Dear sister

Letters from survivors of sexual violence

Favianna Rodriguez

Sexual violence against women is still widespread. Statistics Canada estimates there are 500,000 sexual assaults in Canada every year. Three years ago, Lisa Factora-Borchers sent out a call for submissions for survivors and allies to write letters to survivors of sexual violence. In the introduction to the resulting Dear Sister anthology (AK Press, 2013) she writes, “Even if it’s not sexual assault, we all have survived something, and if we allow ourselves to be each other’s teachers, maybe we will realize that we belong not to our wounds, but to one another.” The following two letters are preprinted from the forthcoming Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence.

Dear Sister,

Surviving is the process of living and dying each day. A primordial balancing. The ability to walk through level five earthquakes. When you feel the impossible breathing down your neck, you are on the right path. As long as you continue moving – whether you crawl, wander, or run – your energy will keep you alive.

As kids, my sisters and I would get in trouble if we were sick, so I always was. When we could afford to, we would go to the doctor. He would never find anything wrong but would ask why such a young child was so stressed. “Is everything alright at home?” he would question, though my father was in the room. I would glance in his direction but remain silent, frozen, and nod my consent.

It is easier for me to believe that something is wrong if I am showing external symptoms. Being sick gave me a sense of power over a mind which would hide itself for days and seemed beyond my control. I would plummet into depressions I did not understand. Depressions so deep that when I learned to drive I would end up at my destination with no memory of the drive. And since I didn’t learn about the concept of dissociation until I went to college, when I developed rheumatoid arthritis at seventeen, it gave me the perfect excuse to ignore myself and delve further and further into the grind of daily knee, hip, and knuckle deterioration.

I only walk you through all this so when a migraine develops, you look inside. If a cold turns into a chronic cough and lasts for months, take a day to yourself. If a morning comes when it hurts too much to get out of bed, come back into your body and choose to live.

We are restricted in this society. We can’t steer though life without nicking our props on the reefs of misogyny, running around on the sandbars of self-doubt. The fish are gone, there aren’t enough odd jobs to go around, and when we think we have found a clear passage, the deadhead of identity knocks a hole clear through the hull, sinking your boat.

Surviving is the process of finding new connections each day. An hourly reckoning. It’s the ability to trust even though it seems impossible to look anyone in the eyes again.

Sometimes we stumble toward each other and find a community whose energy will keep us alive.

I love you,

Rebecca Eaton Wyllie de Echeverria

Dear Sister,

I hope by the time this letter reaches you you are well. I hope you can sleep at night and no longer cringe if someone tries to touch you. I hope you realize that it wasn’t your fault. If you fought and got hurt like I did, I hope you’re not angry at the wisdom that told you to do that. And if you decided not to fight but still got hurt, I hope you’re not mad at the wisdom that told you not to fight.

I hope you’re not trying to be perfect all the time in an attempt to prove you didn’t deserve what happened to you. I hope you’re not doing the worst things imaginable to prove that you don’t care and telling yourself that since you feel like shit now you might as well act like shit.

I’m sorry, my sister. While the road you’re on now will be long and difficult, know that you have company. You’ve been to hell, and worse yet, hell is inside you, and you need to reach for heaven every day to get back in balance. Let in those who want to help you, but close the door on those who help you dig deeper into a pit. At first, it might be hard to distinguish between the two when everything feels like fear, but with time, you’ll be able to tell the difference. Those that thought this would break you will see your truth in how you relight your core and grow bright and warm again.

Give yourself as much time as you need. Take forever if that is what it takes. Nothing is more important than your light. So take your time, sister. Go deep and stay in the dark as long as you need to feel safe again. Know that when you’re ready to climb out of your hole, all of those who have been down there will be waiting for you here, in the light.

With light and love,

Your sister Shala

Lisa Factora-Borchers is a Filipina writer and editor whose work can be found in Left Turn, Critical Moment, and Bitch. Lisa worked extensively with survivors of sexual violence in non-profits, coalitions, and university settings before applying her work to the literary world.

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