Telling the stories they most fear others hearing

August 6, 2018

I really want to take this class, but I’m not sure I can do it.”

We listen intently to the young woman standing before us. Tears pool in her eyes. Her body shakes with the e ort of holding back the onslaught of memory.

She is the first in a line of students. Each year this line forms after the first class of “Stories for Social Change: Confronting Sexual and Domestic Violence at Duke and in Durham.” These students enroll in our course determined, frightened, and uncertain. And every year we tell them the same thing: “Walk with us if you’re able. The journey will transform you. But, if now isn’t the right time, come back next year.”

On that first day, we tell the students they will share intimate stories, read and discuss material that will challenge their understanding of sexual and family violence, and confront the fears they believe most shape their identities. We explain that they will come to trust and care for each other.

They never believe us. As one student said, “I thought that was fluffy and unattainable. I thought it was B.S.... I barely knew any of the people sitting in the circle around me.”

And yet, with each tentative step toward vulnerability, the students discover that authenticity, trust, and compassion happen naturally. These qualities are the unavoidable result of the students’ willingness to uncover and share the very stories they are most afraid for others to hear.

As instructors, we have no way of knowing when a student will take a brave and deep dive. But, at some point, one student will find the courage to climb the high board. It is a breathtaking moment. Because, once that first student dives, the water seems less terrifying to all. Once someone takes the plunge, others will head for that tall ladder, and even the bystanders will dip their toes to test the water.

Often the first deep dive comes in a written response—a poem, a letter, an essay—to reflection prompts: “How has violence affected your life?” and “In what ways do you—your personal assumptions about gender, sexuality, and power—contribute to a rape culture?”

Using a restorative approach, we facilitate a circle process where students share their reflections. Every year, a student speaks about being sexually violated as a child. About calling the police on a father assaulting a mother. About being publicly shamed by a parent because of weight, looks, or gender orientation. About judging a friend who was sexually assaulted. About the frustration of participating in a social life tied to alcohol and the off-campus bar Shooters. About the student’s own violence toward others. And always, some students write about being survivors of sexual assault. In high school. On a study abroad. On campus.

When the students discover the courage, space, and voice to share—that moment is unspeakably precious. Story by story, the students find strength in embracing the simple fact—“These things happened. They do not make me a shameful person; they do not make me less; they simply make me exactly like everybody else. Profoundly human.” Surrounded by acceptance, it is easy to drop the façade of effortless perfection and settle into a freeing space of authenticity.

That tearful student from the first day? Toward the end of the course she wrote: “I cannot even now believe that I shared my narrative in class, because back in January, this would have been unfathomable to me, but you both created an environment where we all felt safe, comfortable, and loved. I have learned that sharing stories is nothing to be afraid of....”

Unfathomable is good. The water is deep, but love and acceptance are wide. The students even perform their stories publicly at the close of the semester, offering an audience of members of the Duke and Durham communities the chance to share in their journey.

And the student who thought it was all B.S.? At the final performance she announced: “I was wrong. I am leaving this class not only a proud, outspoken survivor, but also with new friends, with people I genuinely care about, and with a story that I am no longer ashamed to share.”

Being present enough with our fears to share them with others frees us to recognize that we are not the story we tell ourselves and not the story others tell about us. We are so much more.

Lambert ’08 is an educator, actress, activist, and audiobook narrator. Harris is the founder of Hidden Voices, a collective committed to creating a just, compassionate, and sustainable world. She is the author of the play COUNT: Stories From America’s Death Row.