So I wanted to start out with kind of a funny story. March 15th, 2017. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m with the children I nanny part time in Manhattan, on a bus from school to their apartment. One of them asks me “hey, Marissa, guess what??” and I say “what?” “chicken butt!” she yells and all the elementary school children giggle and I’m like damn yo how did I fall for that one again? It’s sunny and I feel happy; I’m texting a girl making plans for a date that weekend. It’s been a hard couple of years, but today — I am alive.
I get a couple of phone calls from a blocked number and on the third try, I decide to answer. They ask “hello, is this Marissa Johnson?” and I’m all smiley like “yesss it is!” “Miss Johnson, this is the FBI.”
And I’m like, yeah, whatever, bout to hang up on your scammin ass. And then she starts spouting off some identifying information and my heart stops. I am overcome with this enormous, irrational feeling of guilt and racing anxiety. In one second I convince myself that I must have committed some serious crimes that I’ve forgotten about and it’s all catching up to me and everything I love is going to slip through my hands. She starts talking and I am just like OH FUCK, I have seen Scandal, I have seen Quantico, I am totally screwed.
“Marissa, The Spanish National Police have contacted us through the help of the US Embassy. They’d like to know if you’d be willing to come in to our office to do a photo line up of suspects in your sexual assault case in Madrid.” So I agree to do it and she says “I’ll just text you our address and confirm the date and time.” And I’m just like WTF the FBI texts? I text her back to confirm and she sends me a smiley emoji and I am just so baffled, my boo the FBI is texting me fucking smiley emojis.
And then I feel tears well up and I look over at the kids and it’s time to get off the bus and go play. I force a smile and fake joy through the rest of my shift. This is nothing new.
A week later, I go to the FBI, I do the photo line up, all the photos are dark and blurry, clearly taken off a cell phone, but one of them looks like it could be him, I initial the photo. I ask the two FBI agents what happens next. And they don’t even know, didn’t do their due diligence to ask Spain about the possibilities of what will happen. They have no answers for me whatsoever. Nothing. I explain to them how jarring it is to try to move on with my life and get a phone call a year later with no warning and to still have virtually no answers. But then again, this is what happens when a political system values bureaucracy and optics over human dignity. They get nervous and stumble on their words telling me I’m brave and thank you for coming, I can see they’re desperately uncomfortable, and so I do what I always do. I smile. I convince them of my admirable strength, I shrug it off, tell them I’m doing well, it’s really okay.
I am out in ten minutes. I go get my blood drawn to check on my reproductive health, I go pick up the kids, I get stared down by a man on the street licking his lips as he watches me walk by, I go home, I brainstorm with my roommate how to confront her boyfriend’s friend about his misogynistic comments the other day, most of my friends forget to ask me about the line up.
And it all just feels so exhaustingly woman.
I’ve gotten very good at concealing my emotions. I have learned that control is, in some instances the only way I will be taken seriously, and in others, how I keep everyone around me happy and comfortable. Maybe if I got paid for all the emotional labor I do for men (and women alike), it would make up for the wage gap.
Maybe most of us won’t get a call from the FBI in our lifetimes, but there is nothing unlikely or special about my story. In fact, it is all too common. When I got asked to come speak to you all today, I got nervous because what happened to me was not as bad as it could have been. It does not fit the very singular, horrific story our culture has about sexual assault. And I have spent a lot of time thinking this makes me undeserving of empathy, barred from identifying as a survivor, stupid for sometimes being afraid and paranoid, and silly that I even have a case still ongoing.
The DOJ defines sexual assault as:
“any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”
In February, 2016, I was sexually assaulted coming home from work on the metro in Madrid, where I was spending my year, post-grad, teaching English. I’m not going to go into the details of my case that may surprise or disgust you, because I want to talk to you about some of the other, less talked about issues survivors deal with in the aftermath. I am angry at the person who did this to me, but I am even angrier for a lot of other reasons.
I was so angry (and still am) with the way I was treated by the police and all the other systems and institutions that were supposed to help me, who were supposed to know better. How I was treated after was worse than the actual assault. And I know that I’m not alone in that experience. I am angry that for all the friends I felt I’d always been there for and given so much to, many of them did not show up for me. I was angry that the only agency I’ve been given is to look at some photos rather than tackle this messed up system, that not once has anybody asked me what I want, that I still live in a world where I feel I am under the gaze and threat of sexualization and violence on a daily basis.
And this birthed a resentment in me, a resentment towards everyone involved in my case, towards a whole country, towards some of the people close to me, towards the world.
I realized that I have a sort of documentation of my feelings and thoughts, through my personal blog where I post a lot of my writing. And so I wanted to read some excerpts to you, because a lot of what I want to say today is in these posts and they work to tell more of the story than meets the eye:
February 9th, 2016 (a few days after)
Friends make us tea because warmth
is always good.
Bosses calculate their empathy
based on how much our traumas
will cost them.
It is all so costly.
There is too much sorry.
Always “I don’t know what to say.”
There’s the before and there’s the after and
sometimes we think they are the same but
then there is the remembering.
And it is all different.
The anger where there wasn’t before.
The heartbeat in our throats.
The clenched fists.
The third eye on the nape of our necks.
How the men all look the same, anyway.
Is it still paranoia if our fear has proven rational over and over?
How could we forget that as long as we have our bodies,
there is always more
to be taken from us.
February 22nd, 2016:
For the first time in my life, I was feeling good about my body. I cared for it more. I loved it more. I opened myself to feeling sexy and young and enjoying myself, to owning all of this, to wearing things I never thought a body like mine could wear, to not giving a shit about what anybody else thought. And then my body was used. And all that stuff started to fall away. But I’m not going to let it anymore. I refuse to shame myself for my body, for sometimes feeling crazy and paranoid and small and anonymous — all the things I’ve been most afraid of being my whole life.
And I hope, as survivors, as non-survivors, as people, we continue to support each other. Until we are all free.
So, here we are.
Learning how to love ourselves not despite our traumas, but wholly, with them.
Learning how to give ourselves after what’s been taken.
Learning how to be sexual and yet not sexualized.
Learning how to be a body that can feel its memories.
Learning how to exist alone and here and together and there.
Learning how to hold our own hands, to take care of ourselves the way we would each other.
Learning how to build back a dignity that isn’t going anywhere.
Learning how to stop apologizing.
Learning how to breathe and breathe and breathe ourselves into a better world.
May 10th, 2016
The truth is, your education doesn’t prepare you for your personal life. Your attitude doesn’t protect you from a fist. Your voice can’t always stop the violence from happening.
I’m not saying this to be depressing or hopeless. I do believe we have more power than we know; we are strong and loud and capable. I walked away thinking about all these small moments that go unaddressed every day. How I will remember this, add it to my growing folder of experiences of misogyny.
It’s been my first year out of the bubble of my women’s centered college, and I have experienced more violence, looks, and comments from men than I ever have before. And I’m not ashamed of saying it — I’m scared. Let’s not think our empowerment means it is shameful to be scared or sad or silent. Imagine all the little and big moments women experience throughout their lives and all the memories they collect. All the looks, comments, insults, catcalls, threats, and abuse we experience, from the street to our beds, reported and unreported, reportable and unreportable, noticed and unnoticed. What does it all add up to and where does it go? Because I am just trying to keep my head above them all, high enough to still see the sun. To still see the good. To still see myself.
And I can’t help but thinking.
Is this what it means to be a woman?
To be hunted and haunted?
To be prey of both men and our memories of them?
I refuse to believe gender violence is an inevitable, unchanging part of society. I do not accept it as a fact of our world. But I am also not naive enough to think it will disappear in my lifetime, to simply relish in “progress,” to trust a damn thing without one eye open. We are in some middle place, we are out on a bridge somewhere with fog too thick to see what lies ahead. I do not know where that is or how long the journey may be. I just know I’m going to keep walking.
Today, April 6th, 2017
This may not be the most beautiful or empowering thing I can say. I don’t think empowerment is something to be given, it exists within us. And we already know the truth. We can speak a better reality into existence, but first we must have the audacity to imagine it. So I just want to share three key things that I’ve learned:
- 1 – We need to figure out what we need and want (and not knowing just yet is okay)
- We often know how to support others and even prescribe self care to the people we care about and yet we don’t allow ourselves the same care. Think about what you want and need. You likely will not be asked, but if you want to fight for yourself, you need to know what you’re fighting for. We’ve all been taught the phrase “treat others the way you’d like to be treated” how about we also start teaching “treat yourself the way you’d treat others.”
- 2 – We must amplify the voices of those at the center of this issue and actively create spaces that allow for people to speak up and out.
- Take a moment and think about the last time you were truly moved by something, that something caught your attention, that you felt you deeply cared about something. How many of you thought of a story? Personal narrative straight from the mouths of those most directly impacted by an issue is deeply effective. Storytelling is one of our most powerful social justice tools, and we should center it as such.
- 3 – We better learn how to listen and fight alongside each other for our collective justice (and a justice that is not one single pathway).
- human dignity should be the nexus from which we design and execute all of our prevention and response work — for everyone involved
- according to Vera Institute of Justice’s latest report, policy and practice should be: survivor-centered, accountability-based (both on the perp and our society), safety-driven, and racially equitable and should be community led approaches. And I could not agree more.
The common theme among all of this is empathy. So what can a culture of empathy do?
- Empathy can make men care about women’s issues not because a woman is their daughter, their sister, their mother, their wife, but the way one should care about the oppression of other whole human beings. Shocker: Women’s existence is not only relational to men.
- Empathy can change our toxic ideas of American masculinity, and also allow men and others to come forward about their own experiences with sexual abuse and violence.
- Empathy can replace old and ineffective systems.
- Empathy can initiate new policies and programs by, for, and about survivors.
- Empathy can develop restorative justice programs, anger management and violence prevention programs for people of all genders.
- Empathy can make us all accountable to being better listeners, supporters, advocates, and change-makers, to name a few.
I could go on. I do not have all the answers. I am still out on that bridge somewhere, in between a disturbing reality and a daring future of magnificence and justice, but I am literally and metaphorically marching on, persisting on, anyway, with a whole lot of other amazing human beings.
To anyone and everyone who may be experiencing domestic or sexual abuse, whether it be in the past, the present, or the looming fear of it in the future, I just want to say — I see you. I hear you. And I am with you.
I am not what happened to me. I am not a tragedy; I am not America’s blind eye turned. Maybe some of the people in my life and the system and the president don’t care about me as much as I’d like them to but I care about myself. I will fight for myself. I love myself. And that is the most revolutionary thing I have ever done.
This is just a part of my story, my future will surely be a mosaic of joy, loss, successes, mistakes; just like all of us but always, always, the light will pour through the cracks and the colors alike and narrate our lives in vibrant survival. When shame and pain transform into power, we become the authors of our own lives.
I believe stories can change the world because they start by changing hearts and minds. And frankly, as with all oppressions, it is on all of us to listen, to create a culture of empathy. One voice can make a difference, yes, but a whole nation of listeners is unstoppable.