by Liz Clift, CCASA Intern
Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Assault (AK Press, 2014) is a slim book, filled with letters and poems from (and to) survivors of sexual assault. The book’s letters may provide comfort to female-identified people who were recently sexually assaulted, or who are just coming to terms with a past sexual assault. Many of the letters work with the themes of, “I believe you,” and “It is not your fault.” A handful talk about the process of healing, about the process of coming forward with the information, about the process of beginning to reconcile what happened to an individual with what non-survivors might think or hear when they hear about sexual assault. This is a book that allows (for once) survivors to tell their stories.
Most of the letters are non-specific enough to (hopefully) avoid triggering other survivors, and I think this may also be the book’s downfall. As a survivor who is deeply immersed in work to raise awareness about, and ultimately end, rape culture these are all messages I’ve heard time and again. They’re the messages I give to survivor-friends in those moments when they slip back into self-doubt or self-blame. They’re the messages I sometimes need to offer myself as comfort.
What I wanted was a book of sisterhood, a book that acknowledges the complexities of various forms of sexual assault, and I think this has to include details. Those don’t have to be gratuitous details, but they should acknowledge enough specifics for someone to be able to say, “hey, this author is really talking to me. They get it.”
To be fair, a handful of these stories did acknowledge enough details that a survivor of a similar experience could find that, and also be awakened to the sense of strength the letter-writer had (eventually) developed. But these letters were the exceptions, rather than the rule.
I finished the book feeling unsatisfied. I wanted a book that offered me new insights – into gaining strength as a survivor, into being okay with sometimes backsliding into self-doubt without being a “bad” feminist, into the ways that the process of recovery is not always a straight line. I’d recommend this book to others who are early in the process of claiming their identity as a survivor, or who are struggling with the term “survivor” and what that really means. And, I’d recommend the book to loved ones of survivors who are just starting to learn how to help their loved one cope, who are looking for models of what others have gone through, who perhaps don’t know where to begin with their loved one or how to talk about surviving sexual assault.