For those of us who have ever faced sexual abuse or assault, this has been a challenging time to read and watch the news. The Kavanaugh hearings, and especially Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s courageous testimony, triggered a flood of emotions. Our own stories, long held under cover, were busting out of us, and we yearned to be heard. In two small circles, I asked how many were either victims of abuse themselves or knew someone in their immediate family who was. Fifty percent in the first circle and eighty percent in the second raised their hands. I also asked a circle of 42 women the same question. The hands raised fleetingly. Positioned around the circle, the leaders only had time to look across and report on their glance: 50%, 80%, 90%. The circle gasped. Tears came immediately into my eyes. This is the size of the burden women carry and, until #MeToo, carried in near silence.
Kathryn Stivers, the host for our grief and Write-to-Heal circles, suggested that we invite women survivors of sexual abuse and trauma to come to a circle called Women Sharing, Women Witnessing. We envisioned a two-hour sharing circle followed by optional sessions on Write to Heal and Soul Collage if women weren’t ready to go home. The sharing ended up taking three hours.
We believe that women gathering to share their stories is important wherever it can happen, but for an open circle of women who didn’t know each other, we wanted to take care with how we created safety. We chose to hold our circle in a sunny room with fresh flowers, tea, and chocolate, along with the support of community therapists.
We began with silence, encouraging women to find a way to leave the national story and come into their personal story. We shared our Healing Circles agreements. We emphasized that confidentiality extended back to the circle members themselves, that we wouldn’t ambush each other by bringing up a story in another setting where a woman might not be prepared to re-enter trauma. If a woman wanted to dive deeper into her healing, that was hers to initiate. She could ask any of the therapists present or come back to Healing Circles Langley for a circle of two.
Because of the depth of emotion present, we created a ritual to hold it based on the grief circles of Callanish in Vancouver, BC. We placed a simple cauldron of water in the center of the circle and surrounded it with flat palm-sized stones gathered from our town’s beach. We invited each woman to pick a stone and write whatever she wanted on it—her name, the names of other survivors, her grief, a phrase that gave her courage. What was most important was that she find her own voice.
I found myself holding my own rock tightly as each woman shared. When each woman finished her story, we rang a bell, took a deep breath together, and often struggled to find our voices amidst our emotions. Together, we said to each woman: “We hear you. We grieve with you. We will hold you as you heal.” It was a collective promise. A collective prayer. Our guardian then rang a different bell: “This is for your voice.”
It can take a long time for a woman who has been abused to find her voice. Her abuse could have happened when she was very young, before she could even understand what was happening to her. It could have happened when her inner voices of blame, shame, humiliation, fear, denigration, and total aloneness were louder than her ability to call out for help. It could have happened in a time in our society when there was no one to help.
Some of our memories were piercing and fierce, as if the trauma happened just yesterday, and the pain was overwhelming. Other memories were diffuse and vague, as if the trauma occurred only in a nightmare. Some memories surfaced while hearing another woman talk. Others had never been voiced aloud before.
We often use the metaphor of a campfire when we explain about circle. We each add our log. When we need the warmth of shared experience we lean in: When the fire is too hot for us emotionally we lean back. Although we shared this metaphor in this circle too, I personally found it impossible to lean back, and yet leaning in risked getting burned. Some memories were almost too hard to hear, triggering our own trauma or causing an unrelenting sorrow that we live in a world where this happens to women. And yet the circle held. We could fully witness each other’s pain. We did grieve. And we continued to listen.
Listening to our own story is the first step in personal healing. Listening to our collective stories is how we will build a culture where this is no longer acceptable.
We closed our circle with each woman placing her rock in the bowl of water, our shared tears. Each woman then placed a flower wherever and however she chose. She was beautiful, her life hers to make despite what had been done to her.
The day before our circle, 40 Facebook friends in our community (in perhaps the best use of Facebook I’ve heard of) composed a poem—each contributing a line. Note how often the word resilient is used. This is our ultimate prayer for each other.
Women are powerful and dangerous.
Women are here to clear what needs to be cleared on the planet and ready to step forward together to make way for the new world.
Women are brave and courageous.
Women are awake, and together we sing our fierce compassion.
Women are collaborators and creative beings.
Women are influential and inspiring.
Women are blazing new trails and lighting the way.
Women are each whole and worthy of embodying space.
Women are softly strong and strongly soft.
Women are persistent and resilient.
Women are life-givers and soul-tenders.
Women are compassionate and forgiving.
Women are weavers of broken threads and brilliantly colored canvas.
Women are strength and resilience.
Women are rising up and going to surprise you.
Women are resilient and healers.
Women are powerful and practical.
Women are fierce and ready.
Women are Charlotte’s Web.
Women are strong and wise.
Women are giving and caring.
Women are resilient and compassionate.
Women are essential and sacred.
Women are Native American too and powerful indigenous spirit through and through.
Women are resilient and underestimated.
Women are loving and visionary.
Women are courageous and fearless.
Women are leaders and pioneers.
Women are vast and incongruous.
Women are catalytic and revolutionary.
Women are problem solvers, never-quitters, and real go-getters.
Women are life and liberty.
Women are important and wise.
Women are strong and gentle.
Women are intuitive and wise.
Women are the softness of water shaping the hardest stone and a river of women will make the way.