We have honored consent in our family from day one. It is a Mitchell Family Value. It may be so highly valued because it was not highly valued in my family…or my segment of society…or even my generation. We will not repeat history. I will not allow our daughter or our son to be survivors. They will have agency. They will have voice. They will be believed. But more than all that: they will know justice.
I have never had justice for my two predators, both of whom I know are alive and well, with families of their own. One even has a daughter. One I even still come across some summers. As my therapist says, that can mean something – that they’ve never been held accountable – but it doesn’t have to mean everything. “Don’t you dare add that to the list of things you were made to feel responsible for,” he says.
But today, in this moment, I will be heard. Today I add my voice to the chorus of survivors, many of whom have spent the day glued to the screen, as I have, shaking and sweating and sniffling. The courage I have witnessed in recent months has broken something open in me. Something long locked up and put away. I no longer think that clandestine assurance that I wasn’t thought a liar was and is all that I’m entitled to. It was never enough and it is never going to be enough.
Yes, I was believed – after summoning nearly a decade of courage – and I understood that belief was all I could expect to get. It was implicit that the acknowledgement of my shame, pain, and humiliation would absolve me of it, and explicit how important it is to move on. I moved on, but it wasn’t like I had a choice. Out of the infinite list of misconceptions about survivors of sexual assault, the two that boil my blood most is why we don’t report it, and why it’s resurfacing now, with the implication that it’s somehow opportunistic.
I didn’t report it because it would have meant putting myself on the stand, like my soul sisters Andrea Constand, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick. To relive often ongoing trauma and shame under the unforgiving florescent light of societal scrutiny is a pain that only perpetrators should feel. Just ask Kavanaugh; he couldn’t hold it together, with all that football and volunteering, and Ivy League education, and white male privilege. Conversely, Dr. Ford presented the most powerful dichotomy of bravery and vulnerability I’ve ever seen. In our culture, the shit storm is almost always dumped on the survivor. Adding insult to injury isn’t strong enough; survivor-shaming isn’t strong enough; it is the widespread toleration of misogyny. That’s why Serena Williams, who refused to be silenced, was so potent, so relevant, such a seismic display of courage and power.
And then they say we have faulty memories, or false narratives – and they bring forward the handful of people who have a stake, by blood or by complicity, in upholding a predator’s good name. Maybe it was dark, a sea of hooded sweatshirts. Maybe we were drinking, or had taken our first pull on a joint. Can you imagine asking a child who is physically abused if maybe he didn’t clean his room and that’s why?
The greatest outrage is that they think we don’t remember. I remember the song that was playing — Bittersweet Symphony — and the striped view through the shades onto the well-lit deck, where partiers were partying on. I remember the peach color of my underwear cast aside on the pillow next to me, and the poster of The Godfather on the wall. I remember feeling broken. It is so easy to feel broken still. As if we could forget.
The butterfly effect of sexual abuse embeds itself in your consciousness insidiously. This particular form of victimization plants weeds of self-doubt in the garden of your brain that no amount of pulling and hacking can ever really eradicate. You learn to focus on the flowers, but any gardener will tell you that the butterflies hover close by and that the weeds are ever-present an inch beneath the surface.
Eight years as sexual prey and one black night of rape during a post-boarding school summer on Nantucket Island – sweaty palm over my mouth – are as impossible to forget as the birth of my own sweet babies. Which brings me to Eloise, my children, and all children.
Allow me to state something I’ve come to see as important; it’s been a shift in my own thinking. We speak about the importance of consent, usually in its noun form, as in ‘permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.’ Consent also has a verb form. To consent is ‘to give permission for something to happen’. Thank you, Google dictionary.
This is not adequate; consent is too passive. Consent can be manipulated; it can be coerced; it is under threat by the dark arts of persuasion, enticement, and obligation. Let’s not require consent; let’s require an invitation, which is ‘to request the presence or participation of.’ There must be presence. There must be participation. There must be a balance of power – a reclamation of choice.
Last point: A survivor is not trying to take someone down. A survivor survived an attempted take-down. In many cases, they were taken down, often for years. Many still are, to this very day and in this very moment. In all likelihood, it was your mother, or your sister, and might still be your daughter. Ask them to tell their story. I pledge this to you: I will tell our children my story. I cannot promise that this world is a safe space. But I can show them that our home is a brave space.
An invitation to Agree:
1. We agree that the basis for sexual attention of any kind must be an invitation, requiring presence and participation.
2. We agree that false accusations of sexual misconduct hover between two and six percent, and that speaking our truth is not something survivors look forward to.
3. We agree that it’s really none of anyone’s goddamn business why we didn’t speak up earlier.
4. We agree to listen to survivor’s stories without looking for holes and plotting to assassinate their character.
5. We make room for every single story, without judgement.