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Survivors of Sexual and Physical Assault Have Hope to Thrive

An interview with author Jenifer DeBellis.

Key points

  • Behind the statistics of trauma victims are living, breathing souls who need to heal and thrive.
  • If you label yourself, choose an empowering label.
  • The end goal is to achieve and maintain the best quality of life that you can.

Jenifer DeBellis, author of Warrior Sister, Cut Yourself Free, discusses physical and sexual assault against adolescents, her advocacy work through aRIFT+, and the message of recovery in her book.

ML: Warrior Sister, Cut Yourself Free opens with alarming statistics about reported physical and sexual assault against adolescent girls in the U.S. Why is it so important for survivors to break their silence?

 Jenifer DeBellis, used with permission
Warrior Sister, Cut Yourself Free.
Source: Jenifer DeBellis, used with permission

JD: The opening statistics are there to give a face to the magnitude of physical violence that young women endure. Trauma affects a large demographic. My hope is for survivors to know they have a sisterhood of fellow travelers. Many of us have gone through our trauma and reclaimed our best quality of life. When you give people alarming statistics, their eyes widen. It’s shocking. The realization ripples through the room. Once that shock starts to dissolve, now I can look through the room and see all the people with whom it’s resonating. It’s painful. They’re part of this huge number of statistics, but they can change their life and how their story ends. I don’t leave them in a feeling of hopelessness and shock. Now the hope is in going forward and rebuilding the best quality of life.

ML: Beyond statistics, those numbers represent living, breathing souls who are wounded in similar ways and they can join together to heal. You list a number of what-if questions that ran through your own mind after a traumatic incident the night before your Homecoming dance. Is that common for victims to torture themselves mentally like that?

JD: Sadly, yes. This is a common reaction because our culture conditions young girls to reflect on what they did to provoke things. When you think about the standard questions people ask when a victim comes forward: Did you say anything to set off your attacker, did you go out alone with this person, what were you wearing, were you under the influence, were you flirting with this person? This series of questions is weaved into the fibers of our being from a very young age. Then our culture teaches girls to suck it up and get over it. They torture themselves when they can’t get over it no matter what they do. It’s a vicious cycle.

ML: That’s utterly pathetic for a modern society to ask such reptilian questions.

JD: I teach research and writing. I was looking at what the current questions are when a victim comes forward for criminal support. They’re trying to teach officers how to reframe the old questions, so the victim doesn’t feel accused. Some things in the new manual were trying to infer that the original questions were misunderstood. ‘What were you wearing?’ is being downplayed in the new manual as a misunderstood conversation. They want to reframe the reasoning behind the question as though it was just for evidence gathering. Talk about gaslighting people. I don’t care if I’m not wearing anything; I’m not inviting someone to violate me.

ML: They are two separate questions. One is what were you wearing and the other is do you still have the evidence so we can find the perpetrator?

JD: It’s another erasure to make people think they totally misunderstood. I understood what was meant when I was in high school and the counselor asked me those questions.

ML: Your book also talks about ‘un-labeling’ things like ‘victim’ and offers encouragement to find labels of empowerment. Tell me more about that.

JD: Everyone wants to label everything. We have to compartmentalize everything but these labels stick. They often keep a survivor from seeing herself beyond them. If a survivor picks a label, I hope she chooses one that empowers her. I have a resistance to labels, but that’s where the name Warrior Sister comes from. I’m a fighter and I didn’t always used to be that way.

ML: When you’re at the police station, it might be helpful to accept a temporary label as ‘victim’ because you need their help. But once that stage is over, the label can be removed like a sticky note. People can grow out of a particular way of thinking because their level of knowledge and understanding changes. How would a person who’s been assaulted know when it’s time to shift from avoidance coping to confrontation coping? What are those coping mechanisms?

JD: There’s no exact formula for this shift. Avoidance coping isn’t a healthy, long-game strategy because it keeps survivors moving around this obstacle that will never go away. We’re just not going to deal with it right now. When do you know? I think there’s one question we can ask: Am I unable to cope through this or am I unwilling? Confrontation coping is a type of coping. It’s not like a breakthrough; it’s never over. We find ways to overcome the triggers, but it doesn’t happen in one shot. It’s baby steps, often into uncertainty and fear. It sometimes is like the fear is never done. Maybe it’s OK and maybe it’s never OK. But the fear doesn’t have to trip us up. We don’t want to turn off our internal warning signals. If our end goal is to achieve and maintain the best quality of life that we can, if we live a lifetime with confrontation coping, I call that a win. We can have the confidence to do it without the trigger holding us back. It’s beautiful grace when you know how hard it was for survivors to do that.

ML: What is post-traumatic growth?

JD: Psychologists of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte coined the term. PTG is sometimes referred to as positive life change, essentially when survivors work through their trauma. They often struggle with their new reality. While things can never go back to the way things were, it’s more than resilience; it’s also about thriving. Through professional, social, and spiritual support, they can thrive with new expectations for their future. I want to change our approach in helping survivors.

ML: Why are there more stages to assault trauma grief than there are for grief over the death of a loved one?

JD: The trauma stages in Kubler-Ross are over permanent loss and learning to live without the deceased. I couldn’t end at acceptance. Trauma grief model stages are:

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain
  3. Recall
  4. Guilt and shame
  5. Anger
  6. Depression
  7. Acceptance and hope
  8. Recovery

When the end goal is to live with a different version of oneself, grief doesn’t resolve on acceptance; it rests on hope and recovery.

ML: Thank you so much. Where can readers find out more about what you’re doing with aRIFT+ (Assault Recovery Initiatives for Teens and Women) Warrior Project and connect with you?


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