Editor’s note: Angela Rose is the founder of PAVE: Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, a non-profit that works to prevent sexual violence. She started the organization after she was abducted and sexually assaulted as a teenager. Rose is the author of “Hope, Healing & Happiness: Going Inward to Transform Your Life.” She is on Twitter
On Thursday, America watched the courage of Michelle Knight as she bravely confronted the man who held her captive for more than a decade. It was an inspiring testament to the strength and resiliency of the human spirit.
All three women who were held captive in Cleveland by Ariel Castro are true heroes for having the strength to endure the rape, abuse and torture of the mind as they struggled with not knowing how or even if they would ever make it out alive. I can personally relate to that feeling — when I was kidnapped from a shopping mall as a teenager, not knowing if I was going to live or die was emotionally tormenting.
I watched in horror and disbelief as Castro justified his inhumane treatment of those three young women and described the brutal rapes as consensual sex. His apology was weak and filled with narcissism, while his comments focused on the impact to himself with little mention of the potential impact on his victims due to his brutal, sadistic behavior.
Knight spoke of forgiveness, which is an important step in the healing journey, though she said she will never forget. She reclaimed her power as she faced Castro in court. To come forward and talk about these very personal crimes takes a tremendous amount of courage for a survivor of sexual violence.
Every survivor reacts differently to trauma, but it’s crucial to shatter the silence of sexual violence. Sharing doesn’t have to be public but can perhaps take place with a trusted therapist or even with friends and family. It’s profoundly important for loved ones to allow survivors the grace and space to process the trauma.
I was heartened that the family of Gina DeJesus used the word survivor, not victim, to describe her. The impact of the family on a survivor’s healing journey can be a crucial one.
Studies show that a supportive reaction from the first person a survivor tells can greatly impact the healing process. But keeping the trauma inside and pushing it down can create a strong psychological aftermath, including self-mutilation, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There can also be a lot of alcohol and drug abuse as a way for survivors to numb the pain.
Many of the negative consequences of sexual trauma can be mitigated by communities creating supportive environments for survivors to speak their truth without fear or shame. Some important methods of support include reassuring survivors that an assault wasn’t their fault, thanking them for sharing and shattering the silence of sexual violence, and offering local resources for ongoing support and recovery. Nearly every county in the United States has a rape crisis center that offers free counseling.
My message for Knight, Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry and all survivors is that healing and living a joyful life after trauma is possible. People who have experienced sexual assault can consciously work to reclaim their power by shattering the silence and owning their experiences. Traveling down the journey of healing is not always easy, but the impact is life-changing — from victim, to survivor, to thriver!