Without a sound, harmony flooded the room. It was as if sunlight perched the acoustics of the moment. The gravity of silence shattered. The question left me awestruck. What happened next has never left my consciousness.
The year was1993. The month was April. It had been a whirlwind month for me. I was a volunteer Co-Chairperson for a local agency’s awareness program.
I designed a series of events that had a group of individuals speaking across Denton, Texas. Constructing flyers and contacting various media sources, it was the first time I used the skills I learned in high school theater. This time, it was only me who had to make the show go on.
I found individuals willing to share the secret and break their silence in public. From a candle lit ceremony by the Texas Women’s University to the One O’Clock Lounge in University of North Texas’ Student Union Building, a panel of experts on their experiences told their stories.
In an effort to reach audiences in different settings, a plan was developed to bring a program to my residence hall. With the help of a Resident Assistant (RA), Tara, we plotted to rearrange a proven format to appeal to busy college students.
Typically, a panel openly discussed a topic and the audience could later ask questions. Our panel would comprise a lady who was sexually assaulted by a stranger, a college student who was raped by an acquaintance, a mother who survived the incest experienced as a child, and a man who lived through a rape at the hands of a trusted family friend. Along their sides, a female therapist brought in the healing perspectives of counseling. Plus, I felt it was an imperative to have a professional to be present for the survivors as the emotional drain it must have taken to recount their stories. I organized the events and added in local statistics to provide transitions to carry forward each event.
Some places only brought a trickle of attendees. Each venue had a unique set of dynamics for asking questions. Even for a handful of people, the panel gave their all.
I may have heard the survivor’s story but each time, an aspect caught my attention and tugged at my heartstrings. Amplified by microphones, the individual would share the most intimate of details of being violated and the heroic strides made with the help of a compassionate counselor. I caught myself at a loss for words too many times to count. The format had a set time and routine so the panel could know who would speak next.
Tara and I brain stormed and planned to make the experience less formal. “Girls only?” was flushed out and quickly pinball’d into exactly what we wanted to deliver for the residents.
Blankets and pillows would replace the chairs. Rather than a panel/audience, we would sit on the ground and be in a circle. The old hardwood floors of Bruce Hall would keep everyone on the same eye level. With only a sketch of what could be, we promoted the event for a month ahead of time.
We had no idea if anyone would show up or even be interested. Some venues had passersby and lots of foot traffic. This would be closed door and males off limits. “Should I be there?” I pressed. Tara measured that I was the organizer and wouldn’t distract anyone.
“Plus, there is Jon on the panel and we have to keep him,” Tara justified.
The female RAs personally invited their residents on the day of the program.
A couple of hours before the event, we cleared the room of chairs, moved the piano against the wall, and brought some comforters to lay down. Word spread and suddenly it was a pajama encouraged activity. Residents in fuzzy PJs and slippers took pillows and teddy bears into the room. A female RA stayed at the door and kept it closed so the participants could feel secure their privacy was respected.
I did have to turn away a couple of males who were insulted the activity was only for females. They pointed out the hypocrisy of my admittance to the program. I leaned forward and in a calm, firm tone I said, “This program isn’t about you and me. My friend, I need you to understand that we need to show some reverence for the bravery of the ladies who have shown up. I need you to show some honor as a man and walk away please.”
The sun had lowered by the time of the event and the rooms old chandeliers illuminated the room.
A little past the start time, the room was uncomfortably quiet. Over 80 female participants sat and laid on huge pillows that filled the space. In a soft tone, I introduced the local agency’s services and speakers for the evening. Tara shared the purpose for the program. The female college student, who was raped by someone she knew, spoke first. Jenna’s approach was different than she had told her story at the other events. She bared her soul about the struggles she had following the assault. Her hand flopped down upon the pillow she held in front of her. Frustrated by the instincts she had minimized before the rape. Her fingers picked at the edge of the pillow cover. Jenna presented her feelings like the delicate petals on a flower face open for the group to behold.
The images & words hung in the air for a few moments gently replaced by the story of a mother of two daughters. As a child, Terri’s father molested her and her grandfather violated her younger sister. The family norm was the abuse and nothing was unusual for the children as the expectations were to please the desires of the patriarchs. It was not until high school that Terri learned that it was not a daughter’s role to perform such “duties. Suicide attempts and substance abuse plagued. her twenties. Motherhood had her seek out counseling and sobriety.
Sensing a transition, Jon dovetailed on substance abuse to discuss how he chose to handled being sexually assaulted by an older man while Jon was in his early teens. Questioning the assumptions people made about Jon’s sexuality fueled years of self-medication with alcohol and the implications on his Faith. His story centered on how society blames the victim and cast judgment.
The last survivor to speak was a reflective mother of three who was repeatedly raped by a burglar who had been watching the routine of his perspective victim for days. Noticing a theme of how others coped following their violations, Dixie exposed her journey into counseling and the forgiveness she had for her rapist. Dixie exemplified the strength one must have to prosecute the man who terrorized her for hours while her children slept in the next room.
The counselor, in a tie dyed top, explained the process and program available to any student at the University and spoke of the admiration she had for the courage of the survivors to give the honest accounts of their stories. Her casual attire blended nicely with the relaxed atmosphere of the dorm and the evening’s proceedings.
Girls with stuffed animals clutched in their arms sparsely shared experiences and which survivor said something that resonated with their own story. A girl off to my right asked the most daring question of the night. “This may be inappropriate to ask but…how many of you…how many of us…have been through what they talked about?” She looked around the circle. She nervously raised her own hand. Another girl beside her lifted her hand. Then two more hands were held up. Teddy bears and pillows were released in order to claim they, too, had remained silent about their past.
A wave of courage splashed through the circle as every woman had her hand raised except for exactly four ladies. Harmonious vibrations glowed out like beacons that signaled it was safe to share the secret held tightly for years. Their hands held up and open as if they released a balloon filled with hope and carried up in the winds of unity. The gesture was silent but the collective action produced a symphony of thunderous clatter.
“We never talk about it. If we don’t say anything then others won’t know that they are not alone,” she exclaimed.
More stories were shared and the program ended with a sense of community & bonding that transcends any words I can articulate.
I escorted the panel members to their cars and thus ended Sexual Assault Awareness month for April 1993. I rushed back into the dorm and processed the overwhelming success of the program. Tara & I could have never envisioned the empowerment of the participants.
Additionally, one could not imagine my surprise when I was summoned to the local agency the following Monday afternoon. A complaint was filed with the Executive Director that I discriminated against a male student. The denied participant’s demand was I be removed as a volunteer. It didn’t matter the breathtaking synergy that generated in that program; alas, I walked away from those offices and began a quest to do something more.
The program was recognized by the University of North Texas Housing Department for the excellence in Resident Life programming.
Later that summer, I volunteered for the Women’s Center of Tarrant County but I didn’t come alone. A good friend,, Tara, joined with me to be Rape Crisis Volunteers. We teamed up to meet women and children in the hospitals in Fort Worth following a sexual assault. We could read a room and each other’s mind. She would work with the survivor and I would process with the family members. Some times, we switch roles depending on the circumstances.
Tara graduated and we lost touch. She’s now a Director of Resident Life for a large university up north.
A candle was lit that night. I believe all of us carry that warmth from that experience within us. Even though some of us didn’t raise our hand, we shared and honored in that spontaneous gesture of empowerment to reclaim a stolen part of themselves.
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