I am listening to Heather. She is a college student. She has this story to tell: A family friend raped her when she was 6. Soon after, the man introduced her to another friend, who raped her.
When Heather’s father discovered what had happened, he proceeded to do something unthinkable: He, too, raped her. He continued to sexually abuse her for several years, and it was their secret, until finally she told a friend, and her father went to prison.
This past spring, Heather was raped yet again. This time by a stranger, after a party.
I am listening to her as she talks to journalists at The Poynter Institute. I am trying to listen to her. But, for a moment, I find myself judging her.
Is she telling the truth? Is she telling the whole story? How could all of these terrible things happen to one human being? Was she in any way responsible for what happened?
Of course she wasn’t.
Not as a child, not as an adult.
But there they are: the dark, brutal, fleeting questions in my head. I am trying to make sense of Heather’s story. As I confront my feelings of doubt, I think: If I’m reacting this way — and I am somewhat informed on the subject of rape — how would the average reader respond?
We need to examine how we in the media cover rape and sexual abuse. Rape not only wrenches power and control away from victims, it creates a fog of disbelief.
The public — even the survivors’ loved ones — often cannot recognize the truth. Maybe they do not want to.
While the survivors may know the truth, they are not heard. They are not believed. They are to blame. They are crazy. They have made it all up. The fog envelops them and silences them.
By encouraging more survivors like Heather to tell their stories, we can begin to dispel this fog of disbelief.
But how can we accomplish this when we as journalists — by our training and, in many cases, by our very nature — are full of skepticism?
I am not proud of my initial doubts. I do not want to admit to them. I consider myself sensitive. I try to be caring and empathetic.
By expressing doubt about a rape survivor’s story, here are the things I risk: Hurting the survivor. Blaming her. Discouraging her from telling her story. Reinforcing society’s denial that rape is a problem of epidemic proportions. Being pegged as a man who does not understand the trauma of rape.
And yet doubt has served me well. It has pushed me as a reporter to ask the difficult question, to seek the additional document, to resist taking what a source tells me at face value. It has pushed me as an editor to ask writers: What are the motives of the person you have interviewed? What are you not being told? What is the story behind the story?
Some of us are inclined to disbelieve. Our uncertainty forces us to uncover the bits and pieces of a story that are certain. Our skepticism guides us: We find the truth, or something close to the truth, through a process of doubting.
Still, that process of doubting can be hurtful. Rape can rob a person of many things — power, dignity, and self-worth. It also robs someone of the sense of being believed.
In that case, our doubts might help us take the first steps toward the truth. But they could also wound the survivors all over again.
The survivors would fall silent.
And we would be no closer to the truth. nnn I am talking to my colleague Beatriz Terrazas. She is a writer on our features staff. She has written about being raped as a child. She knows how to talk to and write about people who have been traumatized.
“Skepticism,” she says, “prevents women from coming forward: ‘Who’s going to believe me? Who will think this really happened to me, to my kids?’ ”
I tell Terrazas about my hesitation with Heather’s story. “It’s easier to blame the victim,” she says. “It’s too hard to figure out what happened and why — or whether there’s something we can do to prevent rape.”
To believe these stories, she says, would be to admit that rape and sexual abuse could strike our own families, if they have not already. more
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