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Most of these traumas remain unspeakable today in rural Alaska. It’s as if generations of elders have dealt with the past by silencing it. Experts tell me this is one of the reasons rape has been allowed to flourish. Generations of people are wandering the tundra lost – unemployed, drunk, angry, suicidal and violent.
“All of the secrets and the harm – the sexual violence – came after contact” between Alaska Natives and white settlers, said Joan Dewey, mental health clinician who works with sex offenders and has been trying to understand rape in the state.
None of this is an excuse for violence. There is none. But it does go a long way toward explaining why Alaska has the highest rape rate in America.
It would be a mistake to see rape as an isolated problem.
It and so many other social ills grow from the same root.
The social fabric of Alaska has been torn.
Of all the unique aspects of Sheldon’s treatment program – the ammonia, the therapy sessions, the idea that sex offenders should be kept close, not pushed away – the most powerful to me is this: victims are among the volunteers.
I met a woman — I’ll call her Claire — who was sexually abused by her brother as a young girl in a remote village, and who was raped by a taxi driver as an adult in Anchorage. After all of that, her daughter, a product of that rape, was sexually abused by her nephew after Claire gave the girl up for adoption.
I’m not using Claire’s real name or image in an effort to further protect the identity of Sheldon’s victim. She was willing to speak openly, with her image and name. The soft-spoken 42-year-old with porcelain features and a beaming smile is convinced that, in order for Alaska to stop sexual violence, victims of rape need to speak up.
And perpetrators need to be given the opportunity to change.
Those beliefs come not in spite of but because of her personal experience.