I could have died. This unsettling realization, this unspeakable bone-chilling thought that seems to rush through my body anytime the words “domestic violence” are uttered, strikes me with a fleeting force. My body is transported, returned back to existing in that one relationship. What if I hadn’t jumped out of the car as his incessant yelling grew louder and louder? What if I told him no? What would’ve happened to me, to my body, to my person, had I stayed in that abusive relationship just one more day?
It was 2004 and our freshman group was inattentively following our orientation leader around the university’s student center building. As the leader was pointing out the dreary bowling alley and the nearest place to get a cheap cup of coffee, a wall of brochures, specifically ones promoting volunteer work with Rape Victim Advocates and the Campus Advocacy Network, grabbed my attention. Already a year and a half into an increasingly worrisome relationship, I discreetly collected the brochures and jammed them into my purse, convinced he would somehow see me, even though he was dozens of miles away.
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In hindsight, I think there was something profoundly alluring about the possibility of helping others escape from scary, abusive situations because I subconsciously hoped for someone to save me from my own. I stayed in an abusive relationship for almost five years, but it wasn’t your textbook definition of domestic violence. It didn’t have your usual red flags, or follow the cycle of abuse, or always come in the form of verbal insults and bitter swings. That’s the alarming thing about domestic violence: It can exist right in front of us, in our collective circles, at our potluck dinner tables, and we’d have no idea, because the normalization of secrecy and silence around interpersonal violence is still so deafening.
When I couldn’t quite verbalize my desire for independence as a young woman entering college, my abuser introduced me to feminist theory, but then chastised me for how and where I spent my money. When I took a chance and stood up for myself against his malicious remarks privately at a party one night, he pinned me down and left swollen marks on my wrists to remind me that this outcome was undeniably my fault. When my frustrations around the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought me toward student antiwar organizing, my abuser spoke highly of the power of young people organizing, but then quickly started belittling the “stupid” work I did, insisting on its insignificance. I look back at numerous moments like these and have to work hard to remember that I am not indebted to him. Just because his access to resources and information aided my political foundation does not mean that my journey is invalid.
In learning more about the Campus Advocacy Network, I discovered that they assisted students who were survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking. In that moment, I hadn’t admitted to myself that I actually needed these services, but internally felt this incredible sense of relief, of alleviation on the horizon, of feeling found. The network assisted the production of “The Vagina Monologues” every year. Problematic aspects of the production aside (trans women’s invisibility, the “othering” and manipulation of women’s experiences in different countries), the fact that I was hearing verbalized proclamations of trauma and survival for the first time completely floored me. I auditioned.
Admittedly, the thought of telling other peoples’ stories of surviving abuse felt way more manageable than having to potentially reveal my own. I began looking forward to our rehearsals more than the production itself because they often morphed into spaces for sharing personal accounts of unimaginable trauma and electrifying endurance turned into action. I learned that one in three women and one in four men have experienced some sort of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. I learned that it wasn’t our fault. I learned that we had options. And so I eagerly listened, wondering if the next story would give me enough courage to speak to my own silent battle.
My story crawled up into my throat and anxiously waited to be told, but never quite made it out. I went on to direct the production the following year, switched my major from chemistry to women’s studies, completed a 56-hour rape crisis counseling training and became active in the struggle to end interpersonal violence through peer education. Dozens of scary moments and a restraining order threat later (one that would ultimately ruin his chances of ever going to medical school), he was finally out of my life.
To be quite honest, writing this piece has been incredibly hard. There’s something about telling our personal stories of struggle that feels self-serving, or even trivial. As organizers, we’re supposed to stay focused on how we’re going to give rise to mass movements and construct powerful coalitions. As Mexican women, we’re supposed to endure our pain silently, and with grace. As feminists, we’re not supposed to be abused. We’re not supposed to stay. We’re supposed to know better than that. All of these emblematic barriers, these annular walls of expectations, force us into silence, into keeping our stories of suffering and survival tucked away in our journals and souls.
But why do we feel forced to choke on our stories that are jammed in our throats? How do we once and for all recognize that it is our stories of trauma and survival that act as puzzle pieces to construct the larger narrative of the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy that we’re up against? We must encourage, listen and hold on to peoples’ narratives, or we risk finding our efforts to end domestic violence (and state violence) caught in this perpetual loop of impersonal, detached statistics reporting and movement building. The act of telling your story, or of letting your story be told, is a revolutionary act because with those stories, we not only interrupt the structures that force us to suffer in silence and isolation, but we also allow theories of violence to become human.
I wrote a letter to Marissa Alexander in the summer of 2013, after hearing about her case through a blog post. Marissa Alexander is a black woman, a mother of three who is facing 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot at the wall against her abusive husband who was threatening her life. Sixty years for the act of surviving, for refusing to disappear, for releasing that story from her throat, for surviving as a black woman in this country. As we bear Marissa’s story and fight for her second survival against the state, let’s remember to honor our own personal stories of survival by speaking to their existence. You never know who, or what, you’ll inspire.