I was the Survivor Speaker at a recent fundraiser for Turning Point, our local domestic abuse/sexual assault resource center. It was the first time I publicly shared my story of being a sexual assault survivor, and I was nervous.
After many years of public speaking in my nonprofit work, my jitters surprised me. Usually, I have a healthy adrenaline rush before I speak, but I am not usually nervous. I think of public speaking as one of my best gifts for nonprofit work.
That night, though, my knees were shaking.
Perhaps I was nervous because the story is so personal, and this was the first time I was sharing it. Also, I am feeling somewhat vulnerable because of the recent changes in my life.
But there I was in front of more than 400 people, talking about how my life was changed forever because of what happened to me on one Friday night.
As I walked back to my seat, I heard the emcee say, “Let’s keep that standing ovation for Madeline going,” and I looked around and saw that, yes, people were all standing and clapping. I was overwhelmed.
One of the women at my table thanked me for having the courage to tell my story; she, too is a survivor. Several people approached me afterward and thanked me.
One line in my talk is, “I talk about being a rape survivor because I want other survivors to know they are not alone and that there is help.”
A few days later, I told a friend about the talk, and she shared a story of someone she knows who is a survivor. “We don’t talk about it,” she said.
That is the thing—we don’t talk about it. Like other taboo subjects—domestic abuse, incest, suicide, mental health, etc., rape does not come up in polite conversation. We just don’t talk about it.
It is estimated that one in six women in the U.S. is a victim of sexual assault.
My first six years in Michigan, I facilitated an annual morning of reflection for a group of post-college volunteers. Each year, eight to fourteen young adults would gather, and each year, at least one of the women would confide that she had been raped.
At a recent writers’ retreat, we were encouraged to write an article for a magazine oriented toward young adults—about a topic where they could affect change. I thought of suggesting a gathering of young women and have them count off, one to six. Even in a group of twelve, it is likely that two have been assaulted. The visual of that might be alarming enough for more conversation. Awareness and conversation are two steppingstones to change.
At the end of my talk, I encouraged the audience to pay attention to the people in their lives and if they notice a change—weight loss, increased anxiety, mood swings, etc.—to show their concern and ask what is happening. “Listen and believe what you hear,” I concluded.