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Activists present spectrum of survivor narratives in ‘We Believe You’

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Andrea L. Pino and Annie E. Clark (Author photos courtesy of Jeff Lipsky)

Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino want to break two harmful paradigms – the endemic of sexual assault on college and university campuses and mainstream media’s flawed pursuit of a “perfect survivor” narrative.

Clark and Pino – whose survivor stories and activism are prominently featured in recent documentary “The Hunting Ground” – noticed the media often latches onto sensationalized headlines, disregarding survivors as people in the process.

Their new book, “We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out,” presents a spectrum of survivor narratives. Scheduled for release on April 12 in tandem with Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the book demonstrates a multifaceted act of solidarity.

The book’s 36 contributors – Clark and Pino included – form a community of accounts of “trauma, healing and everyday activism” that spans race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation and family and collegiate backgrounds. Together, their voices speak to the complicated realities of survivorhood.

In an interview with The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, Clark and Pino discussed the development and motivations behind “We Believe You” and emphasized the importance of representing the nuances of survivors’ stories.

“What we wanted to do is come up with a book that showed a wide array of experiences, of identities, and (make) sure that people felt reflected in what was actually happening,” Clark said. “We just wanted it to be in their own voices.”

In “A Note on Representation,” a section in the book’s final pages, Pino writes:

“These constricting (media) narratives exclude women of color, whose likelihood of surviving (and not surviving) violence are very high; they exclude the experiences of boys and men whose experiences are silenced by a culture that promotes toxic masculinity; they exclude the daily realities of transgender women, who are the least likely to survive violence.”

Pino stressed in the interview that she and Clark wanted to tell stories that had not previously been told by the media, to include the “messy details” and address who survivors wanted to be in college as well as their current ambitions.

“I think it’s actually one of the main reasons why our society is so unable to comprehend how pervasive assault is, and that’s because we don’t think the face of assault could be us, or could be our kids, or could be our partners, because we simply don’t hear who they were and who they are now.”

“Some people either can’t come forward or don’t want to or feel safe doing so, and nobody should ever have to, but we wanted to have a book where it could either be used as an academic teaching tool or if a survivor could pick it up, turn to a page and feel less alone,” Clark said.

Clark noted her and Pino’s intentions “to show who people were before and after” and that sexual assault isn’t the one thing that defines a person.

“You don’t have to be talking about your story on CNN to be an activist,” Clark said. “You can teach your son about consent or you can just take care of yourself, and there are just different ways to survive and there’s not one right way to heal, and I think that comes across very strongly in the book,” Clark said.

‘Part of this conversation’

On Jan. 16, 2013, Clark and Pino joined other students and a former administrator from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to file a federal complaint against the institution for mishandling sexual assault cases.

That summer, Clark, Pino and fellow survivor activists Sofie Karasek, Kristin Brown, Danielle Dirks and Caroline Heldman co-founded End Rape on Campus, a non-profit organization dedicated to “(ending) campus violence through direct support for survivors and their communities; prevention through education; and policy reform at the campus, local, state and federal levels.”

Clark and Pino also point out the importance of everyday activism in “We Believe You,” saying media tends to amplify more stories like theirs rather than less visible narratives.

“We wanted to highlight that everyone has a role in helping end violence, and that there really is a bravery that comes from whatever type of healing and work individuals want to do,” Pino said. “And just because you’re not sharing your story publicly to the entire world doesn’t mean that you’re not brave and doesn’t mean that you’re not a part of this battle.”

At the 88th Academy Awards this past February, Pino, Clark and many other survivors – including 12 from “We Believe You” – joined Lady Gaga onstage for her performance of “Til It Happens To You,” a Best Original Song nominee from “The Hunting Ground.”

“There was something about being on that stage where everyone realized, ‘Wow, I am part of this, I am part of this movement, I am part of this conversation,’” Pino said. “Because for a very long time, they felt like if they were silent, or if they weren’t telling the entire world what happened to them, they couldn’t be part of the battle, and they are.”

Clark spoke to the need for a broader cultural shift and made an important distinction about the labor necessary to enact it.

“It really shouldn’t be on the backs of people in this book to change the culture – of course they’re a part of it by sharing their stories – but it shouldn’t be on the backs of survivors, and we really need allies,” she said.

Showing belief

Both Clark and Pino stressed the fundamental and necessary movement that the book’s title addresses: toward genuinely believing survivors of sexual assault.

“We have a lot of communities that rally around perpetrators, unfortunately,” Pino said.

“We always tell anyone who asks us what they should do is three things: tell a survivor that you believe them, that it’s not their fault, and that they are not alone,” Pino said. “If parents were to believe their children when they come forward, if partners were to believe their partners when they come forward, if administrators were to empower (students) in seeking justice, I think this would happen much less.”

Pino also underlined the unfortunate imbalance of support between survivors and accused assailants, noting that there is a greater deterrent for coming forward as a survivor than there is for committing a crime of sexual violence.

“Because there’s a community of support for those that are accused, they get away with it. They get away with it because there isn’t a community that tries to challenge their actions,” she said.

The first section of “We Believe You,” titled “Before,” concludes with a list of over 160 colleges and universities that “are or have been under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations as of Dec. 31, 2015.” Among those included are Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts, which is home to the longest unresolved Title IX sexual violence investigation in the country.

Clark and Pino pointed out that a school’s absence from the list does not confirm its safety, noting sexual violence pervades schools nationwide.

“One of the things that we see time and time again is just the way the media hyper-focuses on certain schools, and because of that you lead the general public to say, ‘Well, not my campus,’ or ‘My campus isn’t on the list,’ or, ‘My campus is doing a great job, I haven’t heard anything about it.’ But it’s not about what campus is not on the list. It’s about the fact that this is a problem happening on every campus,” Pino said.

“There’s a lot of institutions where the same things that are happening in these areas – students don’t know that they have Title IX or Clery, any of these legal tools at their disposal, so it’s not necessarily that it’s not happening, it’s that somebody hasn’t called them out yet,” Clark added.

Clark further explained that various factors within many types of institutions inhibit justice for survivors, including cases where they intentionally cover up sexual assault or where they are simply uneducated, leading to saying “the wrong things” to survivors.

“I think that we need to hold those institutions accountable for educating people but also for intentionally covering things up,” Clark said. “And I think there is an institutional need to say that the school is safe, to protect its reputation, and unfortunately sexual assault occurs everywhere, but no one school wants to be labeled the school that is unsafe.”

Clark added that until there is a leader or president on respective campuses who “owns up” to say, “Yes, this is happening on my campus, here’s what we’re doing about it,” there will still be blame shifting and low numbers of reports.

Pino reemphasized the importance of bringing a wider group of narratives to the foreground given the major institutional obstacles that survivors frequently face.

A ‘flexible’ process

“We Believe You” separates survivors’ stories into sections, exploring sobering moments from their lives before and after their assault. Contributors – some named, some anonymous – express themselves through a mosaic of narrative essays, anecdotes, poems and artwork. Interspersed throughout the text are several “choruses” which sample snippets of multiple passages in the book to juxtapose varying perspectives on subjects such as friends, assailants and anger.

Clark described the book’s progression as “a very flexible process,” and explained the importance of some of its structural elements.

“We wanted it to be very real and also show that contributors are multidimensional people,” Clark said. “There are lots of happy parts, there’s some even funny parts, and allowing people to express that, I think, is important. And so I think the way it’s broken up was very intentional, but it’s also something where you could pick it up and only read one part of it, so you don’t have to read it in a linear way.

“I think the choruses also say something, because often within that – whether it be betrayal or relationships after or whatever – they’re often contradictory,” Clark added. “There’s not one right way to respond to trauma, it’s right for that person. And so there’s a very intentional lack of judgment… We wanted to get it all in there because it does represent the entirety of what people are going through.”

In addition to validating survivor narratives, the book also adamantly rejects the problematic practice of romanticizing violence as fodder for others’ inspiration. A selected quote from Alice Wilder – a survivor who, like Clark and Pino, attended UNC – reads as follows:

“We need to stop assuming that trauma builds character. Sometimes it does. But it also builds fear. It builds pain. It suffocates and it paralyzes. I didn’t return from challenges as a stronger person. The bottom line is that it shouldn’t have happened. I know it makes other people feel better to imagine that my trauma has made me stronger, but here’s the thing: this experience belongs to me, not them.”

In light of the need for moving forward with combating rape culture, Pino returned to her and Clark’s central ethos for “We Believe You.”

“We really think that this book can transform the conversation because for the first time, it’s being told by survivors,” Pino said. “Their entire story, not edited for print, not edited for a certain news cycle, but really who they are and who they want the world to know about.”

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NathanFrontiero.

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Activists present spectrum of survivor narratives in ‘We Believe You’”

  1. Stephanie Higgins on April 7th, 2016 7:21 pm

    “We need to stop assuming that trauma builds character. Sometimes it does. But it also builds fear. It builds pain. It suffocates and it paralyzes. I didn’t return from challenges as a stronger person. The bottom line is that it shouldn’t have happened. I know it makes other people feel better to imagine that my trauma has made me stronger, but here’s the thing: this experience belongs to me, not them.”
    So powerful. Thank you!

  2. Red Rocket on April 8th, 2016 11:44 am

    You are abusing Title IX. This is about fetish and identity. It’s about gaining power through threats. These women have made political movement and a lifestyle out of the very thing they say they are trying to end. This is sick and dangerous.

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