“By telling our stories we seek to build knowledge and reflect on the ways we heal ourselves and our communities.”
By Kelley Calkins
Content warning: sexual violence
One evening this time last year, I was sitting in my car parked on the street in front of my apartment, filling the night up with my sobs. Taken at face value, this night would not be dissimilar from a number of other nights I’d had — but these cries were different. They were the deep, heaving, cathartic kind, the rare variety released in response to really being seen, to being understood, to the implicit acceptance of even the darkest parts of the self not yet recognized or reckoned with.
A few minutes earlier, crouched over my iPhone in my Pontiac, I’d stumbled upon the #SurvivorLoveLetter hashtag.
I didn’t know, then, the impetus for the project or anything about its founder, or why it coincided with Valentine’s Day, or what its explicit goals were. I just knew, as I pored through the hashtag and read letter after letter, that I’d found true solidarity with fellow sexual assault survivors — and that it was loosening and unmooring some of the pain and self-loathing that had kept me anchored in the depths.
I’d learn that the project was premised on a simple request: “Write a declaration of self-love or honor a survivor in your life at #survivorloveletter.” This request, with its attendant responses, went viral; survivors of sexual violence and their supporters began writing and sharing letters addressed to themselves and others, many handwritten and decorated, all of them profound.
A year later, the originator of the Survivor Love Letter project — filmmaker and media justice activist Tani Ikeda — shared her reflections on the project with me over email, saying it “was incredibly powerful and painful and healing — it opened my heart by breaking it.”
The hashtag and its corresponding Tumblr began when Ikeda was reflecting on Valentine’s Day last February:
“A few days before Valentine’s Day — the anniversary of my rape — I thought about all the times I had wanted to end my life. But this time, I decided to write myself a love letter. This radical act of self-love was the start of a letter-writing project called Survivor Love Letter.
I wrote in my journal: ‘After surviving my rape, I spent 10 more years surviving chronic depression and a perpetual feeling that I had to continue to fight for my life. This is my survivor love letter. Don’t give up on your own happiness.’
I reached out to women of color activists such as Suey Park, Lisa Factora-Borchers, and Patrisse Cullors, as well as friends who were healing from abuse and in doing so, envisioning a world free of violence. Valentine’s Day kicked off #SurvivorLoveLetter, and we flooded the Internet with love for survivors on Twitter and Tumblr.”
The hashtag has been active ever since. And the letters continue to be posted on the #SurvivorLoveLetter Tumblr, which defines itself as: “A call to survivors of sexual violence and our loved ones to publicly celebrate our lives. By telling our stories we seek to build knowledge and reflect on the ways we heal ourselves and our communities.” The hashtag has even cropped up at the Sundance Film Festival in conjunction with the new documentary tackling sexual assault in the social media age, Audrie & Daisy.
On the one-year anniversary of the launch of the project, Ikeda is renewing the call for messages of radical self-love and support. Kicking off at 9 a.m. PST on Valentine’s Day, people are encouraged to saturate the Internet with messages of solidarity using the #SurvivorLoveLetter hashtag on Twitter and Instagram — and of course the Tumblr will continue to receive new letters as well.
Last year, Ikeda wrote that:
“Healing doesn’t look the way I thought it would. I used to feel that my chronic pain was an example of how I had failed to get better. I am starting to embrace the more complex narrative of my healing. It’s not linear. It’s not graceful. Healing does not mean fixing who I have become.
Survivor Love Letter enables us to talk about what survivorship really looks like. Through this growing collection of love letters, maybe we can build strategies for the ways we heal ourselves and our communities. I hope sharing our real stories makes other people feel that there is no one right way to heal.”
As a possible testament to these words, Ikeda told me that she’s re-launching #SurvivorLoveLetter this year “from a different vantage point.” Reflecting on the letters she’s received, she noted that each had been written “with such profound honesty and deep love,” and that over the course of the year, the project had taught her “how to love myself even at my saddest, most hopeless moments. That small shift sent ripples of changes throughout my life. It was like a fog had cleared and I was able to imagine my future instead of just trying to survive another day.”
This year, as compared to last — when she was driven by “frustration, grief, and a need to speak out” — Ikeda contends that her own “personal urgency is gone.” This time, she’s resistant to speak of her own experiences, looking instead for the well of self-love to speak for itself and continue to grow and reach new people. “I am committed to holding space for survivors to make public declarations of self-love because I know that it is necessary,” she says. “It is necessary if we want our world to be different. It is necessary if we want to be free.”
When I asked Ikeda why she thought the project had gone viral, she told me that “sometimes we create the things we need the most,” adding: “I am so incredibly humbled that this project was able to support others in their healing journey, and I’m grateful to the amazing women of color who used their social media platforms to get this project out into the world.”
Survivors will never get the world we deserved, but we can sketch the contours of the best one we can imagine for ourselves going forward — #SurvivorLoveLetter provides the pen.