The idea of asking my sister the question fills me with ice.
Katie’s voice is cheerful, unaware of my distress. Her phone crackles a bit in my ear as she tells me about the trip she and her family are planning to the Dominican Republic. She’s ready to escape the Detroit winter.
“I’m gonna go all by myself to the beach and soak up the sun,” she says.
I am quiet, waiting. When can I ask? When is the right moment? I will have to change the subject painfully. I will have to hurt her. It will be awkward and awful and maybe she’ll hate me for even saying the question aloud.
I have been putting this off for—well, ever since I knew I wanted to be a writer. Decades, now? There is never a good time to ask someone if you can take their pain and press it into pages like dead flowers.
“Katie,” I said. I can hardly breathe. “Can I ask you something?”
Her laughter dies down. I know she knows I’m nervous. “What’s wrong?”
“I just—I wanted to ask if I could—if I could write about the abuse, what the guy at the Acres did. I totally understand if you don’t want me to. They’re your stories, and I don’t have to do it. But if you feel okay about it, I would like to write about it.”
She pauses. And then she completely surprises me.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m definitely okay with it. I want people to know what happened to me. Not so they pity me, but so that they know how it happens, and that it’s not that uncommon.”
I am shaking now, dizzy with relief. Because the unasked question has been haunting me. I didn’t even need a yes. I just needed to be able to ask the question without hurting her. I was afraid she’d think I wanted to use her hurt for my own glory. That I thought I had some right to coopt her life.
Instead, she doesn’t flinch. She responds with grace and bravery. And she starts to tell me more of her story.
I don’t even know how much I don’t know about that time until now.
It happened in a pickup. An almost-rape. She was thirteen, and he was one of the housefathers at the Acres, the Christian children’s home she was living at. Before the morning it happened, he had already told her, crassly, that he liked her body. He tried to touch her—and other girls—at the home’s pool. Kept volunteering to take her to school in his truck.
Grooming. This is what predators do to thirteen-year old girls.
When he tried to go further in that truck that morning, she punched him in the face.
And then she went back to the Acres and told. She went to her house parents, and to the administration, and they contacted the police.
I didn’t know until that moment that this time, at least, my sister was able to resist. To refuse. This doesn’t make her better than those who can’t or don’t fight back—there are all kinds of ways to survive assault, and to be a hero. But I love knowing that in that pickup, my sister was able to say no.
I asked a question. And my sister told me her story.
Both things changed my life.
It is frightening, risky, even dangerous, to ask questions and tell stories. Doing so opens your heart. It makes you say true things. You feel your feelings and take them seriously.
When you tell stories and ask questions, you build a bridge from one person to another, hoping to keep your heart intact. You place trust in other people, flawed as you know people to be.
I trusted my sister and my sister trusted me because we’ve proven to each other that we are safe people.
I wish—I wish everyone was safe.
But they aren’t. Not always. A friend posted her story of surviving sexual assault online, and got rape threats in the comments. Someone else I love told her parents, and they said she’d instigated her abuser.
And sometimes, the answer to a brave, true question is NO, or HELL NO, or HOW DARE YOU.
We try to choose safe people to hear our questions and stories. Sometimes, we place trust in others, and find they weren’t worthy.
But no matter the response, the act of asking and telling true things is always beautiful. Even if the person listening across the table from you does not honor your bravery, you are courageous anyway.
Oh, storyteller, question-weaver, listen to your own tale. Living your life can answer your hardest questions.
You are shaping the end of your story, like Scheherazade during those Arabian nights. Speaking up saves you from the certain death of silence.
Knit your own redemption by speaking truth.
And though you shiver with your audacity, you are becoming, despite your terror, the story you desperately needed to hear.