The Courage to Listen: Bearing Witness to Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
The Courage to Listen: Bearing Witness to Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
In our movement to end sexual violence and accommodate the complex and often life-long journey of healing that many survivors navigate, we have grappled with the chasm between the intense, lived experiences of survivors and the perspectives of outsiders looking in on something so unfamiliar and often beyond words. Sometimes the bridge between the two views seems impossible to cross: survivors grow weary of explaining the intricacies of their experience and loved ones and allies become frustrated when they fail at supporting or advocating for survivors despite their best intentions. Yet, in order to engage and inspire our communities, our families and our children to participate in our healing and our movement, it is essential we find ways to translate the intimately painful experience of surviving sexual violence into language, feeling, sensation and emotion that others can understand.
Recently, The Breathe Network co-sponsored the production of the play “TELLING: Adult Survivors of Child Sex Abuse Step into the Light” which was produced by the survivor-lead organization OAASIS (Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service) whose mission to end the silence surrounding child sexual abuse was so inspiringly captured on stage. The performance, rare and unlike most other plays by its very theme – centralizing child sexual abuse – draws you right into the hearts and minds of these survivors. The survivor cast was comprised of people whose on-stage vulnerability served to magnify their power. The script is a carefully tethered compilation of their 7 stories. They are the ones who have lived, struggled and survived to tell the tale of both the wreckage of abuse and the wisdom of their recovery.
As a survivor myself, I had a sense that this production would be both difficult to witness and that it would simultaneously offer an intrinsic validation of my own, often messy, occasionally graceful and always organic experience of learning how to live (over a decade later) with my continually transforming identity. I often stumble through my desire for self-acceptance, my anxious awaiting of internal peace to take root and my interest to refine my clarity of communication in the midst of the continual re-surfacing and re-releasing of the residue of rape. It is a necessarily imperfect process, as I am still weaving the pieces of me – body and mind, breath and spirit, back together again after coming so totally undone.
What struck me most profoundly and what I feel sets the play TELLING apart from anything else was the rawness of every single moment of the performance. From the slow-motion movement of heaving, breathing chests, to the delicate intonation of some of the most tragic words in the English vocabulary – they were fully embodied on the stage. At times it took courage to listen – to truly listen and absorb the weight of what they were actually expressing – the horrors committed against their bodies and souls. It is always a precious experience to bear witness to the truth of a survivors experience. Unique to this context was seeing their real-time way of relating to and expressing their story – on that day, in that exact moment, since we know our way of identifying with our story is not fixed and can and often does change in an instant. One day we are flying high on the freedom of having been able to forgive the Universe for sending us along this warrior’s path, and the next we are falling further than we ever knew the human spirit could sink. There are certainly days where we accept and embrace our irreplaceable role in this spiritually transcendent movement of vulnerability, healing and reclamation, and there are also phases where the weight of our memories still lingering in dreams and soft tissues, prevents us from leaving our home. But as supporters, as loved ones, as well-intentioned community members who want to connect, who long to understand, who desire to help create change in a violent culture – how can we really make sense of the insensible?
Too often, we read about survivor’s stories as if they are something other, something outside of ourselves, or perhaps the survivors we learn about remain both nameless and faceless – held at such a distance from our own experience that we simply cannot connect. At times, the stories we read reflect far too intimately, like a mirror, the shadows of our own sexual traumas, and for the purposes of our own short-term self-preservation, we choose not to connect. Sharing that intimate space of the theater with survivors expressing the complex reality of their own experiences creates an atmosphere where those who do not know sexual violence intimately (as survivors themselves) have an unparalleled lens into what it looks like, feels like and sounds like. The injuries of sexual trauma and the capacity of resilience literally shows up in the way we carry our bodies, the way we move or do not move and the vast variety of facial expressions we develop to communicate our loss, our confusion, our anger and our power. In this script, the impact of trauma was tangibly felt from start to finish: whether in the power of a deep belly scream which reverberated through the room and went straight to the brain – a declaration that at last, the abuse must end, or in the rising and falling of 7 quivering voices successfully struggling to speak through tears – to communicate that which is beyond words through the honesty of tears. In this space, you cannot look away and you cannot deny the magnitude of childhood sexual trauma. They performed the losses and the triumphs of their lives in a way that brought everyone into their story, and they showed us that we too have a role to play.
For survivors watching the play, there is a way in which their telling of their stories gently and safely invites you in and makes you feel less like a stranger to yourself. The insights they offered created a sense of connection with what would otherwise be strangers standing before us on stage because the topics of shame, self-blame, isolation, feeling different, being labeled “too sensitive”, or feeling at your very core – unlovable – touches all survivors to some degree. Fearing others’ sexuality or even your own, avoiding intimacy or losing yourself within it, asking yourself what you did to deserve this and sensing an unfathomable and hard to describe weight on your soul are all themes that surface in the script and an important way that the play normalizes the challenges many navigate along the survivor path. Our symptoms are a natural response to surviving the soul splintering trauma of sexual abuse and they do not make us weak, they tell us where the hurt is and how to guide the healing. Within the intimate space of the theater, we also realize that counter to the isolating experience of sexual violence and its aftermath, we find ourselves suddenly so not alone.
That said, the survivors before us also represented the best of living through and beyond the worst: internal wisdom, the willingness to be vulnerable, a true understanding of compassion for others which evolves into compassion for self, courage, embodiment, risk-taking, hope, patience and the limitless capacity of our human system to love against all odds. I was and still am quite moved by the script. I was and still am, quite moved by the pure presence of the cast members. The powerful sound of the echoing scream still hasn’t left me, nor do I want it to.
My sense is that this play will feel different to the audience every single time it is performed, for survivors are always changing, growing, reflecting, transitioning and transforming their relationship to both their struggle and their capacity to transcend. Whether that occurs within a year, a season, a week or even within the 90 minute length of a play, the constant movement of energy, emotion and memory is inevitable. These dynamic cycles are part of the process of surrendering into the waters of grief, which is inherent and necessary to our expanding sense of recovery. The continually shifting perspective of our story and our role in within our own life, past, present and future, remind us that nothing is permanent – this is a gift for a survivor who is struggling in the quicksand of immeasurable loss. We can relax, we can soften, we can allow ourselves permission to express – because this too shall pass. As an audience member, to have a tangible view of that ongoing, internal cycle of healing is one of a kind. We experientially connect with the non-linearity of the survivor journey. I hope that I will be afforded the privilege to bear witness again – noticing the nuances of the casts’ evolution of healing, as well as observing my own ongoing process as it shows itself though the surfacing of emotion and sensation while taking in the play.
TELLING provides a potent window into the very real darkness that is child sexual abuse and highlights our societal indifference towards survivors, our fear of the most intimate violation one can actually live through and our denial of the prevalence of this great tragedy. As well, the cast calls out our communal failure to protect, defend and believe survivors, most particularly our children. Yet these survivors on stage also offer a rare glimpse of what the world might look, what might be possible for their healing, if we are willing to slow down, to pay careful attention and to risk our own discomfort by accepting the casts’ invitation to travel into their minds and hearts. The insights that those who have been through the depths of despair and have fought their way out can actually teach us how to be present with what is and has been, and importantly, how we can collectively move forward. They show us what we missed, what we looked away from, how we might and must do better for children. They truly are teachers and they are also healers – we just need to give them the space to share these gifts with us.
I feel certain that the privileging of survivors’ stories will be the essential component to transforming this epidemic of abuse into a piece of our nation’s history. These resilient cast members are now part of a deeply connected team of survivors will no longer be silenced as they have tapped into an unshakeable source of power within. They have found their voices and they have re-discovered the brilliance of their own beautiful bodies. They are continuing, unapologetically at last, on their journey of ending the silence, embracing their resilience and catalyzing this movement to end child sexual abuse in new directions.
My gratitude for having been invited into their intimate circle of healing is boundless – they represent a microcosm of a larger ripple of survivor-lead advocacy across our country. I feel emboldened by the efforts of survivors everywhere who are reclaiming their voices, bodies and spirits through activism, performance, art, music and writing. The national movement of grass-roots survivor organizing is increasingly connected and it is constantly growing. They are the ones who can lift us up and out of this suffocating place of victim-blaming, secrecy and ignorance and they can remind us of our own humanity. Their willingness to expose their most intimate struggles for the evolution of this culture is the embodiment of compassion. Amidst their greatest pain, they have discovered that when there is nowhere left to turn, no one left to help, no one who shares both their rage and their passion for addressing this horrifically pervasive rape culture, they can go deeper inside themselves and pave a new way out. It is within those depths that they not only uncover their limitless strength – but that they also discover the collective solidarity of other survivors. They have abundant courage and an inexhaustible capacity to change our culture by refusing to allow their experiences to be erased – and they won’t stop until they do. Survivors are finally telling, will you please join me in listening?
The Courage to Listen: Bearing Witness to Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and for survivors of sexual violence. You can read about Molly’s work with trauma survivors via the holistic practice of yoga by visiting her practitioner page.