Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day

amplifying our everyday resistance to the prison industrial complex

Isolation Cannot Heal Isolation: One Survivors Response to Sexual Assault


As a survivor I’m told that prisons are there to protect me. Keep me safe. My deepest desire is supposed to be incarceration. I’m supposed to want him to suffer, to pay. But I never wanted that. I wanted some healing. For me and for him. But you aren’t supposed to say that. You aren’t supposed to say that you love the person who harmed you. You get accused of loving him more than you love yourself. Like you can’t do both. You are silently asked to choose. Your heart and your history, or your healing. You are told that healing means seeing him for what he really is, a rapist. But I knew him. I knew how much more he was. I loved him still. He was my friend, and being his friend meant I knew the ways he had already suffered. I wanted him to finally get the support he needed. I wanted to make sure this never happened again.


It was five years after. I had just started talking about it. I was exploring my options. But everyone said I needed to file a police report. They said it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my politics. It was about keeping other girls safe. And what I heard, and what a few people had the gall to say, was that if he raped another girl then it would be my fault. So I went.

I went to the town police station hoping nobody I knew had a parking ticket to pay that day. I took my mother with me. We were estranged, separated by our own legacy of violence, but I had nobody else to ask. We went to the window, a sheet of bulletproof glass between me and the female officer. I told her I wanted to report a rape. She was taken aback. She asked when it happened. I told her five years ago. She said she may not be able to help me. She’d have to look up the statute of limitations. A big book got thumbed through and closed. Six years, she said.  Just in time.

We walked through the heavy grey door to meet the detective. A man. He sat casually on the corner of the desk. He asked me why I waited so long. Asked if I wanted to file a report. I said I wanted to know about the process. He said something like, file a report, the alleged perpetrator is notified, press charges, it goes before a judge. It is unlikely to go to trial, he said. You waited too long. And if it does, you are unlikely to win. I asked if I could just put something on file. Something on record so that if another woman filed a report there would be precedence. She would be more likely to be believed. She could call on me. No, he said. Everyone has a right to know if they’ve been accused of a crime. He asked again if I wanted to file a report. Suggested I should. Seemingly unaware of what that would mean in that smallish Ohio town. I told him I was unsure. He gave me the form and I stood to leave.


He was a year older than me. I could not imagine him in prison. Yet another privilege of his white skin and mine. He grew up working class at best, maybe poor. It was just him, his mother, his sister. He was never as tough as the other boys. Too tenderhearted, too sensitive. It was what I loved about him. A working class sense of loyalty and responsibility had been bred into him. You never hit a woman, you never snitch on a friend, and you always lend a hand when someone is in trouble. He held true to all these codes. Another thing I loved about him. But no matter how much heavy metal he listened to his smart, nerdy, thin framed version of boy never stacked up to the only masculinity he ever saw modeled. A masculinity rooted in the lie of white supremacy and patriarchy. A lie that says white men are more capable, more deserving. The lie that white men are naturally more powerful. Better. In his mind it was his greatest fault. He was not strong enough. He could not fight and he could not pull his mother and sister out of poverty. No matter how much he tried. So he joined the air force, determined to be a better man.

A few months later he came home. He broke down during boot camp and got sent to psych. A failure. And while he was there he made a friend. A boy like him. And a few weeks later he found that boy in a bathroom stall. Dead. Boys like him were too weak to live.

He told me that story the day before he raped me. His eyes glazed over, his muscles rigid. A friend and I gave him a beer and put him to bed. She and I slept in the next room over. I woke with a start in the middle of the night. He was standing in the doorway watching us. Numbly he said, I just wanted to make sure you were still alive. I got up and walked him back to bed. Crawled in with him and held him as he cried. Because I loved him and that is what you do when a person has been shattered.

The next night I had a party. He drank too much and kept trying to kiss me. It was sad, to see a friend so undone. I kissed him a few times, rejected him more. All our friends watched.

As it was happening I could see the way he was grasping for power, for some sense of control over his life. Part of me wanted to give it to him. The rest of me wanted to run. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t for all of the reasons that only a person raped by someone they love can understand. Shock, terror, fear, shock, shame, pity, shock, pain, embarrassment, shock, politeness, love, care, shock, disbelief, disbelief, disbelief.


After leaving that police station I knew. I knew that the police, prison, a judge would never help me find what I was looking for. I would never be allowed to be a full person. And neither would he. We would both be blamed. And that blame could never move to accountability. The process would be painful and neither of us would get what we deserved. So I threw the police report out.


I always wondered if he knew what he’d done. I wanted to believe he didn’t. There had been nothing mean and calculating about him before. I resolved to write him a letter. A letter letting him know exactly what his actions were and what they had cost me. It was meant to be a gift to him. A truth for him to confront. Something to propel him towards help. For me it was meant to be a telling. A naming. A request for accountability. I struggled with the letter for months. Never knowing exactly what to say. How to say it. Wanting to hold his humanity and mine. It felt impossible.

One October night I drove down to Kent to see an author speak. I had gotten the idea for my letter after reading one of her books. At the end of her lecture I went up to talk to her. I thanked her and told her about my planned letter. She scoffed. Don’t write him a fucking letter, she said. He isn’t worth it. I was shocked and tried to explain my position. She said, How many hours have you spent thinking about this letter? I paused. How many hours do you think he’s spent thinking about you? My breath caught. She said, Don’t give him any more power over you. If you want to write a letter, write one to someone who deserves your time and energy. Someone who deserves the heart you will put into it. Write his mother, his sister. We talked for an hour or more. She was right about many things and wrong about others.

That night I drove home, my hands entirely numb with fear. I had to drive with my forearms and elbows. I wrote the letters that night and reconciled a few things. One, I would always believe he was worth it. Two, I deserved as much support as I wanted to give to him. Three, it was not my job to take the lead in his healing. Letting go of that responsibility was the hardest. Letting go of his process meant focusing on mine. It meant letting go of my own false sense of control. It meant letting go of the rationalizations that had protected me from the magnitude of harm done. From the truth. He was one of my closest friends and he raped me. It was a choice. And no harm done to him in the past could excuse or explain it away.

That night I wrote him a letter. I also wrote to his mother and sister. I laid out what had happened, what he was responsible for, and I also told them that soon I would be writing a letter to all our mutual friends. I told them I was going to post these letters publicly. I waited for a backlash that never came. I expected him angry at my front door. I expected some sort of explosion, but there was nothing. There was silence. I never heard from him again.


I began to feel like I’d made a mistake. I’d given him too much credit, been too naïve. He didn’t care. He could discard the letter entirely, take no action. I hadn’t warned anyone. Hadn’t helped to prevent another assault. So a month later I did what I had promised. I wrote a letter to all of our mutual friends and told them what he’d done.

That’s where I found the backlash, though never as much as expected. I lost some friends. Got called some names. I stopped getting invited places. But I also got letters of support. I got thanked. I got notes from people telling me they loved me and cared about what happened to me. Sadly too many of those notes also included disclosures of their own violence. A too easy thing to bond on. An unexpected weight to carry.


I don’t regret it. It was a choice that honored my own dignity and his. But it was not perfect. It was hard and ugly and devastating. It was also incredibly powerful. I didn’t get the accountability I’d hoped for, but I learned. I grew.

I noticed patterns and coping skills. I watched the harm caused by my own isolation and over responsibility. I grew up working class, the girl child of a single mother struggling with addiction. I learned early about responsibility. My life, my mother’s life, depended on it. By three I had been put into foster care after the violence of her boyfriends hand was no longer ignorable. I learned to be silent but strong. I made myself invisible and never questioned my ability to survive alone.

And in the end that was most damaging. Doing it alone. Believing it was all my responsibility. Not the assault. But the healing. The justice. The protection of nameless other girls. I leaned heavy into the skills I learned as a child. Over responsibility, independence, sharp analysis, and self sacrifice. Which meant I never asked for the support I was so desperate for.

Because what I needed, maybe more than his apology, was a community of people who could help me hold and honor all the stories that led to this one. Who could help me uproot the layers of silence learned through too much violence. I needed to be asked what I wanted, what I was hoping for. I needed someone to help me craft those letter, someone to remind me that I could list expectations. Someone who was going to sit with me through the fall out. Someone who could read the responses people sent me and tell me to wait before reading them myself. I needed someone beside me to reflect the ways my own trauma, old and new, was informing the process. I needed someone who could show me love that was deeper and more nuanced than just hating him.


The violence of poverty, racism, addiction, assault, they are woven together. No court can ever pull them apart. A prison can never protect me. Isolation cannot heal isolation.

-Blyth Barnow

5 comments on “Isolation Cannot Heal Isolation: One Survivors Response to Sexual Assault

  1. mawkinberd
    October 31, 2013

    Reblogged this on Mawkinberd's Nest.

  2. Lisa Moeller
    November 3, 2013

    This is an amazing, brave,beautiful, awful story. Blyth, I hope this will help your healing process. Many, many people are going to hear your truth, and respond in kind.

  3. anna stewart
    November 4, 2013

    Brava! A very brave, nuanced and complicated account of a complicated situation. As someone who has worked in the anti violence movement for years, it’s also a reminder that everyone experiences violence differently, no one is more valid than the other. Many thanks to you for sharing.

  4. Tracy Whitaker
    November 4, 2013

    Incredibly brave and honest. There are paths where we are our own light, one step at a time. I am glad you are in the world.

  5. Pingback: Creating Meaningful Art with Inkblot Inspiration: Blyth Barnow | Inkblot Arts

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This entry was posted on October 29, 2013 by and tagged , , , .
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