Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
My Students First Taught Me to Claim the Politics of My Survival

Clean­ing out some files in my office at school the oth­er day, I found a copy of the intro­duc­tion I gave in the spring of 2001 for two women who were doing an inde­pen­dent study with me in cre­ative writ­ing. The intro­duc­tion was for their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the annu­al sym­po­sium where inde­pen­dent study stu­dents are required to present their work in order to get cred­it for their work. I’d met Kel­ly and Tra­cy (not their real names) the pre­vi­ous semes­ter when they took Advanced Essay Writ­ing with me. Each wrote a piece ear­ly on in that semes­ter about the sex­u­al abuse she’d sur­vived as a child, and each had approached me sep­a­rate­ly about the fact that she want­ed to be a writer and that the issue of sex­u­al abuse was at the core of what she want­ed to write about. Kel­ly was espe­cial­ly artic­u­late about this. What she want­ed, she said—and she might as well have been speak­ing for Tra­cy as well—was a men­tor, a role mod­el, some­one from whom she could learn how to make her expe­ri­ence as a sur­vivor part of who she was as a writer.

I did not at first reveal to either woman that I was also a sur­vivor, or that I’d been writ­ing and pub­lish­ing about my own expe­ri­ence, but once I did—a deci­sion that is prob­a­bly worth an essay of its own—Kelly asked to do an inde­pen­dent study with me. I sug­gest­ed that she approach Tra­cy, which she did. Tra­cy agreed, and we began work­ing togeth­er in Jan­u­ary 2001. It was a remark­able expe­ri­ence, but I want to write about here is what hap­pened towards the end of that semes­ter when I remind­ed them that they would have to read at the sym­po­sium some por­tion of the work they’d pro­duced. Frankly, they were ter­ri­fied. The sym­po­sium would be attend­ed not just by inde­pen­dent-study fac­ul­ty, oth­er stu­dent pre­sen­ters and their guests, but also by the col­lege pres­i­dent, aca­d­e­m­ic vice pres­i­dent, vice pres­i­dent of stu­dent affairs, and oth­er admin­is­tra­tors. How, they want­ed to know, could they pos­si­bly read any of the inti­mate, sex­u­al­ly explic­it, some­times vio­lent pieces they’d writ­ten in front of that audi­ence? What place did their sto­ries have, what right did they have to place their sto­ries, side by side with the schol­ar­ly and aca­d­e­m­ic work that would be pre­sent­ed by the oth­er inde­pen­dent-study stu­dents?

There was no easy way to answer those ques­tions. Their sto­ries were, at least from a tra­di­tion­al point of view, the antithe­sis of the schol­ar­ship that oth­er stu­dents would be pre­sent­ing. Tracy’s was about the first time she was able to have an orgasm from het­ero­sex­u­al inter­course, which the vio­la­tion she’d expe­ri­enced had made it very dif­fi­cult to do. Kelly’s was an angry and explic­it con­dem­na­tion of the men in her life who’d insist­ed on treat­ing her like an object, start­ing with the man who’d sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed her when she was a young girl and he was dat­ing her moth­er.

Each woman, in oth­er words, had good rea­son to be afraid of what the audience’s reac­tion might me, and the more we talked about that fear, the more it became clear to me that I had to do some­thing to share its bur­den with them, that this was the moment to be the role mod­el they had asked me to be. So I told them that when I intro­duced them, I would do so by talk­ing a lit­tle bit about myself as a sur­vivor of sex­u­al abuse and what being able to work with them had meant to me. This way, any­one at the sym­po­sium who had a prob­lem with the con­tent of their essays would have to come through me first. Here is the text that I read:

Twen­ty years ago, when I was begin­ning to come to terms with the sex­u­al abuse I sur­vived as a teenag­er, there were no male voic­es out there that I could use as mod­els in mak­ing sense of what had hap­pened to me; and there was as well much mis­un­der­stand­ing about what it meant to be a man who was once a boy whose body had been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed. I remem­ber going to the Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty library when I was in grad­u­ate school, for exam­ple, to see what had been writ­ten about my expe­ri­ence and learn­ing for my trou­bles from a study I remem­ber lit­tle else about that most peo­ple believed boys who’d been sex­u­al­ly abused by men were most like­ly to become homo­sex­u­als, as if we had invit­ed and enjoyed the abuse. I felt alone and afraid, and I think one of the rea­sons I became a writer is that the act of my putting my words on the page, their phys­i­cal pres­ence in the world out­side myself, pro­vid­ed at least some reas­sur­ance that my expe­ri­ence was real, that it was impor­tant and that it deserved an audi­ence, even if only an audi­ence of one, myself.

The women who are going to read for you tonight were also sex­u­al­ly abused as chil­dren. They are for­tu­nate enough to have come of age at a time when the silence and fear that once sur­round­ed this sub­ject no longer dom­i­nates our pub­lic con­scious­ness. Nonethe­less, writ­ing has been for them a way both of break­ing the iso­la­tion that abusers inevitably impose on their vic­tims and of mak­ing mean­ing, per­son­al and polit­i­cal, out of their expe­ri­ence. I am hon­ored, hum­bled and sim­ply hap­py that they trust­ed me enough to help them learn the craft nec­es­sary to speak that mean­ing as com­pelling­ly as you will hear them speak tonight.

What they read may make you uncom­fort­able. It should. Abuse is ugly, and con­fronting it is nev­er easy. If you look close­ly, how­ev­er, and are will­ing to lis­ten, there is beau­ty to be found in that confrontation–not the easy and often reac­tionary respons­es you hear from politi­cians and the media, but the care­ful­ly pol­ished and hard-won moments of hope that let you know heal­ing and trans­for­ma­tion, both per­son­al and col­lec­tive, are pos­si­ble.

When I fin­ished read­ing, you could hear a pin drop, and that silence endured con­tin­ued until Kel­ly, who read first, looked up from the last page of her piece, and received a well-deserved stand­ing ova­tion. When Tra­cy fin­ished read­ing her essay, the audi­ence stood for her as well, and not a few people–students, fac­ul­ty, administration–came over to con­grat­u­late them after­wards.

The only one of my col­leagues who said any­thing to me was a guy from the Math depart­ment who com­plained that I’d made a mock­ery of the event. My stu­dents’ work, he said, had sul­lied the aca­d­e­m­ic integri­ty of the sym­po­sium, turn­ing instead into a cheesy group ther­a­py ses­sion. We argued about this for a bit, nei­ther per­suad­ing the oth­er, and then he left. I was hap­py to recede into the back­ground. Nei­ther my deci­sion as the super­vi­sor of the inde­pen­dent study nor the rev­e­la­tions I’d made in my intro­duc­tion were the point of the evening, which was sup­posed to be Kelly’s and Tracy’s moment to shine, and I was hap­py and hum­bled and proud that they were indeed shin­ing.

Deliv­er­ing that intro­duc­tion, how­ev­er, was trans­for­ma­tive for me. It was the first time that I’d pub­licly claimed my iden­ti­ty as a sur­vivor of sex­u­al abuse not just for its own sake, but as a legit­i­mate per­spec­tive from which to make deci­sions that were not direct­ly con­nect­ed to my own sex­u­al­i­ty. It was, in oth­er words, the moment I first began to work through what a “pol­i­tics of sur­vivor­ship,” or at least my pol­i­tics of sur­vivor­ship, might look like. And I have Kel­ly and Tra­cy to thank for teach­ing me that.

1 Comment

  • Lydia Chang Posted April 28, 2017 5:27 pm

    Richard: Thank you again for your empa­thy and courage
    pre­sent­ing your­self to the school fac­ul­ty in order to help your two stu­dents to under­stand that their ABUSE was not
    their fault, but that they had been vic­tim­ized. They did not invite the crim­i­nals to abuse and they did not enjoy the abuse; on the con­trary, they had been suf­fer­ing from shame, phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al sup­pres­sion because of being abused for years, let’s say until you came to the res­cue, You were capa­ble to dig out from the deeply buried hurt to dis­cov­er where the injury actu­al­ly was. I real­ly appre­ci­ate your help to those two poor souls, help­ing them to go for­ward, to be able to stand up straight in front of the audi­ence.

    Best,
    Lydia

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