Monday, July 27, 2015

For Ashley: On truth and bearing witness

This weekend I was among the faculty at the Midwest Writer's Workshop. It is a very good workshop. Smart and dedicated people. Writers who love writing and want to get better. And the faculty was truly amazing. One of whom was Ashley Ford. I have been a fan of Ashley for quite some time. I appreciate her authenticity and honesty and her willingness to speak about difficult things. And I was very much looking forward to meeting her for the first time.

I think I've mentioned that I'm an awkward hugger who doesn't let go.
But I had a question. One she really only got to half-answer, so don't hold her to this. :) One that I've been thinking about over and over again when it comes to writing personal essays, to telling your truths online and in public forums. How do you tell your truth, be authentic and courageous, and protect yourself at the same time? Protect yourself from people's toxicity or blame or hatred or disbelief.

And Ashley answered beautifully. She explained that telling her truths have opened doors and windows so we're not locked into a house of shame. That readers write her and say, "yes, me too, thank you, I'm so glad I'm not alone." And for Ashley, enough of that happens that it makes everything worth it.

This, I understand. This, I feel so much. Every letter I get feels like a gift. I am humbled by people telling me their stories. I feel deeply grateful to have garnered that level of trust. If the New York Magazine Cosby piece this morning did nothing else, I hope that it opened people's eyes to the solidarity of survivors. To the power of multiple voices coming together and saying, NO MORE. And even as I say this, even as I'm so proud of this chorus, I'm equally devastated that it's taken so many voices for people to finally pause.

Which brings me to my second question. The harder question, in some ways. The question about vicarious trauma and carrying the stories of survivors in our own skin. Because I think to a certain extent we all do that. We all read something that breaks our hearts and we all take a little piece of that on. We slip it into our selves and it hurts for a while, and then it becomes something we know now. And I believe it's important that we know these things. I think the choice to bury our heads in the sand is a poor choice, one that stops change from happening, one that perpetuates pain and suffering. Knowledge has always been my base of power. It is for most of us. But sometimes, reading the stories of 35 women who have been assaulted by one man hurts so incredibly much. And I don't know what to do with that hurt. Where to put it.

So I asked Ashley that too. And she answered beautifully again. She said, "When people tell you their stories, they aren't asking for anything from you therapeutically. They're asking you to bear witness. So you take a moment and you honor their story. And you bear witness to their truth. And that is all they need from you."

Which is all to say, survivors who have shared their stories, privately, publicly, in whatever way you have been able to: thank you. I hear you. I sit in solidarity with you. I am your witness.

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