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Reflections on Wednesday Night’s SVU, the Stanford Case, and My Own Pursuit of Justice after Sexual Abuse
Wednesday night’s episode of Law & Order: SVU was one of those "ripped from the headlines" stories. Like many of you who followed the news back in June about Brock Allen Turner’s six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on the Stanford University campus—and her statement that went viral—the storyline was familiar. His friends and family made excuses for his behavior. His father blamed the assault on a "culture of alcohol consumption and partying" and referred to it as "20 minutes of action." The lenient sentence, the victim-blaming, the focus on a perpetrator’s future rather than that of the survivor who he raped and the impact on her life. The longing for justice and accountability, especially as in the end, Turner only served 90 days in jail.
The Stanford case, as I said at the time, was "rape culture firing on all cylinders."
"Brock Turner wasn’t an isolated instance of a single judge making excuses, or a perpetrator evading accountability, or of justice denied."
But Brock Turner wasn’t an isolated instance of a single judge making excuses, or a perpetrator evading accountability, or of justice denied. This weekend, another case made headlines. In Montana, Judge John McKeon sentenced a man to 60 days in jail for repeatedly raping his 12-year-old daughter. Prosecutors in the case had recommended the state’s mandatory 25-year sentence. Among the reasons the judge gave for rejecting the recommendation are that the survivor’s mother and grandmother had written asking for leniency. Both cited the defendant’s relationship with his sons and the sons’ need to have a relationship with their father in their letters. No one stood up in court to advocate for the 12-year-old survivor. In the face of this injustice, there is a flicker of light: 80,000 people have signed a petition to impeach this judge.
Society firing back like this can—and does—effect change. We witnessed that in the Stanford case. Petitions demanding Judge Persky’s impeachment were widely circulated—garnering millions of signatures online—and committees were formed to mount a recall challenge in the 2017 election. In the face of this public pressure, Judge Persky voluntarily stepped aside and is no longer hearing criminal cases.
Cases like this—and all that they represent—hit home for me in many ways. They touch me deeply as someone who has been immersed in these issues all of my life, as a survivor working to heal every day from the trauma of sexual violence, and as an advocate for my entire career.
Wednesday’s episode of SVU differed in many ways from the experience of the Stanford survivor. And let me be clear: no one can—or has the right to—tell her story or represent her pain but her. But what I think the episode captured in such a real way is a sense of longing from Janie, our fictional survivor. What she so desperately wants is for Ellis, the fictional perpetrator of the rape, to take accountability and ownership of his actions.
"I just want him to know what he did, and not tell his lawyers tell the press that the ‘nameless intoxicated female is just as responsible as he is.’ Just because I don’t remember what happened doesn’t mean I wasn’t hurt... I don’t want to testify. I just want an apology."
And later on:
"At first, you didn’t think you did anything wrong. You blamed alcohol. I’m glad you now understand alcohol didn’t push my dress up, get on top of me and force itself inside of me. I’m glad you know what you did."
This deep longing for personal accountability is something many survivors have shared with me. It’s something they want and it’s important to them even if the person who caused harm is held accountable by the criminal justice system. It's something, too, that the Stanford survivor expressed:
"...But right now, you do not get to shrug your shoulders and be confused anymore. You do not get to pretend that there were no red flags. You have been convicted of violating me, intentionally, forcibly, sexually, with malicious intent, and all you can admit to is consuming alcohol. Do not talk about the sad way your life was upturned because alcohol made you do bad things. Figure out how to take responsibility for your own conduct..."
"...He pushed me and my family through a year of inexplicable, unnecessary suffering, and should face the consequences of challenging his crime, of putting my pain into question, of making us wait so long for justice."
"He has only apologized for drinking and has yet to define what he did to me as sexual assault, he has revictimized me continually, relentlessly. He has been found guilty of three serious felonies and it is time for him to accept the consequences of his actions."
It’s a feeling I know all too well.
I was sexually abused during most of my childhood, for the first time when I was five, by a teacher at the private school I attended. I testified, at eight years old, in front a grand jury, and the man who abused me was indicted and sentenced to five years in prison. He served eleven days. He was also ordered to pay restitution to his victims. He never did.
Years later, as a grown woman, I received a phone call and learned that he had again been caught sexually abusing a young girl for several years. Again, he excused it away as if she invited it and wanted it. I was called to speak at his sentencing—the sentencing of yet another young girl, experiencing what I had experienced at the hands of the same person—22 years later.
More than 20 pages of words flowed out of me, including these ones:
"I am certain that he has no concept of what my life or the lives of my classmates have been like since we were abused, and I'm convinced that he never will. The effects of the abuse and the breach of trust are devastating. I assure you that they don’t last for any term of sentencing, but forever. Here I am, A grown woman, about to be married, and I have to relive the abuse all over again."
In Janie’s deep longing for an apology, she was expressing a desire for justice. Her longing was perhaps even deeper than a guilty verdict and a long sentence. I understand exactly where she is coming from. I know the struggle of trying to find justice, of seeing it slip away. My abuser never apologized to me, or to any of his victims, and that, more than 11 days served or no restitution—a hole that was never filled—has stuck with me all these years. An apology—not empty words, but true accountability—is the kind of justice I wanted then and have longed for all these years. Distilled to its simplest underlying principle: "what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended."
Even though the man who harmed me never acknowledged what he did to me and I never heard the words, "I'm sorry," when I spoke at his sentencing years later, something shifted. As a dear friend once shared with me, it's like the scales of justice somehow balanced—just a little. For me, I would say in part, it was about having the opportunity to contribute to his criminal case and ensuring he was held accountable. But It wasn’t just about seeing him sentenced to eight years for victimizing a young girl. For me, it was also about having the opportunity, in a safe place, with support around me, speaking my truth and taking back the power that had been stolen from me all those years ago.
As I stood it that courtroom, I addressed him directly: "You violated every faith and trust we gave to you. You took from me my innocence, my purity, most of my youth, and a piece of my spirit." But I knew that while I was wounded, I was not broken. He didn’t ruin me.
Justice comes in many forms and is different for every survivor. I deeply respect and honor that. In the absence of my own personal experience of justice—acknowledgement and apology—I hold onto my work. I hold onto the fact that I am privileged everyday to work toward creating possibilities for others to find justice and healing.
I have worked for 25 years in pursuit of transforming our society’s response the issues of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse—the past eight with the Joyful Heart Foundation. I know that this dogged pursuit goes all the way back to my five-year-old self. I see that seven-year-old girl found in the kitchen by her mother being abused by the same man who abused me—bright, full of promise, a light not to be extinguished. And I think about the very real possibility that there have been so many others as well. I picture the survivors whose letters to Mariska compelled her to start Joyful Heart twelve years ago. I hold close all those who are physically, emotionally, verbally, or sexaully abused or assaulted every day by someone they know, love or trust, or at the hands of total strangers.
We cannot undo what has been done to us and to one in three women in this country, but we can change it for future generations. We can lift the shame and stigma that survivors are so undeservingly burdened with. We can hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes rather than making excuses for their actions. We can create opportunities for survivors to heal and reclaim their lives. This, I know in my heart.
"Each of us has within our power to change what's reflected back."
I think often of my personal mantra, “be the change you wish to see in the world." Our priorities, our culture, our criminal justice system, our laws—everything—they are all mirrors of what we as individuals believe in and stand for. Each of us has within our power to change what’s reflected back. We need to be the change.
We must say enough.
Yes, I use that word deliberately.
For too long we have relied on those who have experienced violence to be the brave ones to speak out, stand up, and fire back. It’s time now for the rest of our society to pick up the torch—to sustain the fire—to keep firing back on all cylinders. Please join me and thousands more who are pledging to change the culture.