Melissa Gira Grant writes, in her insightful and necessary Bookforum review of Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: “Telling your story does not guarantee you will be believed. It doesn’t guarantee anything positive. There is no way to tell a rape story without risk. Rape is often used to explain something about you, the person it has happened to: why you’re so angry, why you’re such a whore (whether or not you charge for it), how you ended up like this. But, for Krakauer, the risk is worthwhile, because the story of one’s own rape can become a tool to help other survivors and effect change.
Missoula is a work of journalism, told from the point of view of victims and survivors (here I’ll use both terms, to speak to both and the spaces between), using their own words. The reporting is worthy. But Krakauer’s conclusion that to be brave and tell our stories will lead to fundamental change is too optimistic. It is a myth that before a victim or survivor speaks out — before the journalists arrive, before the reports are filed — rape remains hidden, somewhere apart from where the rest of us are. From “the shadows,” Krakauer writes in closing, “more and more survivors emerge,” working to “reveal the pervasiveness of sexual assault.” And then what? People have been telling these stories for a long time — what is it that decades of them have not been sufficient to “reveal”?”
When I started telling my story in my late teens, I told it because I needed to, because it was quite literally killing me (or, at least, the drugs I was taking to numb myself were, and my suicidal urges could have).
I was sexually assaulted again by one person I told my story to, because she saw in me raw vulnerability and neediness. Note that I am not blaming myself or my choice to disclose to her for what she did to me. I am blaming her predatory behavior. Most people would have seen me and thought “God, this person needs HELP.” (Many people did.) She saw me and thought “A person who feels worse than me who I can manipulate.”
Over and over again, I attracted predators. I was far from weak, but I thought I was worth nothing. My ache was a bottomless well and it pulsed in every direction.
I wrote a zine about the things that had happened to me. I wrote them down because seeing them in print, in my own handwriting, helped keep me grounded. Reading my narrative made me feel like something made sense. Words have always been a retreat for me. My sheer ability to write has always been the one thing about myself I have never questioned.
I made some copies.
Some people read the zine.
Some people found comfort in it, just as I had found comfort in reading other survivors’ stories and listening to the raw experiences shared in support group.
We are not alone.
Young women came up to me at shows. Young men came up to me at shows. This happened to me too. I’ve never told anyone. We hugged, we cried on one another; some of these people became lifelong friends.
And so I told my story. I wrote about it when I felt it could effect positive change. I shared it to help translate my strange, fucked-up self to other people in an attempt to connect. I told it and told it and told it.
As social media saturation began to fill the gaps in everyone’s everyday communication, I became A Go-To Person To Talk About Sexual Assault With. People came to me at all hours of the day. People expected me to be able to give endless resources to them. I wanted to help, I wanted to give. It is in my nature to want to do so. But I felt drained, and I had nearly no moments in my life in which I could retreat. My partner would come home to find me sitting cross-legged on our couch, frowning at my laptop, and they would know immediately that I was listening to another survivor’s story and frustrations, trying to help with salient advice and resources, and that I would probably not sleep for the next three days.
I get emails and Facebook messages and links every time there’s a prominent story about the mishandling of a sexual assault. Any sexual assault. It happens all day, every day. “Check out this story about rape! It made me think of you.” I crawl into myself. God, not again. As if those headlines don’t still get me in the guts.
Are we the sum total of our assault stories? (No, of course not.)
Why are we so encouraged to remain so public, so vulnerable? Do our stories, which we share with such trepidation (even if we have been telling them, and telling them in public, for a very long time), constitute or move toward real structural change? (No, of course not.) For a long time — up until a couple of months ago, even — I would have said “I share everything with the world so that nothing can hurt me.” But walking around raw also causes the slightest wind to blister your bloody skin.
Sharing can be a powerful tool for connection, for touching another person’s life one to one, for de-stigmatizing pain which (despite what many very loud voices would say) is still something the world would much rather not truly see, but it should never be mistaken for proof that structural change has occurred. More people coming forward may be an early sign of a sea change, but it should never be mischaracterized as a forecast. It is what people do with their increased awareness, not the awareness itself, that truly matters there. (It should be evident that if people who have lived through sexual assault ask this much of one another so personally and so regularly, there is much wrong with the sociocultural institutions that should bear this weight.) We seem stuck in a very sixties paradigm of consciousness-raising when it comes to both radical and liberal politics, content to let the consciousness be the work, when in truth it is only the prelude to the work.
Should you tell your story?
If you want to.
Do you have to?
Can another person ask a public survivor for help?
Yes, but be mindful that they are just one person with limited energy and resources, though they may do their best to help; they will never be a complete solution. They may not be able to give you everything you need no matter how much they’d like to.
Are public survivors more brave than private survivors?
Are we stronger?
So people choose to deal with private tragedies in a myriad of ways?
And compelling them to deal with it in one way as a moral imperative is a big, big problem?
Are you tired?
Very. All the time.