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Why We Stay: One Woman’s Lens Into Psychological Layers of Suffering Abuse

The country is abuzz about abuse again, and the talking heads and twittering fingers are asking why people stay in abusive relationships. Why is Janay Palmer Rice standing by her man even though he punched her in an elevator and dragged her body out? (And then she proceeded to marry him one month later.) Why did Rihanna have such a hard time leaving and subsequently going back to Chris Brown, even after the world saw her blood-crusted, bruised face after Brown crunched his knuckles into her eye socket? Why did Tina Turner take Ike Turner’s slaps and punches again and again?

Guess what? You’re not the only person to wonder this. People currently in abusive relationships and those who have successfully escaped them ask themselves that very same question. Why do/did I stay?

In order to truly understand the answer to that question, it’s helpful to think of abuse, whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional, as a series of tiny subconscious extensions of permissions. Each time he hits you or she tells you you’re worthless and you—for whatever reason—don’t take a stand right then and there that you will not tolerate such abuse, you’ve made a docile statement that it’s OK to treat you this way. Of course, it’s not OK and you don’t want it to happen—you never did and you never will. But each time it happens and there is no serious repercussion for the abuser, they are granted more permission and you’ve given them more rope to tug you around with, much like a master with a dejected mutt on a leash.

For victims of abuse, the internal question often is “How did I get here?” and one part of the puzzle is all of those tiny permissions.

So there you are, a scared, frightened pup on a leash, right? But that’s not all of who you are. You might be brave at work, pumping your fist in the air and demanding your employees follow the rules. You might never lead on about the troubles at home when hanging out with your girlfriends, and possibly even telling elaborate stories about what a good man you’ve got, how he spoils you like a princess. Or you’ve been so desecrated for so long that you no longer recognize your former spirit and you walk around with empty eyes, shoulders slack, wondering when you’ll have the courage to just walk out into the middle of the street and let a bus hit you because that would be easier than leaving.

Not everyone being abused is suicidal and not every survivor would agree with being likened to a gnarled stray dog, jerked around on a chain. In fact, the abused can get downright defensive about their situation, telling you things like, “You don’t know him like I do,” “You don’t know the whole story,” “I made him do this to me,” or “She’s a good person; this only happens when she’s stressed.” But in the quiet darkness or in their quick trips out alone, they’re lost in a reverie at the red light, wondering how their life spiraled out of control and what can possibly be done about this. If you leave, he’ll come looking for you. Maybe she’ll take the children and hurt them instead of you. Maybe he has all the financial control and you don’t have a dime to your name. Oh, and then the bone-crushing shame of admitting to anyone that your life has fallen apart—that you chose an abuser. There’s that, too.

We still exist in a world where the victim is blamed: A rape victim’s experiences of consensual sex are paraded in front of her in a courtroom as if an experience of forced sex isn’t as big of a deal if the victim wasn’t a wholesome virgin. A child molested again and again by an adult is outrageously asked what he did to encourage the abuser. An emotionally abused middle-aged woman is asked if she’s just being too sensitive. Talk show hosts say you must have provoked him. Friends say there’s no way that he could be so different behind closed doors—it’s you who is failing to see things as they are, not the friend.

And, then, if there are emotional ties between the abused and the abuser, it’s a thick, tangled web of thorny branches and it feels like no one can escape unscathed or at all.

***

But then, there’s hope.

Even prisoners of war, locked in dank cells for years, beaten routinely until they’ve lost both health and self, are miraculously able to retain hope.

And survivors of domestic abuse know that feeling all too well. The abuser doesn’t always abuse you. Oftentimes he’s sweet as pie, reminding you of why you fell in love with him. It can even feel like you’re being courted, receiving flowers, chocolates and poetic texts. And you wonder—for a moment, albeit fleeting—if you shouldn’t take the bait this time. But your sense of danger is warped now. He’s successfully convinced you that you’re not a victim, this isn’t abuse and you two are madly in love, and you can make this work. So you bite the apple, and ingest more of this charmer’s poison, waiting with hopeful baited breath for things to get better. But they don’t. And they won’t.

***

It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole when you choke down the forbidden dry, crusty cake, which turns everything upside down and suddenly you don’t know what is normal or OK even is anymore. It’s all an illusion. Is everyone laughing at you? Have you hidden the bruises—internal or external—enough? Is that a trick mirror you’re looking into? Is this really your life? Is your partner your friend when he says, “Come here, love. You know I can’t live without you.”? Or is he a foe, when he says, “Why do youmake me so angry? Why are you so fucking slow? Get out of my fucking way, you fat bitch!” as he kicks you to the ground, causing the plates in your hand which you couldn’t put away fast enough to collapse beside you, clattering in slow motion, sharp pieces flying. “Jesus, you’re so fucking clumsy!” as he takes one last swing at your head, rearing his leg back like

Beckham and pointing his toe right into your temple, making you so dizzy you’re unsure if this is even happening, and why, oh, why is it happening again? “Clean this mess up, bitch.” And he walks out the door while you hold back your anguished moan because between two bloody clumps of your hair you can see your children standing solemnly in the kitchen entrance, holding each other, curious, scared and masking their fear with false bravery at their tender ages, seeing too much, learning the wrong thing. And yet. You’ll stay for their sake.

***

As for those asking the abstract victim the inflammatory question of why stay, know that the very inquiry places blame on the struck, the raped, the broken.

“Why did you let him do that to you?” The haughty superiority in this question is enough to make us want to choke you, not the abuser. You think you could have done better? You think you would have fought back, run, gotten away, gotten help? You. Don’t. Know. Anything.

When are we going to start hashtags such as #handsoff or #wewillhelpyou or #leavethemcomehere? Instead of gnashing our teeth at each other on social media, how about extending your hand to someone in need? You don’t have to know them. Send comforters and comfort to women’s shelters. Show up for the soup kitchen line. Say something when your friend is entering into an odd relationship where she is giving up all power. Say something when that kid who used to have light dancing in his eyes is all burned out, can’t look you in the face and is struggling to hold his life together. Step in. Step up. Show up.

It is not enough to just tell a victim to “just leave.” It is always complicated. And she (or he) needs your help. We need your help. #helpusleave #wewillhelpyou #wecanbestrongtogether

Kirsten Ott Palladino is an award-winning editor and writer working on a memoir about surviving repeated gang rape, emotional and verbal abuse and child molestation. She’s the co-founder and editor in chief of equallywed.comthe world’s leading digital LGBTQ wedding magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @kirstenop.

This was first published on The Manifest Station.

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Thanksgiving through the years: an attempt at gratitude after a loss

thanksgiving

Every year, Thanksgiving gets a little sadder for me. All holidays do. I was born into a small family—a mother who is an only child, a father whose only sibling lives in another state, and one brother. Growing up in Athens, Ga., was a lesson in Spartan familial ties and my brother—older by 18 months—and I were fiercely close (sometimes we fought like angry rams but there was nothing we wouldn’t do for each other).

20131128-121708.jpg George and I became even closer after our parents divorced when I was 8, but there was so much we didn’t know how to talk to each other about: my mother’s increased nightly consumption of glass jugs of Carlo Rossi merlot and incessant sucking on menthol cigarettes; her live-in boyfriend freshly sprung from the county jail who filled our apartment with billowing clouds of marijuana smoke; the Playboy my dad awkwardly bought for my 10-year-old brother at the airport on our first Christmas trip without all four of us together (OK, maybe that was just awkward for me); the sexual assault I endured from a family friend; the chronic gang rapes I survived in high school (which started on Thanksgiving night, Nov. 28, in 1992 and ended in December 1993); and the strain of going back and forth between two parents’ houses, knowing somewhere deep down that we were loved, but the parental watchtower we desperately needed was sorely absent.

During this tumultuous period, George and I clung more to our friends than we did to each other, growing further apart after high school when I came out as a lesbian (he had married a devout Billy Graham follower and his slight societal discomfort with homosexuality leapt into a new dimension of hate when fueled by his then-pregnant wife’s disdain for me bringing my girlfriend around their expected child).

But we reunited, George and me. I wrote him a letter after a year of not speaking telling him that I missed him terribly. And so he called me. And that was it. We’ve been thick as thieves ever since. It really helped that he finally got a divorce. He called me a week before Thanksgiving in 2004 to tell me he and his wife were splitting up—their two children would stay with her and he had to move out over the holiday.

I trucked on down to Florida where he was living, and we spent Thanksgiving moving what little he was allowed to take from their condo into his new apartment. Then we went to Denny’s, one of the few eating establishments open to a couple of college-aged kids in soccer shorts and T-shirts, and had our Thanksgiving dinner—a cheese-and-veggie omelet for me, and Moons Over My Hammy for him.

George’s life was maddeningly heartbreaking after the split. His wife moved the children to Georgia, and he drove the 6-hour trip every other weekend to be with them. But he was a dedicated father and didn’t miss a legally afforded opportunity to see his son and daughter. We spent most of our Thanksgivings together when he was in town, especially with the children. Our grandmother gathered us up at a French restaurant outside of Atlanta to spend the day together, but in the blurry midst of laughter and turkey, there was always a layer of regret and pain, whether it was because we were choosing to be with my mom’s side of the family and not my dad’s, or because my mom couldn’t go too long without saying something wildly inappropriate, or because we knew George was going to have to return his children in just a few short hours. There was always something unsavory under the surface that no one quite knew how to handle, but we stuck together because what other choice is there than to cling to the family you have, no matter how wacky?

We were going about this turn-style life with pleasantries mixed with oddness when out of the blue, my father suffered a massive heart attack on Oct. 3, 2008. He was 61. My father was my biggest cheerleader, never had a harsh word to say about anyone, was loved by so many, took fairly good care of himself and poof, he was gone. George called me to tell me. My chest caved in where my heart once was whole. Broken and in disbelief, my fiancé Maria, drove me to my hometown, to my father and stepmother’s home. All I remember about that day after we arrived is crumbling into my brother’s arms when he stepped out of his cherry red SUV from his longer road trip. He held me so strongly against his chest, and I still feel his arms around me. It is my mental safe place.

The following month, Maria and I decided to put on Thanksgiving for several of our family members, including my brother and my stepmother, who has since become my true mother, a jewel of a human being. Despite having lost our dad almost two months prior, we came together from a place of love and the onset of peace at this Thanksgiving. As hard as it was for me to get through even one sentence without crying, I still found an immense sense of strength from our togetherness.

The following March, my mother withdrew further into her incomprehensible cycle of sheer meanness, and announced that she wasn’t coming to my wedding in June 2009. Lest you think it had anything to do with my sexuality, you’re wrong. That’s probably the thing she likes most about me: I’m different, which gives her more fodder for church gossip. And I’m pretty sure she had a crush on Maria. Anyway, that Thanksgiving, Maria and I were welcomed with open arms by her family, chowing down on a Southern feast, but my heart ached knowing that my mom didn’t want anything to do with me and the only one who might be able to make me feel better about it—to remind me that I was a wanted child—was my father, who I could only hope was somewhere better than this earth.

By the time Thanksgiving 2010 rolled around, I was a massive woman, waddling like a mother duck because I was carrying twin boys. My grandmother insisted Maria and I come to Thanksgiving at the French restaurant and see my mother. “Only if my stepmom can come too,” I responded. I positioned her between us at the table, and we made it through with only the occasional odd remark from my bio mom whom I hadn’t conversed with in more than a year and a half. My brother had gone to his new girlfriend’s family Thanksgiving, and I wished hard that he could be there to slice the palpable tension with some of his gut-busting humor.

By Thanksgiving 2011, my mother and I were working harder toward mending our relationship, and we again met at the French restaurant, where my stepfather, grandmother, Maria, George, his children, his girlfriend, Maria and our children all gathered at a large table and focused all our energy on the children while George and I whispered little jokes under our breath about our nutty family when we walked to the bountiful carving stations of duck and turkey (not to be confused with turducken). George and I could crack each other up with just a look, and his jokes lessened the burden on almost all that was wrong with my family.

He was so perfectly uncle-like with Maria’s and my sons. This was their first Thanksgiving, and they, especially baby B, had melted in George’s arms like butter on a hot sweet potato. Baby B looks just like George did as a toddler, and their bond was apparent not just to me, but to the entire family. I’ve always known that I wanted to marry a woman and have children with a woman, and I’ve known all along that our children would thrive with two moms and no father. But I believe very strongly in having a dependable and loving male figure in my children’s lives. Watching George with our boys on Thanksgiving Day reassured me that even though we didn’t have my dad around, we had George. And I remember the distinct feeling of comfort that George would be around as my sons became men, demonstrating how to be a successful and generous man, just as he was. A man we all loved to be around, a man that didn’t seem to have one enemy—even his ex-girlfriends all seem to flutter at the mere mention of his name.
But the universe had other plans for George.

Last Thanksgiving, my brother stayed home alone with what he thought was a horrible stomach flu. He sent me a cheerful text, not wanting me to worry. The morning after, he called an ambulance because he knew something was terribly wrong. A day later, he was put into a 9-week medicinally induced coma. He never came out of the hospital, and 14 weeks later after all those ups and downs, surgery after surgery, tears shed and a few rare smiles, my brave, sweet brother passed peacefully in the night.

It is heartbreakingly difficult this Thanksgiving, a holiday we always tried to spend together. But I am working hard on feeling gratitude in the midst of my grief 9 months after George’s passing.

So on this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for two beautiful, tender and silly boys I’m blessed to call mine, a crazy-smart wife who caters to almost all my crazy whims, a stepmother who has gracefully and lovingly stepped into the role of motherhood for me when mine has fully abandoned me after threatening to kill me the day George died, a few precious rock star friends who keep me sane and make me feel special, a loving aunt and uncle who have taken me under their wing, and my own life for I am truly thankful to just be alive. It’s a heavy-hearted way of expressing my gratitude, I know. But some years just aren’t lighthearted, glistening with candy-puffed rainbows. But I hope and pray that 2014 is that way–for all of us still lucky to be here. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

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How optimism has saved my life (and sanity)

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.

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The unspeakable truth about rape in India

*This op-ed in The New York Times left me weeping. It is deplorable what happened to India’s latest rape victim, and what the women have to fear there every day  — in the streets, at their jobs, at doctor’s offices. It breaks my heart. The death of this unnamed victim has awakened women and men alike, now fighting for reform in attitudes and laws. The misogynistic culture in India is far greater than it is here, and yet, women are still raped every 2 minutes in the United States. 

By SONIA FALEIRO

By Joanna Neborsky

By Joanna Neborsky

I LIVED for 24 years in New Delhi, a city where sexual harassment is as regular as mealtime. Every day, somewhere in the city, it crosses the line into rape.

As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car. At an age when young women elsewhere were experimenting with daring new looks, I wore clothes that were two sizes too large. I still cannot dress attractively without feeling that I am endangering myself.

Things didn’t change when I became an adult. Pepper spray wasn’t available, and my friends, all of them middle- or upper-middle-class like me, carried safety pins or other makeshift weapons to and from their universities and jobs. One carried a knife, and insisted I do the same. I refused; some days I was so full of anger I would have used it — or, worse, had it used on me.

The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street, and singing Hindi film songs, rich with double entendres, was how they communicated. To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by.

If only it was just public spaces that were unsafe. In my office at a prominent newsmagazine, at the doctor’s office, even at a house party — I couldn’t escape the intimidation.

On Dec. 16, as the world now knows, a 23-year-old woman and a male friend were returning home after watching the movie “Life of Pi” at a mall in southwest Delhi. After they boarded what seemed to be a passenger bus, the six men inside gang-raped and tortured the woman so brutally that her intestines were destroyed. The bus service had been a ruse. The attackers also severely beat up the woman’s friend and threw them from the vehicle, leaving her to die.

The young woman didn’t oblige. She had started that evening watching a film about a survivor, and must have been determined to survive herself. Then she produced another miracle. In Delhi, a city habituated to the debasement of women, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and faced down police officers, tear gas and water cannons to express their outrage. It was the most vocal protest against sexual assault and rape in India to date, and it set off nationwide demonstrations.

To protect her privacy the victim’s name was not released publicly. But while she remains nameless, she did not remain faceless. To see her face, women had only to look in the mirror. The full measure of their vulnerability was finally understood.

When I was 26, I moved to Mumbai. A commercial and financial megalopolis, it has its own special set of problems, but has, culturally, been more cosmopolitan and liberal than Delhi. Giddy with my new freedom, I started to report from the red-light district and traveled across rough suburbs late at night — on my own and using public transit. It seemed that something good had come out of living in Delhi: I was so grateful for the comparatively safe environment of Mumbai that I took full advantage of it.

The young woman, however, will never have such an opportunity. On Saturday morning, 13 days after she was brutalized, this student of physical therapy, who had, no doubt, dreamt of improving lives, lost her own. She died of multiple organ failure.

India has laws against rape; seats reserved for women in buses, female officers; special police help lines. But these measures have been ineffective in the face of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. It is a culture that believes that the worst aspect of rape is the defilement of the victim, who will no longer be able to find a man to marry her — and that the solution is to marry the rapist.

These beliefs aren’t restricted to living rooms, but are expressed openly. In the months before the gang rape, some prominent politicians had attributed rising rape statistics to women’s increasing use of cellphones and going out at night. “Just because India achieved freedom at midnight does not mean that women can venture out after dark,” said Botsa Satyanarayana, the Congress Party leader in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Change is possible, but the police must document reports of rape and sexual assault, and investigations and court cases have to be fast-tracked and not left to linger for years. Of the more than 600 rape cases reported in Delhi in 2012, only one led to a conviction. If victims believe they will receive justice, they will be more willing to speak up. If potential rapists fear the consequences of their actions, they will not pluck women off the streets with impunity.

The volume of protests in public and in the media has made clear that the attack was a turning point. The unspeakable truth is that the young woman attacked on Dec. 16 was more fortunate than many rape victims. She was among the very few to receive anything close to justice. She was hospitalized, her statement was recorded and within days all six of the suspected rapists were caught and, now, charged with murder. Such efficiency is unheard-of in India.

In retrospect it wasn’t the brutality of the attack on the young woman that made her tragedy unusual; it was that an attack had, at last, elicited a response.

Sonia Faleiro is the author of “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 2, 2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: The Unspeakable Truth About Rape in India.