In less than a week from now, my new book Going Public: A Survivor’s Journey from Grief to Action will be released. My experiences of sexual abuse and violence really will be…well, public.
As the date approaches, I have a lot of emotions, but they all centre around one critical choice: speaking up or being silenced.
Just as the book blurb says, I spent three years writing this book but much, much longer getting myself emotionally ready to go public. After my multiple experiences of abuse, I went through many stages that I now understand reflect the experiences of many of us who have suffered in this way.
First, I tried to forget about it. My unconscious mind was already protecting me even as I ran up the country road in the middle of the night away from my last abuser. I wanted to believe it had all been a nightmare, not real. As I tried to reconstruct my emotional life, I shoved down all the horrible details and recollections and tried not to think about what I had (barely) lived through during eighteen months of coercive control and unspeakable violence.
I had already had plenty of practice. For eight hours a day, five days a week, I functioned as a junior law professor during those years. I pretended to be living a “normal” life, focusing on learning how to be a teacher and working with students. I had no idea then what I realize now—that we are all surrounded by others who live with domestic violence and abuse behind closed doors (and the pandemic has slammed those doors terrifyingly shut).
Next I tried to understand it intellectually. I read about domestic violence and abuse; I went to therapy (but barely spoke of my abuse). But everything I read at that time (the 1980s) reinforced the stereotype that the victims of abuse are women and girls who are without opportunities—I had so many; without education—I had so much; without purpose, allowing them to be taken advantage of—I had so much purpose.
So why me? Where was I in this stereotype? Was there something badly wrong with me that this had happened to me too?
Slowly—and this took years—I began to accept that I was changed by what had happened to me at the hands of my abusers—that these experiences would forever affect how I thought about men, relationships, power, change, the law, and the world at large. But changed into what? Could I ever let down my guard again? Could I ever trust my instincts? Could I have a partner whom I could trust? Could I properly parent my daughters? Most scary—was I an OK person, or fundamentally messed up?
I still don’t have the answers to all these questions. But by the 1990s I knew I had a responsibility to do something to stop my clerical abuser‚ still acting as a church minister—from abusing others like me. I was beginning to feel—inchoately at first—that putting my experiences out into the world was going to help me and maybe help others to speak up. By the early 2000s, I knew I was just one of an unimaginably vast number of women and girls who have suffered abuse. And, like them, my shame and my anxiety about what this had done to me kept me silent.
Our silence means we cannot support one another. Our silence means that the communities we live in continue not to understand how pervasive sexual violence against women and girls is. Our silence means that we can be picked off, one at a time, by repeating the same suffocating list of tired refrains: we are not credible, we were asking for it, we are casting aspersions on innocent men and ruining their reputations, and the details of what we say happened to us are disgusting and repulsive and we should shut up.
This book is not a call for all survivors to speak up. I am painfully aware that I have had incredible resources and privileges that have enabled me to speak up. Most of this time I have had a regular income, a job I loved that afforded me power, my whiteness, my access to legal knowledge and resources, and a network of friends and supporters (when I finally told them). These are the privileges that many, many others do not have.
But I do want to want to affirm, encourage, and support others who might consider doing this, perhaps just talking to friends or family (even this step took me decades). And we should keep reminding ourselves that the #MeToo movement has shown us that in the public consciousness, our safety and our strength is in numbers.
It is a huge irony that after all this, my book and my voice were almost silenced numerous times during this process.
Even once I had taken off my own shackles of shame, there were many efforts to command my silence. My book describes many examples. When I sued the Anglican church for historic sexual abuse and wanted to write about it in their worldwide newspaper (the Church Times), they threatened an injunction. When I raised the alarm about a colleague who continued to teach elsewhere even after many student complaints, my university told me to shut up about it more times than I can count.
And then in the final stages of production, my publisher faced threats from the former colleague, who continues to harass me. By then we all understood that this was exactly why the book had to be published. The extent to which sexual violence is rooted in our systems of power, hierarchy, and privilege is reflected in the forces that conspire to silence us.
Resisting these attempts to take away my voice was stressful and scary and frustrating. I am beyond grateful for the courageous organizations and individuals who have stood firm with me. I am not going to pretend that speaking up is an easy ride. But for me it is the right thing to do.
Whether a survivor, advocate, or survivor-advocate, I hope you find my book enlightening, affirming, challenging, and more.