A while back, I read a piece in New York Magazine that chronicled the stories of thirty-five of Bill Cosby’s victims. They are pictured on the cover, all sitting on chairs.
I’d known about the article for a bit, because, for better or for worse, when something to do with sexual abuse or sexual assault is in the news people now seek out my opinion. They are curious about my reaction to whatever the event is, and how it is being handled legally and in the media.
I thought the article was very well done. The magazine did a beautiful job of laying out the facts and honoring the women’s stories. The photos were compelling, the stories behind the photos were graphic and deeply disturbing.
In the bottom right-hand corner of the magazine cover is an empty chair. It reminded me of the empty golden frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, and how powerfully they affected me. The chair is meant to signify the 11 women who made allegations but are not part of the article for one reason or another, and the many women who cannot come forward. At least, not yet.
The article was entitled, “Cosby: The Women. An unwelcome sisterhood.”
The first time I heard the expression “holding space” was on Glennon Doyle Melton’s blog, Momastery. She said, during a difficult time:
My therapist suggested that when someone is in deep grief, at first, all a friend can do is “hold space” for them… We can create and hold space for each other. You can listen to my pain without trying to fuel it or fix it. You can avoid offering me advice, for now….You can just love us simply, without judgment.
Right now, I just need a safe place to be me.
You are my safe
I think about her words, and I think about that empty chair. Every day, I think about them. The notion of held space, and the physical embodiment of it.
Mary and I have been having so many conversations about how best to serve our sisters and brothers in the survivor community. How to ‘hold space’ for those who are not ready to claim their stories, who are still mired in shame and fear. We talk about how to create actual and virtual spaces where people can come together to heal and share- to be in community with one another.
It is such a blessing to have a growing community of people with whom I can speak a sort of emotional shorthand. If you’ve not experienced severe trauma, you might sympathize with its lingering effects, but never truly understand. I’ve heard from people with experiences as seemingly disparate as being victims of domestic abuse and serving tours of duty in some of the most dangerous corners of the world. I might not have been beaten by my spouse, or lost a brother in arms in combat- but when you speak to me of your dreams and your triggers, I get it. When you tell me that something as innocuous as a child’s whistle makes you sweat, that it transports you back to the sand and the terror, my heart understands. When you tell me why you can’t wear a turtleneck without feeling like the walls are closing in on you, it makes perfect sense to me.
In the aftermath of He Wrote it Down, I heard from hundreds and hundreds of survivors. I read every story. I heard from women and men of every ethnic background, religion, and income bracket. I heard from a 73 year old woman and a 14 year old girl. I received stories from the deep south, sunny California, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. Men and women. It’s why the lie we get sold as victims- that we are alone in what happened to us- is so utterly galling. Regrettably, we are an enormous community. We are a community of people who were victims of childhood sexual abuse. That community is growing. Every single day. Think about that. Our community will be bigger tomorrow than it is today. Another child, then another.
It’s hard to breathe when I think about it that way.
There is another community, though. It’s not the same community, exactly, although there is considerable overlap, thank God. There is a community of people who have decided to survive. The love and support we feel from other people in this burgeoning network is real. We lift one another up. I have interactions frequently with women and men who are survivors of sexual abuse, and who are committed to awareness, prevention and advocacy. They are stepping into the sunlight, and they are telling their stories.
We talk a lot about how there is no one path to healing. We all need to find our way on our own terms and in our own time. Healing, like grief, isn’t linear. It isn’t efficient. It takes the time it takes.
Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we all stood squarely inside our stories and rejected shame? If we wielded the power of our sheer numbers, 1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 men, to effect real change? We would be unstoppable. There are days when I feel like we’re on the precipice of being able to accomplish great things, and days when I wonder what our purpose should be- where should we focus? What can we really do? It seems so big. It is. It is so big.
When I wrote The Fault in my Scars, I referred to my grandfather’s other victims I was sure existed. I called them “My nameless, faceless, shattered sisters.” When I first wrote that, I didn’t know any names outside my family. Now I do. Now I know her name. I think about her all the time. I pray for her. I wish her well. We are sisters, in a sense. She likely understands things about me that some of my lifelong friends do not, and we have never met. Sitting across from her mother, knowing that her abuse did not need to happen, that it could have been prevented, is a constant dull ache I carry. I don’t know if it will ever go away.
We have brothers and sisters all over the world now, our life stories pieced together like a quilt, connected by a thread that none of us asked for, none of us welcomed. We’re a patchwork of patched up people. Scars and wounds, some stitched closed, some still gaping. It reminds me of a type of quilt called a charm quilt- they are made of many small pieces of fabric where each piece is a different pattern or material. The idea is to have a scrap-pieced top with no two pieces alike. Close up it might be a little hard for some to appreciate the beauty, but taken in as a whole it’s astounding.
It is said that during the Civil War the Underground Railroad used quilts to help slaves escape to freedom. Quilts would be hung outside safe houses with warnings and directions in the form of patterns and squares. Gather your tools, danger, kind woman, and my favorite, the North Star. Historians bicker about whether or not this is factual, or a romantic tale spun to tell a larger truth. I honestly don’t much care. I want it to be true.
Maybe the jacked up, patchwork masterpiece that is our communal story is meant to serve as a North Star to those who’ve not yet begun down the long, daunting path toward healing. Maybe that is the gift that bringing our stories out into the sunshine and using that dark thread to stitch them together can bring about. We can look at them as seams or scars. Either way, they bind us to one another.
Gather your tools. This is a safe house. Rest a while. Keep going. Hang on. Both hands.
Freedom lies that way.