CW// This article contains references to, and depictions of, sexual assault, and should be avoided by those who may be triggered by such.
As many of you may already be aware, April is the month of sexual assault awareness. Sexual assault is a reality in many facets of life as we know it, occurring in a myriad of different ways. To discuss this, and the effect it has had on their lives, their writing, and their minds, five amazing female authors agreed to answer five of our questions. Their experiences and thoughts are incredibly bravely laid bare, and it is with great appreciation and pride that I present the 5×5, in its entirety, to you now!
Sexual assault is a plague on modern society and one that does not discriminate. As such, five incredible women will be speaking candidly about their own experiences today, and I hope to additionally highlight non-female voices in future pieces.
Without further ado, five questions for five authors:
1. How did you know you were comfortable enough to talk/ write about your experiences?
Kelly Fordon: It took me years to figure out that what happened to me was not OK. My assaults (two by the same person) happened in the mid-80s. I was raised Catholic. The pervasive message, at least in the Catholic community at the time, was that if you go up to that back bedroom alone with a boy, whatever happens after that is your fault. Because of that, I blamed myself for years. I felt so bad about it I even went to confession afterward. I didn’t consider this boy a perpetrator because I had been taught that boys can’t control themselves. If he was just like all the other boys, why not go out with him again? The first time I went out with him, it was assault. The second time he raped me. If I had realized he was not like other boys and that what he was doing was not OK, I would never have spoken to him again after that first date. In the 80s, kids were not able to gather much information about sex unless we snuck into the adult’s stacks at the library or had access to an adult’s private magazine stash—and that was not the best information. Another sad result of this dearth of information was that boys probably expected girls to say no, and they probably also believed they were supposed to push the envelope. I say this even though I never encountered another violent individual, so innately most normal people must just understand that no means no whatever the message being touted by society. It just so happens that my first real sexual encounter was with someone who was disturbed, and so my perception of the world has always been skewed.
Karen Stefano: It wasn’t really an issue of feeling comfortable, but before writing my story, before my telling, I first spent two years doubting. Sure, this assault and its aftermath felt interesting to me, but did it matter to others? Who was I to presume anyone else in the world would care? As I eventually shared with more and more women what this might-be-book was about, I can’t count how many said, “Yeah, something like that happened to me too.” And they shared their own story and that simple act of sharing unburdened them somewhat—at least that’s what I like to believe. This was before the #MeToo movement and I began to wonder, could my story be emblematic of something bigger? I finally realized that I had to write this book because it’s important to speak out, let others know they’re not alone, and let everyone know there are many ways to heal.
Ruby Walker: I started writing about it a long time before I felt comfortable actually sharing my writing. I don’t know if I ever thought to myself, “Okay, now I’m ready for people to know about what happened.” I wrote most of the book when I was 17, and it includes a chapter about healing from trauma. It was all stuff I’d never told other people before. So when I was 18 and I spent the summer preparing all the drawings and formatting to get the book printed, I really dragged my feet. On some level, I think I didn’t want the book to get printed, because it would be revealing too much about me. I thought about it all the time. And eventually, I worked up the courage to turn to my best friend in the car and say, “This is going to be hard for me to talk about, but can you just listen for a while?” And then I cried and I talked to her for a long time.
After we had that conversation, it was like an invisible wall was broken. I told some of my other close friends. And then I felt like I was able to finally finish the book: after lagging all summer, I formatted the whole thing in two long nights.
Ruby Walker with Advice I Ignored// Image via Trinitonian
Katherine Standefer: In a way, my own experience of sex assault exemplifies what the movement to support survivors has accomplished. In college, one of my best friends—who’d been sexually assaulted in high school—was part of the Victim Assistance Team, answering a crisis cellphone and coordinating programs like The Clothesline Project and Take Back The Night. By the time I was sexually assaulted, I had spent candlelit nights witnessing the stories of peer survivors and I’d performed a section of the Vagina Monologue in which the narrator has a gun inserted between her legs during the war. What all this added up to was that I skipped some of the gaslighting and self-blame, which is such an enormous part of what keeps us silent about our experiences. The night of my assault, I was 22 and had never been kissed, and because I’d spent many years desiring experiences that hadn’t come, everyone important in my life knew this about me. When I woke up the morning after my rape, I knew that unless I told people what had happened, they couldn’t support me as I would need. They would be interacting with a version of me who no longer existed. I lived in Wyoming at the time, in a tiny cabin out of cell service, and so I made myself get dressed and drove to an overlook over the Snake River where my cell worked and began to make the calls.
As a trauma writing teacher, I’ve noticed that survivors of all types often fall into two camps: either the violation/tragedy becomes their whole lives, or it’s barely visible at all, locked away. While I affirm the experiences of all people as they work to survive these events, I think what we’re ultimately aiming for is an ability to both incorporate the experience into who we are and for it also to not define or subsume us. For me, it wasn’t a matter about when I was comfortable enough to talk about or write my experiences; it was a matter of when I was healed enough to no longer need to, compulsively, with all sorts of people who weren’t the right vessel for that conversation, and to the exclusion of other important experiences and parts of me.
Amanda Webster: Back in early 2018, writing a book had been one of those “man, I’d love to do that” projects for years. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to write about. At the time, I was in a dark hole of depression, addiction, and self-harm. What value could I possibly offer others? In June of that year, I flew to California to camp out on a sidewalk to meet a man that had helped me through a lot of dark times in my life with his music, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. This was shortly after the lead singer had taken his life, which became a part of what spiraled me into such desolation. There was something about meeting Mike that inspired me. That was the last day I used drugs or hurt myself and the very next morning, after listening to the album he had just released, ironically titled Post Traumatic, in my rental car, I asked a woman at the airport for some paper and just began writing. One of the lyrics I remember most vividly was from the song, Crossing A Line: I got demons inside me, so I’m faced with a choice. Either try to ignore them or I give them a voice. I knew the minute I heard that line that I could either continue to hold onto my experiences, letting them fester inside of me and letting the demons of my past, like my rapist, keep the power, or I could turn something ugly into something that could help others feel less alone.
2. Was your experience an impetus to your writing, or did it serve as an inspiration?
Kelly Fordon: My writing has been influenced by what happened to me. Several years ago, my aunt told me about an experience she had in the late 80s/early 90s. She was a youth activities leader at her local Catholic church. She led an overnight retreat one time and one of the priests molested a boy who was in her care. She was asleep in the girls’ dormitory on another floor at the time. She never knew it had happened until the boy spoke up twenty years later. In the meantime, the priest had been sent to Ohio, Rhode Island, Peru, and on and on and had molested many boys. Here’s an NPR story about him: His name was A.J. Cote. That story led me down a rabbit hole. I was already angry with the church about their misogynistic message to girls, so when I discovered that at the same time they were sending us messages about how “bad” we were, they were molesting people all over the world, I was furious. I started reading up on the pedophilia scandal and was blown away by the scale of it. I read the 10,000 pages of victim testimony submitted by SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests) to the Center for Constitutional Rights and wrote a chapbook called, “The Witness” about the pedophilia scandal in the church which won the Eric Hoffer Award.
Karen Stefano: I had already published a how-to business writing book and a collection of short stories before starting this memoir, so I guess I would have to say it served as an inspiration. As I said above, an inspiration to share my own unique experiences with assault and the criminal justice system, with others.
Ruby Walker: Well, yeah. I had to put a chapter into my book about trauma because it was a big compounding factor to the depression I was already dealing with that spring when I was fifteen. It was like- I dropped out of high school, and then two weeks later I started having all these realizations and all this panic about stuff that happened when I was a little kid. It affected my mental health a lot. So I had to write about it because it was important to the story.
Katherine Standefer: I love your use of the word “impetus”—the force or energy at which a body moves. It was rape that made me a nonfiction writer (although I did try to work it out through fiction first). While I understood that I had not consented to sex, I wrestled with the way it felt my body had betrayed me. My mouth was saying no, but I became wet for my rapist. I tried to get out, but I also moaned. These impossible contradictions made me a researcher—one whose reading and writing is an attempt to dig the understandings that will allow me to survive. (It turns out many women lubricate for their rapists—the product of evolution since those who didn’t lubricate were more likely to die of infections or have complications in childbirth later.) The rape was nearly all I wrote about for several years. Then, as I got further from the event (and entered an MFA program), I became obsessed with the craft questions around writing it well. I understood it wasn’t enough to offer a play-by-play of the events; that this bored and even repulsed readers, and that this writing had repeatedly not been taken seriously. I spent years working to understand how these stories gathered their power when they worked and in the process the way I could tell that story changed. It became not a single experience to nail down, and instead something I could circle from a million directions, looking for the right sliver that would make people feel.
Amanda Webster: The rape took place when I was 16. I am now 35. So the experience itself did not drive me to write but it was one of the first things I knew I wanted to write about in my book when the idea of writing a memoir hit me in the car that day. It was the first complete scene that I wrote even though it is probably about a quarter of the way into the manuscript.
Amanda Webster via Instagram
3. What do you have to consider, in particular, when writing about assault?
Kelly Fordon: I have to consider my own bias as a victim/survivor. I have not been able to empathize in any way with perpetrators. A couple of editors suggested I also try to write from the perspective of the church or the priests when I was writing “The Witness,” and I said absolutely not. Maybe that’s a limitation from a writing standpoint, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I have no sympathy for them.
Karen Stefano: Quite simply: writing about events from your own life is hard. You are faced with the challenge of transforming your trauma into art. You’re giving a voice to personal terror, perhaps describing a time in your life when you had no words to articulate what you were experiencing—but you’re forcing yourself to find those words now. You are stirring up personal demons but in doing so, you’re forced to hold yourself accountable, to confront the ugliest places inside yourself, then wrestle that self onto the page. You have to do research, endure the loneliness and self-isolation of writing, and pay attention to craft. You’re putting your own life into the scene, with a plot, pacing, dialogue, and beats of movement inside that dialogue. Most importantly, you have to be brutally honest and that honesty requires digging deep inside your own humanity, frailty, and flaws. These confrontations require an obscene amount of courage.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I sat down to the dreaded empty Word document and its blinking cursor. When writing, the words don’t always come right away. There’s a certain amount of self-discipline, pushing yourself, and forcing yourself to stay in the chair and finish a scene. But that becomes more delicate when writing about the worst parts of your life. Am I being self-disciplined, or am I pushing myself to the brink of emotional disaster? Bottom line, writing about assault, or trauma of any kind, requires a great deal of self-care, of checking in with yourself to make sure you are coping with the inevitable triggers in a healthy way –even if that means putting your manuscript on the back burner for a while.
Karen Stefano A Body Remembers// via Writer’s Digest
Ruby Walker: There is a huge variety of experiences that we categorize under “assault.” I felt like I had to put specific flashbacks into my book because my “type” of trauma is unfortunately common, but it isn’t very well-known. When I was 6, I was bullied by an older kid at school, and this behavior crossed over into sexual abuse a few times. Even though I know it can be uncomfortable or triggering for people to read about, I wanted to be clear about exactly what happened, and about how little I actually remembered. I wanted to tell everyone exactly what I knew.
Katherine Standefer: To me, our obligation is to portray complicated truths. To be complex characters ourselves, to make complex characters of perpetrators, and to find—as I talked about earlier—the tough questions and nuanced dynamics that actually show us something about the nature of assault in this culture and in peoples’ lives. To me, this often means not publishing too soon. Many of us tell a very different story after time and therapy—one we couldn’t have accessed sooner. But I think the most important question of writing assault is actually about how we manage our bodies in the process. I made my own PTSD much worse, for years, through the relentless telling of the same story, and by not always being embodied as I did so. Since 2016, I’ve been training in the latest trauma research and healing practices so I can support writers in telling these stories without making their own trauma worse. There’s not enough room here to share all I’ve learned, but I can say that knowing how the nervous system works and learning how to notice the responses of the body and experience—rather than repress—them has been transformative for my own trauma writing, and for many of my students’.
Amanda Webster: That there are going to be people reading it that might be triggered by the imagery. You want to make your character relatable so that the reader doesn’t come out feeling more isolated. In the end, you want to offer hope and show them that this experience doesn’t have to define them. I let it define me for way too long and fell into all of the wrong coping mechanisms before learning what I needed to learn to flip the script. For me, it is important that people know that they can reach out to me, share their stories, ask me about mine and have a real person who understands and who went through the dark and can hold a little bit of light to make their own darkness less frightening.
4. Do you have any advice for others who have experienced what you have?
Kelly Fordon: I really wish people would be open about their experiences, but I know the shame can be overwhelming. It took me thirty years to speak up, however, I really believe now is the time. Chantel Miller wrote an amazing book in 2019 about her Stanford perpetrator called, ‘Know My Name,’ and I highly recommend it as a beacon for other survivors. The message has changed somewhat today. Now, most people would agree: No one should never be treated badly, assaulted, or raped under any circumstances.
Kelly Fordon via goodreads
Karen Stefano: My advice is: Ask for help. Be kind to yourself. Watch what story you’re telling yourself internally. Don’t say, “I’m going crazy.” Adjust that self talk to, “Something terrifying happened and I am processing this and it’s going to be uncomfortable and take some time…” Or something along those lines, something that creates an internal narrative that is more compassionate toward yourself. Make necessary life adjustments. Basically do the opposite of everything I did! If you have the resources, go to therapy. If your first therapist feels like a bad fit (as mine was), find someone else, but go.
Ruby Walker: Yeah, that’s basically what Advice I Ignored is about. There’s only so much I can speak on the matter though. I’d say… try to be a friend and an ally to yourself. There are people out there who are far more deserving of your hatred.
Katherine Standefer: Even though writing about trauma, if done without care, can worsen a condition like PTSD, it’s so important. As the social work researcher Brene Brown says, “When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.” I think writers are often surprised by how many layers exist in their own stories, once they dig in there. And to make art from devastation is a form of power. To stitch together memories in a non-linear format, to write what could be melodramatic in such a simple way that it haunts, to uncover a hidden truth that society needs—every craft choice that finally works is a triumph over the violence of the experience, and a gift to those who are just beginning to live into their own healing journey.
Amanda Webster: Don’t think about what the outcome of taking legal action could be. Don’t question if there was enough evidence or if you were wearing the “wrong” clothes. Even if you were jogging naked down the street, that isn’t an invitation to your body, especially if you said no. Get to a police station as soon as you possibly can. I didn’t press charges and he went on to do this to at least two other women. The guilt from knowing that is far more intense than potentially losing a court case could have been. Because even if you lose, the person is on the radar of authorities now and you might have scared some sense into the attacker who now realizes that we won’t stand for abuse and we will fight back. If this happened a long time ago, write about the experience. Process it. Cry. Scream. Curse the bastard that violated you. Then really reflect on the best way to take your power back. Is it simply living the best life? Is it advocating for women who have experienced this?
5. Is writing about lived experience, like sexual assault, a cathartic act?
Kelly Fordon: Writing about sexual assault is like throwing up. First, you have this terrible feeling you can’t shake. You lie down. You hope it will pass. But there’s no stopping it. You have to let it out. Afterward, you feel better, but you are by no means better. You know the feeling will come back. I wish there was a nicer way to put it, but that’s how I feel.
My hope is that all of the people who are speaking up are changing the world in small increments and that will add up to great progress someday. We are not there yet. I know girls who have recently been assaulted and they were too afraid to speak. That breaks my heart. I guess I will keep speaking up until that is no longer the case.
Karen Stefano: Initially I thought the experience of writing about the worst, most vulnerable times of my life might be cathartic, therapeutic.
Instead, it was terrifying. Pulling up all the horror, the ugliness, my own vulnerability, sadness, depression, how lost I felt, and putting it down on the page—it hurt. Writing is hard. Writing about the worst parts of your life, exposing your innards for the whole world to see—and likely to render comment upon—is brutal. Most difficult were the initial drafts, the reliving of these horrific events in my mind, making them come alive again so they could come alive for the reader. Writing the assault scene was difficult, as expected. So were the scenes of my assailant’s jury trial and the scathing cross-examination I endured. But worst was the examination of the post-assault trauma I experienced, my fear of the dark, the PTSD triggered by the sound of footsteps. In these early drafting stages, I felt exhausted. I wrote four hours each morning, then for the rest of the day, I was done and spent many afternoons curled up in bed.
Once I had a solid initial draft and turned to the mechanics of writing—focusing on structure, how best to move back and forth through time, how to make sure a scene worked on the page—the angst dissipated. I felt more removed from the material, almost like I was writing about someone else, and that distance was liberating.
Ruby Walker: Writing about it was complicated for me. On one hand, the week I wrote that chapter, I had nightmares almost every night. I was thinking about it all the time. It hurt to be so thorough about things. I was dredging up emotions I hadn’t felt in years. But on the other hand, once it was over, I felt a huge sense of relief.
Katherine Standefer: This is a complicated question. We live in an emotionally locked-down society, in which many of us have been trained to stifle our expressions of loss. I think we’re drawn to write about experiences like sex assault because something in us—our biggest, brightest part—knows it’s necessary to confront our own devastation if we are to incorporate it into who we are, and not be eaten alive by it. And yet the way many people try to write through it is so Puritan. All that clenching, all that repressing, all that pushing—or, if grief undoes them, there’s no room to rest afterward, to allow oneself the evening for napping or soft sex or hours in the bath. All healing happens in pulses. An antelope nearly nipped by a lion, after the escape, goes off somewhere to shake. We have to let ourselves shake, or scream, and then we have to honor how much that took out of us, and stop until we’re actually able to move forward—not until we think we should be able or are expected to by others. I know there are all sorts of systemic reasons why this healing is hard to give room to. So what I would say is that writing about lived experiences can be a cathartic act, but we often don’t allow it its healing room. And—as authors like Melissa Febos and Cheryl Strayed and T Kira Madden have all written about—to write cathartically is not enough when we are talking about presenting the work to the public. Catharsis is the first step to being able to engage a story as an artist and not just as a body. But it’s far from the final step in making art that resonates out in the world.
Amanda Webster: Yes! I didn’t truly come to terms with what happened to me for nearly two decades because I never allowed myself to really open up about it. Only my mom and a couple of best friends ever knew and they only knew in the broadest sense. When my best friend, the one person I can tell anything to, read my manuscript, she sobbingly confessed to me that she “had no idea how intense these experiences had been for me.” Really though, even if I’d done written out the experienced and burned it and never spoke of it again, it would have been a huge step for getting the memory out of me and beginning to truly release it. maybe there would have been more steps, maybe not, but it was a crucial first one to take.
I cannot thank these five incredible women enough for being so candid and passionate about their experiences and their writing. When these experiences go unspoken, they are given a chance to acquire a power that pieces like these aim to dispel. April has been sexual assault awareness month, but we hope that it is an awareness everyone carries on well past April showers and May flowers!
feature image via bookstr
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