It has become more and more important to me the older I get to share my emotional experience with others, because I have come to believe that I am not unique. I think that if I take a chance and share my dark side, I can maybe help others or I can maybe even make new connections.
I have always shared a lot, but not publicly. It was always only with a trusted friend or two, and there was so much I wouldn’t share also because I was ashamed.
The more people I speak with or get to know, the more I realize that my emotional experience is in many ways similar to others. I also know that when I was at the lowest points in my life, it always helped to hear from others who either could understand or who had had similar experiences or feelings as I was having.
There is still so much I haven’t shared.
I wrote my #metoo list, but it is on an anonymous site…and although I would tell myself not to feel ashamed about certain things, I still do. If these things were someone else’s experience, I would tell them to let it go, to be at peace, to not feel ashamed, that they weren’t at fault, etc. etc.
But I am becoming more and more open, and I hope that by doing so I not only help others, but that I too can keep growing and stay in a positive place…
I have become increasingly aware of how much I did to overcome my anxiety and depression the past ten or more years and how the pandemic has stripped away a lot of my efforts.
Starting in 1990, I spent twelve to fifteen years dealing with my issues with groups, individual counseling, and healing workshops. I also was on almost every medication out there for depression, as well as some to help me sleep. Later also I was on a low dose of one specifically for anxiety.
The last fifteen or more years, I have been off medication and relied on other ways to feel good about myself, my work, and my life. I continued my journey to keep my body as healthy as possible, and exercised regularly. As my kids grew older and my belief that my marriage would be a fulfilling one faded, I worked on making my world bigger by getting more people and activities in my life for myself.
The last three years saw my world become immensely social because of taiko. Many weeks I drummed two to three times with others, and I almost always had a taiko trip planned. The more workshops I did around the country and in Germany, the more people I had to share experiences with. Even online, we maintained the connection we had made while making music together. We continued the discussion of life and how taiko can change the world. I had taiko players sleep at my house, and some of my current closest friends are from taiko, even if they reside far away.
When I returned from Germany on March 16, I plunged into self-isolation with determination to get through self-isolation. I used all the tools I have gained the past thirty years of my recovery and living with PTSD. I faced each day with purpose. I exercised with different friends most days, worked at home, and tried to get my family to do things together. I posted on FaceBook often and stayed connected with my friends around the world with zoom meetings or in other ways.
Additionally, I joined my taiko group’s zoom meetings with enthusiasm, asking them if we could check in with each person taking a turn. I wanted to hear how everyone was doing (instead of just getting to business). I reached out to people to talk or to make FaceTime appointments. I ate healthily and talked to my kids a lot. In general, I was pro-active. I was determined to ensure that I would remain emotionally and physically healthy and productive, knowing that if I didn’t, I could end up in a dark place.
But this past weekend, I slid into a dark, low, and sad spot. I know I have been sliding for a while, but I had kept fighting to stay afloat. I acted “as if,” even if I didn’t feel it – because I learned in the nineties that if you act “as if,” very often eventually you will feel it or at least you will have gotten through the rough spot.
There were different kind of anxieties to deal with before the pandemic. Yet because I was quite active each week, I was able to rise above the negative feelings because of social interactions, playing music with others, and having purpose at home or elsewhere.
But the past two days especially I feel like something has pushed me down, and my low-grade anxiety has morphed into a depression. I feel sad. I feel like there is no point. I feel like my dream will never come true. Going mostly out of business, knowing soon I will have almost no income and will be 100% dependent on my spouse, not having income from writing, I felt like if it weren’t for my kids, my animals, my father (and whoever else I cannot think of at the moment who would be very sad that I left), I could be done with my time here on earth.
Of course, I realize that my worth here on earth is more than what I earn or produce. But for me, being a great parent and a part-time essay writer, a sometimes tutor and editor is not enough. I feel I accomplished basically two great things so far in my life. But if I live another ten or twenty more years, I would like to accomplish at least one more great thing. I have a big dream that I have hardly began constructing. With life after the pandemic, will it ever get off the ground? Does it matter if I sit around? Should I really continue to work toward my dream?
I understand that much of my suffering is in my own head. There are some things I wish could change or have asked to be different. But mostly the anxiety is like an internal feeling of paranoia and fear. Becoming more socially active the past six or more years alleviated much of my lower level of anxiety I had for decades. When I went out to volunteer or play taiko, I had fun with others. I had interesting discussions or even just listened to people as they talked about their lives or interests. Even if I didn’t share my feelings, it didn’t matter, because I still felt validated and connected with other humans.
I know that the pandemic will end, and somehow I will have to figure out how to get out there again with all my wonderful taiko and other acquaintances and friends.
I have been through other bouts of depression, so I know I won’t cut my life short. I have never sunk that low, and I have confidence I won’t this time.
I know it’s okay to be by myself or just with my kids. I know how to have special time at home and how to connect. I have the tools. I just need the willpower.
I am extremely grateful for my privileged position in that I am not an essential worker and can stay at home. My family and I keep each other safe, and we have enough to eat. I am deeply saddened by the suffering of so many in the world.
I am not feeling sorry for myself, which was the message I was told since I was a small child. This may be a poorly-written essay, but I am being honest.
Except for with a few friends and a few online taiko activities, I have slowly withdrawn. I read email only once a day because many cause me anxiety, and some I don’t read at all. I exercise less. I even passed down chances to talk with friends, something I never would have done, even just days ago. I asked to take a couple weeks off from my taiko group because I am tired of smiling or looking attentive without actually connecting with the faces I see.
I am grateful for the friends who have reached out and with whom I could share and listen. Today I spent over an hour on the phone with taiko friends from Germany – the sole purpose of the conversation being to connect emotionally and socially. It felt so good to hear and nod when they spoke of their concerns. Plus, it felt like a burden released to tell them how small my world felt and how lonely I was. It also reminded me that I have to figure out how to have more fun during the rest of this pandemic.
I know I am not alone. Even if that doesn’t totally get me out of my slump today, I believe it will eventually. With the help of loved ones, friends, and my own inner gutsiness, I know I will be better tomorrow than I am today. I will get through this, and I know you will also, however you are suffering. These are unprecedented times, and many people feel lonely, sad, and anxious. I will get through this, and hopefully I will again find it easy to feel peace, serenity, and joy. I share with you honestly it case it helps you or someone else who is struggling. Despite our struggles, I believe, we can persevere.
I knew it was time to tell my daughter I was a rape survivor. It is a significant detail in my life, and it has influenced many decisions. This detail inspired many years of research on sexual violence, and it seemed natural to have my family members know. Some day I will tell my son.
Additionally, I am writing about my life and experiences and want to include my entire history. If anything would go online, even if anonymous, my daughter might know it would be her mom from the context. There are journals and electronic devices around our home with my past outlined, so if I died or otherwise because incapacitated, she may come across the information. It felt that I had waited long enough, and she was old enough. I also needed to write and add my piece to the metoo movement, in case it would help even one other person.
I had considered telling her for years, but it hadn’t felt right for various reasons. Now, in 2018, my kids are older, and I’ve been writing more since 2016. I am clear-headed, healthy, and strong, and it’s time.
My considerations were these:
I did not want to burden her. I did not want or need her to worry about me or be scared for me or her family. That would be putting a burden on her, and her life is full enough now as a teenager.
I made it clear from the beginning of our conversation because she is my daughter, it felt important to explain this large part of my life, my existence. My assaults do not define me. Yet they have been an immeasurable part of me since I first realized all I have survived, and I wanted her to know about this.
I told her I was telling her from a place of strength because I have done many workshops and hours of therapy sessions. I explained the growth process from victim to survivor to thriver. In so many areas of my life, I felt I had reached the point of thriving. I wanted her to know that although I recognize the injustice and tragedy of sexual assault, I also feel my power as a person.
I told her she could ask me any questions, any time.
As I was speaking my voice caught a little. Instead of ignoring the emotion and having her wonder, I explained why. Even though I was telling her from a place of strength, it still is a significantly sad part of my life history and so to tell someone as close to my heart as my daughter is emotional. I also recognize how the news can affect someone who loves me.
I explained the anger I had felt in the decades following my great realizations. I said that even today a part of me also feels shame.
Basically, I ended up telling her one afternoon because I couldn’t stand it any longer thinking about when a good time would be. I told her when there wouldn’t be that much time for us to sit and discuss. Originally, I had planned to tell her when we had a lot of time. But I felt it was better this way because the awfulness then couldn’t bog us down.
I knew from experience that telling people you are a survivor can be a shock to the other person. Even though it is the survivor’s pain, the person listening also experiences emotions. Still, I knew I would be there in the next hours and days for any questions or feelings she needed to process. She was able to ask four or five questions, and I answered them. I checked in after the interuption to reiterate that she could ask questions and we could talk any time. She said she was okay, and we hugged…
I am fifty one, and my daughter will be seventeen in a week.
My first rape was a statutory rape when I was sixteen and the man thirty-two. He took advantage of me one other time, as did an additional man in his twenties on a different occasion. I never included the latter occurrence as one of my rapes, but of course it was illegal for him to do what he did. I was lucky I had the sixth sense to know he probably wasn’t the type to tie me up or physically rip apart my body. Many people in my life have told me I have some kind of extra “sense.” I truly believe this sense saved my life on many occasions.
The other two were before I was twenty. I had been drinking alcohol before all instances, and the last rapes I was intoxicated.
None of the men used a weapon or physically harmed my body. But these assaults, having grown up in a rape culture and all that that entails, personal family circumstances and the way I was raised (which in part was influenced by our rape culture), immeasurably affected my self esteem, some major life decisions, my research, numerous day-to-day decisions and habits formed, and my general life direction. I have suffered and survived. I thrive as a survivor, and I still suffer in ways that continue to surprise me. And this is still only part of my story.
My emotional world has started to close in on me. It is as if my smaller physical world is nagging at my mind, telling it to come along: “you can be small, too. Let’s get small, feel small, and forget about all the love out there. Just think about the doom and how powerless you feel alone and in your virtual world. Compare your measly accomplishments to others and feel the smallness!” I am fighting quarantine exhaustion.
At first I FaceTimed and exercised every day, had different national and international taiko zoom meetings, and reached out to others to connect. I encouraged my family to do special family outings in the parks or to play games. I even tried to get them to play charades! I wrote, and I worked on my dream. I basically took charge of the situation, knowing what I needed for my emotional health.
I so appreciated seeing people’s faces. I loved having conversations and hearing voices. I loved connecting on FaceBook with my friends. I felt strong, in shape, and as though I could get through this, despite not knowing how long it would be until I could play music or drink coffee with friends.
But after a few weeks, I got tired. I started to feel more withdrawn. It was as if the anxiety of the pandemic and staying at home was gnawing at me more and more, tugging at me to stay in bed and binge watch Game of Thrones. Once, during a zoom meeting there was a chance when the formal topic ended to just talk. But, after only a few minutes I wanted to leave the meeting. I didn’t understand why, because I liked to hear what these people were saying – some of them were wonderful friends I was close with.
Of course, I googled to investigate why I didn’t feel as connected as I felt I should even though it also seemed obvious. Without any great insight it seems natural that true connection for humans comes from being together physically. Plus, I had spent the last ten years of my life working on becoming more social. By the time of the pandemic I drummed with friends two to three times a week. I volunteered most weeks, exercised with a friend fairly regularly, went to movies, book club, lunch, and other events. Being a writer and a home-business owner, as my children had grown, I had needed to do this for my well-being.
I realized I was slowly sliding into the darkness during the second half of April, despite feeling grateful for me and my family’s health and well-being. Over the years I have learned that being grateful for one’s circumstances is not enough to feel content. It doesn’t mean I feel guilty for my circumstances. It means I believe humans or at least I was meant for more connection. I needed more face-to-face conversations and more accomplishment.
My old reality and my dreams and goals from just a two months ago seemed so far away. It felt harder and harder to work on them and to remember that this too shall pass. It was hard to remember that maybe I’m not heading toward death and destruction and grief. I felt and have been feeling small and powerless. I am angry at Schleich and Amazon.com who, with their economic bullying are taking away so much of my income. I am angry that no matter what I write to them, they do not care. I feel angry at all the corporations and greed and at our incompetent and immoral politicians and their supporters. I was starting to feel I will never accomplish my dreams. Logically, this didn’t make sense: of course the pandemic will end at some point.
But as a survivor of patriarchy and too many bad things that can happen to young people, feeling angry and powerless is a familiar, deep-seeded feeling. I know it has the power to bring me down into a darkness I haven’t visited for a long while. So before I slip too deeply….
I woke up realizing it is Prince’s death anniversary, and I decided that I was going to feel differently. I sat looking out the window by my bed and wrote this essay.
I wanted to write, to believe, and to tell you that we can get through this. I can get through this. If I can get through this, so can you. Please join me in believing that this pandemic will end without the entire world dying. Join me in believing we can have large gatherings with lots of human connection and interaction. As we shelter-at-home and feel grateful for those who are risking their lives for us, know we are doing the right thing for the greater good. Know that we will persevere, that you and I have inner strength and wisdom and love that we and the world needs.
So, today I will wear some purple.
Today I will do something with my hair.
Today I will work a little on my dream, even if for just ten minutes.
Today I will call a friend.
Today I will express to someone, somehow my true feelings.
Today I will step outside and look up to the sky. I will breath in and feel my inner power and wisdom and the connection I have to the great universe.
On top of our daily work, if we can also take a few minutes every day to do some of these positive things or to do as many of them as we can fit in, then I know we can get through this. I know I can. No matter how much time each of us has left on this earth, we can spend it knowing that we can make a difference in ourselves and in those around us, even if we are stuck at home for the duration of the pandemic.
So, look out your window, step out your door, or just look to the ceiling. Imagine a – or look to the – big beautiful sky. See how big you can become, feel how much wisdom and love you have inside yourself. Know you can share this love and spread it and help heal the world. Know too, that all love given returns. The positive energy you send out today and every day will help others and yourself as well.
Many of us who are not essential workers feel a mix of relief and guilt, while we also try to figure out if there is another way to help those in need. Staying at home is a public health service, but many of us want to do more. Through the past weeks, I have found meaning in my situation. I began the stay-at-home period fearing for my mental health, and I also felt both guilt and relief because I am temporarily successfully self-employed.
I am a small business owner of over twenty years. Small means that I am the CEO, the accountant, the strategist, the packer, the logistics manager, the buyer, etc. I wear all the hats except during the holiday season, when a couple of friends or a family member help me pack.
I’ve enjoyed gross sales of over $100,000 for at least thirty percent of the years in business. This was enough to make me feel as though I were contributing something to the family besides my unpaid labor. Having given up in frustration with Amazon and eBay, for years I tried to make a go with my own websites. But about eight years ago I ended up returning to the large marketplaces.
Had I made this a full-time endeavor, my story would be different. I never took out a business loan. I never had a business plan. I maintained my own websites, which quickly meant mine became old-fashioned and cumbersome. Except for on a couple of occasions I didn’t invest in professional development or any other professional services. I started my business while in graduate school and continued as I homeschooled my kids. But all along I kept it a part-time endeavor, since I was also interested in other work .
Before the pandemic I received a letter from Schleich, a name brand toy company I have carried for over fifteen years and primarily sold on Amazon.com. I also sold a little on eBay and Sears, and even less on my own website. Schleich told me they now forbid their customers to sell on the large marketplaces. This came after I had just purchased thousands of dollars of toys.
In December one of their representatives assured me that if anything happened with Amazon they would refund inventory I had purchased. The rep was aware of the problems I had with Amazon. (For the last three to four years I’ve had multiple issues on Amazon with my Schleich listings. This was because they intended to be the sole carrier of Schleich and other name-brands. Amazon would take my listings down or or make it very difficult for me to list in ways I can with less-known brands.) Now, they won’t give me an answer as to whether they will take any inventory back.
Schleich’s agreement with Amazon states that Amazon will be the only retailer selling Schleich toys on Amazon.com. This takes away at least ninety percent of my business.
Having already purchased much of what I would need in 2020, when Minnesota started to shut down, I had $38,000 in inventory, but with business so slow during the year, I had no idea how I was going to get rid of this without just donating it and taking it as a loss. I keep emailing Schleich asking about returning items, but they won’t respond properly. I marked everything down and put a sale on all Schleich items, plus I lowered my shipping and handling costs.
In the third week of March, the orders suddenly started coming in. It wasn’t as busy as during the holiday season, but much more than usual for this time of year. As I realized what was happening, I felt guilty. So many people were suffering around the country, and they wanted to get their children a toy. They were suffering, while I was getting rid of inventory. Sure, it will take many months to rid myself of the majority of it, but still, I was busy and successfully self-employed (not that I have ever been eligible for unemployment). I reconciled myself with the thought that at least the children were getting toys without costing their parent’s too much.
As the weeks have passed, while I still feel lucky and privileged to be safe, fed, and housed, I also realized it is okay that I am getting rid of my inventory. It’s not okay that others are suffering greatly. It’s also not okay that this billion-dollar corporation sold me thousands of dollars of inventory before basically putting me out of business. It’s not okay that Amazon is determines the online marketplace to the extent that they do. It’s not okay that Amazon and other large corporations don’t pay any taxes, while I do. I don’t have employees, but I still work hard for what I earn, and I then put money back into the economy.
After a month I have realized a deeper meaning for me. For years I have insisted that I didn’t want to be a retailer. I am a historian, and I wanted to do something that felt more meaningful. Besides writing, I wasn’t sure what that will be – if I would tutor more people, edit more essays, or what. I started writing again about ten years ago. This helped my sense of purpose, but things hadn’t fallen into place yet.
Now in 2020 the corporate bullies have pushed me into action, ideas have landed in my lap, and I have a new sense of purpose knowing I can use my other talents to make the world a better place. Despite not being sure how to lose myself of so much inventory without taking a great financial loss, the pandemic has allowed me to ship out hundreds of toys to children who are also at home with their working parents. I stopped feeling guilty for this, because it will help me move quicker to a new project. There is value in providing children with quality toys. Yet, I am grateful that at some point I will be able to focus on other areas in my life.
So as I sit at home waiting out the pandemic and packing so many toys, I keep my dream of more meaningful work for myself alive each day.
I don’t know how long I have had post-traumatic stress disorder. I first started addressing the main symptom of numbing the emotional pain in 1990. This means that this August I will have been actively trying to get beyond PTSD for thirty years. It wasn’t until some years after 1990 that I was officially diagnosed. This was because it became clear that although I wasn’t numbing my pain, I still lived with other symptoms, including anxiety, depression, negative self-talk or obsessive worrying, being easily startled (especially if awoken), frequently feeling emotionally overwhelmed whether in crowds, at home, or in groups, difficulty making even small decisions (subconsciously fearing unknown consequences), difficulty dealing with anyone who was or could be angry with me, difficulty speaking out for fear of retribution, and for many years hiding myself from movies, news media, or books that might include information or scenes on rapes.
Because I have actively faced my issues with intense group therapy, workshops, individual counseling, EMDR counseling, and various support groups, I grew incredibly fast and past many obstacles, and I was able to teach my children at a young age to name their emotions, to talk about their emotions, and to actively and frequently engage in self-care. Despite my diagnosis, I was still able to raise two children with high self-esteem, finish my Ph.D. on an extremely difficult topic (sexual violence and war), homeschool my kids for about six years, run a part-time home-based business for twenty years, write essays, encyclopedia articles, and start a memoir about one period in my life (I still hope to finish this). I was in a swing dance performance group, later took tap dance lessons, and then more recently started playing taiko.
Because of societal and self-imposed pressure, however, I used to hide my symptoms, some of which were common to people without PTSD. I put on a brave face to the outside world. I often wasn’t fully honest and pretended I was “normal” when I had to explain something (I couldn’t admit that I had this “thing,” this “issue,” this “problem,” that makes whatever the event or issue was too hard for me to fathom doing). I also tried as hard as I could to hide my anxiety or sadness to my kids. I knew children can sense a lot, so I put a conscious effort into smiling, being positive, and pretending to be brave and without fears of simple societal contact. I had always shared smaller feelings, because I wanted them to see one parent who could express a range of emotions naturally, and as my kids grew, I began to share more of the feelings I was ashamed of. I came out to my daughter as a rape survivor when she was about sixteen, and I have yet to share much with my son.
As a child, I was told to “pick myself up by the boot straps” and to stop “feeling sorry for myself,” which are positive messages when given in moderation, but in excess this led me to swallow my natural emotions and to not learn how to express my feelings verbally in a healthy way, and despite all my journaling about feelings, I still grew up believing no one cared if I was sad or scared, because I thought I was supposed to be stronger and I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself. I hid all my assaults from my parents and friends, and once I stopped numbing my pain, I still only told certain people who were safe to me. I knew intellectually that I should not feel ashamed of anything that had happened to me, but I did not know how to voice it. But I taught my children that people do and will care about their feelings, so with the right people, it is safe and healthy to express one’s sadness, disappointment, frustration, etc. It is also good to learn to move on after facing a setback.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about half of all women will experience a traumatic event in their lives, and many of these women will subsequently live with PTSD. Traumatic events are also common among men and transgender people. Those who develop PTSD from a traumatic event can experience debilitating symptoms, while for others, the symptoms are less severe. Some people never experience PTSD from a traumatic event. This could be because they have the emotional tools to deal with what happened, but it also could be something about how their brain is wired – something even the experts cannot yet explain.
I have complex PTSD in the sense that it wasn’t just one event. The childhood lack of emotional support, physical abandonment (in the sense of being left alone a lot, even for multiple days as I entered middle school) prevented me from learning basic coping skills, and the overuse of alcohol starting before before I was a teenager both led me to not being able to cope with traumatic situations later on (sexual harassment in middle school, high school, and workplaces, constant bullying in middle and high school, multiple rapes).
You may think that I had lousy parents, but I believe they did the best that they could with the tools they had while I was a young child. Despite not providing me with certain tools required for emotional, physical, and spiritual health, I learned these tools quickly in my twenties (it was like I took an intense course to overall well-being), and by my thirties I was able to provide my children with these tools only because my parents gifted me a sense of drive and a will to survive. In 1990, when I first started realizing all that I had been through and how my past, despite not being as bad as many stories I heard, still was not ideal, I dug in and fought to stay afloat, get past my rapes, understand my raw and strong emotions by reaching out to others, using my phone list, sharing my feelings over and over again in safe supportive settings. Because of a heart condition I developed, I truly believe that I would be dead if it were not for this determination to not only survive, but to rise above and give back to the world in a kinder and gentler way than some of what I have experienced.
Recently I had the experience that someone seemed to think I was a project they could fix. This was because they had witnessed some of my raw emotion and knew I had trauma in my life. But living with PTSD does not mean someone needs fixing, especially someone who has actively been working on growing past their obstacles for so many years.
I think we are all works in progress, and for some reason some people do have extra obstacles to overcome. Early on in my recovery I started to see myself not just as a survivor, but as a thriver. I have been fortunate to have grown up without too much economic distress and much travel and education. I do believe this has helped my ability to thrive, because I could fight back for my sanity and for justice in ways that those less fortunate than I cannot.
Still, though, thirty years into this journey, I see how my trauma and the PTSD directed many of my life decisions. I could have become a professor, but having researched war and rape for seven years, I felt even more traumatized, and I needed a break. Many, I know, would have forged on, but I had fear and felt overwhelmed. Plus, I had already faced so much in my recovery. I felt a need to step away and stop “kissing ass” to the academic establishment. Additionally, I had a young child, and had I become a professor, I would have had to leave her for someone else to raise, which I didn’t want to do. I felt a grave ownership and will to make sure she would not be raped at sixteen, not have her first drink at nine or have regular blackouts by the age of thirteen. I knew my parents were good people, but somehow those are a few of the milestones of my childhood. I just couldn’t let something like that happen to my daughter.
My last dramatic amount of growth came because I needed to find something more for myself. My kids were older, which allowed me more time. I found taiko, which has helped me shed more grief in three years than I could ever have imagined when I picked up my first pair of bachi and hit the drum. The #metoo also movement inspired me to speak out. I hoped that my story could help others with their grief and sorrow.
This is all to say that while I have had many symptoms of PTSD, I still have been able to push past them – sometimes better than other times – and give back to the world in a variety of ways. I know some of my trauma will always be a part of me. Still, this will not prevent me from continuing to get stronger and to help others who have similar struggles. I, like many of you, am a force with which to be reckoned! 😀
Just a short note today to take issue with a new-fangled feminist theory about which pronoun to use describing one’s own rape. An academic feminist who graciously read one of my essays turned my pain into an academic exercise and took issue with my use of the pronoun “my” to describe my rapes. This theorist explained that “my” insinuates that I blame myself for my rapes, and that the possessive pronoun make the rapes the my possession. She also wrote that she would not “want to identify that closely or take possession of being raped.”
I wholeheartedly disagree with all three of these points. To shy away from using the grammatical pronoun “my” falsely separates oneself from one’s own trauma. This slows down one’s own and the world’s healing process. To me, not owning one’s trauma is at the heart of many problems in this world. By facing one’s own pain one can more easily empathize with the experiences of others. To move forward in a progressive, healing, and inclusive manner, we each need to face our own trauma. Then we can teach the next generation to be strong and move forward with insight and wisdom. Feminist theory about rape should be grounded in reality.
To insinuate that using “my” means the survivor somehow blames themselves for the assault is illogical. Survivors often blame themselves, just as society blames rape victims, but this is not because they use the pronoun “my.” The issue of (falsely) blaming oneself for one’s rapes is separate from what pronoun a survivor uses to describe their rape. Such theoretical nonsense will not make our world, feminists, or trauma survivors stronger.
It also will not help our children or young college students heal. If survivors divorce themselves from their own trauma at the instruction of their teacher or parent they may be stronger temporarily, but the wound will fester under the facade of strength or happiness. Trauma is in one’s body at a cellular, emotional, and even some would say a spiritual level. To disassociate oneself from it on an intellectual level can only be a temporary fix. I believe one can heal the fastest by facing one’s pain, not by running from it.
Additionally, a survivor of rape or other trauma uses the pronoun “my” simply because the rape is their experience. Just as an incarceration, a beating, or a birthday party is one’s experience, so is a rape. It is the only logical pronoun to use. We say, “I was robbed,” or “We were broken into,” or “I was raped.” Similarly, we say, “she or he raped me.” The rape belongs to both the rapist and the victim. This is tragic, but but it’s reality. Trying to distance oneself by not owning or possessing the crime is pushing both sides away from healing, truth, and wisdom. We might not want to own our assaults, but they are our experiences, so they are “ours.”
Maybe we do not want to take possession of our deep pain, but to pretend it isn’t our own will not promote healing. “Identifying closely” with one’s rape is how we learn to empathize with other survivors and even perpetrators. This way we can closely understand the pain inflicted and how that pain mingles with other experiences. Many perpetrators also feel pain and have had trauma in their lives. As a society we need to understand all different kinds of pain to be able to not raise more perpetrators. If we do not claim and understand our own pain or if we spend time taking issue with the usage of the pronoun my to describe one’s own rapes, we postpone our own healing and even the healing of those around us and those we influence.
Divorcing oneself from one’s own trauma, which is felt on so many levels, is exactly how to prevent people from understanding and empathizing with one another. I am not a psychologist. But in addition to years of reading about trauma and survivors, I have heard hundreds of women in person speak about their own trauma. The ones who make progress in healing are the ones who face their pain. They own it and speak about it. By doing this, they move forward and grow stronger, all the while lessening the control their trauma has over them. This way, they bring up and teach their children or students to be morally courageous. They teach them to look inward first to see the source of one’s emotions.
I have referred to my rapes as “my rapes” for twenty-nine years. They happened to me. I own them, and I experienced them. They exist in my brain and my body, and they have affected my life in countless ways. In day-to-day life, in healing workshops, and in therapy I have shaken, screamed, and physically felt my shame, rage, and fear on a cellular level. That is not theory. That is real.
Being in touch with what one’s body and psyche has experienced by embracing one’s own trauma is the key to how we can have empathy for others. It is how we as a society can move forward in a progressive and healing manner. We do not need fancy, nonsensical feminist theory to heal. I believe that because I faced my pain head on, I moved from being a victim, to a survivor, and then to a thriver. My rapes will always be a part of me. And in various odd or miscellaneous ways may affect me to the day I die. But by embracing my pain, I have experienced many levels of healing. By doing this, I have been able to teach children and adults around me that facing, owning, and naming one’s own feelings is the easiest way to understand much of the trauma in the world today.
Interview by Luka Pejić about sexual crimes in WWII, civilian’s coping methods, and the social consequences after the war.
Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen is an American historian from Minnesota who received her PhD in 2004 with the dissertation “Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front during World War II.” In doing this research, she worked with material available in archives in the US, Germany, Latvia, and Estonia. In addition, for the purposes of her dissertation, she spoke with more than thirty women and men from the territory of Ukraine whose life experiences were an important source for a fuller understanding of the problems of sex crimes during the war events in the east of the European continent in the 1940s. Although, after completing the nearly 400-page text, she temporarily gave up historiography, because of the trauma she had experienced from going deeper into the topic of her own research. In the last few years she has returned to academic work, the focus of which is gender and social history.
You wrote that the Germans developed an “extensive system of sexual slavery” during World War II. What exactly do you mean by that?
The German leadership recognized the dangers of venereal diseases to their armed forces and the reality that men, married or single, were having sexual intercourse with local women they met on the street, in local brothels, or elsewhere. Without antibiotics to fight syphilis and gonorrhea, soldiers became ill and eventually were unable to serve because of their unsafe sexual practices. To save the health of their soldiers, the Germans established brothels in concentration camps and across the areas they fought and occupied. Sanitation officers required a strict cleansing routine before sexual intercourse for the soldiers. The workers also were required to be clean, and doctors routinely checked them for disease. Females who engaged in prostitution during the war were starving or had limited options/chances for survival. Germans also forced girls and women at gunpoint to work in brothels where they could serve more than thirty men a day. This is sexual slavery.
Could you elaborate how the spread of prostitution in Eastern Europe during the war was economically conditioned? What were the consequences of this phenomenon?
During the war people had a hard time finding food, medical services, and other necessities. The Germans viewed Slavic people as Untermenschen and planned to starve them and eventually inhabit their territories in the east. Not only were people starving because of typical war conditions, the Germans purposely confiscated any food they could find. With the arrival of sex-craved soldiers who had essential food items, as well as chocolate and liquor, prostitution spread.
The consequences were many. The German army began arresting women and forcing them to undergo medical examinations to see if they were infected with venereal diseases. Venereal diseases spread through both the local populations and the German forces. This in turn led to Himmler insisting on establishing brothels, even if the females were Untermenschen. The spread of prostitution of course probably enabled some to bring food to their starving families, and maybe in some cases there were happy endings with love and romance. I’m sure that women forced into prostitution also were injured by sadists, which was traumatic beyond the pain of having to sexually service strangers.
Brothels existed even in the concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau. How do you explain establishment of places like these in those locations? What were the living conditions there?
There were two different kinds of brothels, one for the prisoners and one for soldiers and officers. The prisoners had an incentive program so that they would work hard and behave themselves. One of their rewards was a visit to the camp brothel. This is something that is rarely talked about in Holocaust discussions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the outdoor Berlin museum, Topography of Terror, as well as the museum underneath the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, all do not mention that camp prisoners visited camp brothels where women and girls worked. Even if a female prisoner volunteered to work in the brothel despite the fatal risk of pregnancy or of injury and death by multiple rapes, this likely was NOT because she wanted to have sex with multiple men a day, but because she thought perhaps she would have a place to sleep and possibly more food. This is another layer of victimhood, where a victim victimizes another in the camps. While the topic of layered victimhood has been widely discussed in regards to arranging food, jobs, and services in the camps, museums and textbooks need to include in their discussions how sex, prostitution, and rape were bartered just as bread or indoor jobs were. Sometimes the SS would visit the camp brothels, and there is also testimony attesting to SS brothels just outside of camps.
In one chapter, you mentioned the various forms of “camouflage” undertaken by the female civilian population under German occupation for the purpose of avoiding rape. Could you tell us more about that?
Camouflage seems to have been a common phenomena. Several people told me about this, and you can read about it in various memoirs or testimonies. In one memoir, a family goes to extraordinary efforts to camouflage the teenage girl as being ill when the Soviet soldiers reentered the Crimean town of Feodosia in December 1941. Ukrainian women I spoke with also told about trying to make themselves look old or contagious. They would limp, cough, and cover or smear dirt or coal on their faces to make them look dirty.
Did you come across any specific information regarding sex crimes and prostitution during the 1940s in the area of former Yugoslavia?
Yes, the Chief Sanitation Officer in Poland argued that a brothel visit was not a social relationship, but a “material and economic kind,” and therefore such sex with Poles, Greeks, Yugoslavians, and others, was allowed. This infers, as another scholar pointed out, that there is evidence of Yugoslavians in brothels. Additionally, historian Danijel Jelaš found a document for me from 1941 in the Osijek archives that discusses the plans for multiple brothels in Osijek and the sanitation procedures required. I suspect there were others in additional cities in the former Yugoslavia. We need further research to ascertain how many brothels there actually were and what kinds of sexual violence people endured.
In the thesis, you also analyzed crimes of the Red Army. Moreover, you point out that in Berlin alone, more than 90,000 women visited doctors’ offices because of sexual abuse perpetrated by the Soviet soldiers. What were the causes of these mass rapes committed by Stalin’s troops? How did the dictator perceive reports on this type of crime when they had reached him?
There are several points: The first concerns motivation. The Soviet soldiers did not rape en mass as a political act to degrade the German enemy. They raped females of all nationalities and cultures. The Red Army consisted of soldiers from across Europe who raped Ukrainians, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Yugoslavians, Jews, Christians, etc. The primary motivating factor in rape is sexual desire (not power or politics), and rapists use their power to obtain what they want, which is sexual satisfaction. Similarly, sexual desire motivated men to visit German brothels and have sexual intercourse with females who were not there to enjoy their afternoons.
Secondly, the desperation men and women felt as they went into battle or continued to fight is something we can barely begin to understand. Imagine the trauma of seeing Germans carting off women and girls to serve in Wehrmacht or SS brothels, of seeing entire Slavic towns disappear to mass graves, and knowing their own families were malnourished and dying at home. The soldiers were living in a surreal and horrifying alcohol-infused nightmare. They had seen corpses of men, women, and children, murdered, raped, or otherwise violated and mutilated, not to mention the carcasses of cows, horses, cats, and other animals, and all the destroyed (bombed or burned) trees, houses, farmyards, outbuildings, etc. Their desperation does not excuse their actions, but it does put the rapes into their horrific context.
Thirdly, historians and the media have long ignored the sexual crimes of the Germans and other western forces and instead have highlighted the rapes and other crimes against humanity by the Red Army. They have depicted the Slavic men as an Asian horde of rapists. While the mass rapes are inexcusable and horrifying, even unimaginable to most, so are the extensive sexual crimes of the German forces.
The Germans spent an enormous amount of resources in the establishment of their extensive system of brothels that enslaved thousands of females, and likewise, Stalin was unconcerned about the welfare of civilian females. There are mixed reports, however, about the issue, because as more diplomats became aware of the raping, there was a Soviet attempt to show that an effort was being made to control the soldiers’ behavior. One of these attempts was the Marshal Rokossovsky Order #006 by which a soldier would be executed for raping. However, various diplomats report meetings with Stalin who dismissed the sexual crimes. Even Yugoslavia’s Milovan Djilas wrote about how Stalin completely ignored the issue and acted angrily when Djilas asked about the conduct of the Soviet soldiers, who were not only raping Germans, but also Yugoslavians. I too acknowledge the horrors the Red Army experienced and the soldiers’ heroism pushing back the Germans, but unlike Stalin, I don’t believe that a soldier was entitled to “have fun with a woman or take some trifle” (Djilas).
What social consequences did victims of sexual abuse have to deal with when the war ended? You mentioned that some abused women were referred to as “German whores” upon return to their hometowns and that their children, who were born after rape, were also victims of discrimination.
Because of patriarchy and cultural norms, local people abused those who had been raped or had suffered prostitution. People condemned and shamed females as whores for consorting with the enemy, regardless of the circumstances, and society did not condemn those who had abused their power to obtain sex. Even in Germany, but more so in the more conservative Slavic countries, there was silence surrounding the rapes, and victims were unable to obtain counseling. One Ukrainian family I interviewed suffered for generations because a Polish man drugged the mother and raped her. When she came home her townspeople called her a German whore. She bore her rapist’s child, who in turn was bullied and called a German bitch (even though the rapist was Polish). Furthermore, many people in conservative societies did not view exchanging food for sex as rape, even though probably in most cases, the female normally wouldn’t have sex with the person who had the food. Instead of blaming the person with the food who used their power to obtain sex, both men and women blame the victim. Even my Ukrainian translator thought this particular woman wasn’t raped, since she was sleeping, but the man drugged her, and of course, a sleeping person cannot consent to sex.
How is it that, despite the abundance of available materials (official documents, testimonies, memoirs, etc.), such topics remain historiographically neglected? Have you noticed any progress on this issue in the last ten years?
Simply answered – shame, silence, and patriarchy. If someone is attacked, people ask what the victims were wearing or if they were intoxicated, none of which is relevant because the perpetrator is to blame. Women and men hold these institutionalized patriarchal views, and thus victims feel shame and do not speak out. Male and female victims need to talk, analyze themselves and heal, so they can heal their children and students. Historians need to tackle these topics so we can better understand why people rape, whether during peacetime or war. Because of these persistent views, professors may discourage graduate students from tackling sexual violence. One educated Croatian woman asked me why I had chosen my topic because it was a “man’s topic.” This kind of archaic view hampers progress toward raising awareness of sexual violence, which is a gender-neutral human rights topic that affects males, females, and transgender people.
When I presented my research in Cherkasy, Ukraine, it was momentous occasion because many people in Cherkasy had not yet spoken publicly about their trauma. It was as if my talk about sexual violence gave them permission to also start discussing and sharing. When we break the silence and fight the shame to honestly face our own trauma, we can better understand the trauma of others, the complexities of victimhood, war, and violent sexual and other crimes. It is extremely difficult to openly admit and discuss one’s own rape or the rape of a family member. Despite the difficulties of recovery and healing, war- and peacetime survivors of sexual violence can help us understand other trauma if they face their own pain. I was only able to do the research I did and to continue to write because for the last twenty-nine years I have faced my own complex trauma of sexual abuse and other childhood familial issues. It has been extremely challenging at times, but well worth the effort because I have changed the world for the better in small, but meaningful ways—by writing, talking, and raising children who will be less likely to be victimized as I was. Understanding our complicity in crimes around the world or the motives behind mass shooters or rapists in the US can help us better teach our children and students to not engage in such violence. Similarly, the more Croatians better understand their personal and societal traumas by breaking the silence and shame, they too can help Europe and the world grow toward a more peaceful and healthy society.
And yes, now there is much more written on the topic of WWII sexual violence than when I first tackled it. However, the general public still is not aware of the widespread system of brothels the Germans established nor how much the drunken Axis soldiers raped, yet a larger portion are acquainted with the extent of the rapes by the animalistic Red Army. This needs to change.
I have thought about a passage from a memoir I read almost twenty years ago to this day. I had empathy with a drunken rapist, which surprised me because I am a survivor of many non-violent rapes.
Major Kopelev was on the eastern front during WWII when Marshal Rokossovsky issued his order to execute rapists without trial. The reasoning behind his order was to try to regain control over the troops as they moved through the devastation the Germans and others had caused in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and all across the eastern front. Kopelev wrote that a Polish woman with a torn dress came running in screaming for help, and the lieutenant in charge threatened to execute the rapist, according to the “orders from headquarters. For rape – execution on the spot.” The major did not want to shoot a “brave soldier blind-drunk on vodka.” Kopelev drew his pistol, and the drunken man “came at [him], hoarse with anger, spraying saliva. ‘You fucking officers, fuck your mothers! You! Fighting the war on our backs! Where were you when my tank was on fire? Where were you, fuck your mother, when I set fire to that Tiger?’” The officers could hear the men saying things like, “Some commanders…They’ll shoot their own men over a German bitch” (Kopelev, No Jail for Thought, 50-51). (Note that the woman was not German, which I discuss because it helps to explain some of the raping that occurs during war.)
I am a survivor of multiple peacetime violations, so my empathy surprised me. I am working on an essay where I explain my reaction to the horrific sexual crimes western and eastern European men committed during the war. I have not felt empathy for the leaders, for example, for the Germans who planned and implemented the largest system of sexual slavery during the war, still mostly unheard of today.But for the desperate soldier who was forced into a nightmare so large and long-lasting most of us cannot even begin to fathom, I have felt understanding and empathy even for those who raped, usually in a drunken and frenzied state.
I have never supported the NFL, nor been a Vikings fan. I could barely remember what sport the Timberwolves played when people in Croatia were excited that I was from Minnesota and mentioned our team. I dislike football because of the research revealing the high incidence of sexual violence and football players. I am saddened by how many ex-athletes have life-long physical and mental health issues because of how the experiences either on the field or in the spotlight affected them. The issue of concussions is a travesty and shows how greed and ambition trumped the welfare of players, who despite their wealth and fame, were still pawns in the great monetary game of sports. I am opposed to how much money these athletes make when caretakers, teachers, and other educated people in our society make so little, when working class people have to struggle so hard, etc. It isn’t just that I don’t usually enjoy watching these popular sports (once in a while I do enjoy a game if kind of forced to watch because of a situation), but I also oppose them for political and social reasons.
But what the NFL players and owners are doing now is worth commending. Our lousy president’s continued, childish Twitter responses reveal his racism, his lack of understanding more than one side of an issue and how he doesn’t want us to think about his failing presidency, the inability of the Republicans to repeal the ACA, or the dangerous path he is leading us on with North Korea because of his insistence to take things personally instead of to be a unifying, democratic, diplomatic and conciliatory leader. In response to Trump’s horrific tweets about a protest against racism in juxtaposition to his tweets about some Nazis being nice people, the NFL players and owners have bravely continued to peacefully exercise their right to protest racism in our country in an extremely visible setting.
I adjure the NFL players who have so much wealth and visibility to also use their power and influence to work toward a better America, a more racially and economically just America. Some already have and currently do philanthropic work, and I hope more of them follow suit. But when members of the NFL kneel to protest racial injustice, lock arms to show solidarity with those who choose to practice their right of free speech or otherwise make a statement, this is a brave move, one that comes from their hearts and probably from much personal consideration. Their actions raise awareness about the racism of the White House, our president, and of institutions and far right groups across America. These actions of protest may spur others to action as well. Our flag and national anthem symbolize the freedoms we hold dear in this country – freedom of speech, of protest, and of the press. Unlike Trump, these players are not insulting veterans or families of veterans. America is far from being a equitable country, and if this is how some want to make a statement about the very real injustice in our land, then I commend them for it.