Mariska Hargitay, who plays a sex crimes detective on "Law and Order: SVU," works with survivors of sexual assault on and off the screen.
Rape never played a significant role in my life before 1999. That’s when I started playing a sex- crimes detective on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," and the worst of what people do to each other became the vocabulary of my days. The show operates in the world of fiction, and I am fortunate that I can close my dressing room door at the end of those days and go home to comfort and safety. But the show’s fictions are based in facts, and the facts are terrible.
When I was preparing to shoot the appropriately titled episode ‘Hell’ in the spring of 2009, I encountered a category of facts far beyond terrible. Comparing suffering—‘This experience is worse than that experience’—is complex territory. I can say, however, that the realities my research revealed were some of the worst I have ever encountered. The story revolved around an eleven- year old girl who had been held as a sexual slave by the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the militias that has brought terror and suffering to Central Africa.
I read and watched films about the atrocities being perpetrated in Congo, Uganda, and Sudan. I learned of gang rapes, internal mutilations, amputations, and rape as an instrument of war. I learned of women who had been raped so violently and left so internally destroyed that they can no longer control their bowels. I learned of government, military, and social systems that not only fail to prosecute those committing these acts but fail to condemn them and, worse still, harbor, protect— and sometimes include— the perpetrators. I learned of hundreds of thousands of women imprisoned in a silence of fear and shame.
Holocaust survivor Jean Améry titled his book about his experiences at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen- Belsen At the Mind’s Limits. Reading and seeing the stories of Central Africa’s women, that is where I found myself: in a realm of facts that were beyond what my mind could comprehend.
Améry describes how his most terrible wounds, more enduring than the physical ones, came from the experience of having been in the presence of people who were impervious to human suffering. That, he states, is what makes survivors lose ‘trust in the world.’ He concludes, ‘Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world.’
I remember my shock when, in my research for my role, I first encountered the U.S. rape statistics. In response, and because of survivors who began reaching out to me through my work on the show, I started the Joyful Heart Foundation.
It was my moment of saying Enough to the shame, suffering, and isolation of rape survivors. Joyful Heart runs retreat and community programs to heal, educate, and empower
survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. We are also seeking to engage in a cultural conversation that will shed light into the darkness that surrounds these issues.
What we envision is a community that seeks to reverse Jean Améry’s conclusion. Such a world community says to the women of Congo, ‘We are not impervious to your suffering. We will not add our indifference to what you have suffered already. We will give you our ears if you wish to speak of your anguish, we will lend you our voices if you cannot find yours, we will give you our most courageous and informed action to advocate on your behalf before those who have the ability to bring about an end to your plight. We will hold you within our hearts and our minds. Your healing is our priority.’
In my work on behalf of rape survivors, I am sustained by the experience of seeing courageous souls find their way back to lives of hope, possibility, and joy. Or, in the words of Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery, ‘Something in herself that the victim believes to be irretrievably destroyed is reawakened.’ A participant in one of our programs once said it was the first time her body hadn’t felt like a crime scene. I have the same ambition for the women of Congo: their bodies are not only crime scenes but war zones. And they have suffered enough.
This profile and many others were compiled for The Enough Moment, a book by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle about engaged citizens – known and unknown, in the U.S. and abroad – who are mobilizing to help end genocide, rape, and the use of child soldiers in Africa. Visit the Enough Moment Wall to hear people describe their “Enough moment” and to upload a video, photo, or written testimonial of your own.
Check out Mariska Hargitay’s Celebrity Upstander page.
Photo: (AP / Stuart Ramson)