The Kavanaugh Hearings: A Survivor on why it's personal and why you matter

By Nithya Thiru

For some the Kavanaugh hearings and sexual assault allegations are just one more political debate in tumultuous times. For others, they speak to a daily reality of living in a space that does not respect women’s bodies. TMP correspondent, Nithya Thiru shares her story.

I’m sitting at my desk, preparing to catch up on readings, taking a moment (or two) for one last scroll through social media, when, in an instant, I feel a tightness in my chest, the heaviness of my limbs, and the world moving in dizzy circles. It’s a feeling of panic that has become uncomfortably familiar to me. I slide away from the desk and sink down on my bed. I close my eyes and try to breathe through the panic attack.

My mind is racing, and I’m unable control the speed of my heart, the speed of my thoughts. Behind closed eyelids, images are whirring past and my mind becomes a blur of thoughts I want to forget. Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault. His accuser may testify before Congress. A woman’s pain is on display for the world to see, and noses pressed to screens, we watch the drama unfold. In a woman’s pain, a nation finds a twisted pleasure born from the thrill of the debate. I feel sick to my stomach. Innocent until proven guilty. She’s probably lying. This is a political ploy from Democrats. Kavanaugh was just a teenage boy.

Just a teenage boy. Somewhere out there, a thoughtless person sat behind a screen and sent those four words out into the ether for me to find, and now here I am, a woman, gripping her bed for dear life, trying her best to breathe.

It has been almost a decade since I was first assaulted by a high school boyfriend and five years since I left that relationship behind. Over the last five years, there have been times when I have thought that very phrase—he was just a boy. We were kids. It’s the same thinking that brought me, day after day back into the arms of a person who hurt me endlessly. It’s the same thinking that convinced me that this was normal, that this was how boys were, that my body was not an agent with the freedom to act, but an object to be acted upon.

This week, Kavanaugh’s accuser may well testify before Congress. Watching her take her seat, I will see myself in her place. Listening to them ask her—Why didn’t you come forward sooner? I will imagine them asking me the same. There in the weighty halls of law, we see her reflected back to us in our own image.

Every time another big, public case unfolds, it shakes me to my core. Every time another public case unfolds, I have nights like these. I am paralyzed. I think of my fellow survivors. I think of a girl alone feeling what I am feeling, and I wish I was gripping her hand instead of my bed.

Last semester, in the wake of #MeToo, I started going to a school counselor. A few sessions in she suggested that I may have PTSD. I was floored. PTSD was a phrase I associated with war. How could my unassuming middle class existence possibly compare to that? I later thought about an article I read for a class here at SIPA arguing that rape is a political act of war against women. I am beginning to feel the truth of that idea more and more. In my own war against shame, self-doubt and fear, my weapon of choice has been my pen. I have written prose, political testimony, letters to my senators, poetry, speeches, essays, messages to my dearest friends, but where I have found the most healing has been from the support found in the clinking of wine glasses at 3am, circles of friends on floors, laughing.

I often think of the moment that led me to leave my abusive relationship, my breaking point.

It was my 21st birthday, a 90s themed house party. Me wearing my hair up in a scrunchie, a crop top, and these high waisted leopard print capri pants. They were made out of this strange stretchy material that really emphasized the presence of ass. I loved them. I remember thinking how good I looked. I remember dancing in a sea of friends and looking out over the crowd to the corner and seeing my boyfriend leaning against the wall glowering at me. He was too serious for dancing. He hated my leopard print pants. There I was, feeling more like myself than I had in a long time, and he hated it. This moment was the beginning of a realization that took me many months more to fully put into words—he didn’t love me, he loved the person he thought he could control. In a small way, I realized that living loudly and living joyously is power. And to this day, I maintain a spiritual relationship with leopard print.

To my fellow, survivors, I will say it here and I will say is again— I believe you. I love you. I am here to listen if you feel yourself giving way in the midst of battle. At SIPA, everything seems up for debate. But in my mind, your wellbeing, our collective well-being is not. If you need to step away from a conversation, step away. If you need to take a moment to breathe, breathe. I have found a lot of power and healing in being selfish, in knowing my limits and saying ‘no’ when those limits are passed.

As policy students, we may feel an obligation to engage in the debate, to keep up a professional façade, but remember that our humanity should always come first. Remember that we don’t need to prove our worth to anyone but ourselves.

And hey, if you’re ever feeling down, let’s getting matching animal print outfits and fuck up the dance floor.

In writing this article, I wondered whether I should publish it anonymously. After giving it a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that I have gone to war too many times to care who knows my reasons for fighting. What matters more to me is that you know when you see my face that I am here to talk. I am here to back you up when people say sexist shit at parties, and in class. I am here. Me. Not an anonymous person on the internet. Me. We are all shaped by our pasts, and facing that isn’t always easy, but I am beginning to believe more and more that my pain is not a weakness, it’s a strength.

Wars are better won when we know our allies. There is power in vulnerability. Whether you speak out or not, it is your choice alone, but know that I’m here rooting for you, whatever you choose. This national conversation is madness. Nevertheless, you are not an abstract idea to be debated and contested. You’re a freaking human.  Treat yourself like one. You. Are. Everything.

The art used for this piece was created by Canadian-based artist Sindu Sivayogam. Much of Sindu’s art explores Sri Lankan Tamil culture, and history. This illustration depicts the pain of language loss, and the fear of being shamed for the inability to speak your mother tongue. This loss has come as a result of violence and displacement in Sri Lanka. Although this illustration was not intended to tackle the issue of sexual violence, to me, it also represents the ways in which any type of violence or trauma can silence us. Check out more of Sindu’s work here, or follow her on the grams: @murukku