Dear Dr. Ford:
As a father, husband and employer to amazing and powerful women working on behalf of wellness, equity, justice and human dignity in California and across the country, I have only two words for you: Thank you. Thank you for sharing a painful and disturbing event. Thank you for speaking for the countless women who still remain silent. Most of all thank you for believing that your voice matters, because it does, in so many more ways than you may realize. The courage, grace and the power of your story were on my mind at church service this Sunday morning.
I am reasonably certain, as you contemplated going public with the telling of your story, that you had little or no interest in becoming a symbol for gender justice, but that is the transformative power of sharing our stories. You spoke truth to power.
Our health foundation’s mission and work centers on how unhealthy communities are transformed into healthier ones. While disease conditions such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, hypertension and stroke represent the lion’s share of poor health in such communities, we have found that exposure to adversity, toxic stress, and trauma in younger years is the silent barrier to wellness.
In your testimony this past week, you made brief reference to the matters of trauma, and memory, and brain function. While most observers of your testimony were focused on the potential impact of your testimony on the future composition of our Supreme Court, I naturally went to the triad of Trauma-Healing-Voice, and its impact, in particular, on the lives of young people in the communities we serve in California. These young people are primarily kids of color, are immigrant, and are LGBTQ. Their lives are often affected by the destabilizing impact of incarceration or deportation in their families.
As a research psychologist, you are aware that the underlying cause of much of the disease burden faced by these communities is trauma. The trauma of toxic stress, or neglect, or witnessing violence, or stigmatization, or discrimination, or gender injustice, or racism. It can be a difficult and tricky business to compare the trauma of sexual assault to, say, the trauma of experiencing an incarcerated or deported parent, or witnessing community violence. But as you know from your own work, the human brain experiences traumatic insults the same way — in the form of hormonal rushes of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The emotional scar is neuro-physiologically delivered, and the brain has been damaged.
Sadly, your experience of sexual assault is not an isolated phenomenon. In women of color, the triad of poverty, race, and gender conspire to heap tragedy on top of insult on the hoped-for path to wellness. According to the National Black Women’s Health Project, nearly 40% of Black women report coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18. Nearly half of Native and indigenous women have experienced sexual violence, according to the Indian Law Resource Center. Moreover, one of the most significant risk factors for women in the criminal justice system – of any race or ethnicity – is a history of sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence.
As you understand well, there is no scientific basis to support the adage, “Time heals all wounds.” The adage sounds convenient for dinner table chatter, but the research tells us that the time-honored saying is just nonsense.
The science behind the direct-line relationship from trauma to poor health is solid, and continues to emerge; but the science of resiliency and healing is less well defined. Our ten years of experience across many distressed communities and thousands of young lives seem to affirm an interesting phenomenon. While experiencing trauma is bad for one’s health, the converse is also true: “agency,” a sense of belonging, civic engagement, activism, and “voice” appear to have beneficial effects. Certainly, mental health and counseling services are critical; but agency-activism-voice carry the power of transformation, and not just “treatment.”
As a male, and someone who has not experienced sexual assault or violence, I can only imagine what your journey of the last three decades – and the last several weeks specifically – has been about. But I do imagine that your decision to go public with your story began in some very dark, scary, and very lonely place. I expect that amidst the insults and threats and other indignities suffered in recent weeks, you may have wondered at moments whether this courageous thing to do was actually foolhardy.
I have no pithy, clever, off-the-shelf aphorism that applies salve to these wounds. What I can say to you is, as others have said, “We Believe.” The courage to assert your voice will have obvious benefit for those directly impacted by sexual violence, but the impact is well beyond that. For the young people whose lives we are partnering to improve – who have experienced a multitude of forms of trauma, and stigmatization, and marginalization, and injustice – you have demonstrated the importance and power of voice in the pursuit of justice and wellness. Courageous, yes. But, beyond that, transformative.
And for that, a profound, deep, and soulful “Thank You” is offered.