039: To Silence a Nightingale

039: To Silence a Nightingale


Content Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence, depression, anxiety, and PTSD which may be triggering to some survivors.

“To Silence a Nightingale,” Kara Large

Note: Portions of this piece have previously appeared in Persephone's Daughter, and on Kara's personal website.

 

I was an anxious child. Not from lack of nurturing, nor ruthless teasing, but from an overactive mind. When I failed to keep it adequately occupied, I worried about threats beyond my years. But I never worried about getting raped.

A product of 90s media, I was acutely aware of “types,” and where I thought I “belonged.” I categorized myself as “the smart girl.” Velma was my “Scooby Doo” protagonist. I would have no trouble navigating the world, I foolishly thought; smart girls always outwit the danger.

But a few months in to my second year of college, I was violently raped by a stranger. Clumps of hair were ripped from my scalp, I can still feel the scars where the hair refused to grow back for so long; I don't blame it for wanting to remain rooted in a garden of refuse. Eventually, I blacked out from the pain of my head being bashed to silence me, to still me. All I could think in that brief moment between consciousness and darkness was: "I never planned for this, I don't know how to handle this; this wasn’t supposed to be in my story." The first thing I clearly remember after the attack was crawling into my shower, each inch manifesting in me a conviction to deny the trauma I had just experienced.

I remember feeling shame too, a kind of shame that left me dousing myself with nail polish remover in a panicked attempt to destroy any evidence still defiling my body. I felt the only way I could survive at that moment was to run from it all. I didn’t report it to the police nor to my parents. I hid from my closest friends. No one could know – not even me. So I attempted to erase the memory. I channeled all of my energy into anything that allowed me to forget. But so much purposed forgetting was not sustainable. Eventually, my demons caught up to me.

Sitting in a law school lecture hall three years later, I learned that my Criminal Law professor included rape in her syllabus. Even reading the word made my hands shake and my mind swell with fear. The trauma was closing in on me. But still I tried to evade it. I skipped classes that I knew involved the topic and would leave the classroom when it was unexpectedly mentioned.

The following year, I was once again blindsided when I learned the focus of my client counseling class was sexual assaults on college campuses. This was right before the topic became a daily headline. Once again, my reaction was to hide, but my skills were not as refined as they had been. After a graded client-interview exercise, I finally volunteered information about my experience with rape to my professor in order to save my partner’s grade from my awkwardness with the topic. Instead of taking this experience in stride, accepting it as an opportunity to be honest with myself, I again felt more comfortable retreating deeper within the remaining shadows of my mind. It helped that I learned of the anesthetic properties of alcohol; but when the stupor wore off, the memories returned with each clank of the liquor bottles piling in the trash can.

I finally stopped running before my final year in law school. In the midst of a pre-finals breakdown, I surrendered to the trauma and told my parents that I had been raped while in college. That weekend, we watched the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” together; it just happened to be playing on Turner Classic Movies. And so my journey to healing began examining a culturally significant and controversial rape trial for the first time as someone who had actually been raped. Although rape is the crime on trial in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its presentation only adds to hundreds of years of rape myths, particularly that women maliciously cry rape as a manipulative strategy. As I thought about what one of my favorite stories added to the dialogue of sexual assault, I became angry. So I decided to finish my law school journey by writing about the sexual violence epidemic in America.

My initial pursuit of law school, as I’m sure many other would-be lawyers can relate to, was influenced greatly by my childhood introduction to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Not only does this work detail a complex rape trial, it also signifies to me about what must be demanded in our society to end rape culture. In this prolific passage, the title’s importance is explained in the form of a lesson on birds:

"Atticus said to Jem one day, 'I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.' That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

'Your father’s right,' she said. 'Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.'”

An avid recreational bird watcher, I spend a great deal of time in the company of mockingbirds. They will sing all day if unbothered by other business. But they do not sing songs of their own. Instead, they repeat a phrase of another bird’s call in a pattern, usually three times. Fierce nest guardians, they only reveal a cry of their own when asserting their dominance over their territory. It is a shrill and broken buzz. But the nightingale, though small in stature, is renowned for its powerful and beautiful song, a song of its very own. A song heralded as the most beautiful birdsong in the word. I posit then, that to silence a nightingale is just as great a sin as killing a mockingbird.

An avid recreational bird watcher, I spend a great deal of time in the company of mockingbirds. They will sing all day if unbothered by other business. But they do not sing songs of their own. Instead, they repeat a phrase of another bird’s call in a pattern, usually three times. Fierce nest guardians, they only reveal a cry of their own when asserting their dominance over their territory. It is a shrill and broken buzz. But the nightingale, though small in stature, is renowned for its powerful and beautiful song, a song of its very own. A song heralded as the most beautiful birdsong in the word. I posit then, that to silence a nightingale is just as great a sin as killing a mockingbird.

Sexual violence is not about sex, it is about power. The power is stolen from the victim, ripped out of the victim’s body. It may take years to find that power again. It may never return. When someone’s power is taken, without consent, something happens to the voice as well. The vocal chords shrivel in fear, their screams denied. Without a sense of personal power and autonomy, the voice seems useless, as useless as a bruised eye or broken pelvis. Unless that voice is nurtured and soothed, it cannot share, it cannot sing. And then silence falls.

Kara has created a number of images to illustrate the reality of rape culture and her approach to what is called, Consent Culture. Click the image to check out more of her work at her personal website!

Kara has created a number of images to illustrate the reality of rape culture and her approach to what is called, Consent Culture. Click the image to check out more of her work at her personal website!

Rape culture systematically silences its victims. It silences them through victim blaming, through slut shaming, through denying fair and thorough investigations, through failing to prosecute rapists. When a nation silences one in three of its women or one in six of its men, it tells them that their voices do not matter, their stories do not matter, their lives do not matter. By standing idly by, we are creating a new class of people that believe they cannot make a difference. This cycle survived for far too long. Too many voices have been silenced. I finally decided mine would never be hushed again.

An avid recreational bird watcher, I spend a great deal of time in the company of mockingbirds. They will sing all day if unbothered by other business. But they do not sing songs of their own. Instead, they repeat a phrase of another bird’s call in a pattern, usually three times. Fierce nest guardians, they only reveal a cry of their own when asserting their dominance over their territory. It is a shrill and broken buzz. But the nightingale, though small in stature, is renowned for its powerful and beautiful song, a song of its very own. A song heralded as the most beautiful birdsong in the word. I posit then, that to silence a nightingale is just as great a sin as killing a mockingbird.

Sexual violence is not about sex—it is about power. The power is stolen from the victim, ripped out of the victim’s body. It may take years to find that power again. It may never return. When someone’s power is taken, without consent, something happens to the voice as well. The vocal chords shrivel in fear, their screams denied. Without a sense of personal power and autonomy, the voice seems useless, as useless as a bruised eye or broken pelvis. Unless that voice is nurtured and soothed, it cannot share, it cannot sing. And then silence falls.

Rape culture systematically silences its victims. It silences them through victim blaming, through slut shaming, through denying fair and thorough investigations, through failing to prosecute rapists. When a nation silences one in three of its women or one in six of its men, it tells them that their voices do not matter, their stories do not matter, their lives do not matter. By standing idly by, we are creating a new class of people that believe they cannot make a difference. This cycle survived for far too long. Too many voices have been silenced. I finally decided mine would never be hushed again.

Click the image to access a FREE download of Kara's first edition of To Silence a Nightingale.

Click the image to access a FREE download of Kara's first edition of To Silence a Nightingale.

For my final law school thesis, I set out to learn everything I could about rape culture in an attempt to derive a solution for the sexual violence crisis that remains unresolved. After months of extensive research and writing, I finally found personal peace. Publicly admitting that I had been raped, after years of repression, unleashed hell on my mind; my therapist referred to this as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among other symptoms, I suffered night terrors, debilitating anxiety, and brutal self-hatred. Leaving the house was like gearing up for war – every person I encountered was an enemy. My home did not feel like the fortress I needed. I didn’t even feel safe in my own body, my mind constantly churning flashbacks of terror.

But when I started to learn more about the history of sexual violence, I achieved a breakthrough in my healing. The culmination of my research not only resulted in a dissection of rape culture, but also allowed me to break down my own fears that had been silently suffocating me for years.

Nothing offered me greater comfort than finally acknowledging that my rape was not a personal attack; I was a passive cog, one in three, entangled by an evil, cyclical machine. Now, I will be silenced no more, and I will continue to shout until the message is received.

I hope my writing empowers other survivors with the crucial realization of their own strength. Together, we can illuminate the darkness of sexual violence and catalyze national enlightenment by sharing our stories and defying centuries of myths.


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About the art:

Kara’s story involved many metaphors and symbols representing the connection between nature and her personal story.

Before collaborating with Kara, I immediately pictured representing her story with some elements of nature. After communicating with her and learning more about her journey, the symbols in nature were even more prevalent.

The painting I did of Kara planting seeds in her garden is a symbol for her continued efforts and determination to take control and be a part of creating growth and change. When you plant the seeds of hope and change, new life will grow, and beautiful things will bloom.

- Becca

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