Dealing with the past is both a personal and communal process that requires activation of the mind and the heart. After a traumatic experience or conflict there is pressure to move forward away from the roots of the problem towards a sustainable, peaceful future. While some experts claim that talking through memories will encourage stability and reconciliation, others find the “forgive and forget” motto more applicable and approachable to their context. Whether via individual choice or collective memory, deciding how to deal with the past (or not to deal with the past) is a critical choice that will impact every component of daily livelihoods from education to governance to popular media and even friendships.
Thinking about the heavy weight that memory has on the healing process reminds me of my experience thus far at the Heartly House in Frederick, MD. Heartly House is the local organization that provides confidential supportive services to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. I currently volunteer on the 24-hour hotline that provides a space for Frederick County residents to share their individual stories, reveal historical trauma, or find an open ear when they’re having a rough day. My time at Heartly House exposed me to the very prevalent problem of sexual violence in our relatively peaceful country. I remember the power of reconciliation and healing every time I hear a victim’s story, which provides me with the strength to be of assistance in such a dark time. I am finding that the conflict cycle (roots, outbreak, escalation, climax, etc) is mirrored in the individual journeys of victims and survivors of sexual violence. As we study intractable conflicts rooted in history, each client at Heartly House is producing their own unique manner to deal with past experiences and memories that manifest in the present.
Memory is a daunting concept that can unwelcomingly resurface at anytime. Victims and survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault may experience violence for minutes or decades, but the memories can stay for a lifetime. Memory recollection can also be selective in these cases. Victims can choose to remember the healthy and nonviolent periods of a relationship as a means of coping. Knowing that a victim and batterers life together was not always abusive can be a means of encouragement to push through hard times until the violent episodes deescalate. Under these circumstances can silencing trauma or “forgetting” the past be a vehicle for a fresh start or hopeful future? Selective memory can also appear at the opposite end of the spectrum when victims are so entrenched in the painful memories that it becomes part of their identity and they cannot move forward. A victim may feel paralyzed in multiple compartments of their life. Patterns of domestic violence (remembering that it can be physical, emotional, and verbal) surface along with controlling behaviors, such as everyday routines, regulated friendships, limits on daily freedoms, or even means of employment. Thus, a living memory of entrapment can inhibit a victim from believing in or acting upon their full potential even after the violence has subsided. Heartly House is an amazing resource in this scenario because they practice an empowerment model whereby each client has the right and the choice to make decisions and take action on their own terms and in their own time, while being aware that there is an array of services and support upon their arrival.
Dealing with sexual violence is not only a personal journey, however, for it is also a family and community issue. As the existence of multiple narratives and myths are of importance in any conflict setting, they also play a role in the persistence and normalization of sexual violence in our communities. From my experience, there is a culture of disbelief (or maybe not wanting to believe) that domestic violence and sexual assault is such a widespread issue. The Heartly House hotline in the lovely and quaint Frederick County receives 1,000 calls a month. In this regard, I believe that dealing with the past means sharing the truth via community education and capacity building in local sectors. If we continue to deny that there is a problem, odds are it will persist in silence. That being said, the stories shared by Heartly House victims are entirely confidential, and they make the choice to share their story on their own terms. Victims may hesitant to share their narratives with friends or family not only because of embarrassment or fear, but because sometimes loved ones do not want to hear or do not believe that such a conflict could be in their close circle. In that regard, personal narratives are silenced and rejected, which makes dealing with the past that much more difficult.
From the lens of sexual violence prevention, dealing with the past means everything for the future. It means teaching victims how to be in control of their safety and how to use awareness and education to terminate violent behaviors. First and foremost, each individual should have the right to personal safety and the right to pursue a healthy and happy life. Should an altercation arise, each victim should be able to connect with resources, such as the Heartly House, that can provide support toward a healing path and individual reconciliation. To “fix” the problem of this culture of violence, however, public dialogues will need to continue in order to build a constructive and peaceful society in and outside of private homes. While individual memories and communal efforts occur on very different wavelengths, they both require an acknowledgement and acceptance of the past in order to build and sustain a nonviolent future.