Courage Crush: Michelle Nehme, Mom, Filmmaker, Advocate
by Sarah on November 2, 2016
Michelle is not only one of my most favorite people on the planet, her courage to rise up in the face of intense injustice, abuse and long-suffering is unmatched. She is a force of creative beauty and redeemed identity. That’s why I have a Courage Crush on her. Check out her inspiring story (below) of courage through survivorship and advocacy! And, pass it along to those who need some inspired hope today.
“I was raped when I was 19.” That’s usually where I start my story of survivorship. And it makes sense. My rape was one of the most defining moments of my life and surviving it, quite frankly, has taken up a good deal of my time… almost two decades. I look back over my 20s and 30s and see how my life was lived from a place of desperately needing to understand my traumatic experience. My quest to ascribe meaning to my assault, and thus end my suffering, informed everything – the choices I made (good and bad), the knowledge I sought, the art I created, the relationships I chose… Yet, almost two decades later, as I find myself on the edge of entering a new season, it strikes me – understanding my rape has only been a small part of my journey towards wholeness.
I was assaulted on a college campus by someone I knew and trusted. I decided to speak out and as is typical of these situations, I lost pretty much everyone close to me. The police treated me like a perpetrator, while the actual perpetrator in my case was cleared of any charges and allowed to continue living one floor above me in the dorms. For a year, I endured intense public humiliation. People I once called friends bullied me and threatened my life. I fell into eating disorders, self-harm, and all kinds of addictions until finally I tried taking my own life.
Rape completely dehumanizes a person. It destroys our relational and sexual identity, which lies at the very core of our being. Everything that gives us purpose as humans, everything that allows us to be productive members of society – the ability to hope and dream, to find purpose, to create healthy families, to have good friendships and experience love and intimacy – becomes buried under layers and layers of devastation. For me, surviving meant there existed somewhere in me a woman that would one day rise up and inhabit my body – a body I so desperately wanted to escape. Somehow, she would be everything I couldn’t be. She would make up for all the damage I’d done or others had done in my life. And most importantly, she would be worthy of having good things. She was the hero of my story… but she was never me.
I was a lost, fragmented person carrying around an immense amount of pain, unable to get over all I’d walked through.
It wasn’t until I became pregnant with my daughter at twenty-nine that things began to change significantly for me. I stopped my destructive behavior. I joined a home church community. I wanted to be able to love my daughter with all my heart and to raise her out of a place of strength instead of fear. I knew I needed other people to help me reach that goal. It took a lot of being still, of letting go of my need to understand, mourning, learning to trust people again and letting others speak into my life (even when I didn’t feel they understood me or my pain). I worked to bring into the light all the lies I believed about myself, many of which I didn’t even know were there at first. A lot of the work felt like utter humiliation and frustration. But slowly, I started to put words to my story.
Soon after Cora was born, I stumbled upon the issue of sex trafficking, and I was immediately drawn to the cases of American minors who were being sold for sex in our own cities. Though I’m not a survivor of trafficking, elements of the stories spoke deeply to me, especially around alienation, shame/blame and cultural stigmas. I found it ironic that our society didn’t seem to understand the power of rape but these traffickers did – so much so, they will use sexual abuse as a tactic to enslave people. Pimps call it the “seasoning process”, where they’ll break a girl’s will. They’ll build a relationship with a girl and then rape her so that they can force her to have sex with 20 to 60 clients a day.
As a filmmaker, I’d spent most of my time making films about sexual assault. So, when I started working on American Love Story, I thought I’d have the film done in a year and that it would be about prosecuting traffickers and rescuing girls. But the more I learned, the bigger the story became. To date, I’ve been working on the film for almost six years and at its heart, the film is about relationships. I’ve had opportunities to share my story publicly, which has been challenging, but it’s created space for others to share and find connection. I’ve heard from so many different survivors, not just about trafficking, but on all kinds of relational abuse they’ve felt they’ve had to keep secret. And then, a little over two years ago, the university where I was raped invited me to come speak to their incoming class about sexual assault. I’ve been back three times now and having a voice on that campus – the place where I nearly lost my life – has been one of the most profound and holy experiences in my healing, by far.
I’ve struggled more than I can say in making this film. When year five passed and the film wasn’t finished yet, I felt the immense weight of failure. But I also realized something. Making this film has been as much about my healing as it has been about the film itself. I’ve been pushed and stretched to face my pain far beyond what I thought was possible. I’ve worked on my own biases and my anger towards perpetrators. I’ve dealt with my anger towards God. I’ve wrestled with ideas around forgiveness, as I’ve learned about friends who have been buyers. And I’ve let go of my belief that I will only have worthiness once I make something great out of my traumatic experiences and change enough lives.
I’m not sure my rape will ever have meaning. I mean, I understand the circumstances surrounding it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever know why me… why I was chosen to have this particular life story. I also don’t believe I can ever accomplish anything so great that I will finally feel worthy of a good life, of having the connection and love I desire. And while changing this world and helping others heal is a powerful and beautiful part of overcoming trauma, if I remain fragmented at my core, my ability to love, to grow and to impact the world remains fragmented.
The truth is that goodness and wholeness can only come from knowing who I really am – from believing that I am worthy now, just as I am.
For so many years, I was waiting for a better version of me, a future version, to step in and take over. I couldn’t see much of the goodness in my life because I lived in the shadow of my trauma. But maybe the best version was there all along, resting in the good and vulnerable places of my life; in the family and friends who have been there to support me, no matter how imperfectly; in all the good experiences I had growing up; in childhood memories that still touch my heart; in the little ways that I have imperfectly been able to encourage and love others… And somehow, as I move out from the shadow of my past and allow myself to be enough, right now, right here, I find myself tapping into a much larger life story of wholeness and goodness where my rape trauma is only one small thread.
I believe my film is about something much deeper and more relevant to ending human trafficking because I’ve lived the story of healing that I’m telling. And when I finally finish it, I hope it creates a space for survivors to raise their voices and be heard. I hope it gives audiences a new vocabulary and helps ignite courageous conversations. But mostly, I pray I can be present to what is in front of me and deeply love the people around me, as it is my truest identity to live in intimate and vulnerable relationship. Do I still mourn the experiences of my past? Yes, I think mourning will always be a part of my growth. But every day I look in my daughter’s beautiful face and at the people around me and know that truly, I have been given life abundant.
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What about Michelle’s story of courage inspires you? Feel free to comment below.