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To Forgive Myself

December 18, 2009

It is the summer of 2001 and I live in America.  War does not affect my life.  I have not yet asked myself, who dies in war?  And after this happens—as it will happen over and over again—whose deaths do we mourn?  Most of the pictures in the newspapers are of men and women with shiny foreheads and tight-lipped smiles in their dress blues, hats on, backs straight.  Somehow they chose the uniform, and then they were unfortunately chosen in return.  The pictures in the newspapers are rarely those of the others—of the people who are pulling children by the hands, screaming, crying, shoving, and trying desperately to be away from the killing machines.  Those people usually do not make the paper as an image but rather as a number.  There are far, far too many for pictures.

What about those who live to tell of it (but do not wish to), the lucky ones?  Do you picture a soldier appearing on his doorstep, the late afternoon sun glowing sideways as he greets his young wife and new baby?  There are those.  I picture a woman who is having trouble walking.  And sitting down.  And getting up.  Do not even speak of menstruation or intercourse.  Her pelvis was broken the fifteenth time she was raped and her vulva was all but mutilated.  There are thousands like her.  The men who did this to her are not criminals. They are soldiers, perhaps honored veterans.  “Rape has long been tolerated as one of the spoils of war, an inevitable feature of military conflict like pillage and looting,” says an article from a back issue of the New Internationalist describing Serbian rape camps in Bosnia.

There are thousands like her.

It is the fall of 2001.  The holes where the World Trade Center towers once stood are still smoking and melting.  I am a sophomore at an unfamiliar university; I see myself as an adventurer, thousands of miles from my home and my first year of college in Georgia.  I am meeting new friends, flirting, working at a deli, learning foreign languages, drinking tequila for the first time.  Far too much of it.  I stumble to my room, which is spinning.  My roommate is away.  I won’t remember what happens next until several weeks later—tequila again, and the light from the fish tank—and I will refuse to forgive myself for not stopping it.  How did I let this happen? A knock.  His voice says he is an R.A. and that I must let him in.  Resident Assistants are leaders.  I let him in.  I should have known better; that’s not a rule.  Why did I not protest? He is somehow in my bed and on top of me.  I am embarrassed and scared and he is spinning or maybe there are two of him.  I should have screamed.  Rape means you scream.  I know this from movies and after-school specials. I want him to be gone and I don’t want to be hurt.  My stomach is churning.  He zips up and leaves.  I vomit again and again.

War is costly, the activists and the economists say.  The word “cost” makes us think in financial terms like economists.  I picture stacks of green bills bunched in tight yellow belts of paper; so many bunches that it is easier and faster to weigh them than to count them.  In terms of bunches of bills with yellow belts, war is certainly expensive.  But it is the human cost we lose sight of—or perhaps we never had it in our sight to begin with, because we are not the ones who need be concerned.

Let us think of “cost” like the activists do.  Since the beginning of 2003, the war in Iraq has claimed the lives of approximately 4,367 members of the United States military . During the same period of time—January 2003 through November 2009—the number of civilians who have lost their lives in Iraq has climbed into the tens of thousands.  There is virtually no reliable data on the number or frequency of rapes, or rape-related casualties, resulting from the war. Equally disturbing are the reports of rape within the military—committed most often by male soldiers and commanding officers upon female colleagues—and the ways in which the military subsequently attempts to refute, cover up, or outright ignore them.

Over the next four months, I suffer from what is most likely post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I am scared to be inside my room and utterly terrified of leaving.  The second time I venture outside my building, I see the R.A. from a distance.  He is wearing fatigues, jogging in a line with the other members of the Reserve Officers Training Corps. Tears of rage and fear are big and hot on my face.  My boyfriend pressures me into having sex with him so that he will feel better about the incident; so that I will once again be his.  My grades drop because I am more afraid of running into a single person on a campus of over twenty thousand students than I am motivated to learn.  I go home for the holidays, and I can’t bring myself to tell my father and it is as if it did not happen.  Everything is better.  I think I am cured because I know I do not risk seeing the R.A. who raped me.   But I go back to school and it starts again; my self-hatred is thick and cold, leaving me with constant knots in my stomach and terrible acne.

One night I am leaving the library, cowering under my hoodie, close behind a female friend from class.  We walk past a large group of women, one of whom tells us they are auditioning for the Vagina Monologues. I have read Eve Ensler’s book and so my friend and I stay to audition.  One hundred and twenty seven women precede me; my friend and still others come after me.  I read a monologue; I turn in my form to the directors.  To my surprise, the next day they write to tell me that I have been cast in the production.  My monologue is called, “My Vagina Was My Village.”  I am to play a Bosnian woman who was raped by soldiers.

Some of the pieces in the Vagina Monologues are based on a single story, while others are more or less compilations from the hundreds of women whom Eve Ensler interviewed.  “My Vagina Was My Village” is dedicated in particular to the victims of systematic rape during the war in former Yugoslavia, though like all the monologues, it is a story that resonates beyond political and geographical borders.

The performance is one night only: Valentine’s Day, 2002.  I have chosen a long black skirt, and a black blouse with long sleeves, and bare feet, as my costume.  The theater is so full that people are sitting in the aisles and standing in the back.  The monologue I will perform is less than three hundred words long.  In the spotlight, I take hold of this woman inside me like I am reaching below the surface of a frigid stream to retrieve the heaviest rock on the bottom.  They must listen to me because I am two people, up here in the light, and they are only themselves down there in the dark.  It is their job to let me talk, and mine to make them listen.  This is what they are here for.  I tell them what has happened to me; what I am; they think they know that the story is not really mine.  They have come here tonight to watch a friend or loved one, to see something beautiful performed, to hear someone scream ‘cunt’ or to enjoy the art of people pretending to be someone else.  Whatever their reason, it does not matter.  I pour my misery onto their laps, and the pain of the Bosnian woman.  I refute the certainty with which we believe victims to be powerless.

Photo by Jessica Shapiro, http://www.theage.com.au

I do not imagine that Eve Ensler specifically envisioned the performance of this monologue as the light at the end of the tunnel for a self-loathing American girl of 19.  That she understands the healing power of telling one’s story without fear of judgment or reproach, though, is indisputable.  The following fall I return to the South to finish college.  I pass by rows of tables dressed in white skirts and adorned with tri-fold boards and spot the head director of that production.  We laugh and hug, exchanging exclamations of surprise.  She is now working for a local Jewish student program.  I gloss over the details but tell her how much it still means to me to have performed that monologue as if it were my story.  She nods but does not smile.  “Audiences need forgiveness,” she says, “and so did you.”

Perhaps she meant forgiveness of myself, or perhaps she meant it toward the person who violated me so intensely.  Perhaps she believes that audiences need forgiveness for being mere bystanders who cannot stop the heartache before them, however contrived, or that audiences want to see characters forgive one another so they can learn to do so themselves.  Either way, it is not only possible, not only essential, to strengthen the connective tissue of humanity through art, but doing so is an indicator that we may still possess the ability to replace hatred with love, to understand each other, and to truly forgive.

Farley Griner grew up in Florida and Georgia, and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.  She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from the University of Georgia, joined the 2004 Teach For America corps in Eastern North Carolina, and since 2006 has worked for non-profit and political organizations.  She stays heavily involved in pro-choice advocacy and loves to write, run, and travel.

15 Comments
  1. Joey permalink
    December 18, 2009 1:25 pm

    I am not entirely sure how to respond to this story. I’m sitting at my desk at work, reading it, and trying to hide tears from my coworkers. I’m thinking about the fact that until society actually shuns and scorns rape and rapists, the movement for civil rights for women will never truly move to where it needs to go. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. December 18, 2009 1:47 pm

    Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Sara permalink
    December 18, 2009 2:16 pm

    Powerful and amazing work from an incredibly talented writer. I am amazed and moved.

  4. December 18, 2009 3:17 pm

    This was a powerful and moving article that spoke to my emotions and my own experiences. Your imagery is disturbing, but not in a bad way…more the way that one is disturbed by the site of suffering and moved to help.

    And your experience is a perfect illustration of our socialization of women, young women. We teach young woman to be subordinate and to be quiet and nurturing, and not to “rock the boat”. We teach woman to respect rules and authority…with that kind of socialization it isn’t surprising that a young woman would be compelled to open the door in the middle of the night to an authority figure and not ask questions. You suffered violation at his hands, and then turned that violation into yourself instead of holding him accountable for his actions.

    Blaming yourself for not stopping it, because you were “supposed to scream” “supposed to say no”… we teach women that everything is their fault, their responsibility, we’re the mothers the nurturers, the caretakers… As if it was your fault that he chose to violate you because you “know better”.

    And drawing a really good correlation between your personal experience and the rape that goes hand in hand with war…and the fact that we don’t really DO anything about it…it’s not as if these women are killed, they’re just violated personally, psychologically, physically…they just had the right to their being stripped away by one violating act…they might feel dead, but it’s not the same as murder, Right?!?

    In any case, I could go on and on…but now my mind is filled with visions of “The Prince of Tides” and the opening scene from “A time to kill” and other terrible scenes of rape brought to life on a movie screen, and my soul is on fire with rage against a male dominated society that still views woman as objects to be penetrated, and and and……

    • farley griner permalink
      December 18, 2009 4:15 pm

      Thank you all so much for reading this–it’s so cathartic to read these comments, especially since it has taken so long for me to be able to write about this.

      I was particularly struck by the comments on how we treat rape as a culture (Joey), and the logic of power dynamics (Augustina). I have a friend who wears a pin that says, “men can stop rape.” How simple and true. Actually I should send her this link!

  5. December 18, 2009 8:33 pm

    What words can we, the audience, offer except, thank you. Thank you for your courage, for your eloquence, and for sharing your story. Thank you for making me think. I am deeply moved by the privilege to read your thoughts. Your strength and passion inspire me. Your voice guides me to look at the world in new ways. As I contemplate what you have written I think about all the women I know, care for and love. Every woman is someone’s sister, daughter, mother or lover. Indeed, we as a nation need to awknowlege the cost of war, be they on our own soil or another’s. You will always have this audience member’s ear. All my love!

  6. Josh Lustig permalink
    December 19, 2009 7:24 am

    Wow. This is eye’opening, shocking, terrifying, unconcievable, moving and beautiful. Above all else it is incredible. Your courage in honesty has left me fumbling for words. This guy probably said it better:

    “The good writer seems to be writing about (her)self, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through (her)self and all things.”

    -Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Please keep it up.

  7. Colleen Hodgetts permalink*
    December 19, 2009 6:39 pm

    This is an amazing piece. I hope it brought you some peace to write it, because it has truly moved all of us who read it.

  8. Shannon Heintz permalink
    December 19, 2009 10:26 pm

    I am proud to know you and to have heard your story so powerfully told. Your courage to share this and your dedication to help women is inspiring. I am honored to be able to call you my friend; you have a promise that I will do all I can to always help you win the war against women that we fight at home and abroad.

  9. Cathy permalink
    December 20, 2009 9:16 am

    I’ve read your distillations of this experience over the years; they never fail to move me and numb me and make me cry. This one shows such healing — and such wisdom. One of the perverse blessings of trauma is an eventual, gradual, universal understanding of pain, suffering, loss, and injustice. It is, at times, an infuriating knowledge. To understand on a personal level how people can be and are brutalized; how lives are counted as nothing and altered, ruined, taken — it’s an overwhelming and oppressive consciousness of evil.

    But it’s also the key to overcoming it. You told the story of women who are silenced by telling your own. You voiced the horror and the aftermath of people who are victimized because they are in some way helpless: women, yes, and also anyone, anywhere, who is held in the abusive power of another for any reason. By telling, you are helping them to tell — and not to shame the audience so much as to bring them into the healing process, to allow the often helpless observers to be of use. By healing, you are part of a universal healing process. Because we are all connected in this, in both the suffering and in the responsibility to ease it.

    Another key is self-forgiveness, a bitterly ironic necessity in a situation that wasn’t the victim’s fault. I agree that women are taught submission, but worse is that we are all taught that we control our fate. That’s not entirely true. Free will allows for the terrible possibility that someone will overpower us. No matter how much we claw and scream and otherwise fight, it may happen anyway. Someone more powerful — physically, professionally, financially, politically — can brutalize us. And it’s easier to blame ourselves for what we could or should have done than live with the awful reality that sometimes we’re helpless. It’s easier to listen to all the voices saying what we should have done (oh, yes, they’re out there as well as in our heads), saying that THAT would never happen to ME because I would do this … than to admit that anyone could wrest so much from our lives, against our will.

    That acceptance of seeming weakness is part of the freedom. The universality of our shared vulnerability is part of the journey out, with others here and gone who have lived with it and made it their own and determined to tell others.

    • December 20, 2009 5:10 pm

      Cathy, I think you perfectly and beautifully express the common thread: “one of the perverse blessings of trauma is an eventual, gradual, universal understanding of pain, suffering, loss, and injustice. It is, at times, an infuriating knowledge.”

      It means the world to me to be able to share this with you. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  10. Angela permalink
    December 23, 2009 2:43 pm

    Farley,

    I am envious of your ability to write about your experience. I am also continually amazed that my experience could possibly be so widespread and systemic, every time I read about another woman’s.

    I am proud to serve with you on the board and look forward to continuing to do so to make things better for all of us.

  11. Sheri permalink
    December 25, 2009 3:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing your writing and life experience with us, Farley! You are an amazing woman.

  12. Erin Fair permalink
    January 4, 2010 7:44 pm

    If there is anything good about women’s status and relative value in our society, it is that I never take a smart, powerful, eloquent woman for granted when I see one. Farley Griner, you are all of those and so much more. I stand in awe and admiration of women like you that use your words to move the world toward recognizing and implementing justice and equity (even if by shedding light on injustice and inequity). I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience those words – and the world is a better place because you put your words out there.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Keep rockin’ it, sister!!

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