When I sat down at the computer this morning and noticed that a two star review had come through on Amazon for Leaving Dorian, I immediately assumed that a first edition copy had once again slipped through the cracks. I have disclaimers on all of my media letting readers know that if they’re given the option of purchasing a first or second edition copy, second edition is always going to be a better read. I was the newbie of all newbies when I published Leaving Dorian back in 2014 and didn’t realize the importance of hiring a professional editor. Since there’s no way to put that genie back in the bottle, I simply cross my fingers and hope that potential readers take the disclaimer to heart and purchase a second edition. But when I scrolled down to read the review, I was surprised to find that there was no mention of poor editing.
“The book is ok. A little frustrating in its organization and lacking some of the spark of other similar stories. Not totally believable.”
Now I know that the ‘organization’ the reader is referring to is my back and forth style of writing. I go from the day that I left my ex-husband in one chapter to describing my childhood and then back again. I understand how this can be confusing to some people, especially if they don’t get through the book in a couple of sittings. So, no harm no foul. The fact that the reader thought that it lacked ‘spark’, well, that’s his/her opinion and they’re entitled to that. But what made me literally laugh out loud was the last sentence: “Not totally believable.”
I sat there at the keyboard, chuckling to myself. Not sure how to remedy that; it’s my actual, real and true life, so…..yeah. The reality is that I went easy on the graphic details of my childhood and my first marriage on purpose, because I vividly recall having to read an extremely graphic memoir about child abuse when I was in college. It was so horrible, so graphic, that it made my skin crawl; reading it made me cry and feel physically ill. Though it was a relatively short read, more than once I had to put it down because I felt as though the details were just too awful to know. Though I wasn’t sure just exactly what I was going to share when I sat down to write Leaving Dorian, I knew for sure that if nothing else, it had to be readable. If it wasn’t something that people could sit with then it couldn’t do its job, which was to help victims and survivors of abuse.
Again, though, readers are entitled to their opinion and if this reader didn’t believe everything that I’d written, well then, so be it; I can’t fix that. I clicked off Amazon and went on with my morning, but I couldn’t help coming back to that last line, “Not totally believable.” Why did it bother me so much?
I guess what’s bothering me has little to do with that singular review. What’s bothering me is that I know very well that victims and survivors of abuse are met every single day with that very same skepticism. Are their friends, loved ones, co-workers and neighbors coming right out and saying, “I don’t believe you”? No. But responding to a women’s candid, heart-wrenching admission that they’ve experienced something tragic with questions like, “Why didn’t you say something sooner?”, “Why didn’t you call the police?” or “Are you sure it’s abuse? I mean, couples fight; don’t make more out of this than it needs to be” is exactly the same sentiment. It’s “I don’t believe you” wrapped up in feigned moderation, excessive caution and good judgement. (…We don’t want to accuse someone unfairly, now; let’s make entirely sure we have all the facts before we start ruining reputations and upending lives…) Isn’t it interesting, though, how often it’s the abuser that’s given the benefit of the doubt instead of the victim?
Students and DV service providers have asked me on more than one occasion what I think the most important thing is that you can say to a victim or survivor of abuse. That if I only had one sentence, what would I choose? My answer is, and will always be, “I believe you”.
To continue to diminish victims and survivors with the old, worn out stories of supposed liars, “Oh, I know so-and-so whose wife lied about him hitting her and he got thrown in jail and it was total BS…” or “There was this girl when I was in college that lied about being raped and the guy she accused got kicked out of school and his life was ruined forever…” is unfair at best and harmful at worst. People lie, it’s true. And people will lie about all sorts of things, for reasons that aren’t always entirely clear. But the chances that a woman is lying when she finally steps forward to tell her story and reach out for help is incredibly slim. More often than not, victims and survivors are actually holding back; keeping the really hurtful, humiliating details to themselves. Telling just enough to get the help and services that they need in order to re-start their lives and keep their families afloat.
Maybe that reader didn’t believe my story, and that’s fine with me. But to every victim and survivor out there who reads this blog post, no worries. There are multitudes of people out there who will believe you. Reach out for help. Tell. Get to safety. Re-start your lives; you deserve nothing less.
And just for the record, “I believe you”.
It was a looooooong semester!!
On Saturday, April 7, I spoke at the “Dress for What’s Next” event at the University at Buffalo School of Law. This free, all day event for survivors of domestic violence was put on by an all-volunteer team of UB Law School students. Daycare and lunch were provided for women and their children and there was even a therapy dog on site 🖤 Meditation and self-defense classes were offered, support and referral information was provided and there was even an opportunity for the ladies to do a little “gently used” clothes shopping👗👠👜 Impressive from beginning to end and I was absolutely honored to be asked to be a part of it!
Miss Representation: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See A Documentary Film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
Tough Guise: Violence, Media & The Crisis in Masculinity with Jackson Katz
Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture featuring Jackson Katz
The Mask You Live In: Is American Masculinity Harming Our Boys, Men & Society at Large? A Film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
When was the first time you realized that the world was less safe for you than it was for the boys? Was it one horribly scary, painful event that happened in what seemed like an instant and without warning, or was it a slow accumulation of indignities that happened so gradually yet so often that you started seeing them as nothing more than the normal, petty annoyances of a girl’s life, like having to wear nylons or getting your period?
I was twelve. It was a Saturday afternoon and my mom was at work. We lived in a basement apartment; three college-aged guys lived in the flat upstairs. They were having a party and the driveway was full of their friends’ cars and pick-up trucks. The party had spilled out onto the walkway and lawn, and though my brother was only eleven, he’d gone out to join them. He was a tough kid, always looking to mix it up, so the lure of teens and twenty-somethings blaring music and drinking beer was more than he could resist. After he’d been out there for maybe a half an hour I decided that enough was enough. The guys were getting louder by the minute and I didn’t want my little brother getting into any trouble.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had to drag him inside and away from troublemakers. More often than not we were left to our own devices, so I was nearly always in charge of keeping an eye on him. My mom told me all the time how lucky she was that I was mature for my age, though she knew that in the privacy of my bedroom, I still played with Barbie dolls. Part of me was still very much a little kid.
As soon as I stepped outside, one of the guys wobbled over and tried to talk to me. I side-stepped him and with a polite smile said, “I’m just bringing in my little brother.” He was a grown-up in my eyes. A drunk grown-up, to be sure, but still an adult and I was taught to always be polite to adults. I took another couple of steps and noticed my brother goofing with a couple of the neighborhood kids just to the rear of a big, black pick-up truck. I told him it was time to come in and he howled for me to give him five more minutes. I said no, time to come in. He howled again. “Fine,” I shouted, trying to call his bluff, “But I’m gonna tell Mom that you didn’t listen and you’re gonna get in trouble…”
I’d turned back toward the front door when the guy said something else. He was uncomfortably close to me and I could smell the beer on his breath. He had a thick, brown beard and his blue flannel shirt was open. He was rambling, something about what was my name and why didn’t I stay outside, too. I was scared now; he was weirdly close and something about his body posture made me think that I needed to get away. Then he reached for my arm. I pulled away. He reached for my arm again, dropping his beer this time and calling me a bitch.
I took off running down the stairs and into the apartment. I tried to slam the front door but he yanked it open. I ran down the hall. He was still right behind me, yelling and swearing that he just wanted to talk to me. I ran into the bathroom and tried to slam the door but he was so close that his arm got stuck. I remember bracing my entire body weight against the door and the whole time he was cursing and screaming for me to, “Open the door you f*cking b*tch! You’re breaking my arm you little c*nt!” At some point he managed to get his arm out. I locked the door and didn’t come out until my mom and grandparents showed up.
They didn’t call the police. My mom took me to the doctor. The next day my grandfather brought the guy back and made him apologize to me. I remember him sitting on the couch next to my grandfather and he wouldn’t even look at me. Being in the same room with him, even with my family all around me, was absolutely terrifying. His arm was far from broken; it didn’t even seem sore. He mumbled sorry and my grandfather walked him out. Through the open living room window I could hear my grandfather telling him not to come around anymore; that he’d gotten off easy this time, what with my mom not calling the police, but that he wouldn’t get that lucky the next time. “I hope you learned your lesson…” my grandfather growled at him. I guess he did, because we never saw him again.
I also learned a very important lesson that day. Right after the guy left, my mom and grandma gave me a talking to about how I was a ‘young lady’ now and that I had to ‘be careful’. Those were the words that they used, but what I heard was that I’d brought the entire, horrible experience upon myself. What I heard was that because I was a girl, I was responsible not only for my own behavior but also for the actions of boys (and men) if they hurt me or acted badly around me, and that if I didn’t learn to curb myself – the way that I looked, walked, talked, dressed and kept in check the ‘vibe’ that I gave off – that something like that was bound to happen again and that it would be my own fault. What my twelve year old self learned that day was that my mere existence was an invitation for boys (and men) to act badly, ie. Boys will be boys, after all. You know how they are; just don’t encourage them.
The thing that really stuck with me, though, maybe the real crux of the whole talking to, was that because I was a girl, I didn’t get to be safe. That no matter how many times a well-meaning teacher or coach or school counselor had told me that my body was my own and that I was allowed my personal space and privacy and that no one was allowed to touch me if I didn’t want them to, that those were just words. I learned that day that the world didn’t care about those words; that because I was a girl, my safety was nothing more than a footnote in a book that was written to serve boys.
It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t to blame, and even longer than that to realize that I didn’t bring it upon myself. But all these years later – even with all of the strides that we’ve made toward gender equality and education on violence against women – is the world a safer place for me, or for any female person? No. It would be foolish and dangerous to tell girls and young women anything different. What I would say, though, is that you don’t deserve to feel uncomfortable or scared just because you’re a girl. You deserve safety. You deserve peace of mind. You also deserve to be treated with respect, no matter how you choose to look, walk, talk or dress. You deserve every bit of dignity that is afforded to boys and men, not in spite of your gender but because, like boys and men, you are a human being with inalienable rights.
I think that’s the best lesson of all.
Every year approximately 63,000 children are the victims of sexual assault. 34% are under the age of 12, 66% are age 12-17. Girls aged 16-19 are 4x more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. (www.rainn.org)
No matter how compassionate or understanding a person you think you are, at some point you’re going to be a little judge-y.
Everybody scoffs. Everybody – everybody – shakes their head and screws up their mouth and (in a moment of weakness) decides that the way that someone else is choosing to conduct themselves is wrong. We look at someone’s life or their current situation or their reaction to a rough patch and think, “I would never do that!” This is especially true of domestic violence. Comments like, “I would never let a man put his hands on me!” or “I would never put my children through that!” are incredibly common.
And so … maybe that’s actually the case. Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe your reaction would be different than someone else’s. But then again, how can you be sure? The reality is that until you’re in a given situation, you really don’t know how you’d react.
Because I work with DV victims and survivors as well as those who serve them, I was honestly of the opinion that I (mostly) understood the overall plight of the battered woman. Fortunately for me, I live in a county where the local FCS (ours is Family & Children’s Service of Niagara) offers the In Her Shoes DV Awareness Program.
I initially registered to attend because while I’ve worked with Family & Children’s Service of Niagara in the past, I was recently made aware that their Director of Passage House, Larissa Bachman, is using Leaving Dorian as a supplemental read with their interns. It got me to thinking that while I know quite a bit about FCS, I know little about the inner workings of Passage House. I thought what a great opportunity to speak candidly with Larissa and her team and as a bonus maybe do a blog post about the In Her Shoes Program.
I was completely unprepared for the experience that followed.
Participants were brought into a mixed-use room where I’d worked previously, only this time instead of rows of chairs there were long tables with stacks of colorful note cards. Each table had a sign attached: “Social Services”, “Hospital”, “Employment”, etc. Attendees were then paired up and we were told to pick a person’s name from the starter table. After that the journey begins; you are to make choices for your person while reading their perspective (as well as their batterer’s perspective) from each side of the card.
Because I’m a survivor of DV and because I work with amazing DV professionals and ridiculously intelligent and well-read professors and because I, too, have chosen to be well-read on the topic, I walked into the exercise feeling confident that I could help my person to avoid the inevitable pitfalls. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be able to guide her into a healthy lifestyle well within the hour or so time frame we’d been given to complete the exercise.
Within minutes I realized that I was wrong.
There’s no way that you can prepare yourself to be given the opportunity to make every choice from beginning to end and still “fail”. There’s no way to prepare yourself to walk through nearly forty-five minutes with a person (yes, a person written on paper, but one that you slowly and inadvertently invest yourself in) just to get to the last card and have it say “Funeral Home”.
I couldn’t believe it. Tears started to well in my eyes. I stood there trying to figure it out; why was the end result so hard to take? I mean, I thought I had it. I thought I knew. I am the “Her” in “In Her Shoes”, after all! I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And even beyond my own experience – as an author who’s made myself extremely accessible on social media – I routinely hear the most sad, perplexing and gut wrenching stories from victims and survivors alike. I thought nothing could surprise or shock me. And yet, tears.
I was seriously under the weather and probably should have stayed home that day, so I immediately wanted to blame it on that; I simply wasn’t feeling well. But the young woman that I was paired with didn’t like the ending either. I said, “Let’s go back…” So we did. Our character was young; not even eighteen. We had her go home. And yet, three cards in, she was right back in a tough spot. I suggested we go back even further, maybe right back to the second card that we read.
I was shaken. That couldn’t be her ending. I refused to finish the exercise. I simply would not walk over to the wall marker that said “Funeral Home”. There was nothing but an empty table in front of it. No more cards. It was left empty for reflection, but I didn’t want to reflect. I dried my eyes as the group sat down for debriefing.
I was happy to find out that not every story ended as tragically as ours. Other groups did manage to successfully maneuver their people into new lives. It’s worth noting, though, that at times these groups had to make choices for their person that weren’t always in line with their real-life belief systems. Again, an incredibly important lesson: You cannot impose your value system on someone else. Hard to hear? Sometimes, yes. But a necessary message? Absolutely.
Of course Ms. Bachman and her team were excellent facilitators and I’d like to believe that every attendee walked out that afternoon with all of their questions answered and with a deeper appreciation of the level of strength, courage, creativity and (sometimes) blind faith that victims routinely have to possess in order to safely and successfully re-start their lives. I know that I did. It was a humbling experience that I will carry with me; one that will necessarily be reflected in every presentation and classroom discussion that I participate in from now on.
I’m incredibly proud to be able to say that Family & Children’s Service of Niagara is my hometown service provider and that the staff there is offering unique, high-quality community education programs like In Her Shoes. Programs like these (offered in house or off-site) are exactly what HR professionals are looking for when putting together sensitivity training for Staff Development Days. Their utilization can only heighten awareness and bring about much needed change in our thought processes (and eventually, our behavior toward) victims of domestic violence.
If you are in Western New York, you can contact FCS of Niagara to schedule an In Her Shoes program experience at http://www.niagarafamily.org or by phone: (716) 285-6984
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence and is need of assistance, FCS of Niagara 24/7 Emergency Hotline is: (716) 299-0909
To purchase the In Her Shoes program please contact http://www.wscadv.org
Be very careful how much credit you take when discussing your role in helping a battered woman to turn her life around. In the end, if a woman can successfully transition from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’, it’s because she did the work. Because she had the strength, courage and conviction to stand her ground and say, “No more.” Yes, friends and loved ones may have helped ~ emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, financially ~ but in the end, a successful re-start is achieved because a battered woman did the heavy lifting. For herself, by herself.
As hilarious as it is terrible – the thought processes that keep men inadvertently (and sometimes deliberately) supporting rape culture are so brilliantly articulated that even with the seriously funny spin, I still end up crying at the end no matter how many times I watch it.