The Importance Of The First Response

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Picture 5Last week, we spent four days at AliveFest in Mineral City, Ohio. It was an amazing festival full of music, love, and positivity. We met amazing people, shared stories, and handed out a ridiculous amount of HopeNotes. The table next to us was a fairly aggressive pro-life table. AliveFest is a Christian festival, and often times, such groups are present at such events. We don’t hold a religious position as an organization, nor a political one. So it’s pretty safe to assume that while we may have our own individual opinions about abortion, we don’t have an official position. And that’s okay. It’s a complicated issue, and it’s not the conversation we set out to have.

Picture 4The group next to us was nice. We exchanged pleasantries in the lulls of traffic in the vendor tent, and they were genuinely very nice people. We noticed that their only literature had one question on the front: “WHAT ABOUT ABORTION IN THE CASE OF RAPE?“. That’s all they had. They did have some small business cards that they called ‘drop cards’ that were intended to be left around town promoting their message. But as for their eye-catching message, the literature discussing rape was all they had.

I’d like to back up for just one moment. When we first started our organization, we were quite aware that we weren’t counselors or therapists. We met with Rebecca Born of Connections: A Safe Place and we asked her the proper response for when someone is telling their story for the first time. She gave us a piece of advice that we refer back to on a daily basis. It’s not our mission statement, but it’s damn close. “Hear them. Believe them. Validate them.” Those three steps are extremely important. Anything else, any further questions posed in this moment of vulnerability, or any statements of our opinions at this time can be severely damaging to a person, even if we don’t realize or intend it.

While at AliveFest, at one point we noticed a girl, around 14 years old, debating with the pro-life table about abortion. Specifically in the case of rape. Now, maybe it’s because of the work we do. Or maybe it’s because we were more focused on her than we were worried about pushing a religions agenda, but we noticed the tears well up in this girl’s eyes long before her emotions took over. We could see, very clearly, that she was arguing from somewhere she’d been. She was armed only with the information her personal experiences had given her. It was clear. To us, outsiders, it was painfully obvious. It came as no shock to us when she finally said through her impending tears that she had had an experience at a younger age, and their pamphlets really struck a nerve for her. She was triggered by these people. And rather than apologizing to her, rather than listening to what she had to say with an open mind, or rather than telling her that her feelings were understandable, they told her it was essentially part of God’s plan. To quote them, they said “sometimes God needs us to be desperate for him so we can really listen to him.”

It doesn’t matter if that’s what you do believe. It doesn’t matter if you are pro-life, pro-choice, Christian, atheist, Muslim, or Jewish. In that moment, your agenda takes a back seat. I don’t mean to be on a soapbox here. I really don’t. But I simply couldn’t understand how inappropriate, offensive, and insensitive this response was. Even though it wasn’t our table, we pulled the girl out of the situation, talked to her, and calmed her down. We reminded her that she was loved, and that whatever string of emotions she was feeling was okay. When it was all said and done, and we had some time to reflect, we realized that these people didn’t intend to damage. In their mind, they were helping. I don’t know whether that helps or hurts their case. But I do know this: when someone is telling their story, especially for the first time, your response matters. You are essentially paving the way for their willingness and ability to share their story in the future. Not only with you or other loved ones, but with potential therapists or counselors. You don’t have to have a degree to listen to someone’s story, and you don’t need a certificate to love them, listen to them, believe them, and most importantly validate them. If you’re a victim of rape of sexual abuse, you know the multitude of emotions that come along with it. And they are all okay. Every one of them.

If it feels like that’s a lot of pressure to get it right if someone tells you their story, that’s because it is. The good news is that it’s a lot easier to get it right than it is to get it wrong. Listen, believe, validate. That’s it. Any other agenda can wait. When a person opens up to us, it is never about us anyway; especially if it’s about something as personal and exposed as sexual assault. Perhaps another time we can write an article about all of the wrong things to say, but I fear that that would be even longer than this one. Luckily, the way to respond is 3 steps. 6 words.

cryingHear them.
Believe them.
Validate them.

The first response is the most important. And you can do it. If you’re ever in the position to respond to someone’s story, the person telling you obviously thinks you can do it too.

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9 comments

  1. Solongago

    I shudder to think of some of things I might have said to folks over the years. My experience as a victim did not make me empathetic or a good listener or non-judgmental. I think maybe I have taken a few strides in that area since this last bout of therapy. This year. Other things in life have contributed. Having my brother come out as gay a quarter of a century ago has shaken my foundations and made me come to a different place, if not a different understanding of scripture, religion, Christianity, and such. The family is big on politics and religion, and mostly, we agree on all of it. We agree (for the most) part on abortion — my eldest brother married a liberal, and they have some weird view on abortion. I’m a card-carrying pro-lifer. I’ve been to a march. But I have never gone so far as to condemn the women who have abortions. I blame the men mostly. If a man says to a woman, “It’s ok, honey, we’ll find a way…” Than almost always she will have her baby. I agree that most of the time, we aren’t talking about rape or incest. If those are disclosed at the time, a DNC can be performed in collecting evidence and generally there will be not baby. But, a lot of time women and children do not, cannot disclose, so yeah that is an issue.

    I agree that when a distressed child or a distressed adult comes to your table and asks questions, it is not the time or the place to discuss abortion as a response to rape/incest. Even if you believe whole-heartedly that it is the wrong response, for all the right reasons — an abortion is a temporary Band-Aid that does not stop the abusive situation that needs to be stopped in the case of incest. But you are absolutely right that we have to have compassion first, and agendas when we are all thinking clearly and not in the middle of a crisis. Some of these folks act like they are on the front lines literally grasping babies out of the mouth of death. And how do you tell them they are wrong?

    I had a shitty experience with my brothers, but I didn’t get pregnant. Good. But it made me hard rather than empathetic. I saw everything in black or white. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong every single time, and we need to save the babies because they are innocent. I survived horrible crap too, and having the baby won’t be any more traumatic than murdering the baby will be. So yeah, I have probably been on the wrong side of this conversation — not as extreme as the above case, but… I now think there are better ways to get your point across, and better timing. But it is good to read this sort of a commentary prior to being on the front lines, in a booth, trying to sell your side of something.

  2. pinky

    It’s funny because before we started this organization, I thought I had to have the perfect thing ready to say to someone who told me their story. Some lengthy, heartfelt soliloquy about how they could survive. But since being a part of AVFTI and becoming more experienced with this, I have learned that sometimes saying less is so much more. When someone makes the decision to tell you their story, your job is to listen. Just really really listen. Hear. Believe. Validate. It’s so simple and yet so often forgotten. Thank you for the reminder 🙂

  3. Becky

    Excellent post, Jamie. Survivors face so many fears in disclosing their assault/abuse, chief among them not being believed, being blamed, and being judged for who they are or how they feel. Those fears are universal because they are so often realized in how others respond – whether those others are being mean or are well-intentioned. You are absolutely right that how the first person responds to a disclosure has an enormous impact on the survivor, and you’re correct that it’s not rocket science.

    I’m a Christian and my faith has been instrumental in my healing process, but it’s a personal process. I would never dare to speak for God in any capacity, least of all in offering an explanation as to the “meaning” attached to an individual experience of rape or pregnancy from rape. I find it immensely offensive when others try to dismiss or explain away a survivor’s very personal and painful experience with superficial religious mantras or platitudes. What could alienate and further silence a survivor more? I want to start a ministry for survivors someday, but I will only do it once I can find a way of making sure that no one associated with it responds to any survivor in such a way.

    Enough of my soap box! Thanks again for posting this – it’s so important!
    -Becky

  4. jamie

    Kariorit it was never mentioned between us and them. I honestly think the were relieved to have the situation taken from them. It was obvious on his face that he knew he was in too deep. But we did continue friendly conversation over the next few days. We didn’t want a big conflict between them. And we aren’t the kind of people to try and ‘steal’ people from others’ tables or booths. Hopefully they will take the embarrassment they seemed to feel and use that as fuel to study up on how to respond in those situations. Especially when they bring potentially triggering literature.

  5. nicole

    What a wonderful blog, Jamie! It’s one of those topics that seems blatantly obvious after reading, but is something that I would never think of on my own. 3 steps. This organization has opened my eyes in so many ways on how to love and listen to others. Thank you!

  6. kariorit

    This is perfect! I’m so glad you got this girl away from them! Did they notice and have a teachable moment when you could share with them all of this? Or did they just blow it off?

  7. jamie

    I am glad you got something out of it. 🙂

  8. heartofgold

    At* a loss.

  9. heartofgold

    I rarely find myself arty a loss for words, however, I find myself struggling with the “right” thing to say sometimes when I’m reading someone’s story. Three steps. Six words. This just impacted me in a very real way. Thank you.