Every time I hear the question I feel my blood pressure spike as my hands ball into fists. While I understand all the reasons behind the question, I still cannot handle its' implication and our societal ignorance of the realities of abuse.
While we all like to say we have empathy for the victims of these atrocities, it is easier for us to wonder why they could not save themselves. (By extension save us the huge discomfort of having to face the horrors that some people are forced to endure.) Asking this question, or even wondering about it, is the same thing as trying to imagine what it would feel like to have cancer. We can say we would fight it, do everything necessary to live, but do we really know what we would do when the pain hit us? Do any of us ever know what we will do until we are tested?
Victims of violent crime struggle with many things after rescue, one of them being guilt. Either guilt for surviving when others didn't, or guilt for not fighting hard enough to get away. This thinking is a factor of being safe, when you are in danger or struggling to survive you do not have the luxury of hindsight, you only have moments to endure. When you are free, you question what you did to survive. When you are enslaved, you merely survive.
Perhaps the harder questions to ask are "how did you survive? what was it like?" but who really wants to know that? In speaking with survivors of sexual abuse during the writing of The Last Bridge, this was the comment I heard most often, "no one wants to know what happened. When I try to bring it up, people change the subject or they tell me it's too painful."
Imagine something awful, unimaginable happens to you and when you are returned to your family and friends you feel their hesitation, their fear and resistance. What has happened to you has not only broken you in ways you will spend your whole life healing but has separated you from everyone and everything you know, for ever? What do you do when no one will hear your story?
Anyone who has ever been in therapy knows this, what heals us more than anything is the power of listening. While we cannot make the atrocities so many people suffer go away, we can listen, we can open up our hearts and let the story come out and live in the open. Instead of focusing on what they should have done (get away, call the police, etc.) we can focus on what they did do, they stayed alive.
Perhaps it is the belief we all cling to that bad things do not happen to good people that gets us in to trouble. The truth is bad things happen to everyone all the time. What happens to us is not a judgement of our worth, what we do about it is what defines us. When we can embrace the notion that there is no "normal" we can free a lot of people from emotional suffering. What is normal, after all, is what happened to you.
Which takes me to the hero's journey. If we are all the hero of our own story, our job is live to tell the story. It is to survive the obstacles that are put in our path. I read the stories of Jaycee Dugar, Shawn Hornbeck, Elizabeth Smart, Elisabeth Fritzl and all other survivors and I am amazed at the power of the human spirit to endure, to survive. While what became normal to them is unthinkable to us, it is what they experienced and it deserves to be acknowledged openly and with love and understanding.
We don't ask people who survive cancer why they didn't have it diagnosed sooner. When they survive we congratulate them on fighting the good fight. We should treat survivors of abduction, violent crimes and abuse in the same way. We should honor their courage and hear their stories.