Speak: Knowing a Survivor Without Knowing Their Story

A post written by Women’s Center Director,  Jess Myers

*Content Note: Sexual Violence*

And knowing these statistics and being someone who works on a continual basis with and for survivors of sexual violence, I was shocked and disappointed in myself that it still took me more than half of a novel to realize Melinda, the main character of Speak, was a survivor of sexual assault.
I picked up Speak on a whim after seeing a picture of its front cover on the online Enoch Pratt library catalog. It was a librarian’s recommendation and it was one of the last books I needed to get through from my pile of winter break readings. Reading the vague synopsis on the inside flap of the book, I began reading what I assumed would be any other young adult novel. What I knew –  Malinda was a 9th grader. She busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Everyone hated her because of that. Consequently, high school was a disaster for her. She had no friends. She stopped doing her homework and cut class. She didn’t have a good relationship with her parents. And, one day, she finally just stopped talking.

I get it. High school can really suck. Being an outsider is awful. Being 13 is awkward and painful and hard to navigate. Been there. Done that. So, with each turn of the page, I became more frustrated with Melinda. She was annoying me. I almost stopped reading the book.

Get it over it, Melinda.

But, for some reason, I kept reading. Melinda left me little clues throughout that led me to understand that she wasn’t sharing her full story. Something was going on with her. Something she was even trying to figure out how to understand. The adults in her life were frustrated with her. Her friends gave up on her. She was a shadow, or at worse, a distraction, to her teachers. Melinda was alone.

Little by little, though, people poked back into Melinda’s life. A strayed friend cautiously begins speaking to Melinda again about their art projects. A teacher gently pushes back on the narrative that Melinda is a bad kid ending one interaction saying, “I think you have a lot to say. I’d like to hear it.” A classmate finds meaning in a history project on suffragettes to push Melinda to consider options outside of remaining silent. And, I too, beckon Melinda. I know something is wrong. I keep reading in an effort to understand Melinda’s story whether she speaks it or not.

In the Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence: Cultivating a Survivor-Responsive Campus workshop we host in the Women’s Center, I start out with a list of statistics related to sexual violence on college campuses. We may probably know the 1 in 5 women will experience attempted or completed sexual assault in her lifetime statistic but what does that really mean? I break it down in UMBC terms. For a campus that has 6,300 women-identified students on its roster, statistically speaking, about 1,200 women students are or will be survivors of sexual violence. This number does not include male survivors, trans survivors, faculty or staff. I know this number is much higher.

We all know survivors of sexual violence whether we know it or not. Survivors of sexual violence are in our classrooms, living in our residence halls, eating next to us at dinner. They are our friends, our classmates, our partners, our studentsLike Melinda, though, they may not feel ready to disclose or come out and share their story with you – or anyone. At least not right away.

And, that’s okay. But, it’s simply not good enough for us to only offer sympathy or change our behaviors around a person once we know their full story. Until I knew Melinda had been raped, I discounted her. In my temptation to stop reading, I turned my back on her. Once I knew her story, though, my heart ached with empathy and I couldn’t get her out of my mind (I am writing this blog, after all). If Melinda was a real person in my life, would my behavior and lack of action reaffirmed her desire to stay silent. Would I have been a safe space for her?

In that same Cultivating a Survivor-Responsive Campus workshop, I share a quote from former Women’s Center director, Dr. Mollie Monahan-Kreishman’s dissertation. It goes,

“The first people who interact with the rape survivor will weave themselves tightly into the fabric of the survivor’s story. Their words will richly color the survivor’s world, no matter if those words were meant to support or demolish.”

Each and every day, on campus, and beyond, all of us are weaving ourselves into the fabric of survivors stories. Our every day actions mean something.  We may support one survivor in a classroom by offering a content note or promoting Take Back the Night. We may demolish a survivor’s experience when we diminish the prevalence of sexual assault, laugh at a rape joke, or give up on a friend who just isn’t the same anymore.

I want to be the person that expresses words and actions that support a survivor whether I know their story or not. I know I’m not alone in this feeling.

So What Can You Do?
(Note: This is not an exhaustive list!!!)

Know UMBC’s campus resources such as the Women’s Center, Voices Against Violence, and Title IX policies 
Read Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence
Listen (and watch) Lady Gaga’s Til It Happens to You
Check out (and support) the Monument Quilt. Their next display is right here in Baltimore on April 9th.
Attend the Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence: Cultivating a Survivor-Responsive Campus workshop. This Women’s Center workshop is offered on a quarterly basis for faculty and staff and once a semester for students. We’ll also happily accept invites to present at department or student org meetings.
Show Up at  UMBC’s Take Back the Night on Thursday, April 14th (stay tuned for details)


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