elizabeth started to cry. “I was molested by my brother too,” Elizabeth said, almost whispering. “I’ve never told anyone either.”

Jean was stunned. “Me too,” she said. “My brother abused me and I never told anyone.”

The three women looked at each other, all in the 40’s, all successful, educated, capable women. Jean and Elizabeth were best friends. They told each other everything. Alice had been part of Jean’s life through her years of marriage to Michael and even since they’d split up. Jean had always considered her a friend, someone she could trust.

But none of them had ever trusted themselves or the world enough to tell each other or anyone else that their brothers had sexually abused them.

Now their silence was broken and together they could figure out how to make their secrets a strength.

This happened years ago. Cassie is fine now, a mother herself. She and Jean work hard to make sure the children are safe.

Silence

Closeup of woman crying
Huffington Post

I recently stepped back into the world of working to end violence against women.  I was at a meeting in Dallas I helped organize to talk in part about the recently broken sexual violence silence by women who’d been assaulted on college campuses.  Young women have begun telling their stories about being raped on campuses, reporting those rapes, and not only not being heard by administrations, but being silenced.  Reluctance to talk about sexual violence is rampant.  I know, I used to talk about it a lot at work and not much anywhere else.  It’s not a topic of dinner party conversations.

The second time David and I got together — a poetry reading in Portsmouth, dinner first — I let loose my Sexual Assault Rant and he didn’t flinch.  A good sign. My rant consists of strongly worded dismay at the ubiquitous presence of unwanted sexual touch in the lives of women that nobody talks about.  Sexual violence silence.

Well I’m talking about it, right now.  I love research.  I’m well enough known for my collaborations with researchers from when I was working at the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and since, with the brilliant women of Preventions Innovations Research Center, that I’ve been asked to review a paper on the topic of researcher-practitioner collaborations for a top peer-reviewed journal (Violence Against Women) in the field.

So here is some research of my own.  For over a decade I’ve been asking women I meet from all parts of my life if they’ve ever experienced unwanted sexual touch.  Not a chargeable offense necessarily, but some instance of a man touching a sexualized part of your body, uninvited, for his own gratification.  Only one woman has said no.  That’s to hundreds of “Yes.”

It’s certainly not strict quantitative research because I haven’t been keeping track of who I ask, so I’m not sure of my n, the number of women.  But it’s a lot.  And nobody talks about it.  The inability to move around in the world without some man touching your butt or rubbing up against you on a crowded bus or grabbing your breasts is not okay, and yet women all have to live with it.  It’s a fact of life.

In decades of working to end domestic and sexual violence, I saw a significant shift in how people in general talked about domestic violence and how they responded to battered women.  The injustice of blaming the victim began to be accepted and the press started accurately portraying murders of women as domestic violence murders, not “crimes of passion.”  The focus, in large part, shifted to the batterer, the one causing the harm.

The same has not been true of sexual assault.  Think of some of the highly publicized sexual assault media stories in the last decade.  How often has the press included discussion of the victim’s actions and credibility (“why was she in his hotel room?” “why did she get so drunk?” “doesn’t she have mental health issues?”) instead of looking at what the perpetrator did?

It’s a wonder anyone ever does report a sexual assault, given how victims are treated. If we can’t get communities to pay attention to the most egregious sexual assaults, would anyone pay attention to reports of the micro-aggressions of everyday life in which women’s bodies are sexualized targets for the fraction of men who don’t get that boundaries apply to them?

I’m tired of the silence.  I’m going to start telling some stories.  Stay tuned.