Tuesday, March 8, 2016

We Are Not Alone: Eliza R. Snow and Women's Shared Trauma

Today's guest post comes to you from Eliza N. She is an editor who lives and works in Salt Lake City. She grew up in the Midwest and misses the cornfields. When she's not working, reading, or watching Netflix, she enjoys running, playing volleyball, and hanging out with her dog.

Ed. Note: Trigger warning for discussion of rape.

I have some things to say.

Last week I attended the Church History Symposium co-hosted by the Church History Department and BYU's Religious Studies Center. I attended Dr. Andrea Radke-Moss's presentation that has been quite the talk over the weekend in the Mormon Studies world because of new information that she presented identifying Eliza R. Snow as a victim of rape in Missouri during the persecution of the Mormons there in 1838. Her write-up at the Juvenile Instructor as well as this one at By Common Consent by my friend Kristine A. give excellent overviews of Dr. Radke-Moss’s presentation and explanations of her sources and reasoning.

Since Thursday, there’s been plenty of pushback in the comment sections of pretty much every article and post that’s discussed the bombshell regarding the validity and credibility of Dr. Radke-Moss’s source, the validity of her conclusions, and whether or not this information should have been revealed. Dr. Radke-Moss handily rebuts this criticism in her JI post, but here are my thoughts about her presentation and some of the pushback I have seen.

We've always known women in Missouri were raped as part of the warfare and persecution the early Mormons experienced then (see this chapter in the old institute manual Church History in the Fulness of Times and this Gospel Topics essay for brief mentions). As demonstrated by the brevity of these mentions, those rapes have always been an abstract concept, a vague idea. But now, putting a face and a name to a victim of those crimes makes them seem much more real and current. And for that face and name to be one that is so well-known and so beloved as Eliza R. Snow makes it feel so very personal and that much more heartbreaking.

It's also a reminder of the reality of the victims yet unnamed—who may never be known by name to us. They are not abstract concepts at all, but real, living women who we likely know in our history, but we don't know the details about them having this experience.

The resistance I've seen to believe Dr. Radke-Moss's presentation's conclusion about the likelihood of Eliza R. Snow being one of the victims is, in my mind, troubling, and just as unfounded as many have claimed Andrea's assertions are. As a thoughtful, responsible historian, Dr. Radke-Moss has provided her careful reasoning for believing the source materials she used—careful reasoning that was not exactly included with enough context in reports that broke on Thursday, and of which she only presented the first half. (The remainder of her presentation will be given at the Mormon History Association conference in June.) But that source is probably as good as we will ever get for the identification of the rape victims in Missouri, considering the historical context of shame and silence surrounding those crimes.

We know that women were raped in the Missouri conflicts—so why, when a name is suggested with significant contextual evidence, do we resist believing it? Why do we yet still resist believing victims of sexual violence?

This issue speaks to something I've been thinking about since Andrea's presentation: women's shared, vicarious, inherited trauma. We may not all experience rape (although studies have shown that it's likely one in five [1] of us will—and this is not to discount the male victims of rape and sexual assault, for that is an additional reality), but more of us—if not all—will and have experienced other sexual assault and harassment.

As we carry these experiences, we absorb and carry the trauma of the rapes that happen to our friends, our sisters—to our believed foremothers. This is trauma that never leaves us, that lingers in the back of our minds, that is inherited across generations. It is a great boon to know that Eliza R. Snow, such an important figurehead in Mormon history and to me a beloved separated-by-centuries friend, can empathize with victims of sexual violence, to know that she somehow healed from or at least survived her trauma to overcome that experience and not be defined by it—that she went on to live such an extraordinary life and make such important contributions.

In the U.S. we are fortunate to not have experienced rape as a weapon of war in a very long time, but that reality still holds for women in other parts of the globe. And rape is still a horrifying reality for women here, only no longer as a weapon of war, but most often perpetuated by people known to the victims.

A few hours after Andrea's presentation, I visited a friend of a friend who had just a few days before been raped in Provo (yes, Provo—let's stop acting like no crime or anything bad ever happens there). As I held that trembling young woman in my arms, still working through her all-too-fresh trauma, and cried with her, thinking of how I will vicariously carry her trauma with me, I also thought of Eliza R. Snow—my friend, our poetess, our presidentess—and how she would have succored and ministered to this terrified woman.

Perhaps the most important thing she would have done, first and foremost, was believe her. It is too easy to find not only in every corner of the Internet but also in every corner of college classrooms those who would gaslight and debate and argue “Well, but what is consent really though?” and “Well, but what was she wearing?” and “Well, but had she been drinking?” etc. etc. ad nauseam. Every time a past or future rape victim hears these arguments and justifications, she internalizes more shame and more reasons to stay silent.

My young friend in Provo has been fortunate to have an enormous amount of resources available to her, including some amazing, loving caretakers; a rape crisis center; Planned Parenthood, which provided Plan B with no questions asked; and most importantly, police officers who believed her and helped her find all of the resources she needed.

I agree with Dr. Radke-Moss that we need to let go of the cycle of shame surrounding sexual violence and that Eliza R. Snow would want us to speak out now. So let me say this: I have been a victim of sexual assault. I have been a victim of so many instances of sexual harassment that I can no longer recount them all. I know far too many friends and acquaintances and loved ones—including one who just contacted me today after reading my initial rendering of this post on Facebook—who have been victims of rape. I am not alone. You are not alone. It was not your fault. You did not ask for it.

There is power in empathy, in speaking out and sharing our trauma and experiences. Let's make it easier for victims to speak up by believing them. Let's end rape culture.

Ed. Note: It just so happens to be International Women's Day--not necessarily to celebrate women, rather women's empowerment and activism that has brought us to where we are today. It is also a day about continuing to fight the good fight: push for equality in all aspects of women's lives worldwide. We at Expert Textperts invite you to participate today by signing the pledge to end rape culture at ItsOnUs.org.
[1] Here’s some statistical data from the Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf