Truth is a Fire I Couldn’t Hold -The Toast

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firebasketI lied almost every day during the years I worked for a rape crisis program. I burnt my marriage to the ground. I made enemies of sheriffs and bureaucrats and a few good women. I had my heart broken by my first true love: feminist service work. I hope I helped a few victims along the way because they taught me a lot. I burnt out, and then I got out, but just barely.

Burnout is slow self-immolation. It is the ritual we use to leave a cause.

Universities and communities have tiny victim advocacy programs because it looks like they are doing something. To make things better for rape victims those advocates need to work together, and then work with cops, sheriffs, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, business leaders, medical professionals, teachers, social service agencies, reporters. Each system has rules and protocols. Vocabularies. And lies, each system has lies of its very own. You think you can shoot pool in that basement, but the walls are too close. At least I couldn’t play. I couldn’t get the angles right.

I had to carry rape kits in the trunk of my car. I used them to teach people what happens after, and I taught volunteers how to be an advocate while a victim received an exam. Use these words. Ask. Don’t look there.

Rape kits are atrociously named, as though you are buying parts to assemble something, like it’s going to be popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners and Slot A will match Tab A and everything will make sense. You show a kit to people who haven’t been raped, and they look let down, like a bait-and-switch just happened. It is just envelopes, slides, labels. A few swabs. Nothing special. Nothing that looks as traumatic as it is. You show a kit to a rape victim and she wants to run.

Once, a woman did run. The examiner spread the collection paper on the floor and asked her to carefully remove her clothes while standing on it. First step. She rose, stood on the paper, but instead of taking off her clothes she ran for the door. I caught up with her; she said no. No.

A rape kit does one thing, it gathers. It gathers the evidence an examiner collects from a victim’s skin, hair, nails. It gathers her clothes into a wad wrapped in paper. It collects what an examiner finds when she touches, prods or scrapes part after part, the parts of a human being who is alive right there with you, the parts that were last touched by a rapist. It makes order of a tiny bit of some of the truths about a crime scene when the crime scene is a body, and it ships them away.

Sometimes that truth is a thing. A brown hair. A drop of fluid, dried. Things a Wood’s lamp sees. A gash this many centimeters long. Cells.

Sometimes that truth is an absence of a thing. A missing nail. Things lights can’t reveal. A gash this many centimeters long. No cells.

The absence of a rape kit makes just as much sense as the presence of one. Maybe more sense, in many cases.

A victim’s word is the biggest truth, but for some reason, in this land of my word is my bond it is not enough. The myth that rape victims lie has become a fetish. Rape is about power, and this myth makes us all feel like we fall on the side of power. This was a huge factor in my burnout. All of those system players — the university administrators, the cops, attorneys, you name it — were accustomed to protecting power, their own included. I signed up for that. What I didn’t count on was working for a lousy non-profit that was feminist in old-school name only, that played power games too, that sided with privilege again and again. That was the betrayal, the final straw that caught. My first love. I took it hard.

My marriage? That one’s on me. Victim service work is hard on marriage. We have uncomfortable things in common with our law enforcement brethren. We all smell like smoke when we finally go home.

I stayed focused on the work. I talked to many victims, witnessed their stories first hand. Hospitals, support groups, sessions. Depositions, hearings. Hotline calls on Christmas Eve. I’ve never heard a victim lie, except to say never mind, I’m fine.

Sometimes a rape kit is a lie. An empty ritual. One night when I was on duty, a woman called the police after a rapist left her house. She thought they were dating. He thought he would rape her. A cop tells the woman her next step is a rape kit. They drive her to the ER, and they call the domestic violence hotline, which dispatches me. I meet her in case she wants someone to talk to. She does.

In the hallway, around the corner from where she waits, the ad hoc members of her Sexual Assault Response Team have a brief meeting. The city police officer tells the Nurse Practitioner a detective just talked to the accused who says they had consensual sex, because he is a smart rapist who knows his DNA will be found but knows his lies will be believed. Though that’s not how the cop says it. The cop says, “It’s a he said/she said.” I feel like I could remove his face with my hands, but now is not the time. I probably won’t say anything: he’s far from the worst. The nurse sighs and gets ready to start the rape kit exam anyway. What will she find? We are each certain it won’t matter.

The biggest truth of a rape kit is that it doesn’t come close to telling the whole truth of rape. But if a victim doesn’t have go through with one, no one likes that. The cards won’t lay right for a jury, not that in most cases it will come down to that.

I didn’t have a rape kit after my rapes. My rapes. My husband never liked it when I phrased things that way. “My rapes. My rapists. My abuser.” Possessive. I became used to that language in support groups. In feminist circles we easily talk about a “domestic violence survivor’s abuser.” It does sound odd, those identities, that possession. But what would be better? Saying Matthew? Saying the man in the parking lot that October night? Saying my dad?

One truth about rape crisis work, about all similar work, is that primary trauma leads many people to social service careers. For some of us, nothing else seems worth the effort. You are drawn to people who might speak your language. You are drawn to saving the world. This, of course, is a recipe for a special kind of burnout called “compassion fatigue.” 24/7 rape crisis work for a rape survivor is recipe for a trigger-unhappy life, but then again, so is the news. So is everyday life.

I talk a lot with that woman in the ER, who is not yet a survivor, even though that is what the party line of our non-profit wants me to call her. She’s a “rape survivor,” in our pamphlets, and it’s true, she has survived, but not yet. We have conversations that I will code on my case notes as “crisis counseling” and “safety planning” and “rape crisis education” and “case management.” Meaning we talk about if she has the money to pay for the STD prophylaxis she’s just been prescribed, and we don’t talk about the terror of disease she doesn’t have words for yet. Meaning she squeezed my hand for a second when her vagina was swabbed. Meaning she says this is a horrific nightmare I had no idea but she doesn’t want help calling her friend for a ride home but could I wait with her. There are details about the STDs on one of the sheets of paper I’m certain she does not know she is holding.

I’ll check on her tomorrow. It’s very possible she’ll be in my office waiting for me. It’s very possible she’ll never pick up my calls, and I’ll wonder if she’s okay or if she’s the opposite. I will wonder if I could have done better by her, wonder if my level of burnout transmitted, if I was just as bad as that he-said cop and the sighing nurse. One of the behaviors of compassion fatigue, a blaring red flag, is called the Silencing Response. It refers to the subtle way clinicians keep their distance from traumatic material. It can keep clients from saying what they need to say or receiving the help they deserve. It’s a reflex, self-protection, and it fills me with shame to think about. It’s everywhere, really.

I leave the hospital after that victim goes with her friend. I should want to go home, but I go to my girlfriend’s apartment. It feels necessary to have her open the door to me and all of the dark night I bring with me to her bed, all of the smoke, even for a little while, even though we fight when I say I have to leave. She breathes the same air as I do in the same way, and this is a comfort beyond measure. Her house is flammable, though. She is always moving books off of chairs, off of tables. They fall from her bed like logs in a fire pit.

The dawn is pink as I drive home to my husband. “Almost an all-nighter. Sorry,” he’ll say. He is fundamentally a good man.

“I’m sorry,” I say because I’m never home, and in that word I’m telling the truth but a complicated one that he would soon call a lie.

I worry all of this affects my capacity for my real love, for my work. My boots are not on the ground. We are all just humans here, but that seems insufficient.

Some sexual assault survivors have forensic exams, but we all know that most don’t. Most adults don’t report. Most children never do. An exam each and every time someone is raped? No way could we manage that. We have incredibly effective social barriers at every juncture to reporting sexual violation, and so only less than 10% choose to. That would be a great metric if you were trying to prevent rape reporting. Good job us.

Most victims don’t report because they know a shit show is waiting for them from the legal system, the medical system, the social service system. They know they will lose friends and family members, lose hours of their lives, have their dignity assailed. They discern they are safer and have a better shot at healing if they go it alone. People are not lining up to lie to get into this club.

The current civic response to rape is wholly dependent on under-reporting. While we say we want to have a society where every victim could receive the medical care and forensic services she deserves after an assault, we show no interest in paying for that or facilitating it in any way. We can’t even keep up with the small percentage of victims who do receive a forensic exam. The current backlog is estimated to be over 400,000 unprocessed rape kits.

The biggest lie about rape kits is that we care about them.

My staff was tiny. Three people. Volunteers that cycled in and out and needed to be trained. The territory includes eight counties anchored by a southern state’s capital, city and county law enforcement jurisdictions, two major universities, and a handful of emergency rooms.

The rape crisis program is a small part of a bigger domestic violence shelter, counseling and hotline program in a white-feminist directed non-profit. That’s how the movement institutionalized itself. The non-profit system is fed by multiple foundations, grants and individual donations, and is hooked into a hierarchy of programs within in a statewide coalition of similar programs that work on passing legislation, directing media initiatives and securing bigger lines of funding, because it just wasn’t there waiting for us.

So we lied too. Every day. We said we represented the community, but every service was designed with blind bias to serve white, middle-class women like us. We told funders and task forces what they needed to hear to get funding to do different work, work that was necessary. It feels like a lie, that grant shuffle. The only way to have an infrastructure to do X is to get funded to do Y. Money for X doesn’t exist. Non-profits do this all of the time. Worse, we stoked a racially-charged version of fear, of intruders and stranger rape, because that paid, that was fundable, that might get us a designated room in the ER or an outreach office in a rural county. We took back that damn night every April with candles and teal ribbons, with blonde women speaking as survivors, and we called it the truth.

My beautiful girlfriend, with the books? I met her there, at our agency. She worked in the shelter and on her doctorate at one of the universities. She is Haitian-Canadian. We always knew she would be leaving the country at the end of some unknown semester, and that I was married, and if we thought anything we thought that it all would be okay. She was burning out too, from the non-profit and from university life. We lied to each other in a language that was her first and, shakily, my second. I learned to curse in French.

The agency I worked for was a burning tower, no more so than my own home, but it felt bigger. There were more of us. Each case of burnout was an act of sati. There aren’t many choices when you are married to your work and your work is married to a movement that is a mess. We tunneled a back channel and used it to process the mistakes and corruptions. We used our grant-supplied DSM IVs to diagnose our boss. Gallows humor and affairs are things we took back before and after the night.

If I were a rape victim, I would have stayed far away from us. (I was a rape victim who should have stayed away.)

Self-immolation in this slow way is asking for permission to leave. It is a way of asking a cause to leave you, like an affair is a plea for a spouse to leave you. It’s a quiet fight about who should buy the kerosene.

Defense attorneys do this despicable thing where they ask victims in depositions if they are telling the truth. They ask it more than once. Inevitably doubt creeps in. It’s hard not to sound defensive when asserting that you are telling the truth. It’s hard to not question yourself. I finally started to ask myself if I needed to stay enough times that I started to believe the doubt. It was a bad trick to play on myself. I used the devil’s vocabulary to call myself a liar, but I couldn’t figure it out otherwise.

I helped that I had made an enemy, or more, in a Sheriff’s Department after they miserably mishandled a case. They intimidated a rape victim from making a formal report. They lied to her about her rights. They documented nothing. I advocated for her and it got ugly on a multi-disciplinary interagency level and then on a personnel level and then on a personal level. Every now and then for months after my car would be followed for several miles at a time by a sheriff’s Crown Vic.

I became worried they knew about my girlfriend. Worried or paranoid, one or both.

I hated all of the lies around me, mine, my agency’s, the sheriffs and the prosecutors. Defense attorneys. Fathers and neighbors and football players. Landlords and men who bought woman and Joe Average Bosses. The hospital saying it didn’t have budget to do better. The university saying it had no idea that’s what fraternities were like. All of us lying to get away with something, to have something we wanted defined and framed our way, to have a little bit of power in the broken world.

The only people I could count on to tell the truth were the victims that no one believed. Once I finally understood what that meant, and how long it would take for anything to change, I was able to leave. Girlfriend, job, husband. I ran out of the room. The rest is still there; it now burns outside of my body.

I will tell anyone again and again that I know firsthand rape victims don’t lie. I say this one true thing to a world I know will not fully listen because they are humans, after all, and the reflex to create silence is tempting beyond belief.

Deb Rox writes personal narrative, humor and contemporary posts about women, pop culture, current events and trends. She lives in Florida and works online as an editor, producer and business developer of digital publishing projects for start-ups and companies including BlogHer and Listen to Your Mother Show. She tweets at @debontherocks.

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