Truth, discomfort and the lines that keep us from the world we want.
“The first step to healing is elevating the truth of what is.” — Alicia Garza.
Last year, when my daughter was almost seven, we sat at the kitchen table talking about her day. “He kept hanging on me even after I said stop! It was so annoying.” “And did you remind him that you’re in charge of your body and he’s got to listen to you?” “Yes, mama. Why do you always remind me? I know!”
I finally said it out loud. I was nervous, but kept it simple and shared my truth.
“You know, love, when mama was a kid, about your age, I had a friend whose older brother did things to my body that were not OK. Unfortunately, it happens to a lot of girls and women. It even happens to some boys. I didn’t know how to talk about it without feeling bad about myself or scared about what people would think, so I just kept it inside. I don’t want you to feel badly inside like I did. I want you to know that we can always talk about the hard and confusing stuff.”
She paused, looked up at me and touched my leg. I looked into her eyes, held her hand and smiled. “I understand, mama.” And then she moved on. I laughed a little at the lightness of our exchange and the countless hours I’d spent fearing it.
I was six years old when a friend’s older brother molested me. For years, I held a knot in my stomach and block in my throat from those moments of harm. And I kept quiet. It took me decades to share my truth — with a few people I deeply trusted and, eventually, with my daughter.
These conversations with my now eight-year-old were uncomfortable, at first. They began when she was five and we had to talk through an incident at school, when a boy in her class was forcing kisses on girls. I sometimes struggle with the right words to say, but I keep saying them. I want my daughter to be able to manage her own experience in a world that is threatening, and sometimes violent, especially for women. I want her to trust that I tell her my truth and can handle hearing hers. I never want our fear of discomfort to disconnect us, or worse yet, disconnect her from her dignity and that of others.
Reflecting on the thirty years it took me to acknowledge the harm done to me, to heal and to ultimately gain strength from my experience, I wondered why I didn’t talk it through sooner.
I wondered if what keeps us silent about surviving our own sexual assaults also keeps us from talking about other traumas in our culture. If we refuse to acknowledge our own pain, how can we see the pain of others? If we are unable to hold those we know and love — neighbors, fathers, brothers, and even husbands — accountable for the violence perpetrated on our bodies, how can we prevent the horror inflicted on others?
Our denial of harm is historic. The KKK lynchings of young Black men in our past have become today’s police shootings of Black children. The land grabs from indigenous peoples have become the human rights abuses against prayerful Water Protectors. Wives as legal property have become a normalization of sexual assault on college campuses. We have chosen a rape, kill, and torture culture over one that speaks truth, rebuilds relationships, and heals. We chose this over the discomfort of difficult conversations. Yet even in our silence, we know the truth — we have experienced it. We can choose to look deep into ourselves and heal — or turn away from the pain.
Ultimately, our inability to move through the discomfort of honest, accountable relationship with one another destroys our families, poisons our communities, and corrupts our government.
How can we be silent when the harm we inflict on each other is so great?Today, fifty-three million American women have been sexually assaulted and twenty-two million raped in their lifetimes. More black people killed by police in 2015 than at the height of Jim Crow. Dozens of mass shootings each year — in elementary schools, movie theaters, and churches.
In the midst of this violence, I began to notice the invitations from brave survivors for each of us to choose truth. I started to see the potential everywhere, at all times, for healing and connection. Survivors’ willingness to acknowledge the pain was the first step — and I was readying myself to join them.
From the survivor of Brock Turner’s brutal assault, men are invited to learn how to respect a woman’s body, “If your plan was to stop only when I became unresponsive, then you still do not understand.” From Sandra Bland’s mother, who spoke clearly to members of congress, other mothers are invited to stand together to protect our children’s lives, “I heard about Trayvon, I heard about all the shootings, and it did not bother me until it hit my daughter.” From Felicia Sanders whose son Tywanza was one of nine people in Emmanuel AME Church murdered by a complete stranger fueled by white supremacy, we are invited to love unconditionally even in the face of terror. “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll never be the same.” And as more than 4 Million marched in at least 500 cities and towns across the country on the President’s first day in office, we are invited to link our fates to those of other women, to other causes of harm and their solutions, and to each other. White women — 53% of whom voted for Donald Trump, a known sexual assailant — can choose to be survivors and healers instead of victims and accomplices.
We can’t undo the harm. What we can do is choose discomfort over hiding from the pain — or worse, repeating it. What amount of love and courage do we need to have those difficult conversations once our bodies are out of harm’s way?
We can change our culture in the public sphere and the private one, with conversations like the ones I have with my daughter. Imagine if you shared your truth with one person you loved and trusted, or stood up against aggression in your family or community. Imagine if in response to the survivor of Brock Turner’s rape, a groundswell of the women living with the pain of sexual assault posted a simple comment on the letter she published on Buzzfeed, “You survived a terrible thing. It was not OK and you are brave and strong. I am also here, a survivor, and we can heal.” Imagine if all of us survivors, across race and class divides, posted the same message in response to Sandra Bland’s mother. “We are here and demand the police stop killing our children.” Imagine, if Brock Turner himself, understanding that he had brutally harmed another human being, stopped denying that pain. Imagine if he chose the discomfort and let it sink in, “I did a terrible terrible thing. It was not OK. I cannot undo the harm, but I can witness your pain and accept the consequences. I will never do such a terrible thing, again.” Imagine if our police unions at any point in the last few years stood tall with the few Police Chiefs that have shown such courage and said, “We are harming those we have sworn to protect and must do much much better.”
Imagine if when Brock Turner was a child and his parents were called because he had acted inappropriately towards a female classmate, his dad had sat him down, and through the discomfort, shared his own story of causing harm to another — by immaturity or outright aggression — and they healed, together.
This piece was first published early 2017 as part of a Nation Builder Women’s conference. I republished it here in mid-October for obvious reasons — replace Brock Turner with Harvey Weinstein — and not so obvious reasons — the internet exploding with #MeToo truth telling from survivors.