If you’ve been following my story for a while, you’re aware that I’m part of a group of former students who are working together to implement better procedures for vetting potential teachers—specifically teachers who have had sexual harassment and/or assault allegations brought against them by their students. (See an article about this by Emmy-winner Kara Kenney here; see my response to the story’s events here.)
In early January, I was reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green for a project on my book blog, The Pensive Bookworm. As I read, I came across a passage that stopped me cold.
In the passage, Hazel is attending a support group for teens living with cancer, led by Patrick. During group, one of the members—one who is in remission, or “cancer-free”—praises Hazel’s strength.
“…Hazel is such an inspiration to me; she really is. She just keeps fighting the battle, waking up every morning and going to war without complaint. She’s so strong. She’s so much stronger than I am. I just wish I had her strength.”
“Hazel?” Patrick asked. “How does that make you feel?”
I shrugged and looked over at Lida. “I’ll give you my strength if I can have your remission.”The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, p. 131
I am a cancer survivor; this passage didn’t make me think about my leukemia, though.
I thought about the repeated sexual assaults that spanned my teen years—by peers and trusted adults alike—as well as harassment and the sexually-hostile environment in which I spent much of my time. Then I thought about all the people I’ve since told about my sex-related traumas and how so many of them are quick to praise my strength.
It’s true that it takes strength, and courage, to speak out about sexual assault. I know that.
I also know that, sometimes, being strong is truly the only choice you have.
In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel knows her cancer is terminal, even if it’s slow-progressing. She cannot change her circumstance, so she has two choices:
- Enjoy the time she has left to live, or
- Go ahead and die at her own hand.
Of course, we know she chooses to live as long as she can and as fully as she can. It’s a tough life, and it’s the only one she has, so she chooses to make the most of it.
Something incredibly similar can be said about living in the after of sexual trauma and the days of speaking out about it, working to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Speaking personally, seeking justice has never been about me, Olivia. It’s been about the potential Next Olivia, one who may not have the friendships or support system to withstand the pain of realizing what is happening and has happened—and I barely had any at the time the assaults and harassment happened. I think about the theoretical children of the perpetrator and the childhood they might have. I already survived the hardest part—the during, when it was happening—and now, all I have to do is look out for the next girl.
Because there will be a next girl.
Yes, it’s hard to relive these incidents over and over. In my opinion, though, it’s harder to live through them.
Yes, it’s hard to know not everyone will believe me. For me, it’s harder to imagine that someone else won’t be believed, either—possibly someone who needs that external validation of “this was wrong” in a way that I used to need it, who may not receive it.
And yes, it’s hard to live with the memories. And like I said, I’ve found that it’s harder to go through the moments in those memories the first time, when you’re alone and uncertain and fighting to survive, all the while losing that battle but never the war.
When people tell me “Oh, you’re so strong, Olivia, I could never do what you’re doing,” I want to say, “Survive what I’ve survived first, then say that.” Because the truth is, until you’ve survived it, it’s hard to say what you would or wouldn’t do.
I am one of many survivors who waited years to do something about the injustices wrought against us. I live with some regret for not saying something sooner; at the same time, I know I said something when I was emotionally and logistically prepared to do so, and that is the most any of us can do.
When people praise my strength, I want to snap like Hazel did sometimes, because, yes, I am strong…and sometimes I wonder, for a moment, who I might be if I didn’t have to be strong so much to survive for so long.
I don’t, of course. I smile and try to politely explain I’m simply “Doing what needs to be done,” to which I normally receive some version of “But so few people would.”
And that’s the problem.
We need to normalize doing what needs to be done, rather than saying, “Oh, I can’t—someone else will.”
What if everyone else is saying “Oh, someone else will” and the “someone else” the situation—the world—needs is you?
I don’t think it’s fair to call someone else strong without trying to do your version of the difficult thing, too. Of course, we can’t all do the same hard things, or every single hard thing we encounter, but we can do hard things. Within us all resides more strength than any of us know.
Let’s normalize being strong. Let’s make doing the hard thing the rule, not the exception.
I don’t need to give you my strength so that the world will know a little more peace.
You have your own.
Links for additional information related to the Nathan Shewell allegations:
- Ex-North Central students file notices of legal claims against district alleging it failed to stop teacher misconduct
- State revokes teaching license for ex-North Central teacher amid misconduct allegations
- Former Silver Creek drama coach loses teaching license
- My response to the Nathan Shewell allegations
- Ashley Nation’s Statement
- Summary of Senate Bill 135
- Petition to pass Senate Bill 135