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Liss: Sitting down with the man who raped me

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(Flickr/Étienne Ljóni Poisson/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

This past summer, I sat down with the man who raped me three years ago for an eight-hour mediation circle. My mom, sister, Crown attorney and lawyer also joined the circle as impacted community members. Two mediators held the space and actively worked to safeguard triggers. They asked us each only one question: what brought you here today?

This is the outcome that I fought for. It’s called restorative justice (RJ).

After the assault in 2016, I was given the option to report or not. It was a key moment in my journey: I did not want to go through a brutal criminal justice process that I understood to be re-traumatizing. But I also did not want nothing. So I did a rape kit, filed a police report and began trudging through the punitive system. Two years later, when I was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, I took the stand at a preliminary trial. The experience was horrible to say the least. I remember his lawyer asking me such invasive questions, throwing disbelief and skepticism in my face.

Testifying filled my head with thoughts of self-blame, minimizing trauma. “Who is really on trial here?” I wondered. My assailant looked at the ground the entire time, never once facing the hurt he had caused.

Something became clear: none of this was what justice looked like to me. I began telling close friends how awful the court experience was. “I don’t want any of this,” I would say. “I wish I could just sit down with this person to ask him the questions burning within me. To have him look me in the eyes and witness my grief.”

Another year passed and I continued focusing on my own healing. I no longer wanted to die. I no longer dissociated severely or broke out into hives due to panic attacks. I dedicated my life to women’s empowerment, lead retreats, studied somatic sex education, taught yoga, wrote about trauma and assisted an indigenous elder, who taught me so much about intergenerational trauma.

I began looking at my rapist as not just a “bad seed,” but rather as someone who has been raised within objectification culture, where men are asked to suppress their tears. Though I will never justify assault, I did begin to look at my assailant with a sense of understanding that he too has a story.

And so, when I was subpoenaed for a criminal trial in 2018, I did not at all want to proceed. I considered dropping the charges completely, but was still holding onto this repair-based justice dream. When I told someone about it, they responded: “so, make it happen.”

READ: EVE ENSLER: UNDERSTANDING MY FATHER, MY ABUSER

I began researching and found that what I was wanting was in fact RJ. I was connected with a lawyer advocating for RJ and we called a meeting with the Crown. Initially, my proposal was met with judgement, a condescending assumption that I did not understand how bad rape is. “I believe that rape is so bad,” I responded, “that we have to consider alternative options.”

Though there was much pushback from prosecutors who wholly believe in the punitive system, eventually, a judge agreed to move forward. I was told my assailant would begin therapy right away.

Several months later, we met for the mediation circle. I got to ask my assailant the questions that had been burning within me: How could you? What happened in your life that led you to justify rape? What was going on in your head when you covered my mouth and ignored my “no”?

He looked me in the eyes and answered. He shed tears for the pain he had caused. My mom voiced her heartbreak for the hurt done to her daughter. My assailant apologized from the depths of his being. He took ownership and said, “I sexually assaulted you. I’m so sorry. There’s nothing I can do to take it back, but I hope being here today can help.” When I heard that, I burst into tears of relief instantly. That moment of accountability will stay with me forever.

Afterward, the Crown attorney looked towards me to see if I was satisfied. When I said “yes,” the charges were dropped.

Restorative justice focuses on repair rather than punishment. It looks toward the person who experienced harm and asks: what will be most healing for you? I am glad that my assailant will not be incarcerated or acquitted. I truly believe that this experience was transformative for him, too.

I refuse to live in a world where we don’t believe in our capacity to transform. I refuse to live in a society where we are so quick to exile and dispose. 

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