The first time I drove my fist through a pine board I learned something about physical power that is almost indescribable. It stood stark against two decades of socialization telling me that, as a female, I was inherently weak and incapable. And it profoundly countered the repeated victimization I endured as an adolescent. Sexual violation, and a culture that objectifies women and dismisses our sexual agency, told me my body existed for the use or misuse of others. Self-defense taught me my body–my strong, capable, powerful body–was my own.
I was office-bound the Friday, August morning that I locked eyes with a passerby on the opposite side of the street. Already the encounter was strange; it was rare for me to come across anyone on my route to work. He was young, younger than me maybe, a high school student even, with half of his braids coming undone. We did not politely look away from one another; I watched him until we passed out of each other’s periphery. There was something about the odd, unhurried way in which he went by—he looked as though he were purposeless. Like he was going nowhere.
Where he was going turned out to be directly behind me. After following for a few moments with an uneasy closeness I was finding more and more difficult to ignore, he struck out and tackled me to the ground, both of us falling in the grass and the brambles beside a railway viaduct.
One in five women will experience a completed rape in her lifetime; over three quarters of these assaults occur when the victim/survivor is 25 or younger. One in two women will experience a non-rape sexual assault. That makes sexual violence a silent commonality among adult women.
But despite the fact that most of us already know survivors of sexual violence–or are survivors ourselves–it can be hard to know how best to respond when someone discloses an incident of violation. This is partly because these violations occur in a realm that is so deeply personal. It can feel like we are intruding on the survivor’s privacy. It can feel shameful to imagine—or remember–ourselves in a similarly vulnerable or exposed condition. We want to look away.
By Vanessa Spiller, as told to Rachel Friedman
It was a Tuesday. I was shaving in the shower when I felt a lump under my arm; it was hard and small, no bigger than a pea. After the doctor told me I had aggressive Stage 11B breast cancer which had metastasized to my lymph nodes, he said: “I know you feel like a bomb just went off and the pieces are flying around everywhere, landing all over you.” That was exactly right. Even harder than finding out that I had cancer was telling my two kids. They think you’re going to die. I was so angry that this disease had come along and changed all of our lives forever. I have never been more scared or felt more vulnerable.
Talking to Allison Gruber about Not Surviving Cancer and Her New Book, You’re Not Edith
Two months after moving to Milwaukee for a job with benefits, and three days after her new health insurance kicked in, Allison Gruber detected a small mass in her left breast that turned out to be stage two breast cancer. She was 34 years old.