Disclosure: In no way is this commentary meant to prevent victims or survivors from telling their stories. It is meant to offer insight that storytelling for others can be detrimental.
My story of sexual violence started when I was just 11 years old. My offender was my best friend’s older brother. I was asked to keep it a secret, and that’s just what I did until roughly the age of 18. The only other people who knew about that night were my best friend, another friend and my offender. At the age of 13 I had gone with my still best friend to her house (new location) and was reintroduced to her brother. From there started another year of sexual abuse until I decided to tell. I told my story to a trusted teacher, and from there my life started to shift in a direction I wasn’t prepared for. My parents never wanted to talk to me about what happened, and never urged me to talk about it, which only led me into deeper issues. After years of addiction to multiple substances and then becoming sober, I started using my story to my advantage.
I am telling you my story because it is my story to tell. This past summer I was at a family event and my dad began to tell my story to other family members (some who knew and some who didn’t know). The statements he was making were not even close to the truth, but I also understood that it was his perception of the events. We talked a few weeks after that, and I began to explain why what he did was wrong. It was hard for him to understand that you can’t tell someone else’s story because we victims/survivors hold onto those “facts,” and when they are twisted it seems as if we are lying or that our story is being minimalized. Do I think that was his intention? Definitely not. Just a few short weeks ago my friend (not the offender’s sister) and I were out having a few drinks with her new boyfriend. She began making statements about my assault back when I was 11. Yes, she was that “other friend” who was in the room (sleeping during the assault). The statements were vague in nature, but had her boyfriend giving me a really weird look like he knew there was something more to the story. After all the statements she made, I just told her “well go ahead and tell him so you don’t need to be so vague.” Yes, I was triggered at that moment.
So you may be wondering why this is important to victim/survivor storytelling. Well really, it’s their stories to tell when they are ready. If a person isn’t ready to tell and is forced to, it can lead to being indirectly victimized again. Victims and survivors may reanalyze the events that occurred during the assault. Being put back in those moments are often very terrifying for those who have survived it. Taking into consideration others’ perceptions who were there or took on secondary trauma from the assault, it’s important to remember if it didn’t happen directly to you each story will be different. Don’t attempt to guess the facts of each person’s story if they don’t align with yours. This goes back to the reanalyzing of facts around the assault, and if you are saying something isn’t what it was, it can make a victim/survivor question what really happened. Also, by not accepting that each story may have different facts and/or perceptions, we may be indirectly minimizing the assault. Did it really happen the way I thought it did? Was it not as horrible as I thought it was?
So please, next time a victim or survivor tells you their story, just listen, apply empathy and build hope. Maybe by being that ear and not telling their story, one day they will grow strong enough to tell it out loud and without hesitation.
Kori Nelson is Development and Volunteer Coordinator for Support Within Reach.