It was the closing ceremony of the Clothesline Project and I was trying not to laugh. I have this awful dark sense of humor—at the worst times it shows its face. I was sitting there and listening to stories of tragedy. But behind the speaker was a line of frat boys, with dolled-up ladies by their sides.
They were on their way to a formal, unable to hear our stories of sexual assault at frats. Their numbers were far greater; they stared at us curiously. And it struck me as ridiculous because it was not us but they who should have been the audience. We had literally turned our backs to exactly the people who really needed to hear.
We were there to speak to our allies and not to our enemies. We were rallying the troops of our imaginary war.
That was 2014, and I was there because I'd written an article. An article about India and the sexual assault I'd faced. The year before had been hard for me: I'd been suicidal, traumatized, depressed. That was when I met the allies, the only ones who seemed to care.
Who are the "allies?" you might ask: You've seen it all before. They say words like "cis-gender" and "POC," "survivor" and "intersectionality." They're queer and angry and fighting for good, with an arsenal of sympathy.
I felt in need of sympathy—I learned which boxes to check.
I was braless and queerish and liked to fuck my friends. I was unhappy and angry and hated hiding truths. So I checked "feminist," "pansexual," and "polyamorist." I checked "triggers," "Bipolar II," "catatonia," and "PTSD."
No longer had I just been fondled as a child by a boy in a basement. Now I was called a "survivor." Now I was called "brave."
All these words were made to help me but I only crippled myself. I entered a world of opposites, where powerlessness was power and strength sent you plummeting down.
On every campus there lays this faction, this underground, whispering world. One that disagrees with the world, but won't stand up and tell it.
We allies offered a morbid sympathy, and so with relish we counted our cuts. I picked mine until I was scarred, until I was lost in personal pain. I longed to write about this new world, and yet it was a world too littered with eggshells. It was a world made up of whispers, where no one would even speak.
On every campus there lays this faction, this underground, whispering world. One that disagrees with the world, but won't stand up and tell it—one that hides in the cobwebby corners of the Left. There, my bad stories of India languished, fermenting in stagnant waters with other tales. And there I languished too, lying on a bed of eggshells, covered in the cuts I'd made myself.
It was silence and self-pity that was killing me, far more than the assaults I'd faced. We were lost in our darkness, agreeing ourselves to death.
Those days, people agreed so much with me, but those relationships didn't last. The ones that did were contentious—they were the people who challenged me and cared about me far more. It was one of the challengers who told me to write an article, and that article opened up the world of those who disagreed. That air was fresh and full of energy, electric and full of change.
The college liberal movement is stultifying, and it's easy enough to see. We're afraid to face the ones we call rapists, afraid of the disabilities we've imagined into our minds. We teach ourselves triggers, trade our flesh for porcelain, and learn to shatter at the slightest touch. We confuse alliances with friendships, and peace for an imaginary war.
Am I victim-blaming? No—I simply believe we're greater than we think. I could only heal by leaving the world of allies and my own poisonous self-pity. And behind me I left my sense of false bravery—this is the first thing I've been scared to write.
Because I've passed the T-shirts on the quad; I've read the stories of those 50 rapes. I've seen the deadened eyes of friends and the numb eyes of my mother. I've read the comments on the internet, heard the jokes at parties dropped.
I've seen hundreds of kids come into this school, and knew some of them would soon be rapists, some of them would soon be raped.
But the problem is that when you launch a war, you turn civilians into enemies. The problem is that when we launch a war, we close our eyes and stuff our ears. We fuel our just causes with hatred and see ourselves as warriors. And warriors see no one as human, not even themselves.
We will not learn our lessons from those who won't disagree. We will learn from the questioners and the listeners, and we all have a lot to learn. We must learn to stand up and listen. We must learn to crush eggshells and speak.
So call me racist, call me a liar, call me anything but a "survivor." It's your goddamn right to do so, and it's my right to love it when you do. It keeps me on my toes and makes me stronger than being called "brave."
When people call you brave you stop needing to prove to yourself that you are.
It's the duty of college liberals to prepare for a war outside these walls. It's a war whose survivors are on respirators and whose triggers aren't made of words. It's a war we have the power to face, if only we give it to ourselves.
And if we don't heal our personal problems, we'll not be able to fight for something greater. It is not enough to fight only for people who are just like you.
The war is real and it's out there, waiting for strong people to join it. And I intend to do everything to make myself to be of some use.
So lower your weapons and open your eyes—go out and face the real war.
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Michaela Stone Cross just graduated from the University of Chicago and studied South Asian studies and creative writing.