Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tour Redux: Interviewing Survivors

Originally posted at Sarah's random musings, an inside look at interviewing survivors and developing professional distance.  Thanks, Sarah, for having me!

When I coordinated a domestic violence legal clinic, I heard so many stories, thousands of stories, of abuse. As many as 26 people came to the clinic in the two and half hours we had our doors open for new clients seeking emergency orders of protection. My staff of volunteer interns and I went to work - leading our clients into private room and listening to what had happened to them. For these interviews, I remember closing the heavy metal door, and making sure tissues were available, I recorded their stories. Some clients wanted me to share their fear, sadness, panic or anger. Others wanted to hear it wasn't their fault. And still others were defensive, afraid of judgement. But what every person really wanted was to feel safe again, to make the violence stop.

In the first few weeks or maybe months I wanted to be able to ease their pain. Over time I settled for the handshake or the look of relief on their faces after they left our office, with their orders of protection in hand. I developed the professional distance required to go in day after day without falling apart or burning out. I focused only on the courage of the people in front of me and let that inspire me. Leaving someone is always hard, but considerably harder when you believe that you are worth little and you know that you don't have that much control over your life, whether financial, emotional or practical. And so it was easy to see the strength when they were in the office.
And though they left reassured, for me that was when the worrying began. I was acutely aware that a piece of a paper was not a shield and I was skeptical that this thin, carbon copied order could offer the protection it claimed. I clearly remember hearing a news story about a domestic violence victim who was killed by her abuser when I was working there and listening for her name. Was she one of our clients? I dreaded the day when we would hear that story or have our documents subpoenaed. It never came.

About a year into my tenure I finally asked my boss: why do these thin pieces of paper work? Clearly these are men who don't care about the law. But I found that they did. That abusers have a bully mentality and that if they are told my someone who has power over them to leave their victim alone they do, for the most part.
Which gave me comfort. And hope which I could then give to our clients.

It was only after I left the clinic that the impact of the stories, the horrific aspects that I had kept at bay, with professional distance and faith in a piece of paper, began to strike me. I remember with extreme clarity, the man who a man who lifted his shirt and showed me the stitches that arched from the notch in his collar bone to his navel; a woman whose abuser was being released after seven years in prison and who was threatening her; an aspiring model who was so terrified that she brought a friend and sat shaking as she talked. I can't say that I was noble enough to write Split to honor them. Instead, I wrote it to try to make sense of something that seemed senseless and to try to put on the page what clattered around in my head. I couldn't erase from my mind their stories, anymore than I could erase their pain. Writing Split was like therapy for me. I no longer need to erase the stories. Instead, I have come full circle, finding hope again in the courage the survivors who came in had. Hope that if they could find a way to end their abuse, we can find a way help prevent it.


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