Take Back the Night

            They began the night with the statistic that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. I’d heard that number many times before throughout different sexual assault awareness and prevention programs I’d had to sit through during freshman orientation and as required by my fraternity per Belmont and national policy, but it had always been abstract. It never felt real. I know plenty of women; there was no way that such a high number of them had gone through something so traumatic. So I never thought about it much. I’ve always been wary of the fact that it is prevalent on college campuses, but that was as far as it had gone. I was afraid to face the implications.

            A friend of mine invited me to an event called “Take Back the Night” which she was helping to organize as a part of Women’s History Month. I cared about supporting her and thought it would be a great opportunity to invite some of my fraternity brothers for the sake of supporting awareness. Sexual assault has been associated with fraternities, and I wanted to make sure that neither my brothers nor myself were complicit in creating a culture where that would be tolerated.

            The night of the event came and I walked over to the chapel where the event was being held with only one of my brothers; I assumed more would be waiting for us. Nobody was. I assumed it was fine; we were there early. They would be on their way. Only three more showed up, but that was still five more than nobody, and that was at least a start. The program began. “1 in 4 women are sexually-“ I’m embarrassed to say I had already begun tuning them out as I’d heard that statistic stated so many times in so many dry, boring contexts. But then four girls walked up to the podium and said “We are four in four.” “Wait?” I thought, “I know some of those girls.” And they performed a piece they had written, and they shared parts of their stories, and I was stunned. It was all I could think about the duration of that first section of the night.

            But the speakers in the chapel weren’t the only people we would be hearing from. In fact, the next portion of the evening was meant for everyone else on campus to hear us. We were going to march from the chapel to the Bell Tower. I could tell that my brothers uncomfortable, already thinking about how they would sneak out quietly from the back of the march. For a second, I considered leaving with them. I kept marching.

            Most of the group yelled in response to the chants instigated by the woman leading the march, a woman with a shock of platinum blonde hair and an oversized denim jacket, carrying a drum and shouting “Show me what democracy looks like!” And everyone responded “This is what democracy looks like!” Then, “Show me what equality looks like!” “This is what equality looks like!” “Show me what fighting looks like!” “This is what fighting looks like!” “Show me what surviving looks like!” “This is what surviving looks like!”

            Somehow, between the chapel and the Bell Tower, I had moved up towards the front of the crowd and had joined in the chanting. I am not a chanter. I am not a yeller in general. This was a strange obligation for me to have developed during the walk. But it felt right; I was yelling with people who meant what they were yelling, and I meant it too.

            When we got to the Bell Tower, the chanting wound down and electric candles were passed out to the attendees. This was the third portion of the night, the vigil. We got in a circle and held hands and a professor who had been involved with the organizing of the event set the tone. Anyone who wanted to speak could. I won’t get into the specifics of what anybody said; what was said in that circle absolutely deserves to stay in that circle. Those are not my stories to tell, but the fact that they were told changed everything.

            I recognized many of the faces in that circle. Some of them were women I had classes with, had been to my fraternity’s formals, I had gone on dates with, I had led through freshman orientation. And they told us their stories, and I cried with them as they told their stories. All the statistics that had been thrown at me became personal; the statistics didn’t matter at that point. Their words did, the emotions conveyed through the words. The strength they showed in that moment and the strength they’d had to muster throughout their entire lives; these women were stronger than I would ever have to be. And they survived, they are surviving. Women who had shown me love during my time at Belmont.

            I didn’t speak during the vigil. I was a listener, a support, a friend. Afterwards, I thought about Job and how his friends decided to try and comfort him in his suffering, but that comfort meant sitting down in the dirt with him for seven days, silent because they saw how great his suffering was. They couldn’t speak; it wouldn’t do justice. I found myself in the position of the silent friend. I needed to be. All I could do in that moment was listen as woman after woman came forward and poured out their soul in front of a group of mostly strangers, telling the most difficult stories they had to tell. The fact that I was invited to be part of such a trusting, vulnerable group is something I will forever be humbled by and grateful for.

            The night eventually wound down. The professor unofficially running the vigil asked if there were any last thoughts before the closing benediction. A couple more girls spoke, and then the benediction began. It was given by one of my closest friends at Belmont who prefaced the benediction by saying that she too was a survivor. “Not her,” I thought. Not because I didn’t think it could have happened to her, but I was too close, too hurt by the fact that even someone as good as her had to have experienced something so evil, so senseless. And I couldn’t go over and hug her, tell her it was okay. I could only cry. And I did throughout the entire prayer, trying my best to listen as she spoke, but unable to make sense of everything I had just bore witness to.

            And then it was over. People began hugging and then headed off to complete whatever homework they had left to do. I didn’t know what to say or how to handle that jarring an emotional transition from the vigil to having to go work on a presentation. It felt insulting. I felt like I needed to do something, and, thankfully, I realized that there were absolutely things I could do.

            The philosopher Albert Camus talks about how one mustn’t fight for the sake of forcing an ideology but must fight for the sake of affirming the intrinsic value of human life. What I saw that night was a moment within that very fight, a fight that I had committed to becoming a part of. It wasn’t statistics that sparked that fight within me; it was stories, stories from real people, difficult stories about people broken and suffering.

            But that wasn’t the only way in which the stories were framed. These were stories of survival, of advocacy. Of strangers banding together for the sake of eradicating evil, for the sake of affirming human dignity and life, of standing up for the ability of people to tell their stories and know that they won’t go unheard. These are the kinds of stories that change people, that changed me. That have the potential to change everything. 

Tommy Kessler

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