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When I decided to curate and edit A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault, I knew it would be some of the most important work I’ll ever do. Being able to create a safe space, a space where survivors could share their stories and fight stigma and raise awareness not only on what sexual assault is, but how the aftermath stays with you forever, was paramount to me as a survivor myself. It was, and still is, a gift to be able to do this work, to honor these people, to be graced with their words and hearts.

I was 20 when I was raped. I was 20 when I became pregnant with my rapist’s baby. I was 20 when my life changed forever. He didn’t rape me just once. That wasn’t the last time I was raped or sexually assaulted or harassed in some way. I thought as a survivor that I would never let it happen to me again, that I would rise from the ashes of this grotesque, dark hallway where no butterflies fluttered and no waves rushed to shore. I existed in a limbo, a hallway with flickering lights and no shadows, no semblance of anything but just an unending tunnel and silence.

For me, my abusers have always been people I know, who are people that I trusted in some capacity—some more or less than others. Regardless, of course, whether your abuser is a stranger or someone you know, the damage is long-lasting—and learning to cope is a lifelong struggle, a struggle that is sometimes easier to work through than other times, depending the ebbs and flows, on various triggers that will come and go.

For me, the three phrases that have continually helped me through the memories: It will pass. Everything passes. Nothing lasts. We all have our reminders and ways of coping—and those are mine. There is no one way, however, which is why I interviewed a few writers from the anthology about how they cope, how they write, and what writers they recommend.

Below are Lynn Melnick, Alexis Smithers, Isobel O’Hare, Claudia Cortese, and Jason Phoebe Rusch:

 

Lynn Melnick

What prompted you to write about your trauma and experiences with abuse?

I write about my life experiences, and these are some of my life experiences. I tend to write more about things that trouble me, that seem difficult and unsolvable, that anger me – so my experience with violence tends to come up a lot.

How were you able to write about your experience(s), and negotiate between empowering yourself and not exploiting your own experiences?

I think we need to be careful with this idea that one can exploit their own experiences of trauma. It’s my trauma, I have suffered enormously because of it, and I can do with it what I please. I’m reminded of that conservative pundit George Will remarking in the Washington Post that women who are raped on college campuses receive “a coveted status” because of it. I do not believe there is any gain to being violently assaulted.

Because I love the act of writing, because it makes my body and mind feel good, I have been able to turn experiences of trauma into something approaching empowering, I suppose. But I don’t know for certain.

When it comes to the literary community, what can presses and individuals do to better support survivors?

About a year and a half ago, VIDA (of which I am on the Executive Board) published a “Report from the Field” that described the behaviors of a known member of the lit world as a serial sexual predator. The authors of this report wanted to warn the literary community about the years of his behavior and hopefully protect women from future harm. The reactions we received over this piece were often quite surprising and ranged from relief and support to outright discomfort. Three founding members resigned from our Advisory Board because they so disapproved of our actions! – They sent an email widely to numerous literati friends (publishers, professors, etc) expressing their discomfort over the VIDA Review providing a platform from which these women could speak.

Which is to illustrate: I wish the literary community would support victims and make safe spaces for them to come forward, rather than seeking to protect the status quo.

I think books like A Shadow Map are so important because they help to make victims feel less alone and they help writers feel less afraid to write their own stories.

Recommend a writer who you think is doing necessary work right now, when it comes to sexual abuse and assault.

This poem by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie is very important.

& I think about this poem by Natalie Eilbert a lot.

& to throw it way back to the 70s, Ntozake Shange’s poem “with no immediate cause” (from her book Nappy Edges) is crucial reading.

 

Jason Phoebe Rusch

What prompted you to write about your trauma and experiences with abuse?

A lot of it has been feeling really, really terrible and confused for a very long time and needing a way to process and make sense of what is very fragmented in my head.

How were you able to write about your experience(s), and negotiate between empowering yourself and not exploiting your own experiences?

My writing is pretty intensely personal, and sometimes I’ve published things that in retrospect make me feel uncomfortably exposed, but radical honesty is important to me because the world trains us to bullshit each other and hide pain in order to get by. Survivors tend to either be open wounds like me or to revert to complete opacity. I usually don’t actually know where my own boundaries are, in writing and life, until I’ve violated them or let others do it for me, and I struggle with that.

What is a stigma associated with sexual trauma and abuse that you would like to dispel? 

That it’s rare. That it’s something only inflicted upon straight cis women by straight cis men, as if other categories of human beings don’t exist and shouldn’t also be included in feminist conversation, in conversations surrounding consent. That it causes queerness.

What is something you wish people would say to you? What is something you wish people wouldn’t say (or would stop saying) to you?

This is off-topic, but I wish cis people would just say sorry once and correct themselves and move on when they misgender a trans person rather than apologizing profusely. I can understand this kind of knee-jerk self-centered guilt response because I’ve acted that way with marginalized people before and so I’m usually pretty patient with learning curves even when they hurt me, but still often get feedback that I seem angry or not tolerant enough of mistakes.

When it comes to the literary community, what can presses and individuals do to better support survivors?

Don’t treat hurting people like burdens. We all have limits in terms of what we can give and when, but we as human beings, even those of us with good politics, are not nearly kind enough to each other. Even if we have nothing to give an obviously hurting person, we can at least withhold moral judgment. Moral judgments are often subtle and easily deniable, emerging as snarky social politics.

On a regular basis, what are things you do to be kind to yourself and maintain a healthy balance? Is there something in particular that you consider a safe space/practice/ritual?

My dearest friends all live far away. I can’t say I do a great job of keeping in touch, but on the occasions that I do catch up with someone I deeply care about it reminds me of my blessings in life. Books are another other source of joy, even when they’re also painful.

Recommend a writer who you think is doing necessary work right now, when it comes to sexual abuse and assault.

Reading Hieu Minh Nguyen’s poetry collection This Way to the Sugar and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s memoir Dirty River was liberating for me, because it freed me from the notion I had for a long time that because my memory is flawed and I don’t have access to all of it, my intuition must be broken, my mind must be making things up. It’s difficult for me to trust myself and not constantly second-guess my perception of reality, and I’ve been grateful for the honesty with which both writers address fragmentation and flaws in memory in their work.

 

Claudia Cortese

How were you able to write about your experience(s), and negotiate between empowering yourself and not exploiting your own experiences?

That’s an excellent question! I think about that all of the time—how to write about trauma without creating trauma porn, without fetishizing or eroticizing my own experiences, without titillating the reader with images of sexualized violence. In April Wolfe’s piece in LA Weekly about rape choreography in films, she asks: “How many rapes do viewers see in a lifetime? How many are filmed in a year? Does all this normalize rape or expose it as horror? Are these depictions power-fantasy turn-ons, victimizing exploitation, or dramatically and thematically vital? What toll do they take on viewers (and critics) — and on the people who produce the scenes?” These are vital questions for writers exploring trauma to ask themselves. Does the traumatic moment(s) need to be described in detail? Will it be more hurtful than helpful? Are the details thematically necessary? If so, why?

On the one hand, I understand the argument that describing violence is important because many still do not know what rape and abuse actually look like. Rape myths abound in our culture, and they obscure the reality of sexual violence. One of my friends once told me that his sister’s high school health teacher discussed sexual assault with the class one day. By the end of the discussion, most of the girls in the room were crying. Later, his sister told her best friend how the teacher had defined rape, and her best friend responded, “That can’t be rape because if it is, that’s happened to me many times.”

Most of us probably know about the iconic second-wave feminist book I Never Called It Rape, which described this exact phenomenon: our intimate interactions are so mutilated by the rape culture we live in that we sometimes can’t recognize rape when it happens, even though we may experience the effects of PTSD, we don’t always have the language to name the violence that has been done to us. So, I can see the argument that describing rape can help us recognize it. In fact, screenwriter and novelist Rafael Yglesias once wrote, “I used to say, when some part of me was still ashamed of what had been done to me, that I was ‘molested’ because the man who played skillfully with my 8-year-old penis, who put it in his mouth, who put his lips on mine and tried to push his tongue in as deep as it would go, did not anally rape me. … Instead of delineating what he had done, I chose ‘molestation’ hoping that would convey what had happened to me. Of course it doesn’t. For listeners to appreciate and understand what I had endured, I needed to risk that they will gag or rush out of the room. I needed to be particular and clear as to the details so that when I say I was raped people will understand what I truly mean.”

On the other hand, I worry that when a writer describes sexual violence in such detail, those descriptions can feel gratuitous. And whenever violence is gratuitous, it dehumanizes the bodies that are experiencing the violence. I also worry that such a poem or story may trigger the reader. Do you want the reader to feel as if they have been violated? If that is part of your piece’s purpose, okay. I am not going to tell survivors how they should or should not write about their experiences. Rape is one of the most disempowering experiences a person can have, and I would never try to take away a survivor’s power to narrate their story however they see fit. Still, it’s important to think about the effects that one’s writing may have on the reader and to make thoughtful aesthetic choices.

I have written much about trauma—both through the perspective of the “lyric I” and through the voice of a character. My first book, Wasp Queen, just came out, and it tells the story of a character I created named Lucy. Throughout the book I allude to the fact that something traumatic has happened to her, but I never say what occurred.

I had to protect Lucy. She was my daughter. She was myself and twin sister and my friends from middle school—Cathy and Nikki and Shauna. I had to shield her from the reader’s sexual gaze. No one would masturbate to her hurt while I detailed what her uncle or father or mother or the neighbor boy had done to her. Instead, I described how she shoved her best friend Stephanie’s head underwater at the neighborhood pool and smacked Stephanie in the head when she wouldn’t do what Lucy told her to. I described how Lucy bit her dog’s fur and tore it out with her teeth. I described how each night a man tied her wrists in her sleep. I dug into the riptides that ripple from an event for years, though I never detailed the event itself.

What is a stigma associated with sexual trauma and abuse that you would like to dispel?

We are not our trauma. Our stories are not the story of one night or several nights. There are no damaged humans. Or, rather, perhaps we are all a bit broken. Do not treat us as if we are irrevocably damaged. Our culture is broken. Our world is. The shame and silence that follows can be as traumatic as what happened to us. Stigma is the food that feeds shame. We must starve shame by stripping away any stigma associated with being a victim/survivor.

What is something you wish people would say to you? What is something you wish people wouldn’t say (or would stop saying) to you?

Do say: It wasn’t your fault.

Do not say: It was your fault.

 

Do say: I believe you.

Do not say: I don’t believe you.

 

Do say: What do you need?

Do not say: . . . [i.e., silence]

When it comes to the literary community, what can presses and individuals do to better support survivors?

Publish stories by survivors of color. Publish stories by male survivors. Publish stories by trans and genderqueer survivors. This last suggestion will likely make some people angry: Publish stories by rapists.

In Hanna Rosin’s When Men Are Raped, she notes some shocking numbers about sexual violence against men: “Last year the National Crime Victimization Survey turned up a remarkable statistic. In asking 40,000 households about rape and sexual violence, the survey uncovered that 38 percent of incidents were against men.” The researchers concluded that “[t]he experience of men and women is a lot closer than any of us would expect.”

The fact that such results were shocking reveals that the stories we are hearing about rape are too limited. We need to hear men’s stories—some of whom have been raped by other men and some of whom have been raped by women.

We also need to hear the stories of people of color, whose historical and current relationship to sexual violence is, in many ways, markedly different from that of white people. For example, slavery legalized and condoned the widespread rape of Black women. The effects of that are still felt today—from the historical, collective trauma of institutionalized sexual violence to the stereotypes of African-American women that still persist—stereotypes that defended/defend sexual violence. Moreover, the fear that Black men may victimize white women (an illogical fear born from white supremacy—according to the U.S. Justice Department, almost 90% of rape victims are the same race as the perpetrator) has been used to justify lynching, police brutality, and the prison industrial complex.

This is the point that may draw some vitriol from readers: we need to hear the stories of rapists. I know that I may have just walked into a minefield by saying this, but please hear me out. I, of course, don’t think that survivors need to listen to these stories, and I certainly don’t think a victim should ever have to listen to their perpetrator’s story! However, if we are going transform the rape culture we live in, we need to involve perpetrators in that process. Rapists are everywhere. They are often our grandmothers and boyfriends and coaches and teachers and neighbors and husbands and friends. Though a victim is allowed, of course, to view their perpetrator as a monster, as a culture, we have to stop defining rapists as monsters. If we do not humanize rapists, we won’t be able to look at the people around us—some of whom may be the ones we love most in this world—and see what they did/are doing to us. We cannot stop rape if we cannot see it, and we cannot see it unless we humanize the monstrosity of sexual violence.

While in college, I left a meeting of the activist group I was in and one of the members—a woman I will call Jen—asked if she could talk to me. She told me that one of the men in the group—whom I will call Sean—had raped her. They had been dating when it happened, and she had never confronted him about it. She then told her story to several other female activists, and we reached out to some trusted male activists and organized an intervention, which took place at my house.

There were about a dozen of us there that night, as well as a counselor from the university. We called Sean over to the house, though he had no idea why we had asked him to come. When he arrived, he sat down, and Jen started telling the story of the night he raped her. At first, he got defensive, said, “No, that’s not what happened,” but she kept telling the story, repeating the details over and over again, reminding him of the night he had willfully forgotten. I watched him closely and saw his face slowly grow paler and paler until he looked whiter than I had ever seen anyone look. He began to shake and said, “Oh my god, you are right. I raped you.”

Jen had decided that she didn’t want to punish him. Rather, she wanted him to confront what he had done and start to, for lack of a better word, rehabilitate himself. We told him that we would tell everyone that he was a rapist if he didn’t do the following: go to therapy, tell his current girlfriend about the rape, and stop doing all activism except for anti-rape and feminist activism.

I won’t say it was easy to look at him. I won’t say I didn’t want to punch him in his face. I won’t say we became best friends. But, I will say that he became one of the most dedicated rape-prevention activists on campus. He went to therapy for years. He told his girlfriend about what he had done. Is rehabilitation possible? Does restorative justice—a process that “emphasizes accountability, making amends, and . . . facilitated meetings between victims, offenders, and other persons” (restorativejustice.org)—work? I don’t know. On the one hand, the fact that 94% of convicted rapists will never spend one day in prison is sickening—it shows that our culture thinks smoking pot is more harmful than raping someone. On the other hand, I wonder if the only way to heal the countless lives destroyed by the pathological ways we have been taught to interact with each other’s bodies is to heal both victim and perpetrator.

On a regular basis, what are things you do to be kind to yourself and maintain a healthy balance? Is there something in particular that you consider a safe space/practice/ritual?

I run, do yoga, and watch lots and lots of Buffy.

Recommend a writer who you think is doing necessary work right now, when it comes to sexual abuse and assault.

Natalie Eilbert!

 

Isobel O’Hare

What prompted you to write about your trauma and experiences with abuse? 

 Some unknown force? I’m so glad the question wasn’t “What made you want to write about your trauma?” because the idea of want doesn’t really fit in this context, as I imagine you know and chose your words accordingly. For some reason, poetry has been one of the only methods I have found to effectively communicate these experiences, which often must be channeled like ghosts rather than spoken about as if they make some kind of sense.

How were you able to write about your experience(s), and negotiate between empowering yourself and not exploiting your own experiences?

I don’t traffic in the details of my abuse. I find some way to communicate the feelings attached to them, the ghosts they leave behind, without sharing those details that are often demanded but are unnecessary to actually understanding what trauma is: a haunting. If we think of trauma this way, as a unique relationship between an entity and the building where the trauma occurred and still resides, then we understand that our bodies are the buildings and our traumas are the ghosts, and nobody else needs to know what the unfinished business is or help solve the mystery. There is no resolution to this kind of haunting. There is no exposition either. The ghost’s back story is fragmented and nobody else’s business. What is important is what is being communicated: the haunting. I am haunted and I want you to know, but also even ghosts still have boundaries.

What is a stigma associated with sexual trauma and abuse that you would like to dispel? 

There are so many! If I had to choose one, it would be the idea that these things are shameful to acknowledge and must not be discussed. Why is it shameful to have been raped, but not to have raped someone? If the act itself imparts shame, then surely the doer rather than the victim should bear the brunt of that. They are the ones who chose to perform the action, after all.

On a regular basis, what are things you do to be kind to yourself and maintain a healthy balance? Is there something in particular that you consider a safe space/practice/ritual?

I have started performing a monthly boundary protection ritual at the new moon. Abuse survivors, particularly those of us who were abused as children, often struggle with our boundaries because we grew up without any. Doing this ritual every month forces me to remember that my space is sacred and mine alone, that I have a right to protect it, and that I do not have to allow anyone into it if they make me feel unsafe. I wrote a piece on magickal approaches to boundary protection for Luna Luna Magazine, and I still follow the guidance given therein by Zann Carter and Chloë Rose.

Recommend a writer who you think is doing necessary work right now, when it comes to sexual abuse and assault.

Krista Cox wrote this amazing poem called “x=agency” that Carleen Tibbetts and I published in the first issue of Dream Pop Journal. I keep returning to it, and I look forward to reading more work from her.

I’m interested in writers who are approaching the traumas of racism in America. We tend to think of trauma as a physical or sexual experience, and we also tend to think of trauma as something that happens to innocent white girls, but especially now in America, we need to confront the fact that our history of racism, slavery, colonization, and white supremacy has traumatized people of color and debased white people for centuries. And that the heritage of American racism lies in the violation of the bodies of people of color. Some writers who are doing brilliant work in these areas are Tongo Eisen-Martin, Raquel Salas Rivera, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, and Chloë Rose.

 

Alexis Smithers

What prompted you to write about your trauma and experiences with abuse?

I was in therapy and I wasn’t able to say my experiences the way I needed to, and I wrote a poem before one of my meetings and that was a big breakthrough in my treatment. So I figured if I kept going that would probably help me heal.

How were you able to write about your experience(s), and negotiate between empowering yourself and not exploiting your own experiences?

In the definition I’m taking of exploit, it means to capitalize on and I think even thinking that a survivor/victim can exploit their own experiences is troubling and dangerous. There’s a problem with people not being believed and saying that they’re exploiting their experiences instead of just speaking truth to them is kind of fucked up. I doubt anyone comes out of trauma thinking, I’ll really be able to use this in my art later. I think this is a really dangerous question, if it’s the way I’m taking it, and definitely shouldn’t be used for survivors. If exploit is meant here as “put to good use” I’d ask that there’d be a different way of asking.

What is a stigma associated with sexual trauma and abuse that you would like to dispel?

That black women and femmes are somehow “stronger” than everyone else and don’t need resources for healing. Black women and femmes are some of the most traumatized people and there is not enough work being done in healing, in even letting them speak about their experiences without someone shutting them down.

What is something you wish people would say to you? What is something you wish people wouldn’t say (or would stop saying) to you?

They can stop saying, “It’s not that bad.”, or demand I tell them the story, or push for more information than I’m confortable giving.

When it comes to the literary community, what can presses and individuals do to better support survivors?

Probably stop asking especially marginalized survivors, to write about traumatic events (ie police violence, murder of black and brown people, etc.) without understanding that the majority of marginalized people already have trauma that have to deal with. They can take marginalized people at their word when something hurts them or if something doesn’t feel right without trying to take them to trial for something they probably can’t fully understand.

On a regular basis, what are things you do to be kind to yourself and maintain a healthy balance? Is there something in particular that you consider a safe space/practice/ritual?

I’m staying in my community. A lot of what helps is just staying in black and brown and queer spaces. I drench myself in art by black and brown and queer and disabled artists and stay away from triggering things or stay with the triggering things and yell about it and let people hold me and I try to be there for them to hold them too.

Recommend a writer who you think is doing necessary work right now, when it comes to sexual abuse and assault.

Rachel McKibbens always does amazing work through writing, action, and community. Her words have saved me many times.

 

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