Unearthing the unique human silenced by de-humanizing trauma
From the outside, all three young women look like average college students. Kaela is pursuing an education degree, with the practical hope of teaching children, and the childhood fantasy of wanting to be Britney Spears. Emma is finishing her fifth and final year in University of Oregon’s (UO) architecture program with a passion for drawing, everything from flowers to faces. Abbie is completing a degree in photojournalism with a broad vision for her future that includes a little apartment in New York City, which she says is like a “24-hour shot of caffeine and motivation.”
Each with her own goals, passions and favorite color, these women tell a collective story of ambition and work ethic, mirroring that of the greater UO population.
But their lives bear resemblance in another way, too. Flashbacks, anxiety, depression, trauma–all symptoms they attribute to personal experience with sexual assault.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the United States, one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence, and 91 percent of victims of rape and sexual assault are female. Melissa Barnes, doctorate student specializing in the psychology of trauma, accredits the persistence of “rape culture” as a dominating factor for this reality.
“Men are external, allowed to act out,” she said. “Women are supposed to be quiet, supposed to be the caretaker.”
Recognizing that while men perpetrate against other men, Barnes said it is predominantly women who suffer from sexual assault. She defines rape culture as, “permission for men to use power in whatever way they want to, and then shame the people that are violated.”
Shame and guilt were side effects of this unwanted violation that all three women had in common. They each were burdened with questioning legitimacy of their feelings and what had actually happened in processing the assault. They were challenged with questions like, “What were you wearing?” or “But you were drunk,” Not only were these external voices of skepticism seeping into their processing, but matters were complicated further when internal doubts, rather than other people, reinforced this suspicion.
When Emma researched the definition of rape, she felt a “relief that was painful,” realizing she was weighed down by something she shouldn’t have been: guilt. “I called it sexual assault because I didn’t think I was allowed to call it rape,” said Emma. Kaela shared her experience with her sister, who responded by saying that was just his way of flirting with her.
“All I thought was, “Then, this is normal,’” she said.
The language that defines sexual assault warranted further processing when it came to labeling themselves in relation to their experiences. Both Emma and Kaela defaulted to viewing themselves as victims, but saw an added agency in being able to identify as a survivor. “I know how to have better control,” said Kaela, in being able to anticipate triggers and combat lies that permeate her thoughts. For Abbie, she sees labels as too definitive and can sometimes add insult to injury for those affected.They do not encapsulate the fullness of her experience.
“I’m someone who’s experienced trauma,” she said. “And that label feels disingenuous or invalid because it’s so broad.”
Additionally, all of the women reached a similar consensus on how society should respond to victims: just listen. “A lot of people are so quick to speak that they say the exact wrong thing,” said Emma. She needed to feel validated in her experiences and be told it wasn’t her fault. Abbie still struggles with fault and assuming responsibility for what happened to her, and advises a “baseline awareness of the issue” for people to engage with the problem.
“It can mean the difference between triggering someone into a severe panic attack or making somebody feel like they’re worthless,” she said.
While each woman had elements of her story that aligned with the others, they each had unique pieces that defined them – the assault experiences being only part of their intricately woven narratives. Secret talents, favorite books and dream careers combine and create individual complex humans who are all unique. Emma loves to draw, specifically flowers, shapes and people. She uses a mental method of connecting dots to create realistic images to replicate. “I love simplifying objects I see, I’m good at visualizing distance – I could talk about this all day,” she said, hands gesturing and eyes crinkling at the corners from smiling.
Kaela dreams of becoming a teacher. “I have found a love for interacting with children,” she said. She has worked at a day care for the past two years and in high school she was a mentor for elementary-aged children. She also considers pursuing counseling, and her career ideas stem from compassion developed through her own experiences and a heart for children put in tough situations.
“I want to take care of kids,” she said. “I want to take care of those who are broken as well.”
Abbie is a self-proclaimed “Jill of all trades,” but considers her experience with slam poetry throughout high school a special secret talent. “It is such a supportive way to be vulnerable,” she said. Looking off into the distance and gesturing widely with her hands, she described the exhilarating experience of being onstage and expressing herself.
“You’re cutting yourself open, pulling out your insides, and handing them to the audience,” she said. “It’s the best kind of terrifying.”
Regardless of the elements in life that bring each woman joy and contentment, not a single one of them see their healing as completed, nor can they put the violation committed against them in the past tense. Coping proves to be a present-tense process that helps alleviate, rather than completely fix, the pain. For Kaela, she finds solace in her faith and faith-based community, The Good Fight.
Originally, she felt that she didn’t belong. “Whoever is a Christian has to be happy and perfect,” she said.
But Kaela’s perception changed as her friendships deepened with the people she grew closest with. She realized that God wasn’t calling her into a community where everything had to be perfectly put together, but rather into a place where broken people can begin to heal.
“Those who come to God are broken,” she said. “We all need a savior, and at times God provides us with broken people to do life with.”
A select community of loyal friends continues to be a source of comfort for Abbie as well. After having lost friendships over the aftermath of earlier assaults, in the wake of the most recent incident, she acknowledged the people who value her personal safety and care for her wellbeing.
“It’s something to fall back on,” she said. “I know it won’t collapse beneath me.”
To Abbie, it has made all the difference to have people who are close in proximity, understand her and believe her story.
“They make the changes that help me feel safe,” she said. “And it has made me feel like I can be more open about it,”
The night that Emma returned to her dorm after the assault, she sat with her resident assistant, Elliot, and he talked with her and showed her his drum set. “Distraction was my best ally at the time,” she said. Today, when flashbacks and triggers occur, distraction still serves as an invaluable aid. But now Emma’s distraction manifests in thinking about the future.
“I think, ‘Yeah, I still have a life I can be moving toward,’” she said. “And I like to think that this hasn’t hindered me from being joyful in life.”