“For the first time in my life, I have shed ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ as my identity. I was having to survive on being a ‘survivor’, because that’s how I was making money, speaking about what happened to me. Now I want to talk about coding.” [Quoted in Wired magazine]
Catie Hart was 18 when she was coerced into being a sex worker by a man she met soon after arriving in San Francisco. She eventually broke away and now, aged 40, has a degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley, worked as an advisor on human trafficking for the San Francisco Police Department, Shasta County and UC Davis and is currently a lecturer at AnnieCannons, a Bay area nonprofit where survivors of human trafficking can learn to code.
Our adult lives couldn’t have started more differently; when I was 18, I was heading to Cambridge University and then on to a successful career in London and Washington DC.
Around the time Catie’s life took a turn for the worst, I had too had a formative experience: my uncle was kidnapped by terrorists in Colombia and held hostage for 7 months.
I spent the first two decades of my career dedicated to setting up Hostage UK and Hostage US, nonprofits to support hostage families through the ordeal and help returning captives rebuild their lives after they are released. I recently stepped down as Executive Director from Hostage US and would describe my time there as doing the right thing, in the right place, with the right people. Anyone who gets that once in their career is doing really well. I’ve had it twice.
There is no more effective way to convince people to donate or partner than to connect them with survivors like Catie. After hearing a hostage speak about their experiences, I have watched people instinctively reach for their check book or business card, moved to do whatever they can to help. These personal stories help build the infrastructure and resources that make nonprofits sustainable.
And yet, I always struggled to make the ask.
Telling your story can be therapeutic; one former hostage told me writing a book helped them to process what they had been through, ensure their story was told in their own words, and move on with their life. In every telling, it becomes someone’s else’s story until you can cast it aside entirely, like shedding a layer of skin. The late, great Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
For many, the telling and re-telling of the most traumatic experience of their life has a negative impact. In the most extreme cases, it can re-traumatize, triggering a range of symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares, anxiousness, trouble sleeping and concentrating, negative emotions and social isolation.
It can also lead to ‘identity groundhog day’. One former hostage told me she had stepped off the professional speaking circuit because she was fed up of being “hostage girl”. Everywhere she went – dropping the kids at school, attending church, over wine with friends – her identity was dominated by two months of her life five years previously. She just wanted to be a mom, wife, humanitarian, and bad karaoke singer again.
With care and thought, we can create environments for survivors to tell their stories in ways that have a net positive impact; let the survivor set the ground rules about what they do and don’t want to talk about and whether they will answer questions; ask if they would prefer to sit or stand, be interviewed or deliver a speech; help them to feel comfortable in the space by sharing photos of the room or arranging a visit beforehand; and designate someone to shield them from prying audience members afterwards. The best survivors’ organizations do this.
Catie’s quote struck a personal chord with me, too. Over the past two decades, I have told and re-told my own story countless times; to donors, partners, and bored conference attendees alike. Often, I felt good knowing something positive resulted from my family’s suffering.
At times, I resented it.
There were the times it seemed like ‘entertainment’ and left me feeling hollow knowing my story was little more than next weekend’s titillating dinner party fodder for audience members. What’s worse is feeling like I conspired in commoditizing my story; the same old patter, recycled anecdotes, and jokes in all the right places to ensure the mood didn’t dip into ‘awkward and uncomfortable’.
I also became “hostage girl” and watched the boundary between my professional and personal identities vanish. I’ll never forget sitting at a rooftop bar enjoying a balmy Washington DC evening, glass of red wine in hand as I tried to unwind after an especially stressful week at work. Introducing me to a new group, my friend said, “Rachel, do you mind if I tell everyone what you do for a job?” I wanted to scream “Yes I do mind – just let me enjoy my weekend!” I didn’t have the energy to object and inevitably spent the rest of the evening being asked questions about hostages.
I have no doubt that personal stories change the world. They help us to ‘cross the line’ as donors, volunteers and partners; they generate the compassion, energy and will to make a difference; and our instinct to share them helps raise awareness. As Dorothy Allison said, ‘…stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”
There comes a time when storytelling needs to stop. We are more than our worst experiences and we cannot move forward if we can’t let go of the past.