March 2014



Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence edited by Lisa Factora-Borchers

Dedicated to all those living with memories of sexual violence, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence is difficult to read and even more difficult to review, but not because of the way its texts have been written and compiled. It is because of the implications it has on so many levels even for readers who haven't experienced sexual violence in one of its extremely disturbing forms. So this review is not going to be about analyzing texts, looking for their weaker spots, identifying with or trying to rationally understand them. Its sole purpose is to simply let you know that this anthology is out there for you to grasp for yourself, for a family member, for a friend. Survivors of sexual violence are many more than we would like it to acknowledge.

As the book's own "trigger warning" signals: "What may have been healing for the contributor to use -- images and words centering on body, consent, sexual expression, justice, and suffering -- may have a different impact on the reader. Be gentle with yourself and practice self-care as you absorb these works. Only you can know when to put the book down to rest or when to pick it up again to walk with another contributor..." Dear Sister sheds some light, even if it causes hurt. It tries to evoke intimacy through its epistolary pieces and create a safer space even if only on paper, an endeavor that will hopefully promote further reflection, liberation and community-building for all the survivors of sexual violence, whether they choose to define themselves as such or not. Framed as a transformative project, Dear Sister uses its scissors-and-paste-like production of letters, interviews, essays and poetry to emphasize the importance of unconditional love offered to survivors of sexual violence by other survivors, and by the community that is supposed to help in the healing process. It also tries to designate the harsh reality of a survivor's life not from an outsider's point of view, but from the survivor's own perspective and experience. This is precisely the point where this anthology breaks ranks with the traditional, self-help-like literature that points to healing as a survivor of sexual violence (be it rape, forced prostitution, incest) by taking various steps and undergoing processes recommended and monitored by individuals labeled as authorities in the field.

By addressing issues of gender, identity, transformative justice, disability and radical self-love, Dear Sister dismantles the mechanisms of shaming and blaming only to show that they have no place in the healing process. Painfully diverse and featuring distinct tones and experiences, Dear Sister seems to be a genuine proof that there is no such thing as a guaranteed path to healing from sexual violence. Actually, any testimonial from this anthology begs to differ as it challenges each and every one of us to allow ourselves to become each other's teachers, instead of searching for absolute healing schemes promising to deliver perfect and ready-to-use solutions. Because the sad truth, as this anthology also underlines, is that every one of us is likely to have survived something one way or another, even if it is not sexual violence we are talking about: "Healing, I learned, is not about overcoming discomfort or even taming it. Healing is about listening to oneself while in the state of discomfort and learning from it, perhaps even growing with it."

The texts collected in the first part of this anthology, suggestively named "What Every Survivor Needs to Know," touch on issues such as the usual blaming of the victim for not being properly dressed, for walking the streets alone and late at night, for not knowing how and when to say no!, for letting the abuser think that everything is alright when in fact it is not. One text in particular is rather keen on touching the sharp-toothed rhetoric that usually surrounds the survivor, pointing at the ways she is supposed to react to experiencing sexual violence: "Dancing like a marionette to please others is the last thing that you will want to do after your body was violated. And when you try to find a way to deal with the rape on your own terms, someone will step forward to correct your decision, once again reminding you that your body is not your own." "You Don't Owe It to Anyone Else to Report," an article that was first published in XOJane, takes the matter even further by underlining the immense pressure that is put on the victim to report the sexual abuse in order to protect other potential victims, even if the victim is already reluctant to admit the rape and file a report in the first place due to her already being in a vulnerable position.

"A Child Re-membering" collects pieces on incest and child sexual abuse only to emphasize that no survivor is alone in her healing journey. Once she comes to understand and genuinely accept that it was someone else's fault, that someone else has chosen to hurt her, the survivor of sexual abuse should try to hang on and also come to terms with the "new" life because, against all odds and in spite of being torn apart, she has managed to survive. In "Feminine Wiles," femininity is not the surest way to become a target. Instead, it becomes the survivor's choice to be herself, to use flirtation as a way to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, to assess even the slightest perception of risks and design the possible way out. Or as the writer puts it: "To be feminine, we have had to learn how to use an arsenal of weapons, to be ready and to never let the risks stop us from loving and from loving our femininities. The older I get, the higher my heels and the more tender my heart. From my femme sisters and brothers -- I find new ways to navigate the world and honor our precious divinity."

Bluntly addressing the challenging topic of transformative justice, the pieces from "Family Ties" cast some serious doubts on the healing and rehabilitating power of traditional justice based as it is on coercive prison systems that manage to do more harm than good. Transformative justice perceived as accountability for all the parts involved in the sexual violence means that healing should also dig into community-based solutions to prevent sexual violence. It means that healing should be taking place for the abuser as well and this should be taken care of outside the current legal systems. In fact, the whole concept of transformative justice is about understanding and accepting that sexual violence does not happen in a vacuous bubble with no past and no future; quite the contrary, sexual violence is to be regarded as the product of a series of events that involve more than what happens between the abuser and the victim. The way sexual violence is currently perceived is to be challenged, is to be put to rest, thus leaving space for its redefinition -- a redefinition based on the interdependency of the forces that lead to sexual violence in the first place. And this also stands for understanding and accepting that the individuals who commit acts of sexual violence should not be perceived as being monsters because there are high chances that they, at their own turn, are survivors of sexual violence too.

"From Trauma to Strength" delivers a strikingly clear message on the way any experience of sexual abuse can be used as a part of the healing and transformation process, as this experience does not define the survivor. The survivor should not let herself be defined by the violence that has been imposed on her. On the contrary, the survivor should define herself in her own terms so that she can start her own healing process without feeling guilty or ashamed, without asking herself whether what she has done in order to survive is good or not. The mere act of surviving is all that matters in the end. And in "Another Post about Rape," the dominant, patriarchal and kind of ingrown idea that you must follow the rules for proper social interactions in order to stay safe from sexual violence is disestablished bit by bit. Behaving properly in your interactions with men does not necessarily mean that you are going to be safer: "Behavior exists on a continuum. Rape doesn't inhabit its own little corner of the world where everything is suddenly all different now. The behavior you accept today is the behavior that becomes rape tomorrow. And you very well might accept it then, too."

Stressing the importance of genuine understanding and solidarity, pointing to the unfairness of having to experience sexual violence and dismissing the demands to act likeable, the way any survivor is "supposed to," "Radical Companionship" and "Choose Your Own Adventure," the final acts of this anthology, reclaim the survivor's right to create or find community, to develop new connections outside the initial trauma, to share her own vision on sexual violence in spite of everything that is expected from her, to love herself in spite of what has been done to her. "Surviving is the process of living and dying each day. A primordial balancing. The ability to walk through level-five earthquakes. When you feel the impossible breathing down your neck, you are on the right path. As long as you continue moving -- whether you crawl, wander, or run -- your energy will keep you alive." I've closed Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence feeling that this book is a very precious narrative for the mere fact that it addresses the survivors of sexual violence from other survivors' points of view. In fact, this anthology has all it takes to try and make all the survivors out there feel less alone and the people around them understand that radical friendship and love are key facets in any healing process.

Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence edited by Lisa Factora-Borchers Simmon
AK Press
ISBN: 978-1849351720
178 pages