PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Finding Freedom From Shame

I began blogging a couple of years ago, in the aftermath of the Brock Turner sentence.

Turner was the 19-year-old Stanford student who drunkenly raped a fellow student and received a ridiculously short jail sentence.

I wrote about my own experience as a rape survivor and talked about how there is not a “type” of victim, but there is only one “type” of perpetrator, a “rapist.”

After I wrote that blog, I received a lot of messages telling me how “brave” I was to tell my story.

The thing is I didn’t first tell my story because I was brave. I was placed in a position where I had no choice but to tell my story.

I was raped one week before the completion of my Clinical Pastoral Education, a 10-week chaplaincy program that uses real-life ministry encounters and pastoral care to train would-be pastors. I was required to complete the program both to get a Master of Divinity and to be ordained.

The last week of the program was a short week — we were going to be in the hospital on Monday and then do a two-day “wrap-up” retreat. I went to my supervisor early Monday morning, along with my father who Sunday — the day after I was raped — had flown into Portland, where I was doing training.

I told him what happened — my body bearing the evidence that my weekend had not gone as planned — and asked permission to be excused from the last three days and given full credit for the program, since I had completed more than the required hours already.

Instead of showing any modicum of pastoral care, beyond the most cursory show of compassion, my supervisor saw this as a chance to explore a real-life ministry opportunity for my colleagues. He told me that in order to receive any credit for the more than 400 hours I had already put in, I would need to process my rape and my early departure with the rest of my group.

I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I knew I couldn’t continue — emotionally or physically. I needed to get home and try to put my life back together. But I also knew I needed to get credit for my CPE or I would have to spend another summer doing it and set back everything in my educational plan.

I saw my father, a normally quiet and passive man, in new light. He went to bat for me and faced down my supervisor, who he referred to later as a pathetic wannabe psychologist, and in the end, I was only required to disclose that I was raped and describe what happened but not delve into the details for the group to discuss and process.

I will never forget what happened at our final meeting. I was sitting in a circle with five men and one other woman, my face bruised, my ribs broken and every part of my body in pain. I am not 100 percent sure all of the sticks had been removed from my hair, although God knows I had showered more in the preceding 36 hours than I ever had in my life.

My supervisor began it by saying, “A great violence has been done to Paula, and in effect, that same violence has been done to each and every one of us because it has ripped our group asunder prematurely.”

I forgave my rapist a full five years before my CPE supervisor. And to be completely honest, I still hold my CPE supervisor in more contempt. He should have been held to a higher standard.

I understand why Christine Blasey Ford didn’t tell anyone when she was assaulted as a 15-year-old. She was at a party where she shouldn’t have been — and she may have been drinking. She was afraid of what her parents would say and blamed herself.

That’s what happens when women are attacked. They blame themselves — I shouldn’t have been there, I shouldn’t have done that. But the simple truth is that the consequences of a poor decision do not remove the responsibility of someone who takes advantage of that choice. The person responsible is always the assailant. Even if they were 17. Even if they were drunk. Even if they blacked out and don’t remember it.

And a poor decision to go to a party should not result in over 35 years of nightmares, fear and struggle. But anyone who has ever been assaulted knows that post-traumatic stress is real.

So many people who should know better don’t know how to respond to someone when they talk about their sexual assault. They can’t understand the shame, the feeling of self-revulsion, the feeling of weakness and responsibility, when your own body becomes the weapon that is used against you. They often end up making it worse.

That is also why women are reluctant to come forward and tell their stories. Because even in this era of “#metoo” victim shaming is prevalent and the ignorance of what it means to reveal such a deep part of your broken soul abounds. The wounds that can result from telling your story often make the scars deeper and more entrenched.

I understand that Doctor Ford felt she was caught between a rock and a hard place. She knew a horrible truth (and I believe her story — it rings completely true.) She also knew that to tell it would come at great personal cost. Her life will never be the same.

She tried to do it anonymously, but then opted not to tell it. She wanted to remain quiet. But it leaked out. And she had to make a choice.

In the end, she chose to bravely tell her story, when her ability to control the narrative was removed. I suspect she felt she had no other option to preserve her sense of sanity and dignity.

I applaud Doctor Ford and her courage. What she is going to do in the days ahead would challenge the strongest people in the world. She will be victim shamed by ignorant people who will blame her on the most public stage in the world.

My deepest hope and prayer for her is that she will find what I did when I was forced to tell my story and my agency was taken away from me, not just by my assailant but by the powers that be when I dealt with its aftermath.

I discovered that I was stronger than I ever imagined, braver than I ever thought I could be and that in telling my truth, I found freedom. I was forced to be open about it, and in so doing, in the end— after a lot of therapy, I might add — the shame melted away.

By being honest about it, over the years, as I’ve shared my story, I’ve helped others tell their story, find their truth and live in freedom from fear and shame.

I’m sorry she has to go through this but grateful for the lives she will change with her courage.

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