Mary Simmerling

Mary Simmerling

In 1987, I was a young 18-year-old full of excitement and anticipation when I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to start my freshman year of college at Loyola Marymount University. But in the course of a few hours, my plans were stolen from me when I was sexually assaulted off campus in July of that year, before I even had the chance to attend my first class. The very first person I told what had happened to me responded by telling me that I must have been mistaken about it, and that I must have led him on.  

But I wasn’t mistaken at all about what had happened to me. I had been asleep and woke up to him overpowering me and sexually assaulting me. What I needed most in that moment – sitting in the front seat of my friend’s car – was to be believed rather than blamed. I needed what the psychologist Dr. Judith Simon Prager calls “Verbal First Aid,” which is a protocol she co-developed that utilizes words to set a course for recovery and resilience. Verbal First Aid™ is based on the understanding that our words and thoughts can have a physiological impact on our bodies. This is especially important for people who have or are experiencing a traumatic event or emergency, as is the case with survivors of sexual assault. Not believing us and denying our reality leaves us vulnerable and alone, and retraumatizes us. Your words matter to us and can have a lasting impact on our ability to heal and recover.   

In the years following my assault, I was eventually able to return to college, albeit at a new school. I went on to study social justice, ethics, psychology, and trauma recovery, earning Masters degrees in two different areas, and a doctorate in philosophy. At the same time, I was also able to harness the healing powers of my creative self to produce art and poetry as a way of reclaiming my voice and my story. In 2005, instead of beginning to draft my doctoral dissertation as I had planned to do, I found myself writing a collection of poetry about the night I was raped and the challenges I faced navigating the world afterwards. One of those poems, “What I was wearing,” details the clothing I was wearing the night I was assaulted. 

More than two decades since I wrote “What I was wearing,” I have been humbled and moved by what emerged from sharing this poem. “What I was wearing” resonated not only with other survivors, but also with those who provide support to them or have been impacted by sexual violence. Importantly, other survivors recognized their own stories in mine. In 2014, the poem became the inspiration for an art installation “What Were You Wearing?” (WWYW) that brings together the words of survivors with outfits that represent what they were wearing during the assault. Through participating in WWYW exhibitions, other survivors were able to reclaim their stories and join me in upending victim-blaming myths that falsely assert that one’s clothing is in any way connected to or the cause of the assault. More than a poem, “What I was wearing” became a global social justice movement. In the 10 years since the exhibits first started, they have been held thousands of times across six continents at college campuses, military bases, and nonprofit organizations. 

To me, being a survivor has come to mean that I am in a unique position to take action to help other survivors and those who care for them. One of the ways in which I have done this is by developing and facilitating writing workshops that offer a safe space for listening to, nurturing, and freeing silenced voices. I recently had the honor of editing an anthology of survivors’ stories written and shared in my “Write Where We Belong” workshops. We’ve Been Put Through Fire and Come Out Divine: Stories of Hope & Survival includes poems and short prose pieces that are voices of rebellion, reclamation, and resistance. What I and the other women whose stories are in the anthology want other survivors who read our words to know is that they are not alone. And for those who see themselves reflected back in our stories we want you to know this: We see you. We hear you. And we believe you.