Bearing Witness, Feeling Helpless, and Straining to Hear

Bearing Witness, Feeling Helpless, and Straining to Hear October 3, 2016

This guest post is by Davin Franklin-Hicks.


Trigger Warning: this article is about sexual assault and may be triggering to survivors.

In 1998, I lived in Willowvale, South Africa and taught seventh grade as a missionary for a fundamentalist church.  I was 19, away from home, and living with other American teachers, most of whom were around my age.

For one school break, many of my fellow teachers took trips to game parks and such, while I stayed behind with another teacher named Kendra. One night, Kendra and I were sitting in the living room area. It was very late. We were both night owls. We were reminiscing, telling stories from our lives. It was a quiet, beautiful night. We were enjoying each other’s company, when suddenly we heard a woman screaming, unsure if it was playful or harmful.

We gave our full attention to hear in the silence. The sound of my heartbeat was in my ears–I was on full alert. We heard her again, only this time it was louder and the woman was crying. Then we heard the man. Her screams and cries were even worse. She was being raped.

Kendra and I stared at each other, pleadingly. Helplessness overwhelmed us and we started crying. We began to rock, our knees to our chest, the closest we could come to a fetal position without the vulnerability of lying on the floor.

These two 19 year olds, alone in a land not their own with no access to any emergency services and no ability to intervene. We sobbed as we heard the woman sobbing. We held onto each other and prayed it would end and that she would be okay.

After ten minutes or so, everything went silent. We sat still, straining to hear. It was surreal. Our ears had just been filled with a horrible sound of violation and now here was stillness. How can that be? What do we do now?

And that’s always the question: what action do we take?

Her pain was unbearable. Little did I know I was going to understand that pain firsthand 18 years later.

Just after Christmas in 2015, I was brutally raped. Seeing those words I just wrote and knowing that they are about me is absolutely surreal and awful.

Those closest to me know the intimate details of all of this and I am going to honor my own heart and keep it that way. The details are actually irrelevant. The crushing weight of shame, anger, and self-hatred is what is relevant. And it is what is common.

Silence can be healing, life affirming, and peaceful, but only if it is chosen silence. If silence is forced on us, then it is injurious, death dealing, and riddled with shame and loss.

Silence after a sexual assault is very common. Who wants to have their life on display to be picked apart and judged? Who wants to brace themselves for the inevitable defense of the perpetrator who claims it wasn’t rape and that they wanted it?

No one.
No one.
No one.

Did you know that it is a common internal defense to blame ourselves after this happens? We often turn on ourselves and tear apart all of the ways we screwed up. It is something our psyche does to make us feel better. If we can convince ourselves that it was our fault, we develop a belief that we could have stopped it. It makes things less out of control for us. If we could have stopped it, then that means we can make sure it never happens again.

We live in a rape culture that teaches our girls, women, and anyone not living within prescribed heteronormative gender roles that it is up to them not to get raped. Only a few seriously out of touch people will actually say those words out loud. The rest of us just co-sign it in small, nuanced ways. That is more insidious, more painful, more life-ending than the ridiculous person on the microphone shouting ideas that drip with bias and hate. At least we can see that person coming a mile away.

We rarely see it when it is spoken through the mundane moments of life in the voices of our parents, siblings, teachers, preachers, roommates, friends, and mentors. The forum isn’t the floor of the Senate for this process. The forum is the dinner table, church service, home room, college dorms, family gatherings. How easily rape culture can hide among the seemingly innocuous words, moments, and intentions with those we love and trust most.

It is not enough for someone to break the silence and the alienation sexual assault brings. She/he/they need someone to listen to their shaky voiced courage and their incredible grief. It is so hard to hear that pain and sorrow, to bear witness to trauma and deep loss.

It’s unsettling to witness this pain. It can cut through a peaceful moment, chilling you to the core and leaving you with such helplessness to make it better. It hurts deeply. I know all of this firsthand.

It may not be fair for me to ask this of you, but I am going to anyway. In the midst of all those things your heart will feel, I ask you to sit still, feel what you feel and make sure you strain to hear.


Photo by Dan Wilkinson.

About Davin Franklin-Hicks
Davin “Dax” Franklin-Hicks transitioned from female to male in 2008. He has an amazing wife and a beautiful son who transitioned with him, encouraging his most authentic self.

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