Learning from Giants

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When my grandmother was 69 and I was a freshman in high school, she suffered a massive stroke that left her unable to speak, write, or drive. My grandmother and I were extremely close and I recall many hours spent sitting on her bed in a local rehabilitation center trying to help her learn to speak again. My mother would drive me to see my grandmother after school and I would sit across from her on the bed, the food tray acting as a desk between us, the itchy blanket touching my sun-tanned legs and the smells of hospital food, commercial disinfectant, and urine making me want to run away. The look on my grandmother’s face staring back at me with sadness and stubbornness made me stay put. More than anything, the experience of watching and assisting my grandmother recover from this stroke taught me never to take for granted the importance of having a voice, the power of one’s written word, and the significance of the fighting spirit she embodied. Within a few short years, Grandma Teddy was driving her 1980s model white Ford Taurus again. If one did not know, one could not tell that she had suffered a stroke, though her right arm sagged a little and when she ate, the smallest amount of drool would pool in the right corner of her mouth. She was tenacious as can be, a fighter until the end. She lived until she was 83 and in the last few weeks of her life, we learned that the stroke she suffered when she was 69 was far worse than any of us knew.

My grandmother loved elephants. During her stay in the rehabilitation center, our family bought her a gray stuffed elephant with a note taped to its ear. The elephant stayed with her through her entire stay and subsequently accompanied every family member through every hospital stay or major illness since then. It was with Grandma Teddy on the day she died in 2011. It was with me the following year, 3000 miles away when I was in labor with my son.

After her death, I carried on Grandma’s love for elephants. Friends, family, colleagues, students, and fellow survivors have learned about my love and connection to these gentle giants. My office is adorned with elephant trinkets that others have gifted me. A male survivor bought an elephant scarf in Laos, a female student purchased a small elephant trinket in Uganda. I purchased one in my travels to Tasmania. The list goes on – there are over 100 elephant replicas on my bookshelf. They represent the importance of connection.

Elephants are one of the smartest animals on the planet. More importantly, they exhibit empathy, compassion, grief, and altruism. They take care of one another in times of need, they comfort each other in times of fear and they mourn their dead. They have incredibly strong bonds to other elephants. And an elephant never forgets!

These magnificent creatures have enthralled me for years and I believe we can learn so much from them.

Elephants symbolize everything that is important about healing in all realms, but specifically in cases of sexual violence. Healing from intimate harm requires connection – connection that is often lacking. People don’t know what to say when someone discloses, or they fear they will say the wrong thing. Anniversaries of assaults, holidays, and trips back to childhood homes can be alienating and triggering for survivors. Simple gestures from loved ones can make these moments a little less painful. As human beings, we are so caught up in our own busy lives that we forget the importance of connection.

When someone is sexually violated, they often disconnect from themselves and from others. We disconnect from our bodies, our families, our stories. While experiences of sexual violence are heartbreaking, the aftermath of silence and disconnection remains the hardest.

In the Torah, we read "Lo ta'amod al dam rei-echa—Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds." (Leviticus 19:16).

My interpretation of this verse is that we must not be complicit. We must not stand by when our loved ones are hurting. We might not know what to say, but the important thing to remember is that sometimes saying nothing and just being is what we need. Saying, “You are not alone and I am here with you,” speaks volumes.

Elephants get that. In fact, researchers from Emory University found that elephants use vocal tones and physical closeness to comfort one another in times of distress.

We can learn a lot from these gentle giants.

Do you have questions about how to best comfort a loved one who has disclosed sexual abuse?

Let’s continue the conversation together.

Me & "The Other"

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The fundamental values for how I navigate the world, both personally and professionally, stem from the social justice tenets of Reform Judaism. So it is should come as no surprise that this past Monday morning, I opened my email inbox to find a weekly commentary, known as D’Var Torah,  on this week’s Torah portion. The piece was titled Encounters that Can Make Us Become Better Jews.  As a person who values diversity and inclusivity, my take on this commentary goes far beyond my fellow Jews. In fact, it is my firm belief that the lesson here is meaningful & useful for people of all faith traditions & no faith tradition, alike.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin writes, “We should stop seeing...encounters with “the Other” as problems and start seeing them as opportunities. What if the story we told ourselves about the Other was one in which our encounters made us stronger?”

Not only does this question apply to all people, it speaks directly to my commitment to restorative justice.

***

The current conversations about ending sexual victimization are polarized. We tend to get stuck pointing fingers at one another without taking a moment to listen or reflect on the nuances of the debate. We seek revenge on individuals who have perpetrated sexual abuse, arguing that they deserve to die in prison or, at the very least deserve to suffer the consequences of lifetime registration. We even seek to deny individuals who have sexually victimized someone from any and all good they’ve done in their lives.

We do the same to people who have experienced sexual abuse. We don’t believe them when they come forward. We question their behaviors in the aftermath of trauma. We doubt their disclosures, claiming they are “making it up” when there is no physical evidence of a struggle. Our criminal justice system fails individuals who have experienced rape every day. Currently, for every 1000 rapes that occur in the United States only 6 people will go to prison. Often, we forget that the “victim” is a human being who is so much more than what happened to them.

We pretend that these two issues are not related, or maybe we just don’t want to see that they are?

There is a better way.

***

“What if the story we told ourselves about the Other was one in which our encounters made us stronger”

What could we learn if we leaned into the discomfort? What would change in us if we reached across the aisle and engaged in open dialogue with people “on the other side”? Would we realize that there is no aisle to begin with? Would it be too difficult for us when we recognized our own reflections in the eyes of “the Other”?

The traditional adversarial criminal justice system is set up in a way that encourages people with allegations of abuse against them to remain silent & to deny accountability. This causes additional pain & suffering to people who experienced the abuse, when in reality most want nothing more than an acknowledgement & an apology. The very system designed to honor & support individuals who have experienced sexual victimization does exactly the opposite. In fact, it often revictimizes people.

Restorative justice offers us a bridge. It offers the possibility of open, authentic, & vulnerable dialogue. It requires an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It offers the opportunity for the individual who has been harmed to share how the experience impacted them. It has the capacity to make us stronger, but it requires that we see beyond “offender” and “victim”. It demands that we first see each other as human beings. In many ways it helps us to rewrite the stories we’ve told ourselves about “the Other”.

There will be many times where I write about restorative justice. For now I hope I’ve planted a seed that maybe, just maybe, we can all agree that encounters with “the other” can make us so much stronger in the end.

Ampersands & Duality

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Priest Lake is a tranquil and serene lake in northern Idaho. I snapped this picture with my iPhone while on a boat on Priest Lake in the summer of 2016. We were heading back to shore after a few hours on the water. It was the stuff that memories are made of. We boated across the lake to get ice cream, we towed a stalled out boat to safety, we laughed and squealed as water splashed up from the wake. My children's' faces exuded pure bliss. And me? I was at peace. 

We came around a bend in the lake and I was immediately awe struck by the sky. I grabbed my phone and snapped this picture, not thinking about what it would eventually represent.

This was one of the most captivating sunset I've ever seen. It wasn't just the light that struck me, it was the beauty of darkness & light held within one image. I have come to embrace the beauty of darkness & light as what I represent. 

I've come to honor the symbol of an ampersand as a symbol of duality. 

- As a trauma survivor I know darkness & light, pain & joy, hopelessness & promise.

- As a sex crimes policy expert I honor my professional expertise & my personal experience.

- As a restorative justice facilitator I honor both those who have experienced sexual trauma & those who have caused it. 

Life is full of duality and paradox. When we embrace both - when we honor who we are & what we have experienced, the possibilities are endless.  

 

The Stanford rape case: A different conversation

By Dr. Jill Levenson and Dr. Alissa Ackerman

Brock Turner’s release from jail after only 3 months has re-ignited the shock and outrage that emerged after the Stanford University student-athlete was sentenced to six months for sexual assault of a young woman. The victim's eloquent 12-page impact statement was read and posted in its entirety online, providing a rare and illuminating window into the experience of sexual assault. Journalistic coverage and social media exploded into debates about sentencing, rape culture, prosecutorial barriers, and privilege. While all of these discussions are important, very few people are talking about the flaws in our process that prevent true healing for survivors and preclude opportunities for perpetrators to play a role in promoting prevention, empathy, and accountability. 

We’d like to change the dialogue. We argue that the conversation should shift to promoting restorative and transformative justice. 

Our society’s almost exclusive emphasis on punishment hinders our ability to prevent sexual violence and promote victim healing in several important ways.

1. Our current criminal justice system discourages offenders from taking responsibility for their actions. Anything you say can and will be used against you, so attorneys advise their clients to remain silent, to obfuscate, to shift blame, and to minimize. Brock Turner was advised to take responsibility for his drinking, and he promised to help future college students understand that irresponsible drinking could alter one’s life forever. The public and the victim were understandably outraged by this incredibly distorted characterization of the rape. Interestingly, however, in multiple CNN stories describing the pre-sentence report obtained from the probation investigators, it was reported that Brock had actually expressed what appeared to be genuine shame and remorse to them, but that he was dissuaded by his lawyer from accepting accountability on the public record or to the victim. 

What if we lived in a culture where Brock was encouraged to authentically take responsibility, and to express his remorse directly to the victim for causing her suffering? What if he was able to articulate his comprehension of the many ways in which his actions initiated a cascade of emotional consequences for her? What if he were required to pay for her medical costs and psychological counseling? What if, instead of offering to teach college students about the dangers of drinking too much, he was sentenced to creating and providing (at his own expense) educational programs for college students about consent, respect, healthy sexual boundaries, and the damaging impact of any unwanted sexual contact? To us, these sound more like sanctions that could change the world, and the survivor, and Brock, for the better. 

2. It is not hard to understand why Brock’s father wanted to protect his son from the consequences of his own inexcusable actions. The father’s insensitive and invalidating statements, however, added insult to injury. Not just for the victim in this case and for survivors everywhere, but for Brock as well. As parents, we may want to rescue our adult children from themselves, but when we do, we prevent them from owning their behavior and we enable them to minimize and rationalize. Perhaps the father’s statement provides a window of insight about the ways that he (and many other parents) inadvertently nurture narcissistic entitlement and the inevitable inability to empathize with others’ experiences and perspectives. 

What if we lived in a culture where parents could say to young adults the same things we teach toddlers: “Apologize and make it up to someone when you hurt them.” When, during the course of childhood, does that lesson shift to self-preservation at the expense of others? How could the criminal justice system better help a parent to navigate their incredibly conflicted desire to model accountability without fear that to do so would exacerbate the suffering of one’s own young adult child?

3. Finally, a few thoughts about prevention. Our country united in collective support for this victim after her enlightening and empowering statement. For those expecting that her words will prevent future sex crimes, however, we believe that you are sadly mistaken. It is unlikely that in the moment, a rapist inclined to rape will think of her poignant story. It is unlikely even that friends and family members of survivors, who themselves have been socialized into a rape culture with so many distorted messages about sex, will remember her moving narrative and be inspired to respond in ways that don’t endorse rape myths.

Prevention requires a complex web of intersecting changes. Certainly we need to continue to shift our societal response in a way that fully and exclusively attributes responsibility for sexual assault to perpetrators. We need to be willing to invest public funds into services for at-risk families and communities, since we know that early adversity increases risk for criminal behavior, including sexual assault. We devote enormous resources to incarceration and sex offender registries for perpetrators, and to foster care placements for maltreated children. Unfortunately, these interventions occur after abuse; they are not prevention. Meanwhile, sexual assault treatment centers and rehabilitative programs for offenders are among the first items to be cut from legislative budgets each year, despite research indicating that they reduce victim trauma, are cost-effective, and improve public safety. Our investments in prisons and punitive policies have come with a sacrifice of resources for evidence-based services that promote victim healing and successful outcomes for perpetrators. Every dollar spent on increasingly punitive sanctions is a dollar not available for victims and the agencies that serve them. Investing in responsive and preventive interventions for victims and offenders can help prevent future sexual victimization.

 A society that measures justice only in the length of a prison term is limited in its capacity to effect change and reduce harm. Let’s move the conversation toward understanding the needs of survivors in their healing journey, and fashion our responses accordingly. 

 Dr. Jill Levenson is a Professor of Social Work at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. 

Sexual Assault: A Restorative Justice Model

By Dr. Alissa Ackerman and Dr. Jill Levenson

The compelling and articulate statement made by the courageous survivor in the Stanford Rape case highlighted the failings of our criminal justice system. While many were shocked and enraged by the unusually short sentence of 6 months in jail, the vast majority of survivors never see the inside of a courtroom. Most assaults are never reported and of those that are, few cases are prosecuted. The trauma and suffering that survivors endure in silence is immense. 

 The Stanford survivor, like most victims of sexual assault or rape, wanted her perpetrator to apologize and display accountability for his actions. Our adversarial process silences many survivors, however, and therefore perpetrators rarely learn about the long-term effects of their actions, leaving little opportunity to cultivate empathy.  Perpetrators are silenced as well, providing few chances for victims to hear the acknowledgement of harm they so desperately need and deserve.

We’d like to offer a different perspective - a change in the dialogue. We argue that the conversation should shift to harm reduction, promoting restorative and transformative justice. We offer an example of a restorative justice narrative in which a rape survivor and a SOTX group came face to face for a life-changing experience.

What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice is concerned with violations of people and relationships, not statute definitions and sentencing guidelines. It acknowledges the harm caused to victims, their families and friends, and their communities. A key component of restorative justice frameworks is that offenders must accept responsibility for their actions. Equally important is the survivor’s narrative, as much of the healing process stems from telling one’s story and being heard. The process allows victims to be heard, to seek the acknowledgement of culpability they need, and for perpetrators to hear, firsthand, the personal narrative of suffering they have caused that permeates, like a ripple effect, across time and relationships.

Restorative justice practices have typically been employed for more minor offenses, but in recent years there has been a call to offer restorative justice practices for survivors of sexual violence in conjunction with criminal justice sanctions.  For the last two decades there has been considerable debate on the topic, with some scholars raising concerns about safety, power, and accountability. Limited empirical evidence exists to inform our understanding of the effectiveness of restorative justice in sexual assault cases, but several courageous survivors have opened up publicly to talk about the profoundly positive impact it has had on their healing. 

 Restorative Justice Promotes Healing

Thirty-three years after her rape, Carmen Aguirre went to a prison to see the man who raped her. His name was John Horace Oughton. Known as “the paper bag rapist”, he was serving time for 14 offenses. Aguirre’s case was never prosecuted and Oughton knew this. At their meeting, Oughton refused to acknowledge Aguirre as his victim, but as she spoke her truth he became visibly agitated, shaking, breathing hard, and sweating. Finally, he admitted that her story rang a bell for him. 

Aguirre did not expect this admission. She did not expect an apology or remorse, but he offered that he was working on learning compassion. In her parting words, Aguirre says, “John, I have spent many years pondering why you did what you did to me. And I know why. It was to teach me compassion. Even in the moment, during the actual attack, I could feel your pain. I could feel it” – I patted my heart – “right here. And so I want to thank you.”

Joanne Nodding endured a relentless fight to meet her rapist face-to-face. The meeting took place five years after the rape she thought would kill her. She believed that he thought she would be angry - that she would scream and yell at him. It was her rapist who was afraid and in fear at the meeting. 

She told him about how much fear she was in while he raped her and she believes it had a big impact on him. He offered a genuine apology. Nodding told her rapist to his face that she forgave him and she asked him to forgive himself. She attributes a large part of her recovery to being able to have these conversations with her attacker. 

Dr. Claire Chung made it known early in the investigation of her rape that she wanted to talk to her offender face to face, but because the case was still pending she could not. He ended up pleading guilty and so she was not given a chance to tell her story to the judge. She felt like a statistic that didn’t matter.  

Finally, almost two years later she was able to meet with him and two mediators at the prison in which he was serving his sentence. After he was able to calm his anxiety about meeting Chung, the two talked for two hours. Chung explained how the crime impacted her life and every part of her identity. She discussed the ripple effects and the cycle of damage his actions continue to perpetuate. 

He looked her in the eyes and apologized to her, though he said that sorry wasn’t enough. 

After a second meeting with her perpetrator, Chung says that the face to face meetings have helped her. She no longer stays awake wondering if he will come after her. He became a person to her, and she to him. 

“Hearing the offender say sorry has been a hugely positive step in my recovery and it has helped me overcome the perception that I am just another forgotten statistic.”

 Sex crimes carry with them long-term and often far-reaching consequences that can have a ripple effect that spreads beyond the survivor to families, friends, and communities. The trauma of rape and sexual assault is exacerbated by the very system designed to provide justice to survivors, and intensified by the years of silence and shame that so many survivors endure. 

There are several key elements of healing. Survivors need to be believed and vindicated, not re-victimized. They need to know they are safe and supported. Survivors need to be heard and they need to play a significant role in the justice process. Finally, survivors need the ability and space to express their varied and complex emotions of sadness, anger, and grief. Nothing about the U.S. criminal justice system allows for this. 


Restorative Justice can be a Powerful, Life Changing Experience for Victims and Offenders


The stories above focus on one type of restorative justice, but other frameworks exist as well. Recently, the authors participated in a restorative justice experience aimed at improving victim empathy among men in a treatment program for sexual offending. Unexpectedly, it was transformative for us.

For context, we are both academic researchers. Dr. Alissa Ackerman is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice in the Social Work and Criminal Justice Program at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Dr. Jill Levenson is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida; she is also a licensed clinical social worker who provides group and individual therapy for people who have sexually offended. As academic researchers and scholars who study sexual violence, we both had some knowledge of restorative justice from a purely academic perspective. We did not fully appreciate the benefits of restorative justice until we personally experienced the power behind the process. 

For almost a decade we have researched extensively, both independently and as co-authors, about sex offender policies and treatment practices. We have maintained a friendship close enough that in early 2014 Alissa chose Jill as one of the first people to whom she disclosed her own rape -- fifteen years after it occurred.   

Alissa had never reported the rape that happened when she 16, though it had profound impacts on her life in the ensuing years primarily because she never talked about it. She endured intense flashbacks and nightmares of the assault. For over a decade and a half she remained hyper-vigilant and stoic. She lived with general and social anxiety, believing it would never (and could never) cease. 

She became a sex crimes researcher, in part to better understand why people commit such crimes, and she worked diligently to compartmentalize the personal from the professional.  As a researcher she was terrified that people would not take her work seriously if they knew she was a survivor. It was Jill who assured her that her narrative was important to share. 

As Alissa decided to speak out, the flashbacks, nightmares, and negative effects of her rape that she worked so hard to keep at bay came back with a vengeance. She began speaking publicly all over the country, sharing her unique role as a sex crimes expert and sexual assault survivor. She grew more comfortable in this role, but believed the effects of the rape would be with her forever. Then she agreed to participate in two group therapy sessions with men convicted of sexual crimes. 

Alissa’s experience was transformative, restorative, and healing:  


 To say I was apprehensive about walking into that room is an understatement. Sure, during the course of my career I have come face to face with many individuals who have committed sexual violence, but I always had my researcher hat on. I became very good at compartmentalizing. In this case, I had to knowingly take off my research hat and allow myself to be vulnerable. 

 As soon as we all sat down, I could see that the men in the room were far more nervous than I was. I knew I had the opportunity to provide insight into what it is like to live life in the aftermath of rape. I could explain the flashbacks and nightmares, the impacts on my relationships, the anxiety, the guilt I felt when I snapped at my child because he jumped on my back. I believed this would help them to understand the consequences of their actions. I had no idea that sharing so vulnerably would be life-altering for me. 

 I have always maintained that if given the opportunity, I would want nothing more than to sit face to face with my perpetrator. So when one man asked me what I would say to my perpetrator if I had the opportunity, I did not hesitate to answer honestly and from my heart. I challenged these men to think about their actions form a different vantage point and they challenged me to see them as human beings and not just the label that has been placed on them. Even though in my role as a researcher and academic I knew this to be the case, by the end of the evening I came to the personal conclusion that we were not so different. 

 I walked away from the evening a different person. I felt a huge weight lifted off of me - a weight I didn’t know I was carrying. These men helped me find the closure I had been seeking for more than half my life. The evening was a pivotal point for me. It offered space in my heart and in my mind to focus my attention on other important aspects of who I am. This evening ended my fighting the bogeyman in my dreams anymore.  I may not have known my perpetrator, but I know he is a person. He has a face and a name. He committed a terrible act of violence that I never received “justice” for, but he is no longer the monster I wrestle with.  As I reflect on this experience I realize that going through the criminal justice process would not have helped me to heal. I would have been re-traumatized and it wouldn’t have changed having been raped. His punishment would not have changed that. Participating in these sessions is what brought me justice and peace. It brought me answers to questions I’ve pondered for 17 years. 

 I have always known that my identity involves so much more than the label “rape survivor.” I now fully understand that he is so much more than a rapist. I forgave him for his actions many years ago, and this recent experience allowed me to forgive myself. 

Jill started her career as a child protection social worker, investigating child abuse cases, helping victims and counseling survivors. In the early 1990s, when she was treating survivors at a mental health clinic, she asked the psychologist running the sex offender treatment program: “Why do your clients do these things to my clients?” He answered: “Why don’t you sit in on a treatment group and see for yourself?” 

She explains:

 I did that, and I never left. I’ve been counseling offenders for 24 years. Why do I do it? I do it because it’s a crucial public protection service. I help these men to understand their behavior and learn how to prevent it from happening again.  How do I work with “those people?” Well, they are just people. Does treating them even help? Yes, research tells us that proper psychological interventions can reduce the likelihood of reoffending. 

 When Alissa came to talk to the men in my treatment groups, I knew they were anxious. They were afraid of her anger, her judgement, her shaming. We prepared the week before by generating a list of questions they would want to ask their own victims. We speculated about what she might need to hear from them. When she arrived, they were surprised when she approached them with curiosity and compassion. As she told her story, they were able to hear the various, subtle, and insidious ways that her assault has permeated through all aspects of her life for years. They were able to understand the far-reaching impact to victims of sexual assault and everyone else in their lives. Of course these men always knew that what they did was wrong and illegal, but now they were better able to appreciate the psychological harmfulness of abuse, why it was wrong, and how it leaves such a lasting scar. Several of them have requested to contact Alissa directly, and they all want to invite her back for another session. Their capacity for empathy has been forever altered, in an extraordinary and unique way.

 People convicted of sex crimes inspire little sympathy. But the reality is that many of them were victims of various child maltreatments and family dysfunction in early life, and this early adversity shaped their distorted thinking, inspired maladaptive coping mechanisms (including violence), interfered with interpersonal attachment and bonding, provided little modeling of healthy relationship skills (including empathy), and diminished their self-regulation capacities. The research is clear that criminal offenders have much higher rates of adverse childhood experiences than the general population, and that these events change the neurochemistry of the brain, leading to poorer functioning in adulthood. This is not an excuse for assaultive behavior, but rather, it helps us to understand how interpersonal violence develops, so that we can inform our prevention and intervention strategies accordingly.

A society that measures justice only in the length of a prison term is limited in its capacity to effect and reduce harm. Let’s move the conversation toward understanding the needs of survivors in their healing journey, and fashion our responses accordingly. 
 

 

 Dr. Jill Levenson is an Professor of Social Work at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida.