Take Back the Night
"This is a Take Back the Night awareness program speech I presented to some 600 students at Rutgers, April 17, 1998 and Penn State April 22, 1998."
Take Back the Night
She cries out to me
The child within myself.
She clutches at me
Tugging at my thoughts
And asking to be remembered.
Her small fingers reach through time
And her sad, dark eyes
Burn the symbol of her pain
Onto my soul.
—Stutman, Broken Feather, 36
For the child I was, for all of my fellow survivors, and
most of all,
for the children, I remember.
After my uncle hurt me, he would leave a quarter on
the bureau. And after he left I would hide it. And
the next day I would spend it. If I think back really
hard, I can remember the feel of those quarters
clutched so tightly in my hand. I didn't know then
that he was making me a part of a conspiracy, a secret,
that I would pay dearly for in pain and shame for so
many years of my life. I remember. Before I would
fall asleep, I would stare at the ghost of the door.
It was formed by the light coming through from the
hallway. If I watched and tried not to blink or not
close my eyes, then it wouldn't move or so I hoped.
Every night in that room I lay, eyes wide open,
watching, praying that the ghost would not move. It
wasn't until so many years later that I came to
understand that I was waiting for the door to open,
frozen in fear and helplessness, and praying that it
would not and that I would be safe for one more night.
I tried to tell, but no one was listening. And I
cried a lot, but my tears seemed silent, not to make a
difference. So I stopped trying to tell and I really
didn't have the words anyway to say what was happening
to me. I felt invisible. And I fell silent, thinking
that what was happening was the way of things, and that
I was being punished for being bad, and that I was
indeed the ugliest, the stupidest, the baddest person
in the whole world.
I believed that for some reason what was happening
was supposed to happen. That I was supposed to hurt
like this. So I got up and changed the sheets during
the night, or put a towel on my bed to cover the wet
spots. And I complained a lot of stomach aches and
didn't want to go to school. And I was always afraid,
because I never knew when it was going to happen. And
I felt so different from everybody else because I had
this terrible secret I had to keep, and I was an ugly,
bad and awful person. But I would try to be better. I
would try to make people love me. But I was so alone.
And I didn't know how.
When I was a little girl I had no voice. I was
invisible. Nobody listened. All that is changed now.
And I raise my voice on behalf of the children, so that
they don't have to suffer anymore.
(Stutman, Broken Feather, 39)
I didn't really know what it was that pained me, but
I felt that it was a natural and necessary part of my
inner self. I also felt that for some reason I had to
hide it, that it was for some reason dangerous to show,
even to the people who loved me the most, how much I
was afraid, how little I really liked myself, and most
of all, my anger.
I cannot begin to explain to you the fear. I would
wake up with it. I would go to sleep with it. It would
awaken me in the night. And that was the worst time.
Something was going to happen and I didn't know what it
was. I kept closet doors closed, but not before I
looked into closets before I went to sleep. I looked
under the bed. I kept the light on in the bathroom,
because I understood that darkness was my enemy. What
I understood deeply was that no one was really to be
trusted. That anything could change at any moment.
That I had to fight very hard to be loved because I
wasn't really worthy of it, so I had to be good, very
good, always good. And I could never really let my
guard down. From the earliest time came the lesson.
No one must ever know.
I became in my home and in my teaching, and in fact
in most every situation, a defender. Knowing what it
was like to be invisible, I found myself fighting for
the rights of those who were treated in any way lesser
than. And because I had experienced so little true
kindness in my early life, I understood always the
magnificence of the simplest act of mercy. Kindness,
gentleness seemed to me the greatest balance in life.
And I must say, they still do. To give to those who
may not have visibility, who may not have love,
moments, space, the strength of telling these are the
lessons I learned from the silent world around me.
These are the lessons I learned from my deepest self.
So in trying to heal myself, I came to understand
instinctively the importance of the healing balance of
caring. I became a mother, then I became a teacher.
From both I learned to stop the world. To try to make
it, in my own private sphere, a clean, well-lighted
place. To do for others what was rarely done for me.
I began to write my story in poems and sketches and
entitled my book Broken Feather: A Journey to Healing.
I would write the pieces, or they would write me, and
each time I finished I would understand more about
myself, I would hold in my hands another small piece of
the past. For so long I had been teaching the voices
of others. Now I was writing my testimony, bringing my
voice out of the darkness. I came to understand that
there was no going back. I would have to break the
silence. Big time.
I have found in each encounter with others who have
been victimized, men and women, the boys and girls in
them still locked in pain, that what happens to we who
are abused as children is often much the same. I have
heard tales of horror. Tales of fear. Tales of
rejection. Over the past year and a half I have heard
so many stories indeed, everywhere I go others share
their stories often in secret. And I think always why
is it we who are not believed? Why must these horrors
of abuse which can diminish a soul for a lifetime not
be shared? Why cannot this secret be brought to light?
What is wrong with this society when the victim is to
blame and the abuser is free to hurt again?
Which brings me to the next step in my journey. In
this short time I have found a new advocacy: I
advocate for survivors, to let them know that they are
loved, that they are not alone. That the healing
journey is indeed possible. That it is o.k. to tell.
And the big lesson. The one it takes so long to really
believe. That it is not their fault, what happened.
It is not our fault.
I have done fundraisers for various child abuse
prevention agencies, nationally and internationally, and
a major portion of the proceeds of my book goes to
benefit these agencies. I am on the Board of Friends
of the Children, a group of volunteers which works to
help fund The Center for Children's Support in
Stratford, N.J. Some of my new poems have been on
display at Unicef House, serving as my interpretation
of the artworks of abused children from the Center for
Children's Support. It is our hope to turn this project
into a book to benefit the Center in the near future.
I have been working for the last year in an afterschool
program for disadvantaged children, and I go into area
high schools to talk to teen mothers, some who have
histories of abuse, to let them know that they are not
alone. I have come to understand that I must use my
power to try to build power in others.
I have learned through my own life to take back the
night. And I ask you, particularly you students, you
who are among our best and brightest, to do the same.
Do not believe that one person can't make a difference.
If you make a difference in one life you have stopped
It is the aloneness of abuse which is part of what is
so terrible. It isolates, it denegrates, it makes us
feel that we are bad, and ugly and useless and the list
goes on. In fact, those of us who have been so wounded
have our own kind of beauty: we understand pain and
invisibility and vulnurability and silence. We have
often the passion and the compassion to reach out to
others, to try with every ounce of strength within us
to take the pain away. This is our gift. For we are
like the phoenix risen from the ashes. We must make
the day bright for those not as strong as we have
become. We must march, we must protest, we must
legislate, we must raise our voices into the darkness
so that no children be allowed to fall, no victims
suffer in silence and shame. In so doing we take back
© 1998 Suzanne Stutman. All rights reserved.
Suzanne Stutman, Professor of English American Studies & Women's Studies, Pennsylvania State University.
Professor Stutman's book Broken Feather: A Journey to Healing can be ordered on the net, or through Manor House Books, 800.343.8464. Email Professor Stutman at: firstname.lastname@example.org.