rosenna bakari graphic 3

Courtesy of Rachael Sternlicht '20

May 6, 2018

Breaking Silence is Not Sharing a Secret: Speaking with and Reading Dr. Rosenna Bakari

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It is time to break our silence. After speaking with Rosenna Bakari ’11 and hearing her insights on living as a survivor of sexual assault, it is evident that it is time for women to live openly about their experience with assault and move past the discomfort in order to reframe the conversations we are having about the topic.

Much of the rhetoric and literature about violence against women has channeled women’s stories into a feed dominated by conditions that maintain comfortability among audiences. In Rosenna Bakari’s  recently published memoir Too Much Love Is Not Enough, she discusses the relationship between silence and psychological trauma in a way that imbues its audience with her own personal reality in an honest, relatable fashion. Dr. Bakari is a Cornell alumna whose story and dedication to creating a space for survivors is beyond inspirational. Her organization Talking Trees, founded in 2010, has fostered a supportive community for survivors that allows them to live openly about their experiences. In an interview with Bakari, she explained that Too Much Love Is Not Enough was a natural next step in her career and mission to generate safe spaces for survivors. In her own words, her memoir is a motion to “invite people on [her] healing journey,” and her writing does not only invite listeners, but encourages them to challenge the way they treat conversations about sexual assault.

The memoir details Bakari’s life from childhood to adulthood, but is largely an unraveling of her experience with childhood sexual assault. Too Much Love Is Not Enough touches on various aspects of sexual assault, such as the guilt and blame associated with it. She also focuses on the relationship between silence and healing. She writes: “Like a girdle worn to fit into the dress bought one size too small, I wore my silence, tight enough to make me look good as long as I did not care to breathe adequately. Like the six-inch heels that make my legs look divine, my silence radiated a confident personal presentation. No one knew my discomfort of shame as I soaked in the accolades about my perceived beauty and brilliance.” In living in silence one is upholding a facade of perfection that belies the trauma one has experienced. With this image, Bakari illuminates the reality of suppressing the truth: silence empowers perpetrators and denies a survivor of self-healing.

In addition to calling for a breaking of silence, Bakari nuances silence in a way that deconstructs the reality of living untruthfully through the way she differentiates sharing a secret from breaking silence. When asked to elaborate on this aspect of her writing, she said: “It took me all this time to understand that when you tell someone a secret, whatever it is, it becomes bigger and loses you. Now there are more people invested in your secret.” There is a difference between expanding the bandwidth of your silence and breaking it as an acknowledgement of the truth in order to heal. According to Bakari, our truth is what keeps us safe, whether it be in regards to our own healing or the way we approach our behavior. She dismantles the notions that perpetuate the blaming of women for their assault because of their beauty or the way the dress and behave by asserting the ways that truth has been absconded by societal perception. In her interview, she discussed thoughtfully the way that we have used certain societal perceptions in order to maintain a facade of safety. She says, “we deserve to live on a full spectrum of beauty…clothes do not make us safe. Truth makes us safe.”

The concept of pursuing truth as a means to disenfranchise rape culture is one takeaway, in particular, I got from my interview with Bakari. We discussed the way that the rhetoric surrounding sexual assault must change, beginning with a kind of reframing of the way survivors and listeners alike detail the realities of our experience with sexual assault. She said, “I’m hoping that people always see themselves from a position of resilience…we are not victims anymore. We were, but we are not anymore. We are survivors and we are resilience, whether we drank or ate or angered ourselves here, we are here and we have survived. So everything we do from here we do from a position of resilience of knowing and always feeling like survivors and not victims.”

It is not enough to “let go” of one’s experience because it undercuts the trauma that survivors have experienced and moved through. Rather, survivors, who were victims not by choice, should acknowledge their resilience in the face of the victimization they were forced into. Discussing our own trauma from a position of resilience confronts the constant victimization of women from ourselves and from listeners.

Considering the recent eruption of the #MeToo movement, I asked Dr. Bakari’s opinion on the way #MeToo is treated in the media. Having read her article, “What We Are Not Saying When We Are Saying #MeToo,” I found her commentary on the exclusionary nature of the media’s portrayal of sexual assault to be particularly interesting.

She underscored the way that sexual assault has been filtered through a specific lens that has defined sexual assault in as one aspect of what violation is, and that lens is strictly sexual harassment. She pointed out the ways that victims of incest, childhood sexual abuse, and more, were excluded from the conversations that were proliferating across social media platforms. In her interview, Bakari expanded on this idea contesting that the origins of the #MeToo movement are very much grounded in openness and inclusion of all forms of violence against women. However, she believes that the media, an entity very much still dominated by men, funneled the movement into what it has become. They took violence against women and pinned it as the kind of violence they are most comfortable with: sexual harassment in the workplace. When asked where the literature about sexual assault must change, in regards to the #MeToo movement and beyond, Bakari said that for these kinds of movements, “at the end of the day it’s not about who spoke, but it’s about who listened.”

The #MeToo movement in its inception created an incredibly important space for survivors who were bursting at the seams to tell their stories, but it still construes women’s experiences into a structure that takes audience comfortability into account. The #MeToo movement is one manifestation of an expression of women’s experience without adequate listeners.

Following this insight, I asked Bakari what she hopes readers, and listeners, would take away from her memoir. She broke down her readers into three categories, hoping each would glean a different kind of message. First, she hopes that survivors reading her work feel a solace in reading about her experience. She hopes they understand that “they are not alone in their feelings of guilt and shame” and that they “see that they have the right to heal.” The path to healing is difficult, she affirms, but it is possible.

For readers who are not survivors, she hopes that they can understand that it hurts and that pain may not alway be visible. Whether we realize it or not, we are in constant contact with survivors and the things we do and say may close off safe spaces for them.

To men reading, she hopes that they listen. She says, “I hope that they can read the book and understand the severity of the plight of women in general in this world, but I also hope that they can read it and understand that if your significant other is closed off or closed down, maybe there’s a reason for that.”

She suggests the importance of being cognisant of other people’s sexual history because you never know where your partner is in their healing. Many survivors don’t understand what good sex feels like because sex may not be empowering to them. She continues: “men don’t invest in that, and women don’t feel like they deserve that.” She explains that there is not enough distinction between the way people who love you approach you and the way your predator approached you. So, it is important for men to offer themselves to women in a way that shows you are not violating them.

Too Much Love Is Not Enough is an incredibly important read in this increasingly vocal media climate. As someone with the resilience to write daily for years about her experience with sexual abuse, what Bakari has to say is eye-opening, whether the reader is relating to her content or if the reader is understanding from a listener’s perspective. She attributes much of her strength to her time at Cornell and to the communities of geniuses she had the pleasure of interacting with during her time there. She spoke about Cornell as a place where she found what she needed to be pushed to a level of academic and social proficiency. But her story is not one that should be attributed to the institution she attended, but rather the person that she grew and shaped herself into. Her own personal healing journey and her mission to create safe spaces for women like herself is not only admirable but an example of what we should be aiming for as a society. Reading Too Much Love Is Not Enough is a breaking of silence not only for Bakari, but an encourage for all women to break their silence.

Victoria Horrocks is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at vrh23@cornell.edu.