A few years ago, I went to a screening of “Brave Miss World,” a documentary about the Israeli model and beauty queen Linor Abargil, who was raped just seven weeks before winning the Miss World competition. In response to her trauma, Linor became an advocate against sexual violence, travelling across the globe to offer support and resources for rape survivors, and got her law degree so she could fight for legislation that would protect victims of rape, instead of the perpetrators.
Linor was at the screening that night, looking like a resplendent amazon goddess in white. The woman actually shone. But what drew my eye from the minute I entered the auditorium was a girl, probably college age, sitting in the middle of the second row. She wore a sweatshirt three sizes too big that rendered her body shapeless. Her hair fell greasy and disheveled over her face, as if she was trying to hide behind it. She looked oily and unwashed; it was very possible she smelled. The girl looked up at the stage, at Linor, with a desperation so palpable I felt an imminent sense of danger.
After we watched the film, it was time for a Q & A session with Linor, two rape counselors, and a therapist who were there for extra support. A few brave souls stood and asked mostly innocuous questions, which Linor answered graciously.
Then the girl raised her hand.
As she stood up, something in the room shifted. I felt my body tense.
“I just want to know,” she began, her voice surprisingly loud, “how you moved on after what happened to you. You went through this horrible thing…”
Linor explained that what helped her was helping others, and developing her spirituality.
“But it was so horrible,” the girl repeated. “Horrible…How can you ever…?”
And just like that, the girl was sobbing – deep, primitive wails that echoed off the walls. The room was profoundly silent, as if everyone in the audience was holding their breath. For what felt like an eternity, we all helplessly watched as this girl fell apart. Then one of the counselors walked up the aisle, put her arm around the girl’s shoulders and led her from the room. Her cries grew hauntingly quieter, then faded out.
Though Linor had plenty of other inspiring things to say that night, it was hard to listen with that girl’s sobs echoing in our ears.
I think about that girl every so often. I think of what she must have been through, and where she is now. I remember her dirty hair and the hoarse, naked cries that transported me right into the moment she was reliving. And then I think about how brave she was.
“Brave” might not be the first word that came to the mind of the people in the audience that night, but years later, all I can see is what it must have taken for that girl to get herself to that theater and tell the truth about what happened to her. She knew she needed help. She knew she needed someone who could listen to her dreadful secret she and not turn her away. So she brought herself, wounds and all, to a safe place where she could fall apart – even if it meant doing so in front of 200 people.
So many of us have our own secrets, traumas, and grief that we hold inside, letting them rot us from within. We’re afraid that people won’t believe us, that they won’t understand, that they’ll reject us. So we keep them to ourselves.
But she didn’t.
I thought of that girl again this weekend, while I was at a twelve-step recovery retreat for compulsive eating. Many of the people there had miraculous stories – one man lost 500 pounds – along with deep wells of wisdom from which the other 800 or so of us could draw. But more importantly, there were people who were still in the throes of addiction, who couldn’t stop eating or starving or purging or exercising no matter how hard they tried. They had managed to push past their shame, their dark secrets, and their fears, and come to a place where they knew they could ask for help. Walking back to my hotel room, I saw one wild-haired woman look up at the ceiling and beg God, out loud, to help her get abstinent. She was absolutely desperate. She was also brave as hell.
I used to think that being brave meant not being afraid. But now, having seen deeply scared people accomplish the very things they feared, I don’t believe that anymore. Bravery is simply action despite fear. Or, in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” For many of us who have lived with unimaginable pain, who have wrestled with demons and been trapped by our own secrets, we assessed that escape was more important than the risk. That the truth was more important than hiding. That life was more important than death.
Then there are those of us who live alone with our pain. We put our faces on and tell the world we’re fine. But we’re not fine. We need help.
We all do.
It’s okay to be afraid.
But we can be brave, too.
It might just save our lives.