By Jess Morrow, First Response/Court Advocate
At least once a week, somebody asks me why I work in the violence against women movement, what brought me into this line of work. The answers to this question are various and complex, and my particular answer will change from day-to-day, depending on whether work this week has felt frustrating, rewarding, both, or something else altogether. Generally, I find my answer is too complicated to be thrown into polite small talk, too long-winded, too personal, too politically charged.
I could always start with the reason I became so passionate about the issue of violence against women in the first place. Like many of us involved in this movement, I have survived violence. This answer makes many people uncomfortable. It’s an interesting paradox: In the U.S., one in five women and one in thirty-three men have experienced an attempted or completed rape. One out of three women are affected by domestic violence. Walk into any crowded room at any party and you can be sure that you are in the presence of survivors. Yet somehow, the topic remains taboo. You don’t want your boss, your co-workers, your neighbors, even your friends, to know that you were raped, or abused by a partner, or abused as a child, or otherwise victimized simply because you happened, like half of the world’s population, to be born female.
Far too many women are survivors; too many to count. Yet only a handful end up working for an organization like HAVEN, so my explanation of why I do this work can’t stop at personal experience. The work is draining—I wear a pager. I often get out of bed and brew coffee at 3 a.m. and drive out in 3 degree weather to provide advocacy to a rape victim. Sometimes, despite last night’s 3 a.m. call, I still have to go home again only to get dressed and drive, exhausted, to the courthouse where I promised to meet a woman who was assaulted by her husband and now has to testify in court. I have to muster my energy and find a way to get there, because that woman is terrified and I have promised her I will be there.
Regardless of all this, I keep showing up for work, day after day and week after week. Some weeks, I feel appreciated and rewarded, and some weeks I am unspeakably frustrated. Sexual and domestic violence are so prevalent in our society that I frequently have the feeling that I am pushing with all my might against a brick wall of violence that I fear will never budge.
It wasn’t the career I planned; I was an English teacher, but I hated grading papers. I was an office assistant, but I went out of my mind with boredom. I became a barista for a couple of years because I didn’t know what else to do. During that time I began volunteering for HAVEN. Almost on a whim, I applied for a job in advocacy, and found that this work was my calling. Imagine my surprise.
I first became involved with HAVEN because I reached an understanding that the violence I personally had experienced did not occur in a vacuum. I took classes in women’s studies in college. I realized what Adrienne Rich meant when she famously wrote that “the personal is political.” For me, there was no turning back. I wanted to help. It wasn’t just that a handful of women encounter sick people who commit heinous crimes. Our society is sick. Because I can never sit still if there is work to be done, I decided that I wanted to be a part of the solution.
Every two minutes in this country, another woman is sexually assaulted. That is why I do this work. And the longer I work at assisting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, the more I understand why I am here. The specific reasons change from day-to-day, but the basic truth remains the same. Most victims and survivors of these crimes will come to the harsh realization that the criminal justice system rarely provides actual justice. Even if a batterer is found guilty and held accountable, the time that he may have to serve in jail, or simply on probation, will never make up for the pain that his victim lives with.
Courts and police stations are not places for healing. More often than not, the women I assist learn that “justice,” as defined by the system, is far from fair. Nothing except for time and personal healing work can begin to ease the emotional, psychological, and physical wounds that survivors feel. No jail sentence could possibly level the playing field between perpetrator and victim. A rapist or batterer, more likely than not, will never understand the harm they have inflicted.
I have learned that for many survivors, the only part of the court process that provides healing is their interaction with an advocate. While police, prosecutors, and judges, for the most part, have the best of intentions and usually do care about the victim, they have their own jobs to do, and they don’t have the time or energy to focus on the victim and her healing. That is the work of an advocate.
I have come to believe that the only fair and just thing that may happen for a woman when going through the legal system is the fact that, at the very least, an advocate was provided to her. In the midst of all the chaos and the unfairness, I hope she will remember that there was one person present who was there only for her, and that person respected and validated her.
And I know that my role is tiny, and that there is never a cure-all for a survivor of violence. Nothing can ever be “enough” to level the playing field, to somehow make everything okay again for a survivor of rape or domestic violence. Yes, healing does happen, but things will not be the way they were before. Not entirely. But when I attend court with a woman, sometimes I feel like that brick wall I am pushing against may have moved a fraction of a fraction of an inch. Sometimes. And that has to mean something.
Writing this post has forced me to ponder the question of why I have chosen to work in the violence against women movement. The answer changes from day-to-day.
This is the answer that came to me one day recently. I was in a courtroom listening to a brave young woman, a survivor of sexual assault, giving testimony on the stand. She was seventeen years old. Her story was heartbreaking. I was so deeply impressed by her courage, her integrity, her wisdom (which was far beyond her years), and her tenacity.
And then the answer came to me, the answer for that day at least. I remembered the reason I had gotten up and gotten dressed and come to work that day. I thought to myself, ‘it’s because of her. I’m doing this work for her.’