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Beyond survival: Life after being raped

JAZELLE HUNT | 3/9/2015, 8:30 a.m.
“On May 15, 1995, two men ran up behind me as I approached my apartment building, and one of them ...
Lori Robinson and her husband, Ollie Johnson Robinson family

The article, Rape of a Spelman Coed was published in Emerge magazine almost exactly two years after Robinson’s assault. It became an award-winning story, and the springboard for I Will Survive.

“After that article, [the magazine] got a really powerful response,” she recalled. “So the idea [for the book] came from having written an article about sexual assault; realizing that this was a huge problem in the African American community; that we didn’t have culturally specific resources available to us; and that we just didn’t know how to deal with sexual assault.”

From surviving to thriving

To her knowledge, Robinson’s assailants were never caught and are thought to be responsible for at least three other rapes. Still, in 1996 she marked the one-year anniversary of her survival with a celebration.

“I’d experienced the most horrific thing I could possibly imagine, and I am still standing. I am still going to work; I still have my right mind, for the most part. It absolutely was a celebration of my survival,” she remembered.

Today, she has become a noted activist and speaker on the issue of sexual assault, speaking at more than 100 events in more than 20 states and in three countries. She has lived and taught in Ecuador, Brazil and other parts of Latin America, and is still enjoying a career as an award-winning bilingual journalist and educator.

She also married Ollie Johnson, the boyfriend who had been there with her through it all.

“We weren’t married then, but I definitely thought of us as a couple. You come together, you support, you love, you struggle, you handle it, you get through it. That was my mental-emotional framework,” he said.

“I’ve had various crises and challenges with my own family, but nothing like what happened to Lori. So I didn’t have any direct experience with supporting or helping or loving survivors. But I just kind of knew that was the right thing to do.”

When Robinson first began writing I Will Survive, Johnson thought it was a great idea and logical next step from the Emerge article – until it became clear that the research, interviewing and writing caused Robinson to relive her trauma.

“I recommended that she consider dropping it or suspending it on several occasions, because it was so painful … She would always say that she had to do it. And she worked through it,” he said. “I was very impressed with her strength and resilience through the whole process and still am just amazed that she could handle everything the way she’s handled it.”

Robinson encourages survivors to seek healing, whatever that may mean for them.

“Not every survivor necessarily needs therapy, but based on my personal experience, I highly recommend that survivors reach out to someone. It’s so important to be able to tell your story, let it out, [to] be able to talk to someone who can empathize with you, support you, and encourage you,” she said.

“Take care of yourself. Think of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual self-care. What feels nourishing to you? What feels safe to you? What makes your body feel good? Do that.”

Every survivor’s experience is profoundly personal. At the same time, millions of survivors are all fighting through the same devastation of this rampant trauma, often in shame and silence.

Robinson wants them all to remember one thing: “What happened to you is not your fault. No matter what the circumstances were – no matter what you wore, or what you drank, or what time it was, or where you were – the only person who was responsible, the person who deserves all of the blame, is the person who forced unwanted sexual activity on you,” she said. “You are no less perfect, or sacred, or beautiful because of what happened to you.”

This is the last of a series of five articles. The project was made possible by a grant from the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.