“I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I always was,” began Ari Benjamin Bank in a soft voice to a hushed overflow crowd of 100 people in a room at Philadelphia’s Free Library. He was a good swimmer already at 6 years old, when his parents sent him away to day camp for fun and games. Instead, he was sexually assaulted by a counselor and sent on a downward spiral into the depths of self-doubt and despair.
As he read this most personal story about the events and his feelings as the abuse occurred and since that time, 32 years ago, there were few dry eyes in the house. This was a young man of great promise, in the swimming pool and in life. He talked about his struggles to manage the emotions and relationships that the abuse overshadowed in his personal life.
But Bank, who teaches English and writes it well, was there to tell about hope and survival, not despair and failure. He said he has been able to overcome emotional and physical debilitation with the love and support of family and friends, and especially a wife who helped him banish his fear of intimacy.
He was one of 50 people whose essays about surviving the devastation of sexual assault have been edited and compiled in a book published by the Philadelphia Weekly. Among the newly published authors in attendance was our daughter, Cassy, who had “come out” earlier this year with her tale of abuse at the hands of several sadistic young men (she named them after the 7 Dwarfs, to her Snow White) while she was a student at Northwestern University. Her 28,000-word opus on her experiences is a powerful anchor for the new book.
The book release event at the library was part of the healing process for Cassy, certainly, but it also was part of the learning process for her parents and, we hoped, helpful in the dialog for millions of people who are affected by rape and sexual assault on a daily basis. One in four women and one in six men are survivors of sexual attacks in America today, most by people they know, said Joel Hoffmann, who along with his wife Nina edited and compiled The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse.
Hoffmann himself is a survivor of sexual assault and this project is a labor of love for him and Nina, both editors at the Philadelphia Weekly and soon expecting their first child. They both talked about how dealing with the issue “nearly ruined our marriage,” but also how it strengthened their love for each other. The book is another important part of their ongoing healing process.
“I realize, and Nina realizes, that this pain will never go away. It will always be a part of me. But we are working hard every day to make sure that it does not overwhelm everything else, that it is a proportionate part of my life,” Joel Hoffmann said, holding up an index finger and thumb just an inch apart.
Since Joel had “come out” to Nina and others in his family, they have been convinced that the power for healing lies in the ability to tell your story, to face what you’ve been through. And the secret to healing, said Joel’s father, sitting in the audience, “is just listening. That’s the most important thing.” The Survivors Project book release event was a tribute not only to the power of the telling, but also of the listening.
The Hoffmanns read several essays from the book, one from the daughter of a sexual assault and incest victim, who says her battles with depression, drug abuse and failed relationships stem from how her mother treated her as a result of the continual rape she suffered at the hands of her brother, the writer’s uncle. These were events that occurred from World War II through the Korean War, but they are being lived out every day by a survivor in 2012. Survivors rub off on the people around them, and vice versa.
One of the essays struck a particular chord with Cassy, an alternately funny and horrifying story written by Jackie Block Goldstein, a child forensic interview specialist at the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance whose job is to talk with children who have been abused. Joel read her story:
“My instinct is always to regard someone with suspicion versus giving them the benefit of the doubt – to assume the worst in everyone until proven otherwise,” she wrote. “My psychiatrist … mentioned getting a babysitter to watch the kids and going out on a Saturday night. ‘Get a babysitter?’ I asked, incredulously. ‘How could I possibly relax and go out knowing that someone was in my house sexually abusing my children?’”
“I feel the same way,” Cassy confided as we left the library. “I don’t trust anyone. The man I pass on the street, another who sits down beside me on the train.” This is how someone who has been sexually abused reacts to the world, to other people. They live in fear.
So, there is a crisis of trust at the heart of the problem, but perhaps that is the key to the healing process as well. Yes, we must listen, as Joel’s father said, but we must also work to restore the faith of our loved ones in humanity – and in Cassy’s case, the male variety of humanity. To a member of the audience who asked, “What can we do?” Stephen Segal, the editor in chief of the Philadelphia Weekly, said, simply, “Be kind.”
That may be a tall order in a society that moves from one crisis to the next, immune to the humanity of it all. But kindness may be the basic ingredient for recovery. It doesn’t take 12 steps, necessarily, but it takes people who not only listen but who also empathize and care about the person who has experienced horrific rape and sexual assault.
This is especially true if you are an intimate partner of someone who has experienced sexual abuse, as Cassy discusses in a recent post in her blog.
It is this clear-headed evaluation of how life goes on that gives us hope that Cassy is well along the way in her healing. This Thanksgiving, the first since Cassy’s revelations, we are thankful that she has a network of friends and family who genuinely care about her, and who are always willing to listen.
And we can be thankful that there are people like the Hoffmanns working to open eyes and hearts, and that there are still media outlets like the Philadelphia Weekly that don’t shy away from “big journalism” in an age of media entrenchment. Support big journalism and sexual healing. Buy their book here.