“I wanted to put a book together that would be a timeless resource for survivors,” says Lisa Factora-Borchers, editor of new collection Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence (AK Press). “It’s not a book about trauma, it’s not a book about all the moving pieces of rape. It’s letters about survival.”
The slim blue collection has a weighty mission: to speak directly to survivors of violence in a way media rarely does. In a landscape where people who speak out about abuse—like Dylan Farrow—are openly doubted and TV news often treats stories of abuse as merely salacious headline fodder, Dear Sister feels like a tiny island of common sense.
Several years ago, Factora-Borchers (who has written for Bitch in the past) put out a call for survivors of violence who would like to write letters to other survivors. Her aim was to create a helpful collection that would deal with getting on with one’s life in a “direct, but compassionate” way. The resulting book is a collection of open letters about healing from abuse and survival. Most of the pieces are relatively short and vary in tone—after a raw, fiery letter about abuse that is clearly very much an open wound, there comes a practical letter reads like a calm, logical story.
“I think when I first started the project, I really thought that I was trying to produce a book that would help communities know what to do: an action, words, a blueprint of what to do for survivors,” says Factora-Borchers. Instead, the book wound up being more about how people heal from abuse in all sorts of way: “It tells survivors that their choices are valid—each of their recoveries is going to be different, so there’s no prescription for what to be.”
Read straight through, the book would be an emotional tidal wave. Instead, I found myself reading a few pieces at a time, then closing the book and taking time to absorb the small portraits of cruelty and recovery. Each piece feels a bit different and each feels deeply personal. Factora-Borchers says she encouraged the contributors to take as much time as they needed to write about their experiences and didn’t push them to meet hard-and-fast deadlines, explaining to writers, “It’s not your retelling of what happened to you, it’s your retelling of what helped you.”
A book like this could teeter over into being a sappy Chicken Soup for the Abused Soul kind of collection. But in the introduction, Factora-Borchers makes clear that she’s intentional in her approach to the book and its mission. She spends the introduction acknowledging what is left out of the book and how the framing of the project may have unintentionally excluded people who don’t identify with the word “sister.” In those first pages, Factora-Borchers lays out how the problematic history of the mainstream feminist movement’s aim to unite all women in “sisterhood” while not recognizing differences in experience between race, class, and ability may make some people wary of the book’s title. These are good points and it’s a rare editor who is as transparently critical of her own framework and approach. This introduction serves the collection well, as it makes clear that the project is one borne of sincere self-reflection—it’s an earnest search for a way to make media that resonates with others.
Read a free excerpt from Dear Sister here (PDF).