04 Sep To The Survivors Book Review
Trigger warning: Sexual Assault
A few months ago, I was contacted by Robert Uttaro to find out if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his book, To The Survivors. Having now read the book, I think it would be unfair and inappropriate to review such a raw and vulnerable retelling of survivor’s and their stories – I have my own trauma (not associated with sexual assault) and would hate for someone to feel like they have the authority to say whether it was good enough for their little blog on the internet. However, in light of the ongoing issues faced in South Africa (and the rest of the world), I thought that I could share more about the book and hopefully honour the many who were brave enough to tell their stories.
Robert works as a rape crisis counsellor and wrote his book, To The Survivors, to share the true stories of sexual violence shared by survivors. The survivors are diverse – featuring both women and men’s stories – yet each gives a similarly raw and heartfelt account of his or her experience and recovery.
Sexual Assault has always been openly discussed in my household. Growing up, my mom made it abundantly clear that if anything happened to me, to tell her immediately. She never used cutesy names like “cookie” but rather called it what it is, a “vagina”, because she believed that if something questionable were to ever happen to me, I could easily communicate exactly what had happened. My mom raised me to never go to the public bathroom alone, to watch my drink closely when I was out, to never let my guard down and trust a “kind stranger” and to always, ALWAYS scream if I sensed trouble. We had open conversations around sex, consent, rape and sexual assault, and in my early teens, I read the stories of brave warrior women like Alison (I Have Life) and Anna (Dis Ek, Anna or It’s Me, Anna.) Despite my mom doing everything right to try educate and prepare me for the horrors that so many face, I don’t think she could have ever imagined what our world would later become – a place where so many of us are too scared to walk or jog outside our homes, or even go to the post office.
I think we spend a lot of time focusing on the assault; we read about them in the news, share a hashtag, say a prayer and hope that our loved ones never become a statistic, but then we move on with our day. To The Survivors has reminded me that the actual assault is just the beginning to a very long road, one that goes through seasons of pain, trauma but also one that is filled with strength, hope and faith.
Early on, in the book, Robert reminds you that this book is NOT about statistics. He has two main reasons for this; sexual assault often goes unreported. I don’t know about you, but here in South Africa, sexual assault is VERY common and we’re constantly reading about how women are being refused rape kits, and are even being turned away at police stations. This leads me to believe that our stats are skewered but even so – and this is the bigger point that Robert touches on – the people who have been assaulted, whether reported or not, are so much more than just a number, they are our brothers and sisters and should be treated as such.
I’d like to warn ahead of time that this book took me a lot of time to work through and I had gone as far as skipping some sections, because my heart really struggles with this sort of thing. Those who know me personally, know that I am deeply affected by people’s stories and it’s not uncommon to find me crying over something I saw online about a stranger. Robert does warn of the graphic content, especially as the stories are straight from the survivor themselves, but if you can, I encourage you to read the book to be reminded of the sheer determination, strength and courage it takes to overcome sexual violence.
I had this book on my kindle and have hundreds of notes, but I realise this post is getting lengthy, and I haven’t even gotten to the bulky bits. So instead of writing too much, I thought I would highlight some important things that I took from this book:
- Men and women experience sexual assault everyday and it’s so much more common than we realise. Even if we have been fortunate enough to not have experienced sexual violence ourselves, it is likely that we all know of someone who has.
- Through Robert’s experience, I realise that we need to be educating our communities about local rape crisis centres (I didn’t know of any, and this book prompted me looking up whether we had one nearby) where trained professionals can help you work through the trauma. I feel that in South Africa, this would be an amazing and incredibly helpful addition to the LO curriculum. We talk so much about assault. and not enough about what you should do in the event of assault.
- In the same breath, we need to educate teenagers that sexual assault is not JUST the act of rape or molestation, and that any unwanted sexual attention (even exposing themselves to you) is sexual assault.
- We need to encourage men and young boys to get involved at these centers too. They are predominantly managed by women, but men can play a vital role for survivors as it helps women learn to trust men again, and it helps men come forward in seeking help. Robert stresses that it helps tremendously seeing a man care about these issues and trying to do something about this – it affirms that this is not just a women’s problem.
- When someone trusts you enough to share their trauma with you, it’s important to listen, validate and provide options and support to the person who is in need. This is how we can help others and play a positive and even life-changing role. But it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to have all the answers and you should never assume what survivors should feel or do – this can confuse and disempower them.
- In the event that someone does share their story with you, don’t tell them how you would have acted differently, if you were in the same position. Just listen and be supportive.
- We should be encourgaing community activism (we see a lot of hashtags online – but what are we doing within our own communities to make a change?). We should be empowering communities – whether in local schools, colleges, women groups, churches or universities – by hosting talks to educate others about how comon sexual assault is, what your options are in the event of sexual assault, where you can go, what you can do, how you can get involved and volunteer at local crisis centres and most importantly, providing a platform to share their stories.
I loved Robert’s story and “fuck it” attitude – he shares bits of his story that lead him to becoming a rape crisis counselor and has a lovely and refreshing way of sharing his view. I loved that the book remains raw and unfiltered and while it makes the stories even harder to swallow, it also reminded me how God can use anyone to do His work. In this case, Robert was a source of comfort and showed compassion and empathy towards the survivors who trusted him with their story, but more than that, he continues to help others with this book which goes on to empower, educate and encourage each one of us to get involved, reach out and do more.
To The Survivors is not the sort of book you pick up for all the warm and fuzzy feelings. It’s real, vulnerable, relevant and honestly, took an emotional toll on me for more reasons than one. I have someone very close to me whose story I am not comfortable with sharing, but found that this book helped me understand the road they have walked just a little better, and perhaps helped soften me. I realise now that our own relationship has been extremely hard because of the horrors they once faced, and as a result, that has impacted me and the person I have become too. The big takeaway from To The Survivors was that sexual assault does not just last for the duration of the actual assault, it impacts all aspects of a survivor’s life and will even affect the lives of their loved ones, but with the right support, encouragement and a whole lot of strength, courage and faith, there is life beyond the assault.
You can purchase Robert’s book here, on Amazon, where he has a physical and e-book version of the book available. The e-book costs less than R20 and can be accessed through the Kindle app on your phone, tablet or electronic device, which is how I read the book.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact TEARS Foundation who have an incredible team who have experience and are trained to help you navigate sexual violence. If you feel inspired and want to get involved in the good work that TEARS is doing locally, they offer a volunteering program and a wide range of resources to get involved.
I’m a Jesus-praising, beauty-obsessed, plant-crazy, career-driven, soccer-loving, tattoo-craving, picture-taking, mom of two.