Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence, Edited by Lisa Factora-Borchers, Introduction by Aishah Shahidah Simmons. AK Press, 2014.
Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence, Edited by Lisa Factora-Borchers, Introduction by Aishah Shahidah Simmons. AK Press, 2014.

Dear Sisters,

I first read your words over a year ago. It has taken me until now to write this, in part because I was asked to review your stories and I did not know how to do that. How do you review “an unconditional love offering from and to survivors”? And so, inspired by you, I’m writing this letter instead.

Dear sisters, another reason why this took so long is that I was scared. Writing on a subject so intimate to me, and to the many people I love who are survivors, invites judgment not just of one’s eloquence, but also of one’s soul. This is what makes what you’ve done so powerful. The world now is filled with violence from so many places at once —the military, unbridled plunder, the police, prisons and detention centers, white supremacists, religious zealots, the desecrated Mother Earth herself (who’s understandably pissed), and our own kinfolk and loved ones. It is also filled with resistance. I find myself craving honest space for both empathy and rage. Your words have given me that. Thank you.

Sisters, you remind me that we are all part of a brutal, yet interdependent, existence. There is no use for self-righteous statements about how to survive correctly, only an embrace of the many tangled and gritty pathways we take from rupture to wholeness. You remind me that our sexual lives hold not just trauma, but also pleasure, and that the two are not always distinct from one another. This makes our agency even more legitimate and imperative. We get to say. Sister Mia Mingus, you put it so well:

It is not always as easy as “good” or “bad,” and for so many of us our experiences of abuse are tied up with dependence, love, desire, survival, affection, and care.

And what of wholeness? Where does violence begin and end? Lisa Factora-Borchers, despite what we’re taught, you explained why it doesn’t end with the police:

The criminal justice system fails survivors of sexual violence. This is especially true for survivors of color who are women, trans women, gender non-conforming, indigenous, disabled, undocumented, poor… Not only is the process inaccessible, but it also could potentially endanger the life and/or livelihood of a survivor and their family.

It was last August when I read these words, just days after Michael Brown’s body was left lying in the hot sun in front of Canfield Apartments, gunned down by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. Four miles away lay the buried body of Dred Scott, whose fight for the recognition of Black humanity 150 years ago had not ended. A few weeks later, a grand jury would declare Michael’s death unworthy of prosecution, and his mother’s screams would tear out my heart. The criminal justice system didn’t fail; it insisted on defining criminality, humanity, and justice in racial terms, and it succeeded, fatally.

As the months wore on, a movement grew, declaring out of necessity: Black Lives Matter. Protests erupted in cities across the country demanding an end to the routine state-sponsored killing of Black men, women, and children. The movement defined state violence specifically and expansively. What inspired me most was how it brought visibility to the murders of Black Trans women, whose compound experiences of racism, poverty, misogyny, and transphobia revealed a vulnerability to violence carried in their bodies. The movement taught us that Black Trans women’s lives were a prophetic call to dismantle the totality of white supremacy.

Just this year, we know of 21 Trans women who have been killed, almost all of them Black and Brown. Zella Ziona. Kiesha Jenkins. Keyshia Blige. Jasmine Collins. Tamara Dominguez. Elisha Walker. Kandis Capri. Ashton O’Hara. Shade Schuler. Amber Monroe. K.C. Haggard. India Clarke. Mercedes Williamson. London Chanel. Kristina Gomez Reinwald. Penny Proud. Taja Gabrielle DeJesus. Yazmin Vash Payne. Ty Underwood. Lamia Beard. Lamar “Papi” Edwards. Bri Golec. By demanding that we #SayHerName, the movement forced us to reckon with the deadly consequences of racialized heteropatriarchy, a core strain in the DNA of white supremacy that limits our ability to love each other, to be whole.

In the midst of this, I lean on your words, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, to comprehend where violence begins and ends:

I can’t leave the brothers out, not just because some of them are our sisters, too, but because even the bullies on the playground and in the boardroom, the ones who succeed in wielding the tools of domination, some of them too were beaten and bent and broken, tortured and tormented, raped and abused and left to ask why, why am I here, why go on, why?

And dear Amita Y. Swadhin, in telling your story, you ask the critical questions:

Even if we could somehow identify everyone who has ever sexually abused a child, what would it mean to subject them all to a system that disproportionately punishes people who are low-income people of color, potentially subject them to sexual assault in prison, and release them after a relatively short while, probably more harmed and full of rage and violence than they were to begin with? Moreover, what would it mean that 50 percent of these people would be children under the age of eighteen? I realized that I would not wish rape and other forms of sexual assault on anyone, not even my father, given how well I understand the deep and profound ways this particular form of violence rends a person’s spirit…

Not even my father.

Dear Sisters, the other day I heard Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network describe the violence being wrought on indigenous women and girls through hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota. Thousands of men arrived to work in an industry that literally robs life from the earth, and girls as young as 14 traveled to the work camps in vanloads to sell their bodies, only to be raped. This is the legacy of generations of violent plunder that so belittles life that, as Kandi told us in anguish, police found a naked four-year-old girl on the side of the road, the victim of repeated sexual assault.

Sisters, sometimes all I have is wrath. But like so many of you, I have come to believe that violence begins with the end of hope, and that it ends with hope’s return. I don’t want to believe that brutality is innate, necessary, fixed in human nature. The impulse to brutality may be certain, but its execution is not. Those of us who survive violence and who choose not to replicate it through retribution are the promise that hope requires. Lisa, I asked you last winter what the answer was to interpersonal violence and sexual assault, and this is what you said:

There are folks in the trenches trying to practice community accountability. It’s an extremely organic process of learning and trying to bring together alternative solutions to incarceration and the legal system that is constantly failing everyone. Transformative justice, the models are still growing. They’re very young seedlings that are growing into something strong. It needs time before communities are able to share successful practices.

You also described the link between sexual violence and state violence, with such clarity:

We use words like rape culture… patriarchy… words that only a very small segment of the population really understands in depth. I tried to use plain language to talk about power dynamics. If you can understand the differentiation in power between people and populations, you can understand anything.

For now, we live in a world where we must both fight and build. The urgency lies in your words, brownfemipower, reflecting on your daughter’s future: She will never reach an age when she is safe.

Dear sisters, I can’t tell you my story just yet. But my survival is just one crack of thunder in a storm of resilience across generations, both in my family of origin and in my chosen family. Like you, I am trying to choose a different path, to break the cycle. But you know, it’s hard. In closing, I give you the words that you gave to me, words that allow me to breathe more deeply.

Dear Sister, I love you and hope you are okay.

May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be free.

Sister, don’t be afraid of what happens next.


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