Donald D’Haene has endured the insensitivity of strangers since coming out as a survivor of sexual assault 30 years ago. He offers a response to Todd Akin’s declarations on rape, and advice for survivors of any gender.
“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”—Pearl Strachan
Todd Akin’s ridiculous declaration on the serious crime of rape has created a justifiable uproar. Rape victims everywhere have experienced similar insensitive, nonsensical remarks. Count on it.
Three decades after my disclosure, I could not tell you how many times in my life I’ve been told how to feel, what to say, what to think, how to look, what to believe, what to remember and what to forget. Why, someone even commented on one of my blog posts last weekend, “He likes to think he is the voice of all people that have been sexually assaulted.”
But no one can top the comments of the man who sexually assaulted me for a period of 11 years. Just one example: My rapist sent me a post card from prison 30 years ago that said, “I forgive you for everything you’ve done to me.”
I wrote a memoir about my experience called Father’s Touch ten years ago so that I wouldn’t have to talk about the details of my abuse ever again. I don’t have a need or desire to tell my story any more. I refuse to trivialize my experience by shelling out details like it was a recipe. That’s what excellent therapy does for you. I am in charge of my voice. I call the shots about when, where and what I speak about.
But hearing Akin’s remarks reminds me of my personal resolve that if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t say a word. Tell a soul. Ziltch. Zip. NOTHING—except to my therapist.
When I told my best friend my feelings, he said, “You’re kidding! Really?” A lawyer acquaintance was shocked: “Yes, but you’ve done so much to educate others.” Another long-time acquaintance: “You can’t mean that.”
But my partner’s response when I finally told him was, “I know.” And another friend, a rape victim’s response: “I understand.”
That female friend was raped years ago. Only one other person besides me knows. I told her recently, “I’m jealous of your silence. Do you know that not one person has said an insensitive thing about your experience in 30 years because of your silence! I couldn’t count how many times I’ve experienced insensitivity.”
Yet in our recent heart-to-hearts, the difference between us just slapped me in the face. I was open; she was closed. She had buried her past but it was always brewing near the surface. I had pried open Pandora’s box decades ago. She had just begun opening up the lid.
Sometimes over the last three decades the pressure on my mind was so great, it was as if my brain were going to explode. As the poster boy for male survivours, who could I tell that to? How could I jeopardize all the work I had done by coming out of the closet, in yet another way, with my true feelings: that if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t.
The trial, its aftermath, all became a blur. Like a zombie, I went through emotions—I mean—a Donald would show up with a game face, with many of the right lines, but I didn’t feel any of it. What I do remember is walking down the court house steps and wondering why the hell I chose this route. What do you to do for an encore?
Well, once you go public, the ship has sailed and there’s no turning back. To those of you who say, well, you wouldn’t be who you are today if you didn’t go public, I reply, “So, I might be a different version of happy.”
There’s no one way to be. My story doesn’t have a happy ending because of the disclosure, and a trial. It does in spite of it.
I can’t tell you how many people have said, “Not that subject again!” In hindsight, I realize the negative reaction to my very public process of disclosure has made me be more creative in my writing, interviews, speeches and projects on this subject—dare I say, entertaining?
Does the public reaction, the personal attacks on my choices affect me? No doubt. On a bad day, it really bugs me. On a good one, it fires me up, inspires my creativity. I do believe it requires a specific energy, spirit, and fortitude to carry out a public dialogue on the subject of sexual abuse/sexual assault.
I council other “out survivors”—yes, out in a very different way than the closet we’re used to referring to! –when they ask for my two cents’ worth, I suggest they make sure they temper their public life with a private life: tap into their reservoir of resources for emotional support; I strongly suggest they go for a therapeutic tune-up and that they make sure they take appropriate times out on this very heavy topic.
But you know what? Most don’t listen.
So I must show them by example. I have literally told other survivors, I cannot talk about this right now. We must be aware of our emotional state. It is great if you have a listening ear, an intuitive friend, of course, but it is not the responsibility of others to read our minds—to understand us—to listen.
And let me tell you, the day I realized that was the day my world became an easier place to inhabit. Not expecting anything, I am no longer disappointed. In fact, imagine the surprise at the moments of human compassion, words of encouragement, expressions of positive reinforcement I’ve encountered.
Expecting an unkind word or an unnecessary remark will also remove its power. Take that, Todd Akin!
If you are public about your experience, you must be prepared for anything. There are many more Akins out there. Many people will say the wrong things—count on it.
I must have gone through all that for something. I think that’s one of the reasons I went public—I just wanted it all to mean something.
Well, you know what I know now? It all meant something before anyone else found out about it. All that matters is that I know that! It means something to me.
“The person who understands why he suffers and for what he suffers can endure a greater amount of suffering, without it destroying their self and their soul.”—Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, Author of After Tragedy and Triumph
Image of paparazzi under victim courtesy of Shutterstock