The Day I Befriended My Voice.
“When she finally found her voice, she realized she had a lot to say. She was never silent again.” ~ Queenism
I was so looking forward to that interview.
I would interview for a PhD graduate program and had all possible answers for all possible questions prepared and ready to be said, until I was asked that question.
“So, based on your topic for dissertation, I assume you are a sexual abuse survivor?” The question was followed by silence. Maybe it was his silence waiting for me to answer naively to his question. I was pretty clear my silence was about a year of disappointment that cross through my heart.
My later response to his insensitive question made even more sense when I was just leaving another graduate program, which I blamed for being sexist and silent about women’s experiences.
A year before this interview, I had enrolled in a PhD program that pride itself for being one of the best psychology programs in the country. The 12 chosen students each year were proud for being the ones, the chosen ones, the ones who will make a difference and the ones who will bring hope to people in despair. I was one of those chosen. I remember my tears when reading the acceptance letter.
It meant a new step in my career in which I would attain a PhD to become the professor I always wanted to be. I knew the path was going to be hard but I felt I was ready.
I do not think I really knew at the time what was about to come. I began to hear professors talking about motherhood with disdain. Women, they said, were too attached to their children. When children came to the clinic to be seen, the problem was, as their Freudian theory informed them, that they slept in the same bed with their mothers. The task was to separate and promote individuation as well as to bring the father into the picture.
The father, to their understanding, was someone castrated by the mother, a woman who will not allow the father to have emotional connection with the children and will mix her emotional issues with the father with those related to the children. The champion trained therapists were those who were able to bring the father to the picture without asking, in particular cases, the reason for the father to be absent for years.
It was usually assumed it was the mother’s fault that the children grew without the presence of a caring, sensitive and loving father. These ideas enraged me a great deal coming from working with domestic violence survivors in which I usually saw fathers willingly absent from their children’s lives in spite of the mother defying her own safety in order for the children to have visits with their father.
I saw times in which even having the children see the father, without a safety plan in place, would mean more harm and confusion, since the children were used against the survivor mother, providing them with a harmful lesson on how relationships should be. This is not to say that there are mothers who would rather eliminate the father from the children’s lives, but we cannot assume it is the norm.
To some of these professors, the mother was usually the source of the problem in any given issue brought up to the attention of the therapist.
Throughout the program, I could see the absence of questions regarding sexual abuse and domestic violence, knowing these are traumatic experiences many women go through. It was even infuriating hearing a professor questioning the words trauma and abuse, stating that someone who has been raped might not even consider the experience as traumatic. You as a therapist were not called to label it as such either.
The experience for this person might have been one similar to having a minor confrontation with a peer. I found this a way to minimize the experience of women who have been victimized and traumatized by abuse. It was disregarded in this program that many survivors of trauma ignore they were abused until someone brings it to their realization.
They overlooked the fact that the reason survivors usually ignore, deny or do not name their experience as abusive was because the perpetrator made them feel like it was their fault, their responsibility and that the abuse was consented. Our society spends a lot of energy avoiding calling traumatic experiences like rape and domestic violence as such to avoid accountability from the ones who perpetrated the abuse.
A group of therapists in training cannot collude with that.
If the case of a woman was presented as a victim in a group case discussion among therapist trainees, it was because she herself — or himself, in the case of men — made herself a victim. They put themselves in such position for an unconscious reason.
As a therapist, I understand we play old patterns in our lives, but it is not on purpose, and we need to be careful when we discuss such situations placing too much responsibility on the victimized person rather than the ones who perpetrated the abuse.
There was a point of devastation to me in regards of how academia reinforces patriarchal ideas when students in a gender class felt threatened by feminist ideas or did not understand the point of focusing too much on women issues. It was interesting to see the young generation arguing putting down statistics about sexual violence to women.
It was not until a male confronted this particular man, who was arguing about men being victimized at the same rate as women, that he calmed down. It was, perhaps, difficult for him to have reality been presented on his face.
I understand that for many, it is a very difficult pill to digest when you hear about the enormous amount of women being sexually harassed, raped or victimized by their partner or someone they know. Could it be a better response to think about how I can make a difference as a male? Could it be a better response to think about how we can join efforts in supporting women and men who are abused?
I felt like it was enough for my wounded feminist values and myself. I had to take a different step to find a PhD program that would nurture who I was as a graduate student and as a therapist. I was looking for a PhD program that would allow dissidence and differences, and which will pride itself for that diversity of ideas and thoughts.
I went on and applied to a different PhD program, which seemed open to diversity. It was a place in which I found like-minded professors, who spoke my language. I felt that it was a place I would enjoy being at and studying, until I went to that interview.
That interview in which I was blatantly asked by a white male in a position of authority to me, a woman of color in a vulnerable position being interviewed for admission at a graduate program, to disclose something so personal and vulnerable that has nothing to do with her capacities to be part of a PhD program.
I felt, at that moment, that I had to gather all the strengths I developed throughout the past year in that particular PhD program to speak up for myself to this professor in his therapy office. I responded to him, “This is not the kind of information I would disclose in an interview like this.” It was a strong statement and a boundary-setting. It was for me the confirmation that we, as women, are not looking for these experiences of boundary violation to happen to us.
They are already in society, waiting eagerly for us, and we have to struggle, fight or ignore them. It is, unfortunately, up to us.
After that interview, I walked in disbelief and sat at a close-by park. I was in shock, feeling anger in my chest and a burning in my arms. I remember having a nice outfit I had just bought for that interview, which I felt at that point was all a wasted effort. However, there were guys walking around giving all sorts of looks to me. I was looking straight at a distant point while their gazes got lost in the crowd.
I had no smile to give them but an angry look that made them disappear at a glance. I felt their gazes were the kind of things women are so saturated with, and the ideology that sustains them was what made that therapist feel free to push my boundaries in the interview.
I could have left the experience here, but the year of disappointment got to me at that point. I wanted to scream the experience out loud. I wanted to be heard. I was so tired of silence. I decided to complain with management at the risk of being unheard, ignored or minimized. I had to talk at the risk of more drama being unfolded or having some future repercussion against me.
That was the experience in the former PhD program. That was the warning I got from classmates when I raised my voice to speak up in the classroom for the past year. That was the warning I got from female friends who had faced more difficulties when they spoke up about being sexually harassed at work.
However, I felt there was sensitivity enough in the new PhD program management to hear my voice. A great former co-worker and friend cheered me up in the process, and said, “There is the feminism of theory but there is also the feminism of reality. And this is one of them.”
I decided to complain to the hopeful response of the person who heard me. With a trembling voice I began to break the silence, but as I kept talking, my voice became stronger. The man to whom I complained was very sensitive, sincere, and listened carefully. I knew he was not feeling well about my having to go through such an experience in the admission process. I felt he was on my side. I felt we were carrying the burden and heaviness of the experience together.
In a year of frustration and disappointment in the world of graduate studies, for the first time, I felt I was not alone with my struggles. I had found allies to speak up.
“In life, finding a voice is speaking and living your truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told. You will be heard.” ~ John Grisham
Merari Fernandez is a native Puerto Rican woman, who has found in writing the power of healing herself and the world. Encouraged as a child to put her mind into writing by her grandmother, she has found it beneficial when she cannot find the spoken words and when she has something important to say that can shake someone’s perspective. She is a therapist in private practice in Chicago, and has devoted her life to work with survivors of abuse as well as with any suffering human being who has come to her for support and help. She loves Yoga, animals, the sun, the moon, the sea and the forest and anything that claim to be alive. Although, she feels deeply connected to her past ancestors. She continuous finds new ways to be present with her current life and is open to what life brings to her.