Make a new name

One unnamed woman's contribution to confronting a culture of rape

by Ken Sehested

        By now you know about the judicial lenience given by California Judge Aaron Persky to Stanford student Brock Turner for raping an unconscious woman at a campus party. You may also know about the absolutely clueless letter read to the judge by the student’s father.

        And you were probably shocked to learn that a Vanderbilt University athlete, convicted of the same crime under similar circumstances, is facing 15-25 years behind bars. Turner got 6 months. One of the two is African American, the other white.

        These events are but the latest in a string of similar assault cases, like the recent one involving Baylor University football players, which brought down the school’s president and head coach. Notre Dame University was among the universities profiled in “The Hunting Ground,” a 2015 documentary examining rape on college campuses.

        Then there are multiple National Football League players now facing some degree of accountability from the courts and the League office. Not to mention the protracted saga of comedian Bill Cosby’s accusers, a beleaguered cast which now number in the dozens.

        Patriarchy’s legacy spans political allegiance. People of my generation still flinch at the memory of civil rights icon Stokely Carmachael's quip that “The position of women in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) is prone.”

        What makes this particular moment uncommon is the action of one character: the victim of Brock Turner’s rape, whose name is still not publicly known but who has been anything but silent.

        Her letter, read in court at Turner’s sentencing, is one of the most articulate pain-soaked statements I have ever read. The sheer fact that she rose above her trauma to say anything publicly is amazing by itself. She remains anonymous, but she had the moxie to not only write this but also to read this missive (and it is long)—in court and in the presence of her attacker and the case’s presiding judge.

        This is a modern-day epistle, a dispatch from the traumatized trenches of gender bias.

        But her letter is not only about pain. There is an anguish-transcending majesty in her narrative.

        What she says is must-read material.

        It’s not fun reading. But it is essential reading.

        If not right now, make a pledge to yourself to read her letter sometime in the next 24 hours. Skip the morning paper or your favorite electronic news wire or Facebook scroll. Skip your daily Bible reading and/or you prayer/meditation time if need be.

        Skip a meal, get up early, go to bed late, if your schedule is that tight. Just do it.

        If you have children above the age of accountability, require them to read it—and talk with you about it. Maybe call a family meeting to discuss it. Ask your Sunday school class to read and discuss it, or your civic club, or your deacon board or church staff meeting or your pastors’ fellowship.

        This tragedy creates an opening to lift the curtain on a shockingly common form of violence which has been covered up or overlooked or excused almost forever.

        Rape is a form of terrorism. It’s obsessing goal is not genital contact—it is about domination. It is a kind of eroticized violence rooted in millennia of gender tyranny. There is a word for it—misogyny—naming a pattern of contempt for and ingrained prejudice against women by men. The fact that males also suffer sexual assault does not balance out the preponderance of statistical facts documenting male suppression of women’s lives.

        The long road to mutuality must include fathers telling sons, “Her body, her rules.”

        Surely—and I believe this firmly—Brock Turner needs to be required to enter some kind of restorative justice process, one that might lead to genuine repentance (regardless of how long he stays in prison); and he needs to be accountable not only to the criminal justice system but also to the woman he assaulted (or to her appointed representative). This process, including professional counseling, should take time, months at least, maybe years.

        If the only thing that happens to Mr. Turner is inflicting the pain of punishment, he will likely, eventually, vomit out that pain on others, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence.

        One breathtaking part of this one woman’s letter is just this sort of recognition.

            “Your life is not over, you have decades of years ahead to rewrite your story. . . .  I challenge you to make a new name for yourself, to do something so good for the world. You have a brain and a voice and a heart. Use them wisely. You possess immense love from your family. That alone can pull you out of anything. . . .

        “I hope you will become a better, more honest person who can properly use this story to prevent another story like this from ever happening again. I fully support your journey to healing, to rebuilding your life, because that is the only way you'll begin to help others.”

        “In memory of her” is the phrase Jesus uses at the close of the story (Matthew 26) about the unnamed woman in Bethany who anointed his feet with oil. Another unnamed woman may be doing something as memorable in our time.

        We all long for new names.

©Ken Sehested @