(Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)
I used to go by the name Cassie.
My mother named my sisters and I after her 3 favorite countries, Cassandra (Greece), Madeleine (France), and Shannon (Ireland). Both of my parents wanted to make sure each of us had a longer name, to leave room for nicknames we could grow into or out of. So, to the world I was known as Cassie.
Growing up, I was curious, gregarious, and spunky. I got involved with theater in Kindergarten, and from that moment forward it was my deepest passion. My voice was strong onstage. Tell me to memorize lines, and I would do it. Tell me what emotion or accent to convey, and I would do it. But offstage, I was silenced by fear. At age 14, I entered a relationship where I was sexually assaulted repeatedly, along with enduring other types of violence and abuse. Once, I was pushed up against a locker and told that I would never make it as an actor. After seeing how his aggression scared me, he laughed in my face.
For a long time, I wondered if he was right.
When the relationship ended, a therapist told me to feel lucky because it could have been a lot worse. My voice felt questioned and downplayed. When I found out my perpetrator was going on a school trip abroad with me, I asked the school for a restraining order against him. The director of the trip laughed in my face, and said I was over-reacting. It was just a silly high school break-up. My voice grew timid. I wish I could say that that relationship would be my last experience with sexual assault.
But, it wasn’t.
People blamed me for what happened. Some denied my experience, and told me I was lying. I was told to not mention my assaults when I went to college, because people don’t talk about “that stuff”. My voice became my disguise. I learned how to use my voice to hold surface level conversations and maintain emotions that made others happy. Cassie learned to keep her trauma silent.
In my mind, I always wondered if I would ever go by my full name, Cassandra. I hoped that when I was ready to embody my real name, it would feel like an epiphany. But every time I began to daydream about being Cassandra, a tiny voice inside told me to wait.
And so I did.
In college, I saw Catharsis Productions perform at my school, DePaul University. During their show, the presenters captivated the audience in a way that left me awestruck. I felt so envious of their jobs. I watched and listened as they took the audience from erupting laughter, to audible shock, and deafening silence. Their message filled me with hope, which felt like a breath of fresh air. Sexual assault awareness and prevention did not have to be somber and serious. The presenters gave us permission to laugh at the absurdity surrounding the stereotypes society feeds to us about sexual assault. They allowed the audience to feel empowered as a part of the solution to help end sexual violence. After the show, I made a promise to myself that I would one day try to be a part of that company.
During college and graduate school, I dedicated myself to rediscover my voice. I cut myself off from toxic people, immersed myself in social justice theater and activism surrounding sexual assault, and created space to process my trauma in hopes of moving forward. My healing process has not been linear, but those 6 years were full of growth and transformation. After graduation, my voice finally felt strong enough to do the work I had always dreamed of doing. As luck would have it, Catharsis Productions took a chance on me, and I accepted a job as an Educator for the U.S. Army. The night that I got the job offer, something in the universe shifted. The timing finally felt right. I was ready to grow out of being called Cassie, and grow into being recognized as Cassandra.
I sometimes think back to the moment of being pushed up against a locker. I believe that the memory resurfaces every now and again to remind me of who is having the last laugh. He told me I would never make it as an actor, yet I have a full-time job where I get to do that every day. He controlled me, and broke my spirit. Nevertheless, every day I use the power of my story and voice, and speak to hundreds of people about helping end a crime that I survived. On that day, he spoke to, and silenced Cassie. Today, as Cassandra, I talk back. I call out the victim blaming culture we live in. I offer words of encouragement to help others understand how to help survivors like me. I speak my truth as a survivor, as an actor, and as someone who finally feels empowered to be known to the world as Cassandra. The name my mother and father gifted me. To some, I still go by the nickname Cassie. I don’t reject or disown the time I spent going by the name, and to be called that name evokes a certain sense of nostalgia. But to most people, I go by Cassandra. It reminds me of who I am, and how I wish to move forward in life.
I was born during the month of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The irony has never been lost on me. I am a survivor who does sexual assault prevention work. Some days, my voice is tired. My voice is weighed down by headlines from the news, by triggers that resurface unexpectedly, and by nightmares I have repeatedly. But still, I ground myself in the fact that I am doing the work I was born to do, and remind myself of this mantra:
I have turned my pain into power,
My silence into strength,
And my name into my narrative.
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