Nancy Donoval is a speaker, storyteller and sexual violence educator living in Minneapolis. She is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.
As college students head home for winter break I can't help but think of the secrets some of them will be packing along with laundry ready to be washed. And the decisions about whether to tell parents, siblings and friends at home about the darkness they are carrying and what happened to cause it.
I remember a holiday trip home when I was a freshman. It was for Easter, not Christmas, but the big family get-together meal was the same. I've seen pictures of me on that day and it's astounding that no one in my family noticed anything was wrong.
Well, somebody did. One of my brothers had just gotten engaged. It had happened pretty fast; I'd only met her a few times. Tammy pulled me into a room away from everyone else.
"Are you OK?" she asked.
I wanted to say "Yes," but it came out "No."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"No. No-No. No."
"Well, if you ever do want to talk about it, you can talk to me."
It's amazing to me, even now, that both of us were very clear what we were not talking about. The engagement ended soon after and I didn't see Tammy again.
One of every four or five college women will survive rape or attempted rape while she is in college — most often by someone she knows. The biggest percentage of assaults take place during the first eight weeks of a woman's freshman year. Most won't report it to authorities, and close to half will never tell anyone. Many won't identify what was done to them as a crime. If they do, they will still think it was their fault. Denial and victim blaming are seductive, even to the victims.
Of course, sexual violence isn't restricted to college students. A CDC study out last week finds that 22 percent of Minnesota women have experienced rape and 48 percent have survived some other kind of sexual abuse.
When I was in high school, one of my teachers talked one day in vague terms about this bad thing that sometimes happens to women. She said if it ever happened to one of us we should: "Tell your father. Tell your brother. They'll know what to do."
I finally told one of my brothers, more than a year later over midnight waffles at our favorite diner. I remember watching him cut his waffle into perfect squares. Then he changed the subject as if I hadn't said anything. No one ever gave my brother a manual on what to do if your sister tells you she's been raped. He was as ill equipped to handle what happened to me as I was.
So. If your child, your friend, your sister or brother — because this happens to men too — tells you something awful this holiday season, let me give you some hints about what to do.
Listen. Believe them. Don't ask lots of questions about how or why or what were they drinking. Don't blame them — it doesn't matter if they showed poor judgment. Judgment is not the same as responsibility. The only person responsible for this crime is the person who committed it.
Listen. Let them tell you what they want to, when they are able to. Help them figure out options, but let the decisions about what to do be theirs.
Listen. And find someone you trust to listen to you. Secondary survivors of trauma — those trying to support the primary victim — need help dealing with their feelings if they are going to help the person who told them.
And for those packing a dark secret away next to their laundry: Tell someone. If you can, when you can, tell someone. And if they don't listen the way you need them to, tell someone else. And someone else. Don't stop until you get what you need. It's not your fault, and you don't have to handle it alone.