by Debra Doggett
I never saw her face. It’s been more than twenty years since I sat beside her, holding her hand for over two hours as she huddled under the thin hospital blanket. She stays in my mind, like an echo buried in the folds of time. Her name is long gone from my memory, but the feel of her fingers wrapped tight against mine, as if I could hold off the demons, remains in my heart as does the pain in her voice.
The policeman wrote down her muffled answers. To his credit, he never forced her to reveal her face or chastised her for not being able to understand her words. Some part of him must have known the night had held enough punishment. She was fifteen, and rape seemed a high price to pay for being young and foolish.
When I signed up for the classes to become a counselor, I’d been assured rape calls would be few. Most of what I would see, they told me, would be domestic violence incidents—as if one would be easier to view than the other. Instead, most of the calls that had me leaving my family late at night during the two years I worked for the crisis line involved rape.
I would not have called myself an innocent, but I soon found I was one. I was a grown woman, mother to three girls and married for many years. Life held order, routine, and a safety I took for granted. It startles the soul to see the power violence has to rip apart the fabric of the lives it touches.
Violence hides in many forms, using words as well as actions as its segue into society. Judgment and guilt are its henchmen, and they do their work well. Often it moves through the world unseen, or dressed as false kindness tinged with barely veiled judgment: “If you had been stronger, smarter, less vulnerable . . . perhaps things would have worked out differently.”
I think about that girl as I listen to the tone of violence against women in our public dialogue. Unconfronted and uncondemned, gender violence has blossomed into a full-on assault. Yet we are mistaken, in my opinion, to label it a war against women. It is the playground of violence and it will not stop with women. Even now, women are not the singular victims of its killing blows. The poor, the disabled, the elderly, the “other,” all slam into the limits of mercy and kindness when violence becomes the undercurrent of a society. The immigrant and the indigenous, alike, have taken their turn under its malevolent eye. It would be easy to name it fear, but fear is only the orphan child violence uses as its trigger.
If one listens close enough, the hum of violence can be heard in a myriad of places. It hides in the rhetoric of religion and the posturing of morality. So masked, we feel comfortable allowing it a voice in the dialogue of culture: women are more protected with a godly husband; traditional marriage provides children a better environment to be nurtured in, protecting our borders will allow us to keep our resources for our own people and so on.
Violence looks for the cracks and crevices, unguarded entryways to the psyche of a people who lack focus. Distracted by the worry and toil of daily life, we live unaware of the ways we allow psychic violence to color our words, our small actions. We do what is routine, what is comfortable, what is tradition, at least until that violence finds its way into our own corner of the world.
When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 shook our sense of safety, we confronted as a nation the truth of violence. Our initial response was to join together to rebuild hope, to celebrate those heroes who pulled the fallen from the rubble, some at the cost of their own lives. For a brief time, our focus stayed on unity, on community. What might have happened had we clung to those ideals? Instead, our thoughts turned to revenge and our nation turned to war.
Being strong, being a warrior becomes synonymous with being able to deliver the punch, to make the shot, to trounce the villain. We might respect Dr. Martin Luther King, but we cheer for John Wayne.
We equate strength with safety. Violence, however, is false strength. It is the mask of cowardice rather than a bastion of safety.
Out late in the dark, the girl lay tossed in a ditch at the end of the night, wounded and without the words to express the depth of the pain in her soul.
I don’t know how long it took this young woman to heal, to find her voice again, or if she ever did. Did she find refuge or only shelter? Does she have a family, a daughter of her own now? Without a way to alter the dynamic of violence within our culture, how does she heal herself, protect her own child? What does her community, her culture have to offer girls like her beyond immediate solace?
This is the dialogue we must have. As vivid as the imagery is, it does not help our cause to envision it as a battle, nor a war. Our progress away from violence needs to be a forward walk, past the cannons, past the minefield and on to the mountain, to the higher plane of existence where we all thrive. It is the root of violence itself we must confront. We must ask where it hides, where and how it gains support. As long as this country clings to violence like a treasured heirloom, we will continue to lose our innocence as she lost hers, leaving us with only the choice to hide beneath the covers.
Debra Doggett holds a BA in History and has worked as a researcher and historian for many years along with being a writer, editor, and filmmaker. During her writing career, she has created exhibit text, marketing materials, and educational programming, and has written for websites, film, and print.