If the phone rings at 4:30A.M, she really needs you. “I’m in a lot of pain” are the first words out of her mouth, and I am walking softly around my house as I listen to her, a comforting pace I do unconsciously when I am thinking hard and finding the words to say.
I don’t talk about the calls, exactly, because it’s her story, not mine. After the hotline shift is over, I call the domestic violence agency I take the calls for and tell them the numbers: how many calls, how many hours on the phone. That’s the data. After that, we have identities to protect. What if these are stories we tell?
To say, I’ve done two 14-hour shifts a month on the domestic violence hotline for four months, and every time, I hang up wishing the world had heard her voice, too. We break things down into numbers because the problem is so big; we wrap her voice in with the hundreds of others and ask the world, “Don’t you hear them screaming?” Altogether, surely they are louder.
But on the phone with me, she is one person.
I remember every story. She’s that important to me. Since I first interned with a social worker in France and we worked for weeks as a team, handling hundreds of violence cases and calls, I’ve heard her words. If I met the survivors in intake meetings, I learned the faces. The brother sitting beside his sister crying; she sits so quietly and still; and he’s the only one who knows French so he speaks for her, through his tears. The mother gives her son to me and I take him away to play so she can break down. The child tells me he’s afraid.
In rural Maine, the calls are fewer, mostly because I only take a couple shifts a month. So I learn how the callers ask for help. I have the time to process their needs. It’s not as intense this time as the days in France when I was twenty-one and learning how to speak the language—the French and the overwhelming violence.
I’ve learned the callers want only three things. No matter the type of calls or the need—
the crisis call where the man on the line is saying, my friend is fighting with his wife and going to kill himself; he’s suicidal, what do we do? or the child abuse case where the mother is weeping for her child in the custody of her abuser; or the practical call, like when they just need a phone number, like when I called Downeast Sexual Assault Services, after another friend was assaulted and I needed some resources and I couldn’t think straight; or the thoughtful call, where the woman needs to talk for hours so her words make sense again; or the friendly call, where the best friend needs to cry too and wants to help her—
no matter the call, there’s a thread. They all want the same things.
They want to talk to a real person. They need a real person to hear them. A programmed advocate with all the right words would help her, certainly, but the real person who connects through those wires, airwaves, saves. I am at my best when I fall silent or apologize, breathing simply, “I’m trying to understand everything you’re going through.” I ask more questions, utter my shock, and tell her she’s brave until she feels it. They want to talk to a real person. And every time I say, “I’m trying to understand,” I hold in my heart the truth that I might be the first person to do that.
They want tangible results. To walk away with more than they came with. In my training, we called it the pact. At the end of the call, make a promise. This is the part that gives the caller something to help them, heal them, take with them. If it’s just a woman calling to talk about her thoughts, feelings, and abuse, I ask her how she’s going to take care of herself after we hang up. What will you do for you? Self-care is tangible, in a way. If it’s more immediate need, I give resources, hotline numbers, referral, or ask them to call me back after we’ve made a plan for getting out of the situation they’re in. I pour out whatever I know and their voices sound lighter when they call me back. It’s tangible.
And finally, it’s hope they want. Really, to feel it’s possible to have happiness again, to see a way out, and to know a future without violence is within reach. I have noticed the lift in their voice; I can hear even just with one caller when they feel helped; the voice changes; or they say, simply, “It’s better now because I’m talking to you.”
On the phone with me, she is one person, and the problem is not ending all the violence in the world tonight but promising her it will, for her, soon. She is strong. Afterward, I can rest in the moment, and all I do is ask myself, “Did she feel helped?” I can say, yes, and feel that I have succeeded.
Then, the same woman calls back every shift three months in a row. It is hours until she says goodnight, and all she needs is someone to talk her to sleep, to process the violence, the pain, and be reassured. After three months, she starts to talk about helping other survivors, her healing marked by her capacity to give back, now. The empowerment trajectory from the hard days where I could only convince her to do some self-care, now she says “I’m trying to get back who I was.” The feeling that she can be her own person again and use her voice for power.
People ogle me when I say I work with these issues. Why? they ask. I’ve started to say, because I’m good at it. No one asks an artist why they paint—it’s understood that they paint because they have a talent and a need for the art. I need to see that empowerment happen, to make the difference, to know she will live. Don’t ask me why but ask yourself if you could dare to understand the depth of a world of pain that survivors of violence live through.
Could you imagine how it’d feel to be on the end of a hotline call? No one is going to make you, but I dare you to imagine it. Paint the picture of the person on the other end. I once met the woman who helped launch the 1st rape crisis hotline in France in the 1980’s. When they first opened the lines and one of the first calls came in, she rushed to the phone. Almost immediately, the survivor whispered to her, “Madame, it’s been thirty years that I’ve waited for someone to listen to me.” We need to listen. The woman who started that hotline told me, “From that moment, I began to see the deadly reality of sexual violence. We see that perversity; we see its infinite variance. From all those years there[on the hotline], all these years, we discover, we learn, we see another method that was used to hurt a woman, how they can destroy them, really destroy them, deprive them of their capacity to live. So we have this hotline.”
From the hotlines came support groups and advocacy and from all of them came voices and from the voices came a women’s movement and from the words of violence, change. It’s still happening.
And you know if the phone rings at 4:30A.M, she really needs you. After I fumble for the light and snatch the phone from my nightstand, I answer and try to sound wide awake. This one indeed was going to change me. “My father sold me to him. He said, ‘How much would you pay for my daughter?’” The story goes on for fifteen years. We capture it a mere hour. I give her the three things every caller needs.
After I listen to her, I hear her voice again as I fall back asleep and for the first time I’m haunted. “How much would you pay for my daughter?” I hear her saying the words. I’ve taken calls in France in French, thrown into foreign languages, the whispers from a closet, the fear, I can do anything. But this?
Later that morning, two cups of coffee, and I am reading my newsfeed. It says today is the first day for Human Trafficking Awareness week at my undergraduate university.
I wonder, how much would people pay to save her life. How much would you pay for your daughter? for someone else’s daughter? Would you do something radical or anything at all?
How much would you pay to end the violence?