I work at the Centre County Women’s Resource Center. Despite the name, our clients include women, men, or children. What they share is that their lives have been ripped apart by violence. Sometimes it’s domestic violence, like someone getting beaten up. Sometimes it’s sexual violence, such as rape.
This violence is terrible, horrifying. The bodily violence that our clients experience becomes even more harmful when it’s accompanied by words like “You must have done something to make him mad” or “It’s your own fault.”
Too often, a victim of violence finds that her voice is silenced by the community’s disbelief or by our need to blame the victim.
There’s a saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Whoever thought that one up was well-intentioned but completely wrong. I believe that words have power. They have the power to wound us deeply. But they also have the power to heal. I spend my days crafting words to give the victims of violence a voice.
The poet Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” For the victims of domestic violence, the silence created by blameful and disbelieving words is excruciating.
I believe that it’s also harmful for our community. But for a victim to speak out, through the agony, is never easy ... especially when society conspires to maintain a stony silence about the reality that domestic and sexual violence do occur.
When victims try to tell their stories, the words are difficult to say. Often the words that spill forth are, like the speaker, broken and fearful, choked out through a veil of tears.
When people finally tell their stories, however, words take on a different power. This is when words have the power to heal. The simple act of telling — and the fact of being believed — can start to heal the hurt.
Words also help us understand how to create a world where no one becomes a victim. Words help us learn what relationships can and should be — mutual and respectful, trusting and loving. When my children were small, they would sometimes burst out in fits of 3-year-old’s rage. Their emotions often threatened to overwhelm them. I remember reminding them over and over to “use your words.”
Learning to use words rather than fists is an important skill. But it’s only part of what we need to know. I believe that words can be “sticks and stones” —- weapons you use to hurt and destroy. But I also believe that words can be powerful “stones and bricks” — building blocks for a solid community.
Anne Ard has been the director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center for 12 years; she is also a Presbyterian minister. She is married, has two children and lives in State College.