Balint: The courage in breaking the silence

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I've been thinking about courage lately. Americans from across the political spectrum have praised the courage of some GOP senators in finally publicly criticizing the president. Although the senators' comments were welcome (albeit long overdue), I sat in the darkened Latchis Theater recently and pondered the true embodiment of courage at a sneak preview of local filmmaker Willow O'Feral's remarkable documentary "Break the Silence."

Co-sponsored by the Women's Action Team — a Brattleboro-based activist group — and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, the film featured local women as they candidly and bravely discussed their reproductive and sexual health. I watched and wept — for them, for me, and for all the stories that never get told. Our cultural taboo against discussing healthy sexual interactions makes it difficult to protect us all from unhealthy, unwelcome, or dangerous ones.

Like several women in the documentary, I survived sexual abuse. As a young child — sometime before 5th grade — I was molested by a male neighbor. A dear friend asked me about my early childhood a few months ago, and I realized that there's a lot I don't remember from that time in my life. The emotional paralysis I experienced as a result of that abuse makes it difficult for me to access other memories from that time. Years of therapy, self-work, and constant reflection have enabled me to find my voice and rebuild my spirit, but O'Feral's powerful documentary roused the little girl resting in my psyche's recesses.

I cried for that little girl, and bore witness to the pain, the strength, and the resilience of the women on the screen. But I also felt lucky. And I was furious for feeling that way. I felt fortunate for having "just" been molested as a little girl and not raped. Of course, my experience was terrible. It alienated me from my own body; it filled me with doubt and shame and a free floating dread that drove me for years. Yet, so many others have endured so much worse. These stories need to be told so we can bear witness and help each other to heal.

We appear to be at a national moment of reckoning in how we talk about and address sexual abuse and harassment. But, let's admit it, we've been here before and ultimately couldn't face the truth. Twenty-six years ago Anita Hill was skewered by members of the all-white, all-male Senate judiciary committee when she testified about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' alleged workplace sexual harassment. Many senators challenged and then disregarded Hill's accusations of sexual harassment; the chair of the committee, Senator Joe Biden, did not call any of the witnesses (literally waiting in the wings) who could corroborate Hill's testimony. Hill demonstrated incredible courage, but she paid dearly for it. And a generation of women and girls learned to keep their mouths shut or be publicly shamed. I desperately hope we will do better this time. We must.

I've watched friends, neighbors, and acquaintances bravely tell their stories. And I'm holding the stories of friends who are not yet ready to tell theirs. They may never be ready. But I know it helps them when others do share. We begin to heal when we know others understand our pain, that others have similar painful struggles and yet have found a way to endure.

Courage takes many forms, to be sure. And we each have dozens of interactions each month in which we have to make decisions that require nerve and sometimes even some fearlessness. But watching my friends and neighbors projected up on the main screen of the Latchis Theater, as they talked honestly about their sexual and reproductive health, was one of the bravest things I've witnessed in my almost 50 years of life. I'm grateful beyond words.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as the Senate Majority Leader from Windham County. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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