“It’s a shame she survived. How can someone live after such horror? It would be kinder if she had died.” So said my best friend after recounting the gruesome details of the rape inflicted on an eight-year-old girl. The crime had happened back in 2008 but I remembered it vividly, because the media had christened the victim with an alias which was also my own name, Nayoung.
For a terrible minute, I was at a loss for words. I felt indescribably angry. Yet I also felt powerless because I knew too well what she meant. Not only would Nayoung suffer from the terror of that cruel day, she would also live with the stigma of being a rape victim: a damaged girl, a damaged bride, a damaged person. In time, she would learn how to always be alert to her surroundings and to distrust everyone and everything. Eventually she would join the living dead, because God forbid raped girls having real lives. As they say, “you can’t un-rape a girl once she’s been raped.”
Perhaps she could pretend that it never happened. She could lie to everyone she loves, and grow up with a secret in her heart. However, it seems that Nayoung would not get to hide or forget. 5 years after the rape, her attacker is in jail but only for 7 more years. The press still stalks her with questions. People still talk about her bowels falling out when he tried to remove the semen. It is the only story she is allowed: a life destroyed by one event, destined to a fate worse than death.
I want to tell a different story. It is the story I told my friend that day for the first time in 8 years of friendship. In my 23 years, I have known two killers and one child rapist. I met the first two while working at an organization devoted to fighting domestic and sexual violence, and the last when I was ten years old. The two killers I know are abused women who saved their own and their children’s lives by ending their husbands.’ I visit these brave women in jail and assist their lawyers with trial preparation. The child rapist I encountered is long gone from my very real life.I read and write fiction. I run, I do yoga, and I love. Although it took much time and heartache for me to get to this point, I am now a survivor of violence advocating for the rights of women and children.
For ten years, I kept my rape a secret from everyone. My family is very supportive and loving, but I knew even then that being raped is a debilitating stigma in Korean society. I also did not want them to feel guilty. I could finally face what had happened upon entering college. Searching for answers, I wandered until I found <The Courage to Heal>, a book about overcoming sexual trauma. I chose to study law as a freshman and later discovered feminism and cultural anthropology. For me, these disciplines represent a shared emphasis on social engagement. Two years ago, I joined the Korea Women’s Hotline, which is the oldest organization combatting violence against women in Korea.
There was a time when I was afraid that I was being delusional. I believed that I had to change the world. I kept gravitating towards the non-profit sector, attending demonstrations and organizing student groups. Surely this must be lunacy. After all, I come from the Korean middle class, which celebrates sensible and profitable careers. So why this obsession with the public interest? Was I attracted to other people’s misery because there was something pathologically wrong with me? I sought help from a counselor who also gives lectures on sexual violence. He explained that public interest work would let me witness help being delivered to victims and that sometimes I would also get to be that help. This in turn would give me catharsis because I had kept my own pain masked and never received much help. Not only did he affirm my sanity, he also cheered me to carry on.
Next spring, I will train to become a victim’s advocate before starting law school in the US. In my life I will attempt to answer several questions. Do different societies have different legal practices and cultural attitudes regarding the rights of women and children? If so, what kind of philosophical and historical factors make some societies fairer or safer than others? Is it possible to bring about lasting legal and cultural change? If so, how can this be done and what role do I play in it? In law school, I want to learn how to be a professional who is competent, comfortable with handling diverse situations, and skilled at maneuvering complex rules and procedures. I further hope to get acquainted with American and international feminist organizations like Equality Now.
Throughout my life, I have worked on confronting the past and healing myself. While my counselor could still be wrong and I may indeed have gone cuckoo from all the trauma, I sincerely believe that I must do something to change the world. Therefore I have set a specific goal and started towards that direction. I still feel anguished and wildly inadequate from time to time. However, more often I am empowered by the people I work with and encouraged by the fact that I can actually fight back and help others. I am proud of my journey so far. This is how I live after “such horror.”