Don’t Shame Us. Don’t Shut us Up. (How to better support and empower a survivor of Sexual Abuse.)

This blogpost needs a content warning for rape, abuse and swearing. And it’s really long.  

Since writing publicly about my abuse four months ago, I’ve had to deal with a myriad of different reactions – many positive, some negative, and a few downright horrible. Some of the fall-out from my writing caused shockwaves that I didn’t anticipate and a few personal relationships in my life didn’t survive. I’ve had to do a lot of self-care to cope. I went back to therapy (YAY! for awesome therapists who help you make sense of stuff), put my novel on hold, spent time with my amazing sisterhood of friends (YAY! for the compassion and wisdom of friends who help you navigate the storms of life), focused on my little family and getting the Fab5 settled into their new home and schools, prayed more, and treasured being with the Hot Man more. (When he wasn’t running/swimming/biking…)

Life is back on a more even keel for me now and as I reflect on the messy last few months, I’d like to share some examples and insights of HOW we can support and empower survivors of sexual violence when/If they speak out about their experiences. This is very important to me, and not just because I am a survivo

Fourteen years ago, I was a teacher in a Samoan high school. I’d made it a habit to include abuse awareness in at least one (if not more) of my class discussions/topics, every year, for every group of students I taught. Part of the discussion would always include the encouragement to seek help if they were being abused, to not keep silent. That year, a young woman responded by writing an essay for my eyes only – about the fact that she was being raped at home by her brother in law. She’d told her mother and gotten slapped in the face for her “cheekiness”. This student wept in my office and pleaded with me not to tell anyone. Not the police, the Principal, her parents, no-one. I arranged for her to meet with a local therapist but she wouldn’t go because of fears her family would find out. I badly wanted to report her abuse, to get her away from her family. But at the time, there was no Support agency for young survivors and I’d heard horror stories about how the system in Samoa was failing young people in similar situations – families that beat and rejected their children who made the mistake of asking for help. The situation weighed heavily on me and after many meetings with this young woman, I chose to honor her request and do nothing.

I’ve regretted that decision ever since. Regardless of the inadequacies of the Samoa justice system, I failed that young woman and I’m ashamed I didn’t do more. I’ve often wondered what could I have done differently? Every time I write about this issue – either directly via my blog or woven into one of my novels – a part of me seeks to atone for my failing, and hope that somehow, in some small way, my words can help someone out there who may be in a similar situation as that former student.

Encouraging people to speak out about their abuse is one thing. What we DO with that and how we respond is another. I’ve made mistakes in how I support and empower the women in my life regarding this issue and I’m still learning how to be a better ally and advocate.  I’m guessing we can all do better and be better at this. Which is why I’m sharing the following –

What you should (and shouldnt) say or do to an abuse survivor. (According to Lani because everyone’s experience is different and so these may not be true for others.)
1. Don’t get angry and confrontational, demand, “Why didn’t you tell me?!” 
It can take an incredible amount of courage (and pain) for a survivor to tell someone, anyone – about their abuse. Many keep silent for years about what was done to them. We battle feelings of shame and fear. We worry what people will think of us if they know the truth. So it’s not helpful to react with accusing questions. You may be shocked by their disclosure and you’re hurting because you love them but you need to deal with your hurt/anger separately and not rage at the person. THEY are the survivor and their feelings and safety should be your priority. I had people react with anger because I’d never told them about my abuse – it hurt their feelings. Because they didn’t agree with the public way I chose to talk about it – it embarrassed them.  For them, my abuse was buried under a mountain of their angst.

2. Don’t victim-blame.  “Why were you at that party?…Why were you in a car with him?…What were you wearing?…How were you dancing?…Why didn’t you fight him?…Did you scream for help?…How many beers did you have?…” It doesn’t matter what a person wears, how late they are out, where they go, how loud they laugh, or even how much alcohol they consume – it is never their fault if they are raped. I have friends who have been assaulted and then had to deal with questions like these, from family, friends, police and doctors.
3. Listen with your heart and offer validation. My abuse article was read and shared by many people who then used social media to discuss the issues. Some of them said things like this:  “How do you know she hasn’t made this up just so she can get extra publicity?…She’s probably just trying to sell more books…So typical for a celebrity to say she was abused…Yeah, if she really meant it, she would name her abuser and take him to court…Even if it’s true, why would she talk about something so private unless she wanted attention? She’s only trying to further her career by being open about something so shameful.”  Yes, people really do say things like this about, and to, abuse survivors. There are some people in this world who really do believe that a woman would invent a rape/abuse experience for attention. ( Because yeah, everyone wants to run out and buy a Young Adult romance novel the minute they find out it was written by a woman who was sexually violated when she was a kid. I always feel that way about child rape, don’t you?) And yes, it makes you famous when you go public with child abuse. So “famous” that for a while, everywhere you go, it’s like you have a brand stamped on your forehead, a flashing neon sign: “VICTIM HERE…SOILED GOODS…DAMAGED… CRAZYWOMAN WHO WON’T SHUT UP ABOUT YUCKY STUFF…” And sometimes, people aren’t sure how to talk to you, and can’t look you in the eye because the whole thing makes them uncomfortable and its so triggering perhaps, for their own experiences and issues. So they avoid you. Or call you a liar. Or try to make you shut up. Anyone who’s spoken publicly about abuse can tell you that it’s not fun. It’s not the kind of attention anyone wants.

Many survivors have spent a lifetime questioning their  feelings. Repressing their memories. Some  have spent years pretending that abuse never happened. So when they finally are strong enough and brave enough to admit it, to themselves and to others – please don’t doubt them. Don’t shame them. Don’t shut them up and shove them back into the darkness. Some of us aren’t seeking retribution or that elusive thing called ‘justice’. It’s not about WHO abused us, WHO didn’t protect us better, and what should be done to those people. We just want to be listened to. We just want to be believed.

4. Don’t try to dictate a survivor’s journey of healing. An example – a journalist that I didn’t know, contacted me via Facebook, asking if I would do an interview with her network, about my abuse etc. I’d already done several interviews with journalists that I have worked with in the past, people I was familiar with and felt comfortable about talking to on a very sensitive topic. I didn’t want to do any more media so I politely declined this woman’s request. She wasn’t happy and accused me (among other things) of only wanting to discuss the issue in forums that I could control. Like that was something bad. I’m disappointed that a female journalist would try to pressure/bully me. I made the mistake of assuming another Pasifika woman would have more empathy.

It’s vital that a survivor feel safe and empowered. She knows what it’s like to not have control over her body, to be violated and manipulated. Never pressure a survivor into talking about her experiences. Let her disclose information at her own pace, in her own space and time. Let her decide how she wants to proceed, what she wants to do next about the abuser etc.  Trite advice like, “It’s in the past. We don’t need to talk about it.” and “You need to forgive him/her so you can heal and get over this” is not only superficial but also offensive.

It’s amazing to me how some people think it’s okay to tell a survivor how she should feel. One friend said, ‘You’re so angry these days. You should stop being angry.”  Another friend said, ‘Why do you have to let people see your hurt? You should keep it to yourself. It’s making people uncomfortable.’ My response to them? I’m not here to make you feel comfortable and I won’t deny my feelings so you can keep pretending that abuse doesn’t happen.

The thing is – some days, yes I’m angry. That I was raped. That I thought for years it was my fault. That I believed for the longest time it made me damaged goods. I’m angry there isn’t more support for survivors in Samoa, particularly for children. I’m angry when teachers perpetuate rape culture and tell my daughters they need to cover their shoulders so they wont tempt boys to sin. I’m angry when people who are supposed to love me, continue to treat my experience with contempt, dismissal and avoidance.

Other days, I’m just sad. That I carried this secret burden for so long and let it shadow my life in so many ways. Sad about how it has impacted on my marriage to a pretty awesome man. Sad for survivors who continue to suffer in silence because they haven’t got the support networks I’ve got, helping them to heal.

Then, other days, I’m happy. Grateful for the healing my faith offers me. Exuberantly happy that I’m not afraid anymore. I used to think my abuser was watching me all the time, standing outside the window waiting to see if I would tell on him – because then he would hurt me. I truly believed that, right up through my twenties and early thirties. When I finally wrote about it and told “the world”, I broke free from the fear he’d chained me with. I rejoice in my strength and give thanks for the love of a patient partner and truly fabulous children. On a good day, I give thanks for being a woman, and glory in my fierce, fiery (often chaotic) creativity.

I get more happy days now then sad, angry ones and I’m able to be more at peace with all that has happened. But I will never give up my right to feel whatever I need to on this journey. As one survivor expressed it –

I will talk about MY abuse when and where I want to. I will be angry as much as I need to. I will grieve for as long as I have to. I will be happy, how and when I fucking well please.

5. Be kind and compassionate. (A little obvious I know but trust me, some people need it spelled out for them.) Apart from the negative stuff detailed above, I received many messages of support and encouragement. Extended family wrote to share their love and concern, some apologizing that they had been present in my childhood and never knew what was happening. Friends called to listen, laugh and cry with me. Some brought me love in the form of homebaked delicious treats. Total strangers shared their own stories of abuse with me and thanked me for being a voice for that which they couldn’t share themselves. I’ve been so moved by the wave of kindness I’ve received. Darren and the Fab5 literally kept me alive in my darkest moments in the last few months of mess, with their love and support. A couple of examples from outside the family, that stand out for me:

*A boy I dated over twenty five years ago, who I haven’t seen since, somehow read my blog and wrote to express his gratitude for sharing my story. He has daughters now and this issue is such an important one, he said. He went on to add, “I’m sorry I didn’t know about your abuse. I’ve been trying to think back to when we dated and remember if at any time, I may have done something or said something to you that made you feel uncomfortable or hurt you in any way. If I did, please forgive me.” Considering that we were fourteen back then and “dating” in Samoa meant we only saw each other at church and exchanged notes – his sincere message meant a lot to me. If your partner is a survivor, she will need buckets of your patient understanding, especially when it comes to intimacy in your relationship. Some days she’ll be totally fine with everything your sexilicious self has to offer her. But other days, she may not even stand to be in the same room with you and your touch may make her physically ill. Therapy can be a big help for both of you. Respect for her boundaries is key.

*A beautiful niece said, “I didn’t know that happened to you Aunty. I’m sorry. I love you and Im so proud of you for what you wrote.” That’s it. No long speeches, nothing flowery and expansive. A few simple words is all it took for me to feel validated, loved and empowered. Her words made me cry. Especially when contrasted with the utter wall of silence…or the spewing vitriol of others – who I thought would offer compassion. When a loved one tells you her story, and you are at a loss how to respond? Keep it simple. Tell her you love her. “I’m here for you. What do you need from me?”

*I went to an Awards dinner in Auckland and a TV3 journalist/news presenter who I’d done an interview with before, was the MC. At one point in the evening, he came to our table and was introduced to everyone. He complimented me on my blog. People wanted to take a photo and so he stood between me and another woman. The photographer told everyone to move in so we’d all fit into the picture. The others obliged by moving closer together but then the man turned to me and hesitated. “Is it alright if I put my arm around you and move closer?” he asked politely. I said yes, so he moved for the photo and then asked me again, “Is this alright?” That’s when it hit me. He was being mindful about my comfort level with people getting in my personal space, especially man-people. He’d read my blog about abuse. And possibly my blog about hating social greeting hugs and kisses. At first I was mortified by this realization. I felt like I had that neon sign on my forehead: FRAGILE and DAMAGED.  For a frantic moment, I wished I’d never told anybody about my abuse. See Lani, now everyone thinks you’re a freak!  But then, I shoved that remnant of shame away because there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have clear boundaries for one’s body or personal space. I shouldn’t be embarrassed that I don’t like random people hugging or touching me without permission. That man’s simple act of courtesy and respect for my boundaries and my experience, was an empowering thing for me. A reminder that being a survivor is not something I have to apologize for.  Thank you Mr Campbell.

Supporting a survivor isn’t easy sometimes, especially if you have your own unaddressed issues with sexual violence in your past. Knowing this, helps me to be more understanding about the people in my life who haven’t been able to walk with me on this journey. It’s my hope and prayer they will find the strength to seek the help they need to deal with their own painful experiences.

I’m grateful for the support and understanding I’ve been given from so many different people. May we all strive to be better allies to the survivors in our lives and better advocates for their empowerment.

(I’ve used the pronoun ‘she’ throughout this blog post but only in a general sense because as we all know, boys/men  and fa’afafine are raped and abused also.)

19 thoughts on “Don’t Shame Us. Don’t Shut us Up. (How to better support and empower a survivor of Sexual Abuse.)”

  1. Don’t ever change!!, the more you learn the more we learn, the more you speak the more we speak. you are a great example of bravery and courage, Thank you for your words, for they are power beyond measure. I truly admire and love who you are and what you stand for.

    1. Thank you Leilani. I have a lot to learn and often use this blog space to try and make sense of things – I appreciate those who can read my ramblings and help me make sense of things!

  2. Enjoyed this piece, helps in the work I do with my Clients – educating and reinforcing practices and approaches Lani, keep doing what you are doing and advocating/empowering self and for women

    1. Ive said some misguided things to survivors in the past and i know how easy it is to get it wrong. Hopefully this blog highlights a few of the helpful and unhelpful thing we can do. Thank you for the feedback.

  3. You’re truly amazing Lani 🙂 you’re a true pioneer/leader for us young Samoan women

    1. Thank you Susana. If pioneer means writing about things that many find uncomfortable and making some people angry/disappointed, then I guess that would be me! Lol.

  4. Hi Lani. I kind of went into my own little space for the past few months following my public beating in December. This is the first time I’ve come on to read your blogs. I treasure our primary school years and proudly tell all Telesa fans in my family that we go way back. The greater they are fans of yours, the more bff we are 🙂 I love this list of Dos and Donts. It has inspired me to develop a similar one for survivors of DV in intimate partner relationships. Some of the comments people make are truly unbelievable. Just last night a prominent woman in Apia business society said to me, “It’s because you girls let them. It’s because you didn’t leave the first time it happened. It’s because you allow it to happen”. So once again, women continue to blame women for abuse. It would be great to publish this in the Sunday Observer. Many people are unsure how to react, and publishing this will save some survivors the pain of insensitive reactions and responses. Or if people continue to react inappropriately, survivors will be able to see that they are not alone in receiving stupid comments from those who have no idea what it’s like. See you at the UNWomen lunch tomorrow. Look forward to doing awesome work with you into the future.

    1. LOL @ “BFF’s for the Telesa fans”
      Sina, you blew the lid open on domestic violence in Samoa with your courageous decision to go public. Its massively important to have a prominent figure like you speak woth openness, honesty and personal insight about something that affects so many women, so many families in our country. It can be an isolating and frustrating road though, lined with antagonistic stone throwers and sheer ignorance. Thank you for choosing to walk it anyway.
      Im looking forward to the UN Women Roundtable forum on DV tomorrow.

  5. Talofa Lani, I admire your courage (and Sina’s) in speaking up about such taboo subjects within our culture and in doing so hopefully encouraging other victims to speak up too. I am shocked that there is no support agency in Samoa for abuse victims and hope this awareness you and Sina have created means one step closer to providing victim support.It infuriates me to think others feel they have the right to pass judgment out of their own fears. There is only one power that can judge! Lani, thank you for your bravery in speaking up. It takes a strong support network to go through such adversity and I hear how blessed you are to have that. Keep doing what you’re doing. Truly inspiring!

    1. I appreciate the encouraging words Audrey. Thankfully, the Samoa Victim Support Organization here in Samoa is doing a lot of amazing work to support and advocate for survivors, many of them children. But there is no government agency that specifically provides for survivors and I believe that when you take a rape or domestic violence complaint to the police, they will refer you to the Samoa Victim Support for help… because they don’t have the resources.
      What is very sad – is as Sina pointed out – so many women support and condone domestic violence. There is much work to be done to raise awareness, stimulate discussion and change those attitudes.

  6. Thank you Lani for being who you are . You are an amazing and truely inspirational woman. I admire your courage and strength to continue to speak about such taboo topic. You make it possible for others out there to make themselves heard. Dont ever blame yourself for not doing more because at the end of the day you did what you had to do (what she requested). Wishing you all the best as you continue to help those around you.

    1. Thank you Vi – youre right. It wasnt until i read back over this blogpost that i made the connection with my former student’s request and my own experience with wanting to be able to control how i dealt with my own abuse.
      This whole issue is just so troubling and sad. Invariably nine times out of ten when Ive had a one on one conversation with a friend about this and shared my story – she has shared her own. There r far too many of us with abuse in our past. And i know we want better for our daughters.
      Always appreciate your support.

  7. Mum would be super proud of you and keep being the person you are and bloody oath totally okay to have crap days and happy days. Lets pray for more of the second with your blessed family. alofa atu.

    1. Love this, thank you Vanessa. Your mum was such a strong woman who always had a no-nonsense and unwavering approach to all that she committed to do. She had the courage to speak her mind and she expected the best effort from others because thats what she always gave.

  8. Bula Lani.

    I enjoy reading your blog posts and I’am sorry to hear of the abuse you and your student went through. Don’t feel too bad that you could have done more for your student, you took the first courageous step of talking about such taboo topics in school, that it made your student share her abusive story with you. Trust me, just talking about it with her would have made her feel a wee better/lighter. She will open up when she is ready, strong and brave enough. Thanks for sharing this piece! Cheers.

  9. It is women like you that give me hope for a better tomorrow.
    I was only six years old when it happened, and 17 years later, I still bear the brunt from such a horrid experience. It’s women like you that remind me that it’s okay to move on, that none of it was my fault, that despite the trauma it has caused me, I am a survivor – and I have every right to call myself one. For years, I have battled insecurities and trust issues and to make it even worse, seeing the culprit at family gatherings, laughing away without a care in the world, simply ate away at my self-worth.
    When I had finally found the courage to tell another person, they merely shook it off as me trying to gain some sort of attention, which only resulted in me withdrawing back into my shell. It’s the most deepest and hidden scars that takes a very long time to heal.
    I admire your courage, and hope that one day I would be just as courageous.
    This is such a powerful piece.
    I am an avid reader of your blog and a huge fan of your books. You truly are an inspiration. Much love and God bless 🙂

  10. Lani, your blog is spot on. I deeply appreciate your voice and your strength in sharing your experience with the world. I also have a major regret in relation to this topic of supporting survivors of abuse. My best friend disclosed to me that she was being sexually abused by her father when we were 15 years old. The burden was too much to bear and she could no longer contain her suffering. Seeing her cry, the shame in her face, the inability to look up, and barely able to get the words out just ripped me apart. She begged me and made me promise not to say anything. Back then, to me being a best friend was to never break that trust and that bond. So I honored her request and never told a soul. We were confronted one day by another friend’s mother, who had a maternal instinct that something was wrong and subsequently called the police. One day, I was pulled out of class at school and interrogated by them as if I had committed murder. They told me that I was responsible for anything bad that happened to my friend if I didn’t tell them what they needed to know (a 15 year old at school). Of course, I broke. I sobbed thinking about my friend’s safety and told them everything. I felt like a snitch, a traitor, a liar and a horrible friend. I was so confused, traumatized and vulnerable that I did the one thing that I promised not to do. The police pulled my friend out of class and talked to her about it right there on campus in the principal’s office. No privacy, no consideration, no confidentiality. She denied everything. They set up a family meeting for the next day to bring in the parents. That night, the dad uprooted the entire family and moved them out of the country. I haven’t seen my best friend since.

    Had I known then what I know now, I could have helped her better. We could’ve called a hotline together, go see a counselor, or an advocate who would’ve protected her but also those with whom she shared that delicate information. I carry that with me til this day and is a major driving force in my work. I thank God for SVSG in Samoa for providing these essential services to the community.

    Our systems are broken and do not deal with these issues sensitively and from a victim-centered perspective. Had you said something to someone about your student, there was no system in place to address her abuse. And unfortunately, no accountability to keep that information confidential. Imagine if you, with good intentions, said something to try and get her help and that info got back to her or her family. She would have been more traumatized and God knows what other consequences she may have faced in the absence of any support. You provided her some type of healing the moment you believed her and validated her experience. You gave her choice and you gave her trust, two things that were taken from her by her abuser. Restoring those in some small way may have been what she needed at that moment in time. There is no failure in that.

    I am grateful for you. Thank you for sharing this space with us. Alofa atu.

  11. Hi Lani, haven’t been reading your blog, as I was in my own world of busy-ness. lol. I always learn something new, each time i read your blogs. Whether it be, about something or just blah blah-ing i still learn something and tried to apply it to myself. Thank you for being my friend and letting me be a part of your journey. Thank you for spreading hope around the world especially for the women. Alofa tele.

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