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A night for speaking, listening and healing

As the rain fell softly around her, Marilyn Bray stood before a microphone, and a small crowd of people huddled in the warm electric glow of the lights in the Phyllis P. Marshall Center pavilion.

Shaking like a leaf in the light drizzle, her voice occasionally cracking, Bray told the more than 150 listeners of the most traumatic and horrible event in her life – how she was drugged and raped by a man she met at a bar. Four years later, she said, a neighbor raped her again.

“I’m sorry, I’m shaking,” said Bray, who now works for a The Spring of Tampa Bay, a shelter and outreach center for victims of sexual and domestic violence. “I don’t know how many times I’ve talked about this, but every time I do, my body just sort of goes.”

More than a dozen other women joined Bray to share their experiences Tuesday night as part of USF’s inaugural Take Back the Night event, which was organized by Necessary Improvements to Transform our Environment (NITE), a student group that advocates for campus safety and victims of crime, violence and abuse.

Some planned to speak. Others, hearing the words of those who walked up to the microphone before them, found the courage to open up. Some had done this before – sharing their most wrenching personal experiences with a crowd of strangers. Others spoke for the firs time of the abuse they suffered.

But by the end of the night, most of those who spoke and most of those who listened walked away a little stronger, a little fuller, a little wiser.

And as the evening chill set in, most walked away a little warmer, too.”We want to create a quilt to wrap this community in,” said Cheryl Fitzpatrick, the interim program coordinator for the USF Advocacy Program, which provides resources and support for USF students and employees who have experienced violence and abuse.

Fitzpatrick, along with representatives from The Spring and University Police, talked about the resources at USF available to victims and the importance of talking about these problems with friends or counselors. People read poetry, and a two-woman band of sisters played before and after the event. But it was the stories of the survivors and of those who knew and loved others victimized by rape and abuse, some trembling quietly and others weeping openly, that took the night and left those listening so silent that thepit-pat of rain drops falling off the pavilion’s aluminum cover could be heard.After her first rape, Bray said she pushed the hurt and pain down deep. The bruises on her heart manifested themselves in destructive ways as she developed into a binge drinker, to numb the pain away, and a bulimic, to control anything in a life spiraling downward.

“Throwing up was a way to ease the pain,” Bray said. “I didn’t know who to talk to about this. We didn’t have events like this at my college.”

Bray called her second rape a “blessing,” because it forced her to finally seek help for the raging sea of pain and anxiety inside her.

“I knew without it, I wasn’t going to be able to live, I wasn’t going to be able to love, I wasn’t going to be able to have a life,” Bray said.

Others who spoke echoed Bray’s words. Seek help, they said, and reach out to others. Be a voice for the silent “survivor sisters.”

Lisa Braxton, a former USF student who was raped in high school and again in college, said she spoke so no one would have to suffer the emotional pain she dealt with alone. Though therapy has soothed some of the pain, Braxton still deals with the horrible byproducts of her trauma, she said. She can’t walk without looking behind her. She jumps every time her long, brown, braided hair brushes against her shoulders. She gets anxious sitting for long periods of time in crowds, like she did Tuesday night.

“But I’m alive, and I’mwalking, and I can help someone else,” Braxton said.

After the outpouring of emotion stopped, small flickers of light appeared under the pavilion as small wax candles were lit in a candlelight vigil for all the silent cries and unheard voices of victims of sexual abuse and violence.

By the time the evening ended, the rain had stopped. The sky, it seemed, had dried up.