Victim's statements got their start in California in the 1970s after the Manson family murders; Sharon Tate, an actress, was among those killed and her mother advocated for such statements to share the pain felt by those affected. Now, nearly every U.S. state permits them to take place in court after the verdict and before the sentencing. Since women are the victims of 90 percent of adult rape cases in the U.S., and of nearly 64 percent of domestic homicides and nearly 82 percent of sex-related homicides, victim's statements often give women an unusual speaking opportunity and the chance to confront their attackers face to face. Famous Speech Friday has looked at Heidi Damon's unusual victim's statement, in which she shed her "Jane Doe" status and identified herself publicly to reclaim power after a similar court case.
This victim's statement also is different from most. The full text has been widely shared on social media. The attacker--found guilty by a jury--was given just six months of a potential 10-year jail sentence for three felony accounts of sexual assault. The backlash against that sentence, widely perceived as a light one, has been the microphone, in effect, for the words of this young woman. BuzzFeed helped by publishing the letter, which 8 million people and counting have read. Volume was added when the attacker's father issued a letter that defended his son and referred to the rape as "20 minutes of action."
In high contrast to that careless description, this rape victim crafted what may be the most detailed and thoughtful description of rape and its results that I have ever seen. It's difficult to read and hear. I am sure it was difficult to write. Just imagine, will you, what it was like to read out in court.
She began by informing the judge that she would direct most of her remarks directly to her attacker, who stood before her. There are many powerful passages in this long statement: The details of the attack and its aftermath, specific, detailed, and chilling. The list of probing and leading questions, designed to establish blame for her actions, that she endured. The psychological and physical impacts on her and her daily life. The point-by-point refutation of the attacker's statements in court and how they changed. All are worth your time, difficult as they are to read. I'll just choose a few for you here.
Describing her own examination of her body after the rape, she reaches for an effective and chilling analogy:
I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it, I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.She had an equally good comparison to shine a light on how feeble is the argument that women might have "asked for it" when they are raped:
It’s like if you were to read an article where a car was hit, and found dented, in a ditch. But maybe the car enjoyed being hit. Maybe the other car didn’t mean to hit it, just bump it up a little bit. Cars get in accidents all the time, people aren’t always paying attention, can we really say who’s at fault.She writes about how she was described over and over again as unconscious and inebriated, while his swimming records and bright future were described. In one particularly forceful sentence, she told him, "You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today." By breaking the rhythm of the sentence near the end and adding "own" to "my own voice," she used language to underscore what, to her, must be the most important word. And she evoked speaking up again when she talked to BuzzFeed after the sentence was handed down: “Even if the sentence is light, hopefully this will wake people up. I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.”
And if you are hoping for some redemption, you will find it at the end of the statement, in which she thanks her family and friends and the two men who saved her, holding her attacker, calling the police, waiting until help came, and later testifying. This is beautifully done, with care and eloquence.
CNN host Ashleigh Banfield did us all a favor by devoting a half-hour to reading most, but not all, of the statement aloud on her television broadcast. I say that because most of us could not hear this young woman say her statement, nor hear its full power. Later in the week, lawmakers followed suit. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called the woman a "warrior" and said her words should be "required reading" for men and women. And U.S. Representative Jackie Speier--the subject of one of our Famous Speech Friday posts for speaking about her abortion on the floor of the Congress--read excerpts from the statement in a floor speech.
It's a moment to consider why and how speaking is different from writing and publishing. There's no question the statement is plenty powerful as written and published. But it's quite another thing to say this out loud in a formal courtroom setting, before a judge and court officers, with your attacker in front of you. The saying of these words out loud makes them even more powerful and direct. Banfield let us have that experience of these tough words falling on our ears as well as our eyes; Speier did as well, not satisfied to talk about it. They wanted you to *hear* it. If you want to approximate this, try reading just a paragraph or two out loud.
I don't have lessons you can glean from this famous speech. Just sadness that it needed to be said and a real admiration for this eloquent woman and her courage in speaking up. May we all have that power when it matters most.
Banfield's delivery of the letter is in the video here and below. Please share it widely.
(Image of the CNN set during Banfield's reading of the letter, from CNN commentator Brian Stelter's Twitterstream)
Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.