Content notice: sexual violence, domestic abuse.
I am a survivor.
I was 14. He was 18. I’d never been kissed, never been touched, never been held. He smelled of cheap cologne and cigarette smoke, and then, violence.
The next day, I stood on the balcony with my mom, and she knew. I didn’t have to say the words for her to know that a piece of me had been irretrievably taken.
It wasn’t until three years later that the words left my mouth in the right order. My mom walked into my bedroom late one night in the spring of my senior year of high school, and I saw her cry for the first time. I’d heard her tears before—on the nights we returned from the hospital where my sister was tied down in a bed with padded restraints—but she’d never let me see them. That night, she came to me because she knew that before I left for college, she needed to disclose her past to me.
And so she did. She told me about the trauma she’d suffered at my father’s hands, the years of abuse and torture she’d put up with, sacrificing her corporeal autonomy to give my sisters and I the kind of life she thought we deserved. At 17, I’d known—I’d had to have known—but there are some things you’re never prepared to hear. In return, I took a deep breath and told her what happened that summer night 3 years before. And for the first time, I saw her cry.
She cried, I cried, and our tears mixed together for the first time as survivors in collective violence, gendered and cruel. I told her I was afraid she would be disappointed in me—after all, she had warned me about him, but in my infinite adolescent wisdom, I had ignored her. I was so sorry.
In the three years since, I’ve never again seen her eyes fill with silenced tears, never again seen her let them come pouring down her weary face in rivers of anguish and regret. We’ve had a number of painful conversations: I’ve told her I was afraid I have bipolar disorder, that I was bulimic, that I was dating a woman, that the same woman had broken my heart. But I’ve never told her that one drunken night my freshman year of college, I said no and he didn’t stop.
How could I?
I tell her about my activism to make this campus and all campuses across the country a safer place. I tell her how I fight for those who haven’t found their voices: for my mentees, my teammates, and all who are bound together in survivorship. But I’ve never told her that I too, am still a survivor. That I have to fight for myself, along with all of the other 1-in-5s. That when I say people feel unsafe on campus, I mean that I feel unsafe. That when I say the justice system is unjust for survivors, I mean it is unjust for me. That when I say, I could never be strong enough to file charges, I mean I am not strong enough. That when I say rapists walk among us, I mean my rapist is still here and I will never be free until he is gone.
Today, my mom and I got brunch together at a dive of a diner in my hometown where I am recuperating over break. I almost never come home—there are too many ghosts. But today, over French toast and burnt coffee, we talked about recent events on campus, and for the first time in three years, she brought up the night I told her I am a survivor. She asked why I thought she would be disappointed, and in her eyes, I can see that she still is. Not disappointed in me, but in the cruelty of this world that can take in a 14-year-old girl and spit out a broken shell of a woman. Disappointed that she wasn’t there to stop it. Disappointed that the pain she suffered wasn’t enough to save me.
In my work as an activist, it has become second nature for me to say to survivors strings of five words, over and over until they hear them echoing over their nightmares in the dark: it is not your fault. You do not deserve this. You have not been broken. In time, you will heal.
It’s so much more difficult to internalize the words yourself, when assault looks like tears in your mother’s eyes because she knows the hurt and she knows it doesn’t stop.
It is not your fault. It is not her fault. It is not my fault.