From the December 28, 2007 edition of the New York Times, this story about Susan Xenarios, the woman who heads the Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center:
As director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, Ms. Xenarios, 61, has become a leading figure in the treatment of psychological trauma. She founded the center near Columbia University 30 years ago. Violence between strangers, lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children is no longer alien to her, she said recently in her office.
But it is rape that is extremely personal to her.
In 1974, when Ms. Xenarios was 28 and working as a city social worker, she was raped on a sunless day on a rooftop in Harlem.
It was just before Thanksgiving : she has blotted the exact date from her memory : and she was about to interview someone in the urgent case of a baby missing from Harlem Hospital Center. She said a man grabbed her in the stairwell of an apartment building and held a knife the size of a switchblade to her neck.
Fevered, frantic and spitting racial insults, the man forced Ms. Xenarios, who is white, to the rooftop. She did not scream but said to him,”You really don’t want to do this, you really don’t want to do this.”The man said he was going to throw her off the roof. He raped her.
Without explanation, the man let her live. He fled. Ms. Xenarios walked unsteadily down the stairwell and attended a previously scheduled social-work meeting at the Harlem hospital. At mid-meeting, she collapsed in grief and torment.
She was immediately taken to the emergency room. One thing she remembers is a doctor and a police detective interviewing her as she lay exposed from the waist down for a gynecological examination. The man was never caught.
â€œI tried to find some sense in it, and I couldn’t, and I became very angry,”Ms. Xenarios recalled of the rape and its aftermath.
She told her new husband, Giorgos Xenarios, a Greek painter she had met after living in Greece, about the rape.”A lot of my energy was focused on helping him with this because there’s enormous shame and losing face”attached to the husband of a rape victim in Mediterranean culture, she said.
It took Ms. Xenarios weeks to tell her parents, George and Mildred Preston, a bookstore manager and a homemaker in Englewood, N.J.
While her rape changed her life, it was the rape of other women that galvanized Ms. Xenarios and a wider public.
The next year, a Columbia University student was raped at knife point in her dormitory room at Hudson Hall on West 114th Street. The woman, 22, was treated at St. Luke’s and released.
The attack was the most publicized of at least seven rapes that year in the Columbia campus vicinity. To some women’s groups and other activists, the treatment of the women appeared insensitive and perfunctory.
â€œIt caused a storm,”Ms. Xenarios recalled.”Even the old Trotskyites were talking about it.”
Ms. Xenarios and other feminists decided to organize. She and Mary Anderson, who was then the unit manager of the emergency room at St. Luke’s, organized a handful of doctors and nurses, all volunteers, into a program.”Our budget was zero,”Ms. Xenarios said.
The program was simple.”Some women talk about rape as the murder of the soul,”Ms. Xenarios said.”We wanted medical competence, psychological competence, validation that a person who was raped was still a significant human being, and above all, compassion.”
I read Ms. Xenarios’s story and am struck by the senselessness of rape; her focus on supporting her husband through her own rape; and her verbalization of rape as “murder of the soul.”
It is difficult for rape survivors to find order in the world. Rape is never justified. Rape undermines the victim’s sense of personal security and control over her own body. Some rape survivors function by disconnecting their mind from their body during the rape and long after. But one doesn’t “get over” rape; one lives with it. Physical trauma, emotional injury and memories blur and dull over time. Gradually, one reaches the point at which one has lived longer as a rape survivor than someone who has never been raped. Every voluntary post-rape sexual encounter may need to be differentiated in the survivor’s mind from the rape.
Those who love rape survivors are affected, too. It is not always easy to be the partner of someone whose sense of self has been damaged. Rape effects the partner’s sexual expression, too (“Will this be ok? What about that? Can I ever be forceful? What if I don’t want to move so slowly?”). My first reaction was to scoff at Ms. Xenarios’s desire to support her husband through her rape. But it makes sense. Thanks to work like Ms. Xenarios’s at St. Luke’s, we now have a language of survivorship for rape victims. But we have less language to describe what it is like to live with and love a rape survivor.
How is rape a murder of the soul? Rape can destroy bodily integrity. Rape can destroy a sense of self-worth. Rape can destroy the desire to live. Rape can destroy trust. Rape can destroy people and families and communities. Rape hurts everyone.