What Does Not Kill you Makes you

We are the sum of everything we’ve been through.

Try as you might, you can never erase the trials you’ve experienced. To protect you, your brain may refuse to let you access those memories that hurt the most, wiping them as you go along. Mine does, but those events are stored somewhere on my mental hard drive and wont to resurface when I least expect them.

Last Thursday I made myself watch Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.

As a multiple sexual assault survivor, it made for harrowing and deeply moving viewing.

It also brought back some things I hadn’t thought about for a long time. For example, like Dr Ford, I struggled academically at one point. I was in an abusive marriage back then, one that also included a rape during a study trip, among other horrors.

Recently, I started thinking about going back to school but I wasn’t sure how to explain my unusual academic track record. Thanks to Dr Ford, now I know what to do.

There’s no shame in having gone through abuse and graduating in spite of it all.

Like Dr Ford, I was terrified so I kept quiet for years. To this day, I’m only able to broach the topic in print, because I’m far more articulate this way.

Without the benefit of therapy, writing is how I revisit the past. I dig deep for the missing pieces, and then I attempt to put them back together on the page. Naming the unspeakable enabled me to recover my writing voice after it went missing for five years. Maintaining it requires ongoing effort though, the excavating work something I must do consistently lest I should fall silent again.

When you finally manage to articulate that which defies language, humiliation and shame loosen their grip on your psyche. The past gradually loses its power over you, and you’re able to embrace a present free of ghosts. You might even find yourself contemplating the future, something that was inconceivable to me for the longest time and probably goes a long way toward explaining my somewhat maverick approach to life.

Speaking up is how you can reclaim your freedom and your agency.

Abusers would do well to stop relying on the silence of victims, because — as Dr Christine Blasey Ford showed the world last week — we’re done keeping their secrets.

But to argue that adversity automatically empowers us and makes us stronger is far too simplistic.

America is fond of hero narratives and quick to elevate those who are most vocal to the lofty heights of national superstardom. This is damaging to those of us who do not have access to a wider audience, either because we do not seek one, or because media standards invalidate our experience on account of it being too pedestrian, that is to say not original enough.

The message this sends to those of us unable to speak up is even worse. If you’re not prepared to go public then what happened to you doesn’t matter. That memories of sexual assault may be eating you alive and preventing you from leading a healthy, productive life is your problem, not society’s.

And yet, sharing one’s experience of sexual assault is always risky and could upend your life.

Doing so in the name of the common good — what Dr Ford called her civic duty — doesn’t mean people will care or support you. Instead, they might turn on you, question the validity of your claims, brand you a liar or a gold-digger. To some male troglodytes with zero emotional intelligence, filing a sexual assault suit against one of their prominent peers is the female equivalent of hitting the jackpot. I wish I had made this up but I read it here, before its author became a 404.

The country that elevated a sexual predator to the highest office in the land seems to have become inured to sexual assault narratives.

Instead, it puts the patriarchy on parade to remind women of their place.

I expected more dignity from Kavanaugh, not some gurning, sniffling little boy in a suit crying foul in front of TV cameras as he recalled drinking beer and farting with fondness.

That the man failed to exhibit any redeeming adult human quality was a chilling discovery to me.

How could he lack basic empathy for the bravery of a woman who willingly subjected herself to trial by media? How could he not even do her the courtesy of watching her testimony?

Put plainly, Dr Christine Blasey Ford doesn’t matter to Brett Kavanaugh. No woman does in 2018 America.

Last Thursday, many women wondered whether they’d manage to summon the kind of courage embodied by Dr Ford should it ever be needed.

To take a stand and jeopardize your personal life is something few of us would be capable of because our self-preservation instinct runs deep. During and after sexual assault, it’s what enables us to overcome, to keep going, and to move on. To sacrifice the very thing that’s held you together all those years and be made to relive haunting moments ad nauseam in the name of something bigger than yourself plainly isn’t the norm in this individualistic country.

And yet, Dr Ford’s testimony was a defining moment not just for her, but for all those who have ever been abused. Although traumatizing and occasionally triggering, her words gifted us a glimpse of a different, utopian America, one where equality is the norm.

If this is the America we want then it’s up to us to throw off the yoke of patriarchy, reclaim our humanity, and demand equality.

Broken, wounded, and dented though we may be, we are the sum of all we’ve been through.

And we’ve been through more than enough.

(All GIFs by Libby VanderPloeg)

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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