Rape victim shares story of survival

To mark the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the office of Anti-Violence Initiatives arranged for the organization A Long Walk Home to present Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS) for the second consecutive year at the College. The interactive show featured spoken word, music, modern dance and personal testimonials to tell the story of one woman’s journey of renewal and self-discovery after being raped.

The show was inspired by a photography project created by the victim’s sister, Scheherazade Tiller. When Scheherazade learned from her sister, Salamishah, that she had been sexually assaulted in college, she decided to chronicle her recovery process through photographs as part of an assignment for a class she was taking.

“Being a part of someone’s healing is the most intimate space that you can share with someone,” Scheherazade said of the experience.

The collection of intimate photographs soon blossomed into a full-scale multimedia performance that features interviews with Salamishah and a modern dance performance troupe. The two sisters wanted to share their project with others as a way of helping survivors heal, while educating the public about issues like sexual violence, diversity and body image. They formed the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, which travels the country and presents programs and workshops like SOARS.

“Only another survivor can sympathize with those nights and feelings of self-hatred, confusion, shame and repressed memories. I want people to know that I’ve been there,” Salamishah said.

A drunken fraternity brother raped Salamishah for the first time, an experience she spent years trying to convince herself was consensual. Her attack stirred memories of molestation at age 5 by a female babysitter and then in Kenya as a junior studying abroad she was again raped by an acquaintance.

Considering the stigma associated with rape, Salamishah was hesitant to admit that she was a multiple- rape victim. She delayed the healing process until her second assault, when she finally admitted to herself and others what had actually happened.

“It felt like I was just standing still while life was moving forward. I don’t want anyone else to delay their healing process as long as I did, that’s why I do this program,” Salamishah said.

The black-and-white images were arranged chronologically, allowing the audience to see the transformation of a desolate woman with lifeless eyes, slouched in front of the camera, to the vibrant and empowered survivor who stood before the crowd. Voiceovers from Salamishah accompanied the photographs, granting further insight into her feelings. Images depicted her struggle with eating disorders and quest to love her body after it had been “the place of so much pain and damage.” Using both original works and remakes of classic songs like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” the performers acted out the experience of being raped and the period of self-hatred and despair that followed.

Salamishah described the experience of embracing her sexuality again. She went on to explain, “I do wonder what my life would be like without the rape, but I’ve learned both as a woman and a rape survivor not to fear initiating sexual behavior or expressing sexual desire in my life. Instead of shutting down sexually, I confronted it head-on.”

The event concluded with a Q-and-A session for the entire cast. When asked if watching the show gets easier each time, Salamishah said, “Honestly, I trick myself into thinking that it does, but it’s still a challenge. I go through the emotions with you, it takes me back every time to exactly how I was feeling in each of those pictures.” Both emotional and empowering, the show seemed to have an effect on audience members.

Kristen Daskilewicz, senior women’s and gender studies major, said, “I loved how they incorporated dance into it. I think sexual assault is so connected to your body, and it was really effective.”

Both Salamishah and her sister hope watching the performance will encourage survivors to begin their own healing processes. Salamishah said, “The most important part of the healing process is getting past the shame and going public with it. Shame is so debilitating for victims. We all need to learn to really own the stories of our lives, even the painful ones.”