My grandmother shows me what’s possible as a survivor of sexual violence
I have been crying for over a week now at the revelation that my life is not over—that I did not die.
Trigger and Content Warnings: This piece contains themes and descriptions of sexual and gender-based violence/r*pe, child abuse, death, and suicide.
The most isolating of the identities I claim is my status as a survivor of both childhood sex abuse and of repeated rape in my adulthood.
Sometimes, I find an incredible amount of irony in that fact. Nearly one in five women in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives. For Black girls, one in four will experience some form of sexual abuse before they reach 18-years-old. It is no wonder how then one in five Black women are survivors of rape.
On paper, I am anything but alone. However, none of these women were in the room for the worst things that have ever happened to me. I was alone and completely at the mercy of another human being.
Most of the time, I just deal with it. I wake up in the morning and choose to be something other than a rape survivor. Usually, I just choose to be busy.
Sometimes though, I wake up in the morning, barely able to breathe and staring up at my ceiling, wishing I could claw my way out of this body because even all these years later it still does not feel like it can ever really be mine again. Too many people have used it without my permission. And this has made me resentful. So much of my time is consumed by the question, “Who would I be if they hadn’t touched me?”
Nothing makes me want to live less than the knowledge that this is how I’m going to spend the rest of my life—being a survivor of rape—and potentially experiencing it again because past experience of violence never amounts to protection from further violence. This sounds impossible. I struggle to believe that it is possible that I am going to live a long, fulfilled life and pass away in my sleep. I struggle to believe that it is possible that I am not going to eventually get tired of waking up and choose not to do it anymore. I struggle to believe that survivors of rape live long lives.
A few weeks ago, my dad called me to talk about how we would make the necessary arrangements for my grandmother after she passes, which, according to her doctors, is likely to happen some time over the next three months. My grandmother was given the option by her doctor to either, already in her nineties, undergo chemotherapy, or to just go home. My dad told me, “My mom said, ‘Whatever you all decide, is fine with me, but just know that I am tired, and I don’t want to be in any pain anymore.’” My grandmother is home with all of the pain medication that can be offered.
Since then, my dad and I have been talking about him, his siblings, and the fifty ‘leven baby daddies that my grandmother has had over the course of her life. My dad shared with me for the first time that my grandmother had his eldest brother after she was raped and, in large part because of the times, could not obtain an abortion. My dad’s eldest brother and my grandmother have always had a difficult relationship, and he always assumed that the truth of his conception is why.
I told him how strange of a coincidence it was that both his mother and my mother’s mother endured sexual violence in their lifetimes. My mother’s mother was molested by her father when she was a child. According to my mother, her mother never recovered. My mother believes that her mother abused her and siblings, in part, because of the sexual abuse that she endured. She also believes, that had her mother not experienced sexual abuse that was later justified by religious teachings, she would not have made a string of decisions that worsened her health and ultimately killed her in her early fifties. My mother’s mother is another reason that I struggle to believe survivors truly survive, and I often do not even give myself anywhere close to 50 years of life, nor do I give myself children. My mother’s mother makes me afraid of survival.
But my father’s mother, she complicates that for me.
My grandmother calls me every holiday and tells me how much money she sent me so that I can make sure that my dad does not shortchange me or my younger brother.
In undergrad, my grandmother called me after a fraternity at my university made the news for hazing to ask me if I was okay, forcing me to explain to her that most fraternities are just white men and I don’t keep that type of company.
My grandmother has my undergraduate graduation pictures on her wall. She is so excited that I am still in school and that I am organizing and that she gets to be a part of my life.
I love this woman, as my grandmother and as a Black elder with the longevity many do not get. It feels like finding out that Santa Clause is not real to know that I have loved a survivor this deeply and that a survivor has loved me this deeply for my whole life—to know that I have loved a survivor who celebrates her birthday every year, who goes on vacations with her loved ones, who has loved quarantine because she still loves the chaos of having babies in her home.
As silly as it may seem to some, I have been crying for over a week now at the revelation that my life is not over—that I did not die.
Though I am still struggling to envision myself living a long, happy life, being alive right now hurts a little less. As afraid as I still am of surviving, because of how enduring violence changes you, there is comfort in the fact that I can survive, if that is what I want to do. Had my mother’s mother had an elder in her life to reveal to her that she still had a choice—that if it was too much to bear, she didn’t have to bear it—maybe she would not have felt forced to partner with men, to have children, to maintain a relationship with her own mother or the Church. Sure, maybe my mother and therefore I would not exist either, but I would rather never have existed than task my descendants with the responsibility to heal traumas that I could not solely because I did not have a choice.
The most traumatic part of the violence I have experienced is the absence of choice. It is a relief to know that I did not surrender my whole being and that whether I live a long life or a short one is up to me. I still have the opportunity to heal, to have children, to have grandchildren, and do whatever it is I want to do in between and during. Or, I do not have to do anything at all and I can choose the last day I want to wake up and stare at my ceiling.
J.A.O. is a New York City based full-time law student, essayist, and organizer. Since March of 2020, J.A.O. has managed the Fill the Gap Project, which provides free menstrual products and emergency contraception to persons living in the United States. J.A.O. has contributed to Black Youth Project, RaceBaitr, and Wear Your Voice Magazine.