The Stories We Tell: Our Truest Rescue

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

Tammy Permutter

"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.

The Power of Testimony - One Woman's Voice

By Janet Goldblatt Holmes

During the winter of 2013, I read the compelling article, “Hidden Children of the Holocaust”(1) about children who were sexually and physically abused by the “foster” families who claimed to have “saved them from the Nazi’s.”  For many, forty or fifty passed before they could tell their stories. 

I read of a woman who was unable to share her secret with her spouse, children, family or friends. I was shaken by how isolating that must have been, my own experience of date rape seeming small and insignificant.  These threads of shame and self-dismissal are common in survivors of assault and molestation. As I became a witness to the accounts of violent betrayals of trust, the familiar conflicts of shame and blame surfaced. 

The article reports that many women have come forward with their stories after their children have grown and left home, or years later. Once occupied with family and responsibilities, their lives now offered room for the repressed incidents to surface. I understand this dynamic-- although my date rape occurred when I was a teenager, thirty years passed before I was able to begin to acknowledge and deal with the trauma, and disclose what had transpired.

Widespread violence against women is not new within our culture.  We regularly hear reports of rape and abuse. These are troubling and uncomfortable topics to discuss, but in order to effect change, we must speak, bringing voices and faces to this issue. It is urgent that we challenge the current complicit acceptance of rape culture.  

As a private person who had kept her story dead bolted for many years, deciding to speak openly about being raped was a daunting step for me. Despite being an advocate for those who have endured rape, at times memory of the event is still sparked, and shame and blame reappear. No matter how far one has progressed on the road to healing, scar tissue persists. I have discovered healing to be a non-linear process, and that if we can trust ourselves, and honor how we have coped in our lives as survivors of assault, the upheaval can lessen.  

The journey of uncovering our truth can be long and grueling, yet ultimately this profound work will be rewarding. My passage has been one of rediscovering myself as a woman, with all my colors, shadows, shapes and textures, forming a whole. I am no longer fragmented by fear, shame and denial.  

As a young girl, I would gaze out the bedroom window into the empty field behind our house and dream of becoming a dance teacher and having my own studio. I envisioned being happy and living in a love filled, supportive home. I imagined marrying my prince charming, someone who would fill the emptiness and bring joy into my heart. I’m not sure if having kids was ever a part of the scenario. 

At age sixteen, date rape changed my life. I buried what happened for decades, like many people about whom I have read. I was well into my adult life before delving into the traumatic impact of having been raped. 

Often, we attempt to isolate the horrific event and put it behind us – hoping to “move forward” and forget. All the while, the reverberations of shock continue to live in our bodies. There are many aspects to healing. The process requires bravery, openness and our ability to be vulnerable. It is essential to know that we are not alone.  

Likely most of us know someone who has been the victim of sexual assault, or violence. Many of us have lived through a harrowing ordeal of one sort or another. As a sexual assault survivor, I can attest to the power and impact of finding one’s voice.

In my role as a speaker and advocate, I encourage others to find someone to confide in, and to accept that they have done nothing wrong, and therefore need not be ashamed. I promote freeing oneself of blame, as it is a double-edged weapon that can impede the healing process by creating the trap of a one up, one down paradigm. Still, I am aware that I continue to carry remnants of these emotions.    

Many who have sustained trauma alienate themselves from others as a way to feel safe, push down the horrors, or simply endure.  Survivors often wait many years, knowingly or unwittingly (when the torment has been repressed), for a way through the unbearable emotional pain, to the lightness that can result from healing the suffering. There is an inherent uncertainty whether they will ever be free of the burden so long carried in secret. 

I have been heartened in my work in education and outreach with both young and adult audiences, by people’s bravery. Some women have been able to speak about their assault, and some have found healing capacity through their art, music and writing. Others, for reasons that may include fear of the challenging memories, of exposure, ridicule, or blame, remain silent and continue to carry the burden. 

The disturbing realities of sexual violence are being pulled from the shadows. Compelling articles (2) directed at Jewish audiences, boldly address this topic. But, there are other pressing issues to be faced, beyond the horrors of sexual assault. Unrecognized domestic violence within Jewish communities also carries the familiar veins of blame and shame. 

In attempting to come to terms with domestic abuse, we strive to make sense of what transpired. In my case, as with the experience of date rape, I believed that the impact of mistreatment as both child and adult was reduced because there were no external signs of either assault or mistreatment. 

During a testimonial writing workshop for sexual assault survivors, which I attended, in Edmonton Alberta (4), Aboriginal women spoke of the distressing realities of the generational continuum of sexual and physical violence in their communities. I was inspired by the courage of the women to speak openly about such brutality, and their commitment to bring an end to this legacy. Their stories became the impetus for me to take a closer look into my upbringing. Layers of illusion lifted, and I began to see that the verbal, emotional and physical abuse to which I had been subjected in my family, had left deep scars.

The concept “generational continuum of violence” has led me to consider how we repeat the behaviors of our parents or grandparents. Violence of any kind is an assault on the human spirit and until the cycle of abuse or violence is interrupted and healed, patterned behaviors of the previous generations continue.

There were few people with whom I felt safe to confide, yet those with whom I shared my “secrets”, believed the ill-treatment in my youth clouded my judgment when relating to others and that in my naiveté I put myself in compromising situations, including one that resulted in date rape. These suggestions were initially profoundly unsettling, yet further exploration into this difficult territory has made the connection undeniable.

On closer look what became evident was the impact of violent behavior in both situations, and the troublesome feelings of shame, blame and guilt. I had felt like a “victim” – seeking approval, acquiescing to others, and giving up my ground, despite knowing that going against what I believed compromised my sense of self.   

 Often, afraid to speak up for myself, I learned to “hide”.

Had I lived in a gentler, more trusting home, would I have been less afraid to speak about rape or abusive behavior? Would I have been able to trust and find my voice earlier in life?

Today, over 40 years later, I am happy to say that my childhood dreams have come true, although with variations on the themes. As for kids, I am the proud mother of a daughter and son, beautiful young adults. 

The Jewish phrase “Tikum Olam” means “repairing our world.” What better way to repair our world, then by offering those in pain a helping hand to move from their solitary dark into the light of disclosure, and the healing that can follow?  

Those of us who have been able to move beyond trauma recognize the importance of stepping forward and bearing witness for those who are unable to speak. My own experiences have taught me that I need no longer suffer in silence, hide in shame, or accept the accompanying belief system of disempowerment. 

Every individual has the right to a life free of violence. Is it not our responsibility to establish a safe world for others, including our children and grandchildren which promotes awareness, kindness and compassion?  

If violence against women is to end, we in the Jewish community must speak out and break the silence, so that healing may take place. Through open dialogue and ongoing discussion in communities, we enrich and empower those who suffer with shame in silence. Through testimony, we will continue to find our voices.

1. Jspace article: Jspace Staff – 1/9/13 Category: History, Feature: Sexual Abuse and the Hidden Children of the Holocaust

2. Lilith Magazine: Winter, 2013 Jewish Women’s Reform Magazine: an independent, Jewish-American, feminist non-profit publication that has been issued quarterly since 1976.

3.  Ten Minutes of Torah – Women of Reform Judaism WRJ Blog Oct 2013

4.  The Voices and Faces Testimonial Writing Workshop www.voicesandfaces.org

The Power of Survivor Voices

By Katie Feifer

In the wake of the deeply disturbing accounts of how Jerry Sandusky, a coach at Penn State and a boys’ mentor and advocate at (now closed) The Second Mile molested and raped young boys over many years, whose assaults were witnessed and discussed with authorities but never stopped, many are writing about the impact sexual violence has on its victims. And several writers are writing eloquently about the effects of the silence so many victims live with, unable to disclose the harm done to them. Others are writing about the effects many victims live with when they dodisclose the harm that was done to them.

Sexual violence hurts and wounds its victims, without a doubt. Even talking about it can hurt survivors.

Jane Brody, writing in the New York Times about The Twice Victimized of Sexual Assault notes “More often than not, women who bring charges of sexual assault are victims twice over, treated by the legal system and sometimes by the news media as lying until proved truthful.”

On the other hand, not talking about it can hurt survivors. Donna Jenson writes powerfully about this in a Chicago Tribune article Speaking Out About Staying Silent, “My silence had layers. The first layer was fear. The second got formed from believing it was somehow my fault; this wouldn't happen to a "good" child. Another was shame for having come from a family that would abuse and not protect its children."

And Roger Canaff, in a blog post about the repercussions from Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes coming to light noted “Victims are usually never more alone than after the abuse is discovered, whether they purposely revealed it or not. Siblings, non-offending parents, even grandparents are suddenly distant or much worse. The victim, after all, has “torn the family apart,” interrupted possible financial support, brought shame upon the family because of a ‘splash effect’ that will surely color the whole clan, etc, etc. The fact of the perpetrator’s utter and sole guilt for all of these depredations simply gets lost…”

A classic case of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And yet.

We believe that using survivor testimony is critical if we are to change our laws and our culture around sexual violence. When we listen to individuals tell their stories, we can be moved to change even more than when we simply read statistics.

Anne Ream, director of The Voices and Faces Project, was recently quoted in a Chicago Tribune article Shedding Light on the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors: "A story can be a conduit to change people's minds and hearts about public policy, about institutions, about the way we look at victims of sexual violence and trafficking. The only way we can challenge and change the way the world responds to sexual violence is to bring these stories to the attention of the public."

We believe one of the reasons why shifts in attitudes and cultural norms about sexual violence have been so slow in coming is that those who can persuade us best, the survivors themselves, are too often silenced. Those of us who speak out are applauded by supporters for being brave and courageous. And in this climate, we are.

We are also all working toward a time when it won’t require bravery to tell family, friends, and authority figures when sexual violence is done to us. One first step toward that end is for all of us to listen with respect to the survivors who are speaking out and testifying. All of us can meet that challenge by reading and ‘listening’ to articles like the ones quoted here, and to encourage our own social circles to do the same.