Survivor Speaks Out


Josh Messer @jkoomesser

Surfing has been an important part of Shira’s healing journey .

She was turned down by innumerable high schools, as well as reputable organizations that champion brave causes. The only school that agreed to have my cousin speak to its students was her own former school: de Toledo–New Jew when she and the rest of the first graduating class had attended.

So many institutions, which pride themselves on their strict moral compasses and set values they supposedly enforce upon the student body, cower when presented with the opportunity to live their values. They hide behind baseless excuses like protecting the students, but how are students kept safer by getting shielded from the truth, from dangers that lurk immediately outside campus doors?

My cousin Shira experienced firsthand the darkest and most horrifying side of human nature. She did not deserve it, she did not want it, she did not like it, and shamefully, she is not a minority in her experience.

However, thanks to public stigmatizing of trauma, she is a minority in speaking up about it. The schools that turn her unique and charitable offer down with messages of “we regret to inform you,” and “we admire your work and support your journey, but…” are ignoring their responsibility to support survivors  of this kind of trauma, or even to use their influence to educate people on real-world, staggeringly common issues.

Can we really be surprised, then, when the students and alumni of our schools turn out to be unaware, uninformed, unprepared, and by virtue of this combination, completely ignorant? Can we even be surprised when an expensive upbringing of private education enforcing Jewish values ultimately yields a monster?

My cousin brought together 25 high schools for a rally in front of the Federal Building to end genocide in her sophomore year at New Community Jewish High School. She hand-made hundreds of buttons ahead of the walk to hand out to all attendees, some of whom included reputable politicians she’d invited to the charitable event. She passed all her classes with flying colors, and established a teen branch of Jewish World Watch at New Jew, a club dedicated to raising funds and awareness for genocides taking place around the world. She was also the school’s first student body president.

She is the one who suggested that a jaguar be the school mascot.

For as long as I’ve known Shira, she’s been in better physical condition than I’d have thought otherwise possible. Though she didn’t begin surfing until after her trauma, she’s always found time in her airtight schedule for fitness, be it through sports, the gym, or running distances a normal person would drive. She’s confident, witty, articulate, empathetic, brilliant, and totally inspiring.

Trilingual and well-traveled, Shira’s always had a natural ambition for learning and social activism. I’ve never seen her fail at something she’s decided to learn or do.

Nobody, whether they meet her now or knew her back then, would ever expect that rape would be a part of her story. As she more shrewdly and concisely states in her presentation to audiences of students from all backgrounds, she simply isn’t the “victim type.”

Somehow, through a sardonic work of irony, it is only too fitting that the perpetrator wasn’t the rapist type. He was someone she considered a friend. A nice Jewish boy from summer camp. She had no reason to fear a childhood friend, especially not in her first year of college, when everything else was new and changing.

So when her nice childhood friend invited her to an evening hangout back in their hometown, she accepted. Little did she know that was the last choice he would let her make. She had no way of knowing the physical, mental, and emotional anguish that awaited her that night. The pain of one night that would last a lifetime, caused by a friend, “not by a stranger, not in a dark alleyway.” The kind of deep-rooted suffering only trauma can unleash upon the mind and body. The kind of torment that never lets you go back to your old self, that changes your life forever in ways far beyond conscious control.

He decided to take it upon himself to eliminate any chance of her being able to act upon her free will when he roofied her drink and rendered her unconscious.

Worse, he took away her choices for years to come. Post-traumatic stress disorder prevented my cousin from functioning to her full capacity for a long time. Virtually anything could set off a trigger and cause panic throughout her body and mind, forcing her to relive her experience, again, and again, and again.

PTSD caused her brain to force her to panic over minor inconveniences at a level appropriate for her past trauma. Worse still, she kept her trauma secret for a number of reasons, many of which have strong roots in stigma. Because she did not seek help, Shira was confused and terrified by the whirlwind of foreign and seemingly random symptoms her mind and body were exhibiting. She had no way of knowing whether these multiplying symptoms were even related to her trauma at all.

Not surprisingly, Shira fell victim to depression. The few friends of hers who’d pieced together what had happened based on the aftermath they witnessed in coming to pick her up the morning after she was raped had no idea what the protocol for helping a friend through the rape recovery process looked like.

Without her knowledge or consent, Shira had been stripped of her freedom of choice, dignity, mental and physical health, trust, happiness, self esteem, innocence, control, privacy, fundamental rights, and virginity. Could anyone fix that?

Shira’s trauma occurred ten years ago, long before the subjects of rape and sexual assault had entered the national conversation. Fortunately, she’s one of the fiercest people I’ve ever known. She’s stayed silent for ten years only because she didn’t realize the power of her own voice–until now.

Statistics regarding rape and sexual assault practically guarantee a personal connection to the crisis for anyone. In most cases, that connection can be found looking no further than the confines of family, friends, friends of family, or family of friends.

Why, then, is the topic never brought up? Well for starters, the word “rape” makes people extraordinarily uncomfortable. The very idea of discussing it outwardly seems taboo. The word is mentioned and the room goes quiet, suddenly full of shifting eyes searching for the person who will step forward with “This isn’t the right time to have that conversation,” or “Is that really appropriate right now?” This knee-jerk response of instantly defusing a potentially controversial or uncomfortable conversation before it takes place is exactly what has kept our society in the same rut of ignorance for generations. It is also the answer to everyone who believes that the issues of rape and sexual assault are not relevant to them personally, and therefore warrant no further thought. The inherent desire to keep conversation clean and family-friendly feeds directly into the dark stigma that suffocates survivors and keeps them from sharing their stories for fear of judgment and shame.

Those who subscribe to the flawed logic: S/he would tell me if that happened. There’s no way. I would know. Or, if it’s such a big deal, why do so many victims stay silent? completely ignore this stigma, and the ways in which their own behaviors propagate it.

The only thing more horrifying than the number of rapes and sexual assaults that occur every day, month, and year, and allow for us to calculate the statistical likelihood of experiencing any one of these traumas in our own lifetimes, is the amount of  incidents that go unreported.

Any friend group of four girls can assume–with almost complete certainty–that one of them will be raped or assaulted sexually at some point within their lifetime. Accounting for the number of unreported incidents, however, would more than likely exponentially increase this likelihood, both the number of girls assaulted and the number of assaults per girl.

My cousin was lucky enough to find a path to healing through surfing. The ocean has brought her tremendous peace of mind and has led her to regain lost strength. In line with her charitable nature, she has found a passion in sharing her love of surfing at any opportunity. Nothing will ever erase the past, but Shira works relentlessly to take back her future.

Shira is currently the Director of Impact for a marketing firm, partnering brands with non-profits to create meaningful giveback programs, and is going back to school in pursuit of a doctorate degree in naturopathic medicine. She lives in Encinitas, California, neighboring the shore, and regularly recharges her soul through surfing. In her spare time, she travels the world in search of waves and hosts recuperative surf and yoga retreats in the Dominican Republic.

Shira, and so many others, are strong because they have to be. What if they didn’t have to be? What if, instead of hoping when a baby girl is born that she is either strong or not the one-out-of-four, we cultivate a society in which that concern is an arbitrary one with no validity or basis in statistics?

It takes a lot to change the status quo, but you can only patch up the ground if you stop digging the hole first.