We are the gift
An impassioned letter from a survivor of sexual assault
Be warned: the following letter discusses abortion and rape. Keep scrolling to watch the letter being read by its author, Melissa Harris-Perry, on MSNBC in 2012.
In October of 2012, in the final moments of a televised debate with his Democratic opponent, aspiring U.S. senator Richard Mourdock was asked whether he believed that abortion should be allowed in cases where rape had occurred—to which he responded:
I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something God intended to happen.
Mourdock’s remark made headlines and provoked a backlash, and he eventually lost the election for which he had been campaigning. One of the millions of people to take offence with his comments was writer, academic and television host Melissa Harris-Perry, who responded with an open letter.
Dear Mr. Mourdock,
Sometimes I still flinch when I’m touched in a certain way, even if it’s the loving embrace of my husband. I can’t stand to watch TV shows where rape is the central plot line, and even some seasons of the year are harder for me. Those of us who are sexual assault survivors call these triggers. And we spend our lives—the lives that we lead after the attack—avoiding and managing these triggers.
A congressional debate shouldn’t have to come with a trigger warning. But, apparently, Richard, yours should. Because in Tuesday’s debate for Indiana’s US Senate seat, you said this:
“I believe that life begins at conception . . . The only exception I have, for, to have an abortion, is in that case of the life of the mother. I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is a gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Let me explain something. Rape and sexual assault are complicated experiences
for survivors. Some of us fight, kick, scream, and resist at every moment. Some
of us eventually give in to save our own lives or to manage the horror. Some of us know that what is happening is rape, and others of us just know it is wrong, but don’t have any words to describe why. Some of us push the memories down and try to forget, and others of us battle openly with the nightmares and the scars every day. There is no one right way to survive. There is no one right way to feel.
And, as we heal, we learn not to judge ourselves or to judge our fellow survivors, because we learn that judgment can wound as deeply as assault. If a woman finds herself pregnant after a rape, we do not judge the choices she makes.
Now, I am descended from American slaves, and I have foremothers who found themselves pregnant with children whose birth increased the wealth of the very man who enslaved and raped them. But, somehow, through the angst and misery of that experience, some of those women found a way to love and embrace the children that they bore from rape. So, I do not doubt the compassion or judge the choice of a survivor who carries a rape pregnancy to term.
But the whole point is choice. Consent. You see, Mr. Mourdock, the violation of rape is more than physical. Rapists strip women of our right to choose, of our right to say no, of our right to control what is happening to our bodies. And most of our assailants tell us it’s our fault. And they tell us to be silent. And sometimes they even tell us it’s God’s will. That is the core violation of rape: it takes away choice.
Now, Richard, you believe it is fine to ignore women’s right to choose because of your interpretation of divinity. Does that sound familiar?
So, let me explain something to you. When we survive sexual assault, we are the gift. When we survive, and when we go on to love, and to work, and to speak out, and to have fun, and to laugh, and to dance, and to cry, and to live, when we do that, we defeat our attackers. For a moment, they strip us of our choices. And we heal when we take our choices back. We are the gift to ourselves and our families and our communities, and our nation when we survive.
So, now let me say this very clearly to you, Mr. Mourdock, and to all of your shameless endorsers: we did not survive an attack on our consent just to turn around and give up our right to choose to you. Not without a fight.
Are you sure you want to have that fight?
Since I asked you about your favourite letters the other day, hundreds of people have responded—both in the comments section of the original thread and privately. I’m still trying to get back to you all, and eventually I will, but in the meantime: thank you all. The thread will remain open permanently, so please drop by if a letter springs to mind. And thanks, also, for the many kind words it seemed to provoke. Though the intention wasn’t to have my back patted, it’s been really heartwarming to hear your feedback.