Emerging from the Cave of Shame: Speaking Out about Sexual Violence and Moving Towards Personal Closure

Two years ago on Sexual Assault Awareness Day I disclosed my history of sexual abuse and violence to a large and very supportive audience at Windsor Law.

My speech that evening was the culmination of many years of introspection over how to share my experience in a way that would be liberating for me, and empowering for others. I had known for a long, long time that I wanted to speak out in the law school in order to “normalize” these horrible experiences which I know are shared by many in the student body (and other groups).

I had become convinced, increasingly, of the power of breaking the silence on topics that we feel shame and anguish over, and so hide – from ourselves, from each other. As we do so, we drive our misery yet deeper and ramp up our sense of isolation.

On our own, hiding in the cave of shame – where I cowered for decades – we are extremely powerless.

In speaking out, we move from shame and isolation in the cave and into the familiar, comforting, supportive place of our normal lives. That does not mean that everything we encounter as a result of speaking out is comfortable and safe – far from it – more of that below. But there is something important about bringing our personal story into the place that we feel most valued and loved and supported – among our family, our friends, our colleagues.

And in speaking out we silently, knowingly, reach out to others around us who have been abused and exploited and say, “Do not be ashamed. We are all in this together.”

I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that speaking out is for everyone. It is not. Speaking out about personal experiences of sexual violence is a 100% personal decision that no one – no one – should second-guess for someone else.

But what I learned over many years was that for me, it was important to come “out” as a survivor of sexual violence. Doing so somehow gave some meaning to the senseless waste of my faith and my innocence all those decades ago. It allowed me to finally conquer the nausea and the pounding of my heart that for years and years I experienced each time I considered – and in those days, usually rejected – telling someone.

Speaking out allows me to define the terms on which I continue to be hurt by these experiences – now I can tell my own story, in my own words, and I can better prepare for the triggers that live in every part of my everyday life. I shall never have complete control over my chronic PTSD – but I am getting much better at managing it, and speaking out has been an important factor in that improvement.

I have recently settled my personal lawsuit for sexual assault against the Anglican Church. I have written about the horrifying adversarial strategies deployed by the church’s insurers, which completely contradict their public statements of remorse and sympathy for survivors.

This year during Sexual Assault Awareness Week I shall speak about the agreement I have made with the church that will result in a protocol review process for sex abuse claims and hopefully produce a far more humane, sensible and dignified process which will no longer needlessly – perhaps intentionally – retraumatize claimants who step forward.

I now move from working on my own case – constantly replaying the facts, answering hostile questions from the “expert” who examined me, reading speculative and offensive arguments about “consent” in the pleadings – to working on a process design for a better process for claimants. I shall be returning to the UK to work on the protocol review, as well as acting as a “core participant” in the Goddard Inquiry on Institutional Child Sex Abuse.

The transition is an interesting one, and underscores what I now realize is the liberating power of resolution and closure. For me, the first step of this was speaking out. I saw this as practice for a lawsuit, and the lawsuit as simply a way to bring more pressure on the church. Finding myself the plaintiff in an aggressively defended sex assault suit against the church has been a very difficult, bruising and sometimes deeply retraumatizing experience. This part of stepping out of the cave is far from safe, in fact it is tremendously unsafe. Which is why we must make it easier or at least possible for others who would wish to take this step.

I have been amazed this past week as the resolution of my personal case sinks in just how much psychic relief I feel. The reason is simple, I have realized. I cannot be battered and hurt and any longer by the vile adversarialism of the litigation process, that plunges me back over and over into the events of 40 years ago and insinuates over and over again that my claim is not worthy, that I was responsible for a year of sex assaults by a church minister, that maybe I was into it, that I am “on the make” in seeking compensation, that I am faking PTSD because I have a good job and am very functional, and on and on….

Never again do I have to read this shit. And my goal is that strong, clear constraints on what can be argued in a sex assault defence, and how counsel seeks to settle the case, can ensure that other claimants do not have to endure this crass, archaic process either.

See you on March 21st.


– Julie Macfarlane



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