The following essay was written by Tammy Perlmutter, an alumna of The Voices and Faces Project’s testimonial writing workshop for survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence, and trafficking, “The Stories We Tell.” The piece, beautiful and moving, helps show us why testimonial writing matters. Because in a world where over one billion women have been victims of some form of gender-based violence, survivor voices can help show us that behind every social injustice, there is a deeply personal story.
We invite you to learn more about “The Stories We Tell” workshop, including how to apply.
The Stories We Tell: Our Truest Rescue
"A speck of light can reignite the sun and swallow darkness whole." ~ Sleeping at Last
I've anticipated this day for weeks, alternating between terror and excitement. Sitting in a room with twelve strangers, writing and sharing, knowing we are all here for the same reason: we are survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
This makes it challenging at first. Everyone here already knows your story. My story. Then I realized we all know each other's secrets, and in this room, for this time, we are entrusting strangers with our personal accounts and our hearts. However hesitant, we are together because we committed to listen hard and well, be authentic, and write whatever it is that needs to be written.
This togetherness implies a connection, drawing us in and anchoring us, claiming that space and that time as safe for each other. Even though we are unknown to each other, we are not outsiders or interlopers. We are the invited.
I am here to receive and observe these histories in whatever form they take; poem, screenplay, letter, or essay, and maybe, if I am brave, share my own. I have chosen for these days to be present to strangers as if they are longtime friends, in the way that soldiers who have never met or served together consider that other person a brother-in-arms. I guess that makes us survivors-in-arms.
The reading aloud is stilted, unsure, tripping over underlining and crosshatching, censoring and divulging, but gains rhythm and cadence as the writer gains confidence. There is stuttering, halting, breaths held, hands shaking, sweating, clammy. There are throats closing, tears struggling free.
There is silence and there is knowing. The silence is not awkward. It is deep respect like a moment for the dead, it is for remembering. We give the story space to hang there, a tribute, a living thing.
Our experiences of manipulation, abuse, violence, humiliation, terror, despair, rage, and above all, of survival, have changed us each in our own way. They have changed the landscape of our souls, changed the ones we love and who love us. The shameful and calamitous stories, each time they are told, each time they are heard, push the darkness of this broken world a little further back while soft, struggling rays of light fight their way in.
These frail illuminations may seem weak at first, but when light seeks light and they are joined, ray upon ray, they grow stronger and brighter. This is why we gather with what little light we carry within us, this is why we pour it out in front of us like an oblation. We are healed in the telling, we are strengthened in the listening, we are named as caretakers of one another's narrative.
Testimonies emerge as nightmares, flashbacks, fairy tales, and lullabies, and we, the initiated, recognize the danger, the shadow territory, comforting in its familiarity. Do we take comfort in each other's stories of innocence destroyed and sense of self obliterated? We do, in all their stark destruction and unfurled beauty, we do take comfort. We put down the words, the ones that hurt and shame and set us apart, because these words are our truest rescue.