Making meaning of the attack

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May 29, 2014

When I shared the story of my attack, I got a wide variety of responses from my friends, family, and co-workers. It is difficult to know what to say to people after things like this happen, so I was grateful whenever someone attempted to talk about it with me or to give me advice.

That being said, sometimes I wondered whether there was a way I could be using my learnings from the experience for good. My pacifist faith convictions and a four-year peace and conflict studies degree lead me to reflect on the nature of crimes like these, and on how the narratives we share afterwards have the potential to either legitimize or raise questions about the culture of violence.

The most common response I got when I shared the story by far, were these two questions: “Were you alone?” “What time was it?” When I answered, the person would inevitably offer advice about not going out after dark, remind me that I am a vulnerable young foreign woman, and would sometimes imply that I was acting ignorantly or naively.

There is truth to this. Bodily harm is not something that I am afraid of the same way many of my other female friends are, so I often find myself getting arrogant and letting safety precautions slide. But I wonder whether my male friends, some of whom have been robbed multiple times at gun- or knife-point while doing equally “stupid” things, were also told they were ignorant or naive for being out late.

This response was also problematic because I would walk away from these conversations feeling stupid or ashamed and would hesitate to share the story again. Though I do not consider myself traumatized by this experience, others who have had similar life experiences often are.

An important thing I have learned about trauma is that the path to healing involves sharing the traumatic experience with trusted listeners until the memories of the event are integrated into the victim’s story in a healthy way. If victims are too ashamed to share their stories, it might hinder the healing process.

Another question that many well-meaning people asked was, “How are you handling the trauma?” I genuinely applaud people for acknowledging the potential for trauma, and for resisting the temptation to ask the other questions that could be considered victim blaming. I think this response would be appropriate 90 percent of the time when someone has faced extreme violence.

In my case however, the attackers were not able to take away my power or sense of agency. Trauma studies indicate that it is not necessarily the physical harm that causes someone to experience trauma, but the sense of powerlessness that person experiences. Getting away from my attackers led me to feel the opposite of powerlessness—I felt invincible.

Another response I got was: “Great work, I can’t believe you fought them and got away. Woman power!” I’ll admit this was my favourite response during the first couple of days after the attack. I loved it because it was a narrative of victory that made me feel empowered, not weak and traumatized. It was not until I sat down across the table from some Christian friends of a different denomination and tried to explain my pacifist beliefs that I ran into a roadblock with this narrative.

These friends live in the building next to where the attack happened, so I had gone to warn them that it wasn’t safe outside their apartment. I started out by telling them about the incident and then the conversation moved on to the theology of nonviolence. When I began to talk about pacifism, a topic I am normally very excited to discuss, my words felt hollow and disingenuous. Later I realized it was because I had spent the previous ten minutes glorifying my own violent acts.

I also realized that although my escape was frequently framed as a victory for women’s rights, what people were really celebrating was the violent, “masculine” nature of my actions. What could an authentic non-violent response to the situation have been, one that acknowledged the humanity of both me and of the man attacking me? I am now even more motivated to explore examples of nonviolence in the context of random street violence.

I felt very disconnected from community of any kind during my independent language studies in Bogotá. I know that if I had been with my team or in one of our partner communities, I would have thought twice about doing anything that might risk affecting the community negatively.

While in Bogotá I had friends that I would go out for coffee and study the Bible with, but the closer web of people who typically hold me accountable felt distant. One of the most valuable things I learned from the experience was that no matter how disconnected we may feel, our actions always affect the lives of others.

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Comments

Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts Cass. I very much appreciate hearing the many responses you've received, as well as your thoughts as you engage meaningfully with their words and your own experience. Your reflections are insightful and help to expand my own understanding of non-violence.

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