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Eric and Mark at AVFTI event in Cincinnati
Eric (left) and me taking a break during a recent AVFTI event in Cincinnati

A mother walks down the hall with her teenage daughter, and I’m struck by how comfortable they are, their arms around each other, strolling mindfully, stopping off at all the tables to hear about each cause. It’s not uncommon for A Voice For The Innocent to be one of many booths at any event, and sometimes we’re among some of the most respectable causes imaginable. It can be hard to stand out, to grab attention and have people drop by to talk with us. Not to mention, sexual violence is a heavy topic… I get it. So, I was excited to see two people so engaged, who were visiting every table. I stood up as they approached and said to myself “Remember. Smile.”

I introduced myself, introduced AVFTI, and told them both a bit about our goals and our hopes. They were engaging, empathetic people but the conversation ran out quickly, after exchanging a few sympathies. Each took some literature, looked at the merch and worked their way toward the middle. Reaching the e-mail list sign up sheet, the mother instinctively picked up the pen.

She caught herself, and a look flashed across her face. I’ve seen it before. We all have, yet I’m not sure how to describe it. Have you ever had a friend recoil at their own joke, realizing a moment too late that it was too far? Or they borrowed your car, and scratched the hood? That time your mom said she hates tattoos, but your girlfriend has 10? That look. Slightly sheepish, definitely apologetic, and it lasts a brief moment, before they’re compelled to speak, in explanation.

“I haven’t…” she began, already reconsidering, “I’m not… I don’t know and I haven’t experienced anything…” she said, lovingly. She wasn’t ashamed, really, but that’s how I keep thinking of it. She felt like she was intruding. She realized too late, that picking up that pen meant she intended to join our community. She had that look. Like she had walked into the wrong wedding reception, and helped herself to a piece of cake.

There’s a question that can plague a victim of sexual assault: “Why me?” It’s an unfair and hurtful question, as if there’s any reason at all that they should feel such pain. I’ve read it again and again in the stories shared on this site. But, in many different ways, the lady at our table was asking herself the same question, to similar results. A victim asks, and stays silent for fear of an answer. She asks, and stays silent for fear of not having an answer.

When I began meeting people and reading their stories with AVFTI, I began exploring this question. Why me? Like her, I have not experienced a violent attack. I don’t know the depth, the intricacies, the days and nights of surviving like so many others. My story is one of compassion, mostly, and a death grip hold on childhood fantasies of changing the world.

Why me?

Recently, I sat in a dim room as a friend described how her family, ideal and picturesque, became complicated, distorted and fractured by abuse. She cried fiercely, and we talked about strength, compassion and the goodness of people’s hearts.

In college, a friend was drugged and assaulted. I was told, but asked not to mention anything.

When I was a Junior in High School, a phrase was seared into my brain: “Hopefully she was too young to remember.”

During Sophomore year, my girlfriend fell asleep on a the bus, and was groped by a classmate to the cheers of his friends. “Don’t make it worse,” she asked of me.

In every instance I was experiencing, first hand, the effects of sex crimes. Perhaps not to my body, but to people I loved. And as far as I’m concerned the people I love make up more than I ever could. Roughly 25% percent of people will be victims of a sex crime, which means we all know someone who has been effected. Me, the lady at the table, her daughter, every stranger on the street… we all know someone, we all love someone, who knows the truest depths. Things we cannot imagine, and don’t want to.

Can we possibly comprehend? Perhaps not, but we understand enough. We understand right and wrong. We understand our strengths, and our abilities. We understand tragedy, in our own ways. We understand compassion. We are capable of that. Our friends and families need that. Strangers need that. They need us. 

When I wonder if I’m out of place, or intruding, or fear my emotions looks pretentious, I pause and ask myself the hardest question I’ve ever heard, because that only seems fair: Why me?

In the last few years, being a part of A Voice For The Innocent, I don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself that. I can tell you, however, how many times anyone has asked “Why you? Why are you here?” That number is zero, because people respect compassion and understand its worth. No one is as interested in why you are compassionate as they are in how you show compassion.

As she stood there, looking sheepish, saying “I haven’t had an experience,” Callie smiled, saying “Neither have I.” I nodded, “And I haven’t either,” I said, “But you don’t need a story to have a voice.” Before they left, the mother and daughter wrote down their e-mail addresses. Having conquered the first scary question, they joined the growing numbers who will, eventually, eradicate the “Why me” of victims by embracing the “Why me” of compassionate supporters.

A Voice For The Innocent is a non-profit community of support for victims of rape and sex abuse. We believe that sharing stories is a transformative experience which leads to a happier and healthier life. Join our e-mail list for blog updates, event notifications, and opportunities to help.

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1 comment

  1. nicole

    This is perfect, Mark. It takes people from all walks of life to stand up and support our neighbors. I too, do not have personal experience with sexual assault. My past choices could have easily led me into dangerous situations, but I am proof that a sloppy drunk is not an open invitation. I had a difficult time the first few months of volunteering because I wasn’t a victim or survivor, but we all know someone who is (whether they share their story or not) and they deserve love, respect, and support from everyone…including us.
    Thank you for putting this feeling into wordsso beautifully.