Opinion guest column

Words of power, words of courage

Carving a path to healing and justice: a lesson to be learned from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

The ability to express ourselves — to have our deepest, most solid convictions be brought to life by our words — is, in my opinion, one of life’s greatest miracles. I stand in awe of this same ability to express our most vulnerable, uncertain, and broken pieces. To transfer and share our pain, joy, hope, and complex longings are gifts. Words are a natural and powerful vehicle for this and, of course, there are just as many other powerful ways that this happens without words.

How we are heard, when we are heard, and what repercussions our voice carries are closely bound to gender, race and class. These lessons come swiftly, often early in our childhoods, and are reinforced over a lifetime. Don’t laugh so loud, don’t complain so much, and don’t ask so many questions. These are just a few of the hundreds of chastisements that we experience over the course of our journeys.

It feels like both an ancient struggle and the most modern of questions. When and how are women given permission to speak? The regulation of women's voices creeps into the public and private sphere, and sadly, in the worst case, we also internalize these messages and start to regulate ourselves.

Playing out before our eyes is a public assessment of multiple women's experiences of sexual harassment. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stood before the nation, baring her soul and opening up deep wounds. I read somewhere that Dr. Ford showed us that vulnerability is a superpower. She was not just vulnerable: she was courageous and brilliant. She wove in psychology — a field of which she is a professor — during her testimony, and she showed us that speaking our truth is sometimes the most powerful thing we can do.

Dr. Ford also showed us how unimaginably hard it can be to share our trauma. In her written statement, she writes, “For a very long time, I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details. I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys. I tried to convince myself that because Brett did not rape me, I should be able to move on and just pretend that it had never happened. Over the years, I told very few friends that I had this traumatic experience. I told my husband before we were married that I had experienced a sexual assault.”

Later in the same testimony she writes, “Apart from the assault itself, these last couple of weeks have been the hardest of my life. I have had to relive my trauma in front of the entire world, and have seen my life picked apart by people on television, in the media, and in [the Senate] who have never met me or spoken with me.”

I recently returned to the 1991 footage of Anita Hill’s Senate hearings. The all-white, all-male panel, reified those power dynamics that so many of us know to be real, and that we have seen playing out these past weeks again. Liza Mundy, in a recent Politico piece, writes, “If you don’t believe that, ask Anita Hill, whose testimony altered her life’s course and exposed her in ways she couldn’t have imagined. Yet, that testimony has also stood the test of time. All those years ago, she foretold truths about human behavior that would not be fully acknowledged for a quarter-century.”

And now here we are again: the macro and micro playing out, the “why didn't she come forward earlier,” and the “how much had she drank,” and the “can she be trusted.” All that comes, as I stated at the beginning, with speaking our truths. These same questions are sadly all too often asked of survivors.

The statistics and research on this subject, while often ignored, cannot be refuted or denied. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report writes, “More than two decades of research has shown that sexual violence and intimate partner violence are major public health problems with serious long-term physical and mental health consequences, as well as significant social and public health costs (e.g., Breiding, Black, & Ryan, 2008; Logan & Cole, 2007; Randall, 1990).”

This report documents that, “Nearly one in two women (44.6 percent) and one in five men (22.2 percent) experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives. This equates to more than 53 million women and more than 25 million men in the United States.” Elsewhere they write, “Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men in the U.S. have been raped at some time in their lives.”

The power of retelling, a vast and incredible category of inquiry, has been well documented by many as one path to healing. Dr. Judith Herman, a Psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, has written of this power in her landmark book Trauma and Recovery: “this work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story.” Elsewhere in the book, she writes these powerful words, “Testimony has both a private dimension, which is confessional and spiritual, and a public aspect, which is political and judicial.”

The thousands of individuals, across gender, racial, and class lines, who have come forward in the era of #MeToo, remind us: while the pain and horror of sexual assault and sexual harassment cannot be undone, the ability to retell powerfully, boldly, and courageously is something that can help take our power back. For many, retelling might not be an option; political, social, or other forces might impede it. In other cases, the trauma and pain might not allow for it to escape just yet. But perhaps, wherever we are, wherever those in our lives are, or wherever those in the public sphere are with the retelling of their unspeakable truths, let us hold those stories with dignity and honor. Let us ensure there is due process, and let us ultimately work to create a society in which sexaul assault is a vestige of the past.

Should you or someone you know need support, please take a look at the MIT Violence Prevention and Response resources or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Donna Hakimian is a Harvard Chaplain.