The smell of bleach and blood. The squeaks of gurneys and the lingering taste of vomit in my mouth. (I had thrown up from nerves on the cab ride over.) The teenage girl with her mother and stepfather waiting for me in a curtained-off corner of the emergency room. My pink Clairefontaine notebook organised into neat sections: medical exam, rape kit, police report, discharge.
I was just 19 when I took my first call as a volunteer rape crisis counsellor. That initial night in the ER was difficult, but I was hooked. Never before had I felt so alive, so purposeful. I was helping. I was making a difference. Four years and dozens of calls, anti-rape seminars, and protests later, I was broken and blue.
I was a feminist activist, but I’m not any more.
When I left the safe, middle class suburbs and headed to the city for university in 2002, I had been startled by the poverty a few blocks west of my dormitory. Worse though, was the violence. In the year I started college, 647 people were murdered in Chicago and nearly 2,000 people were raped.
How do you solve such a staggering problem? My classes provided no answers. The University of Chicago is renowned for its ‘life of the mind,’ but not action. So when I saw a flyer advertising a rape victim advocate training, I grabbed a few friends and went.
Three months later, I was carrying a pager twice a month and leaving the dorm in a hurry whenever it went off. I saw everyone in the hospital: girls who were lured into friends’ apartments, men who were drugged, and children whose fathers’ abused them. I saw them at their worst, most vulnerable state, and they relied on me to be their advocate. I pushed back when a police officer said a survivor was lying. I held their hands during medical examinations. And above all, I listened.
Like gasoline on embers, their stories ignited the activist in me.
“How can you not be all on fire?” the great American suffragette Susan B. Anthony once asked. “I really believe I shall explode if some of you young women don’t wake up and raise your voice in protest.”
I was waking up. And I began to raise my voice in protest. I completed another training, this time in anti-rape education and started talking to sororities, neighbourhood groups, and high schools about violence prevention. I tied green anti-rape ribbons on trees across my college campus. I tabled at Eve Ensler performances and passed out buttons that said: “Imagine a world without rape. What are you doing to create that world?”
Everywhere, it seemed, I met young people whose friends or sisters or brothers had been raped. Their words echoed in my mind and sunk deep into my heart. We were reaching out to hundreds of people a year, but it was never enough. How could it be, when every five minutes a new rape is reported in the United States?
I didn’t know it then, but the fire that was once kindled by injustice was slowly poisoning my world with smoke and soot. I couldn’t get the faces of survivors out of my head. I couldn’t go on dates without thinking about power dynamics. I began to see the world as a place where there were no good men – only killers, wife-beaters, and rapists.
“There is nothing heavier than compassion,” Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And for me, that weight proved too much to bear.
The spring of my senior year of college, just a few weeks before graduation, I attended a poetry reading on campus. It was a light-hearted affair with plenty of slam-style paeans to brotherly love and justice. I was enjoying myself; it was just what I needed. Then, a man my age took the stage and began to read a poem about his friend who had been raped.
It was filled with compassion and anger, a virulent defence of a woman in need. And just like that, I broke.
In that college hall, I cried for the poet and for his friend. And I cried for myself, because I knew my time as an activist was over. I did not have the strength to bear the stories of so many survivors. I did not know how to build walls to keep so much sadness at bay. After graduation, I put my Clairefontaine notebook and green ribbons in a box and taped the cover shut.
That was nine years ago now. The dark cloud that hung over me back then has since dissipated through love and patience and time. Six months after graduating, I started dating the man who would become my husband. I no longer believe in a world without good men.
This spring, I took a road trip out east with my husband and baby daughter and visited the New York home of Susan B. Anthony. Our guide, an elderly woman dressed in head-to-toe purple, told us how “Ms. Anthony” had given up everything for the cause. She never married or had children, and poured whatever time and money she had into her activism.
For a moment, I was envious of this Napoleon of the women’s rights movement. If only I had her strength, her tenacity. But I have known for a long time that my place is not on the front lines. Today, I am working toward a world without violence as a writer. I tell the stories of survivors and activists in the hope that readers will learn to survive and act. We are still a long way from creating a peaceful world. But I have regained my hope. I once again believe in Ms. Anthony’s famous words that “Failure is impossible.”
Author’s note: For more information about “compassion fatigue” or “secondary traumatic stress disorder,” check out: www.compassionfatigue.org/
If you need help or would like more information about sexual assault, please check out these resources:
In the USA: Rainn
In Ireland: Rape Crisis Network Ireland