Dear Sister Survivor…
Review by Barbara Korbal
Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence
Lisa Factora-Borchers, ed.AK Press
For survivors of sexual assault, healing is an intense and personal journey. Concerned supporters want nothing more than to help, but knowing what to say when a victim of sexual violence has lost a sense of trust and safety is not easy. Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence is a remarkable volume offering words of wisdom and insight to survivors and the allies who want to help them. Editor Lisa Factora-Borchers asked 40 survivors of sexual violence from a variety of ethnicities and age groups to write a letter reflecting what they wish someone had told them during their own healing process. What emerges in this unique volume is a multiplicity of answers, demonstrating that there is no “one path fits all” to healing from sexual abuse and its aftermath.
The diverse array of letter-writing survivors offers many ideas and approaches, but certain themes insistently resurface throughout Dear Sister, such as cultural attitudes that blame victims for their assault. There’s a refreshing anger at a society which grooms women to be “good girls” only to castigate them for not fighting back when they become victims of sexual assault. “If we teach women that there are only certain ways that they should behave,” a writer from the blog Fugitivus notes, echoing this theme of a cultural catch-22, “… then we should not be surprised when they behave in these ways during attempted or completed rapes.”
Many of the collection’s writers tackle the issue of if and how to enter the system for reporting sexual assault. The experiences shared by the survivors clearly demonstrate that reporting sexual assault is a very individualized experience and must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Zöe Flowers hands the decision-making power back to the survivor because, as the person who was present, “she is the expert in her situation.” It’s very possible that re-victimization may occur in a culture that tacitly sanctions violence against women. However, “Rape is the responsibility of the rapist,” remarks a blogger from xoJane. “People who have been sexually assaulted are not somehow responsible for preventing their assailant from assaulting other people.” Victims are not to blame; the abuser is to blame.
But ultimately, this book is about how survivors can heal heart and mind in order to move on and progress through the aftershocks of being sexually assaulted, whether it be incest, rape or acquaintance-related abuse. As Mary Zelinka declares, “The memory of the abuse and its impact will never be forgotten, but it no longer dictates who I am.” And indeed, Dear Sister offers so many useful ways to move on and live life with a cup half full.
Dear Sister is a velveteen rabbit book—it becomes real when it has a reader in deep need of these heartfelt insights. What could be a potential weakness in a book without a clear, linear narrative, becomes the strength of this sincere volume. While each vignette is discrete and can stand alone, as a whole, the pieces outline the healing process for individuals dealing with the impact of sexual violence. And if you or someone you know needs helpful advice, I definitely recommend this work. You can pick it up when you need it, and put it down when you don’t.
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