I sat on the edge of her bed, held her hand and took a deep breath, preparing for the worst. She played the audio file on her cell phone.
Her long-time boyfriend's voice echoed in my ears as he hurled insults and obscenities at her like steak knives into a wall. His words stung me as if I was standing with them that night, an invisible third party to abuse I was never meant to see or hear.
I heard his fists violating her flesh. I heard her teary pleas to him, to God, to anyone begging for the physical assault to end. The sound abruptly ended just after. She had an old-model phone and only so many seconds of hell could be documented at a time.
Her hands — one wrapped in mine, the other barely cradling the evidence of her abuse — were weathered and pale. Her long, fiery hair fell around her hunched shoulders, shielding blackened bruises and tears from open view. I never knew brokenness, bravery and beauty to co-exist with such brilliance.
With the help of less than a dozen strangers, she parted ways with her abuser and embarked on a dangerous but hopeful journey to justice, restoration and safety.
That night, I found myself on the bathroom floor, allowing in every emotion I stifled in her presence. I cried for her. She was just one woman, and yet she was every person who found abuse where love, trust, and safety should have been. She was me. I prayed I would never see her again, that her absence from my life would mean she defied the odds stacked against her and flourished like the phoenix she was.
Still, the statistics haunted me:
One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
Nearly 60 percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before age 18.
One in six boys will be sexually abused by age 18.
17.3 percent of Indiana high school girls have been raped or sexually assaulted.
Reflecting back on the rise of the phoenix I'd gone to assist earlier in the day, I realized that while I was supposed to be strong for this woman, she was the strongest person in the house.
This woman, the phoenix, changed my entire trajectory in a brief few moments. She destroyed the inklings of my savior complex. She taught me the role of the victim advocate is not one of rescue missions, but of reciprocity. We held each other together, when we both would rather fall apart.
Behind each horrifying statistic are living, breathing people. Each time I stand in front of an Indiana high school health class of 30-some teenage girls, I wonder how many of them have been violated by a person they knew and loved. I try to reconcile the fact that a fourth of them may suffer domestic abuse.
Dismantling patriarchy, the origin of gender-based abuse, requires far more than basic victim outreach services. The harsh realities of abuse make reactionary programs, those that assist people who have already been affected, necessary. But how do we heal and grow from the damage that patriarchy has already done and prevent continuous cycles of abuse?
To transcend patriarchal ideology, we need proactive approached to gender inequity.
Today, I do not know what happened to the woman who changed my life. I hope she is well. I hope she is as free as the bird I imagined her to be. I wish I could thank her.
I have a new mantra now: May we burn down the pillars of patriarchy and rise from the ashes, loved, safe and restored. n