girl floating underwater

Bearing Witness, Feeling Helpless, and Straining to Hear

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

TRIGGER WARNING: This article is about sexual assault and may be triggering to survivors.

It is my lived experience that silence can be healing, peaceful and life affirming. There is something powerful about it. When I take intentional silence, usually through prayer and meditation, I notice that as the noise quiets outside of me, the constant chatter within me follows. Chosen silence is a gift we can give ourselves.

If silence is not chosen, though, it feels very different. This is especially true if the silence is being forced on us following rape.

Forced silence is deafening to the most vulnerable places within.

Forced silence creeps into every single part of the soul.

Forced silence is isolating, shame inducing and death dealing.

Forced silence makes the constant ache within amplified and reinforces humanity’s greatest fear: that we are completely and utterly alone.

Forced silence kills.

I lived in S. Africa and taught seventh grade when I was a young adult. I loved the village we lived in called Willowvale. One school break, many of my fellow teachers took trips to game parks and such. I stayed behind with another teacher named Kendra. We got along awesomely. We watched reruns of shows like Christy, Touched By An Angel, all good missionary fare. We read a lot and talked a lot.

One night we were sitting in the TV area. It was very late. We were both night owls. We were reminiscing, telling stories from our lives. It was a quiet, beautiful night. We were enjoying each other’s company when suddenly we heard a woman screaming.

Have you ever heard what sounded like someone screaming as you were just going through your day or evening, feeling safe in your home? You stop. All the hair on your body stands up. A chill runs through you and you listen so closely to see if you would hear that sound again. Most of the time, you won’t hear it again. You won’t know what it was, but you also can’t shake it. This was us in that moment.

We strained to hear again and we did. We heard it again only this time it was louder and the woman was crying. It was so disorienting. She could have been right by our door or she could be many houses away. Then we heard the man. And her screams and cries were even worse. She was being raped.

Kendra and I stared at each other, pleadingly. Helplessness overwhelmed us and we began to cry. We began to rock, our knees to our chest, closest we could come to fetal position without the vulnerability of lying on the floor.

These two 19-year olds alone in a land not their own with no access to any emergency services and no ability to intervene. We sobbed as she sobbed. We just couldn’t take it. Holding onto each other, praying it would end that she would not get hurt further. That he would leave her alone.

Then silence. No noise at all. Nothing. We sat still, straining to hear. It was surreal. Our ears had just been filled with a horrible sound of violation and now here was stillness. How can that be? What do we do now?

And that’s always the question: what action do we take.

I have been meditating and praying on whether or not I would share something with you in this format. The part that makes me pause is fear and shame.

I  cannot and will not make decisions based on fear and shame. And that is why I am moving forward in telling you now.

132 days ago, just after Christmas, I was brutally raped. Seeing those words I just wrote and knowing that they are about me is absolutely surreal and awful. How can this be? It still baffles me. How is this my life?

Those closest to me know the intimate details of all of this and I am going to honor my own heart and keep it that way. The details are actually irrelevant. The crushing weight of shame, anger, self-hatred is what is relevant. And it is what is common. And it is what makes me continue this piece I am writing.

Not telling anyone after a sexual assault is very common. Who wants people to know that level of violation? Who wants to have their life on display to be picked apart and judged? Who wants to brace themselves for the inevitable defense of the perpetrator who claims it wasn’t rape and that the survivor wanted it, even liked it?

No one.

No one.

No one.

The telling is so hard. The comments people make after you tell them can be really hard too. Did you know that it is a common internal defense to blame ourselves after this happens? We often turn on ourselves and tear apart all of the ways we screwed up. It is something our psyche does to make us feel better. I know that doesn’t make much sense on first reading.

The thing is, if we can convince ourselves that it was our fault, we develop a belief that we had more power than we did. We cannot bear the thought that we were truly and completely rendered powerless. It is too much to take, this awareness of our fragility and vulnerability. It also gives us the belief that if we were part of the reason it happened then, it means we can make sure it never happens again.

This is the same mechanism when friends and family try to apply fault to the survivor. Acting as though it was the survivor’s fault means it can be controlled.

This is a cognitive distortion. We do it all the time. It makes us feel safe. It is not safe, though. Not at all. This practice leaves us separated and alone, filled with self-hatred, loss and shame.

We live in a rape culture that teaches our girls, women and anyone not living within prescribed heteronormative gender roles that it is up to them not to get raped. And if you are a man who expresses masculinity and you get raped, our culture tells you that you had better shut up about it or suffer the consequences. Only a few seriously out of touch people will actually say those words out loud. The rest of us just co-sign it in small, nuanced ways. That is more insidious, more painful, more life ending than the ridiculous person on the microphone shouting ideas that drip with bias and hate. At least we can see that person coming a mile away.

We rarely see it when it is spoken through the mundane moments of life in the voice of our parents, siblings, teachers, preachers, roommates, friends and mentors. The forum isn’t the floor of the senate for this process. The forum is the dinner table, church service, home room, college dorms, family gatherings. How easily rape culture can hide among the seemingly innocuous words, moments and intentions with those we love and trust most.

I do it too. You do it too. We all do it because many of us are unlearning this rape culture we are in as we go. It is slippery, it is clingy and it is insatiable.

The night I sat with Kendra in our home in S. Africa, we listened to a fellow human being suffer. And we suffered. And we bore witness. She did not know we heard. She did not know we cried. She did not know those long minutes she was violated would one day end up in this piece of writing that you are reading right now and possibly assist someone in breaking the silence she likely never could break.

That being said, it is not enough for someone to be able to break the silence and the alienation sexual assault brings. She/he/they need someone to listen to their shaky voiced courage and their incredible grief. It is so hard to hear that pain and sorrow, to bear witness to trauma and deep loss.

As a listener, you may feel like you aren’t able to tolerate the raw pain of it all. It’s hard for me too. I think it should be hard to hear, though, because it is horrific for the person to endure.

While your heart and mind may curl into the fetal position and rock back and forth, I urge you to still listen when the silence is broken.  There will be deep pain, injury and sadness that you are bearing witness to. This pain, injury and sadness is as true for the survivor in a small village in S. Africa as it is for the survivor sitting next to you in church on Sundaymorning. It just really hurts so deeply.

It’s unsettling to witness this pain. It can cut through a peaceful moment, chilling you to the core and leaving you with such helplessness to make it better. It hurts. It hurts deeply. It feels awful. I know all of this firsthand.

It may not be fair for me to ask this of you, but I am going to anyway. In the midst of all those things your heart will feel when you are bearing witness, I ask you to sit still. I ask you to feel what you feel. Most importantly, though, I ask you to stay open and strain to hear.