By Maegan Ortiz
“Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence” edited by Lisa Factora-Borchers, is a testament of survival.
Released in January by AK press, the book challenges the idea that there is a right way for survivors to process rape.
It does this through a diverse selection of traditional-style letters, poetry, essays, and interviews.
This issue is important to college age students since according the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) at the U.S. Department of Justice, a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year.
Some of the selections are attributed while others are written by anonymous authors. The idea is that the book is meant to be a conversation.
“Survival is testament to someone’s strength, Healing is a testament to the community surrounding her,” Lisa Factora- Bourchers writes.
The readers are brought into a community of survivors and allies through the idea of sisterhood. We are all responsible for discussing and challenging rape culture in the United States because we have all been touched by it.
Factora-Bourchers, who worked as a legal and medical advocate for survivors of sexual violence and is a published author, received most of the submissions online. This demonstrates the power and potential of technology and crowdsourcing when it comes to tackling difficult issues. She could have easily used the readily available statistics and existing archive of literary works about sexual violence. Instead she made the decision to trust the first-person narratives of those wanting to share their stories.
The book is broken down into six chapters highlighting survival and remembering the traumas of incest and other forms of sexual violence.
“Dear Sister” challenges readers to redefine sexual violence and acceptable responses to it.
Aishah Shadhidah Simmons, an award-winning African-American media maker, compels readers to question the definition of rape and notions of deserving or inviting sexual violence in her introduction.
The book also highlights how rape experiences are complicated and do not often fit into a neat narrative as presented in the mainstream media via television shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”.
Each chapter, organized around a theme. “What Every Survivor needs to Know” could easily be a book unto itself. This chapter reads like a book of daily affirmations for survivors struggling with naming their pain and growing through moving naming into action. Action feels like a heavy word, but in this section it becomes clear that actions can be tangible but also intangible, like loving oneself, forgiving oneself and believing in one’s own truth.
Many survivors’ recollections of the violence inflicted upon them are downplayed and manipulated, questioned. In this section a survivor remembers being told by her attacker that the sex was consensual, even though she did not consent. “I believe you. And I believe it was as bad as you say it was. I don’t know what happened to you, but I believe you,” V.E. writes.
“Dear Sister” is not an easy book to read. It features graphic and potentially triggering details about sexual assault, especially the chapter “A Child Re-members”. This is one of the book’s strongest features however. It does not shy away from the graphic reality that is sexual violence through euphemisms. The reader is made to feel uncomfortable because everyone should be uncomfortable and moved to do something about sexual violence.
In the introduction of the book the editor advises readers to engage in self-care when reading. Perhaps this book is best read with a support network of others or makes a good choice for a reading group for Women’s History Month.
The book takes a very non-judgmental approach to decisions made by survivors. It supports those who choose not to report their assaults to law enforcement. The editor also made a clear choice to feature voices of survivors not often heard from like women of color and queer people of color struggling with their abuse and the abuse of the criminal justice system that is supposed to help them. For example, Kate Ahern shares her experience of being forced into child prostitution and another anonymous writer shares how sex work after sexual assault is empowering for her. There is even a letter signed by a child born out of rape.
Another key message of the book is how sexual violence works and intersects with other forms of violence like racism, ableism and homophobia. Sexual violence has the power to impact life experiences in ways often not thought of like how people give birth or parent their children.
While the primary audience of the book is women and most of the writers identify as women, “Dear Sister” does feature one letter from a man who was sexually abused by his father. In the anonymous letter, he talks of the need for all, survivors and perpetrators, to learn accountability. “It would be a lie to say I know what you are going through. All I really know is my own story,” writes Mary Zelinka. This is essentially the core message of the book. That survivors know their truth and that truth needs to be believed and released from shame.
In today’s society everyone is impacted by rape. A reader may not be a survivor but likely knows someone else who is. Dear Sister, this book is for everyone.