PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — As A Survivor, I Stand With Her

This has been a tough week for survivors of sexual assault.

And today, it just got worse.

Donald Trump, who prior to this morning had used uncharacteristic restraint, tweeted, “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time and place.”

I did some deep, Lamaze-type breathing before I began this blog, but my blood is boiling, not merely as a survivor of a brutal sexual assault, but for all of the women, and a few men, whose stories I hold in my heart and soul, with confidence.

Given the choice, I am not sure I would have told anyone.

However, I felt I had no other option. After being taken to a remote wilderness area in a large city park in Portland, Ore., I was shoved, unceremoniously, down a ravine having been assaulted, beaten and choked.

I ended up finding a dirt road, which I stumbled down. I was bloody, in physical agony, my clothing ripped and my feet bare. I had no purse or wallet.

All I wanted to do was hide and try to put the awful nightmare behind me. I was overcome by shame and horror that I had allowed this to happen. I wanted to crawl in a hole and never come out. But unless I just wanted to die right there — which I sort of did — that was not an option.

When the nice, elderly couple happened upon me, having made a wrong turn on their Saturday afternoon drive through the park, I felt I really had only one choice. They wanted me out of their car as fast as possible — I was dripping blood on it — and I had no way back to the place I was living, so I needed to call the police.

Against my will, yet again, a process was set in motion that led me to hear the doctor at the ER say, “Why were you in that area? Nice girls don’t go there” and forced me to tell my story to five men in my Clinical Pastoral Education cohort in order to leave three days early and get credit for the 10 weeks of work I had already completed.

However, I was, in a sick sort of way, “fortunate” that I had to report my rape. I say “fortunate” only because it meant that I had to lance the boil of shame early and was able, by the grace of God, to use this horrific event as a healing ministry.

Over the years, I have talked about being a survivor of sexual violence in sermons, at youth gatherings and in presentations. I have shared my story with every young person who has been part of my confirmation ministry. I have written about it, been on panel discussions, given countless speeches and led many workshops.

I became determined to show that the face of rape can be a woman wearing a clerical collar. And that I was not ashamed of it.

As a result of that, God took this evil and used it for good.

I was granted a sacred trust. Over the years, I have been the first person with whom countless people have shared their stories.

The contexts are different, but the feelings of shame are often the same. Grown women who have shoved their emotions down for years, finally feeling free to tell me because they knew I wouldn’t listen with judgment or young women dealing with their own adverse reaction to a trauma they simply don’t know how to name. Or men filled with shame, self-loathing and overwhelmed by a sense of weakness and powerlessness. People haunted by nightmares, anxiety or fear.

In the aftermath of my rape, I said I was not suicidal. I didn’t have enough energy. I simply wanted to get hit by a bus crossing the street to put me out of my misery. The stories I heard were from people who had been living in that  kind of suspended misery, sometimes for years and years.

I heard stories of being pushed into a dorm room by a drunken classmate, of being hauled into a hotel room on a school trip, or getting drunk during the first week of college and being taken home by the wrong guy, or being cornered at the senior class party. I have heard stories that are chapter and verse exactly like the story that Dr. Ford told.

And I don’t know very many women who told anyone, especially when it happened. You just want to shove it down and forget it. That was one of the reasons I wanted to be so public. Because I didn’t have a choice, so in naming my own fear and telling my own story, I would give others permission to tell theirs.

I used a cross I did not choose to bear to help others with their own resurrection

To suggest that something wasn’t “as bad as she says” because she didn’t report it when it happened or tell anyone is as ignorant, cruel, heartless and tone deaf as to say that because it occurred between teenagers it wasn’t as significant. Or to say “boys will be be boys,”  so it wasn’t a big deal.

I have held too many women who have sobbed in my arms as they finally began to cleanse the wound that had poisoned their soul, feeling somehow responsible for the action committed against them, to sit by and passively accept the kind of vile rot tweeted out this morning. Or to given credence to those who would lessen the effect on the victim because the perpetrator was 17. Or drunk.

The age when an assault occurs in no way changes its impact any more than a failure to report it makes it less likely it happened. And perpetrators are responsible for their actions, drunk or not. As we are seeing lived out in real time this week, victim shaming is real.

Not wanting to tell anyone is normal, least of all your parents when you are a child. No one wants their parents to feel that pain. The hurt in my mother’s eyes and my father’s bearing when it happened are seared into my soul. I would have given anything not to have them carry that pain with me, but it was too late to shield them.

The stories I’ve heard are different, but there is one constant running through every story that has been shared with me. That you remember some things with vivid detail but that other things fade into the periphery. Like a close-up picture where you are absolutely sure of the focus but other parts are blurry. There is only so much a brain can retain when it requires that fine a focus.

Does that mean that the focused parts are less likely to be real? Absolutely not. In fact, those parts become viscerally entrenched into who you are.

To this day, 31 years after my assault, if anyone so much as touches my neck, I immediately recoil and want to immediately crawl into a corner in fetal position. A can assure you, being choked was VERY real. The fact that I can’t remember other details does not make it less so. Just like the face of my attacker. There are some things you NEVER forget.

And implying that because no one spoke about it means that they “just remembered it” is obscene. Every person who has ever told me held on to what happened to them as a source of shame and self-loathing that haunted them and invaded their dreams and impacted their relationships.

That is why letting go of the shame and telling someone is so vital for mental health. Because you don’t have to live in the shadows. I tell people when they finally admit to me their secret, “You did nothing wrong. Your assailant is responsible, not you.”

When I was raped, there was only one person I wanted to tell. One person I knew I had to tell. My canoeing partner, Aileen.

Aileen and I had been paired in a canoe when we were 10, and we had successfully navigated a few wild rapids in icy waters only because of our physical strength. She was the one person in the world who knew that I would do whatever I needed to do to survive.

That’s what people who are victims of assault do instinctually. Having survived a trauma, we do what we need to do to live through it. To survive. And for far too many, that means shoving it down in shame.

My prayer is that survivors, in the midst of the #metoo era and what is happening on the national stage right now, will rise up as one and say, “No more. We are not going to lurk in the shadows and be shamed for what we didn’t say when it happened.”

We cannot remain silent in the face of the ignorance being spewed by commentators and politicians. Dr. Ford is bearing a heavy price for telling her truth and bearing its consequences. It is clearly a path she did not choose. But she is doing it because now, this is what she needs to do to survive.

And as a survivor, I stand with her.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — As A Survivor, I Stand With Her”

  • Tim Larson September 22, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    I stand with both of you, Paula.


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