Monday, September 24, 2012

what happens to me happens to you: guest blogger taylor jacoby

guest blogger taylor jacoby
i've known taylor jacoby for a long time and then some, in a whole bunch of contexts.  the baby of my friend, my niece's playmate in daycare, my daughters' friend, my student, and now, a totally grown up lady about to graduate from college in a high-powered d.c. internship.  taylor works to change the world, and she has a soft heart, plus she's a great writer, as you will soon see.  she spent the summer of '11 in uganda researching trauma healing for victims of sexual violence. taylor's one of the young people who gives me a lot of hope for the future.  i hope you enjoy learning about one of my favorite people, miss taylor jacoby.

Alena Stern and members of the Grassroots Women Association for Development, Gulu Uganda.
Pamela, my favorite translator, is 20 years old. She is very soft-spoken, reserved. She wore the same outfit every time we worked together: pink satin blouse, black polyester skirt, black plastic flats—one with a ripped back so she had to hobble slightly. Her bare legs, hands, and face are covered with scars, mostly small and circular, but plenty of long gashes too. I imagine they form a map of northern villages and the roads connecting them. We’ve learned that Ugandans don’t use maps, yet the drivers never fail to get us where we need to go. No matter how nondescript the village is, no matter how unyielding the surrounding sea of bush.

I never asked Pamela about her scars, or anything about her past, and she never explained. All I know is that Pamela graduated from the Zion Project, a faith-based rehabilitation center for girls who were former “wives” in the Lord’s Resistance Army or who have escaped other forms of sexual exploitation. I only know this because one day Pamela took me to the compound of huts outside town where she lived. With palpable excitement, she showed me the certificate confirming she was trained in jewelry making and catering.

As my translator, Pamela was let off the hook in telling me her story. Instead, she helped me find others who would. Pamela had an extensive social network, which, when coupled with her inexhaustible work ethic, allowed me to interview far more women than I initially thought possible.

I went to Uganda to try and understand the impact of the widespread sexual and other gender-based violence that women had lived through during the country’s long civil war and continued to experience during “peace time.” I believed, with considerable fervor, that such trauma alters those who experience it. I believed that critical mental health needs were being ignored and at the cost of huge individual and societal consequences. Basically, my thesis was that if you use violence to destroy social networks, you also destroy the society’s ability to recover from it.

I came up with this formulation about the long-lasting impact of sexual violence in a preliminary paper I wrote before going to go Uganda, and I was very pleased with myself:

The recurrent, cyclical nature of violence is mirrored in PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]: violence begets PTSD, which begets violence, which begets PTSD. Is it possible that PTSD symptoms formed from previous abuse was what led these perpetrators to abuse others? Could PTSD not be considered a sexually transmitted disease?

To me, the problem was as orderly as it was grave.  And I was no scientist; I could not respect objectivity. I carried my assumptions around with me as I set up my research; they were the red dirt that caked my feet and hair so I had to scrub a part of me off to be rid of them. But soon enough, I did get rid of them. I started meeting Ugandan women, and I failed to produce a satisfying definition of “disabling” psychosocial impact. The day I left, Pamela was on her way to the neighboring district where she had been invited to a youth leadership conference. This kind of behavior didn’t fit my beliefs about survivors of sexual violence, but then again, maybe that was because she had received counseling with the Zion Project.

At the end of the summer, I had met all kinds of women. There were others like Pamela, who I met primarily through NGOs working for women’s health and economic empowerment. I also had the chance to meet the venerable Judy Dushku, who runs such an organization in northern Uganda. Dushku’s stories of women rising up in resilience and healing matched much of what I had seen.  I admired and envied the opportunity she had to watch these women cobble back together their lives and communities over the long-term.    

But there were other women I interviewed who could not make eye contact. Who wrung their hands and jumped whenever there was a sudden movement or sound around them. There were women who listlessly carried babies that didn’t belong to them—babies that they inherited when the mother had been killed; babies that were forced into their wombs by men in uniform and the guns they carried. I completed survey after survey, but I could neither confirm nor deny my prior assumptions.

A few days ago, a BYU reporter called to ask me about the research I did in Uganda because the paper I turned it into recently won a major award. The research turned out to be more academically fruitful than I could ever have envisioned. And I am always excited when the project is recognized in one way or another because I feel like I have succeeded in drawing attention to violence against women. I set off to frame the issue using social science methodology—random sampling and statistical analysis—in order to have it taken seriously. And, to my great surprise, it has been. But I have always felt that the cost of the paper’s success was an oversimplification of the women’s diversity. Statistics cannot tell this story, but I often worry that I cannot either. One of the reporter’s questions was something like, “what was your impression of the women?” And I gave some trite answer, no doubt. The problem of the paper and the interview and my memories remains the same: I don’t have a good enough answer for what happens to the Ugandan women.

Here is all I know: It is the only interview that remains purely distinct. She is seventeen, orphaned, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, HIV positive, and wearing a red parka, despite the heat. She is mostly somber, but she finds the hypothetical scenarios section hilarious. “Would you use the childcare service at this public event if the police were in charge of it? Ha! Them mens wouldn’t last five minutes with the children!” She is still chuckling several minutes later, “Police watching the babies…” At the end of the surveys, she looks up from her lap, directly into my eyes. “We are sisters. Did you know? We are connected. What happens to me, happens to you also. When you write, you tell them this.”  

1) are you in a tight place, and if so, what are you doing about it?

A tight place? I would have to say, yes. I’m currently in Washington DC doing a Brigham Young University internship program. We get an amazing deal on housing, but it means I’m living in restrictive dorm facilities perched on top of the LDS institute building and the LDS Church’s DC Public Relations offices. Basically, I’m spending my last semester of college feeling simultaneously like a freshman and a graduate already in the workforce.  It is a strange limbo indeed.  Yet, getting out of this tight place means going out in the city more.  I’m naturally a home-body, so an uncomfortable living situation here may actually be a good thing. 

I’ve also gotten myself in a tight spot by being pretty unprepared for my internship. I am working at the Department of the Treasury in the East Asia office, despite previously having zero knowledge of East Asia and precious little about financial and macroeconomics. Sometimes when I’m sitting in meetings or listening to the description of a project I’ll need to finish, things are so tight I can practically feel my shoulders scraping against the mounting expectations. At first, my emotional energy was primarily devoted to being frustrated with how useless my degree in economics was and desperately avoiding being “found out” by the others in the office. But lately, I have been realizing that if I devote that energy instead to just working with deliberation and optimism, I can learn some really cool things. Last week, my office sent me to take notes at a conference on China’s upcoming leadership transition, and I found that I already knew almost everything the speakers had to say on China’s economy. I was nodding my head like, “yeah, yeah, investment-led growth is a problem.  Old news. Tell me what it means for the steel industry! State Owned Enterprises!  Give me something I can work with!” And then I had to leave during the Q&A and buy some Diet Dr. Pepper so I could remember who I was and what I stood for.  

can't get enough art deco!

2) what inspires you?
Architecture. On my walk to work I pass all these famous and powerful institutions—The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, various embassies, The Renwick Gallery (i.e. the national arts and crafts museum, definitely an inspiration in and of itself), The White House—and that was all very exciting for the first day or so. Now during the walk my brain is going “those late 19th century row houses would probably look so cool juxtaposed with an ultra-modern renovation on the interior” Or “my goodness those are fabulous art deco tiles.” I can’t get enough of art deco. This summer, I was running in London’s Hyde Park and stopped in the middle to use the bathrooms at the Serpentine Gallery. The museum shop had this enormous beautiful book on sale, American Masterworks: Houses of the 20th and 21st Centuries. I had to buy it, right there on my run, even though it meant throwing away many other things to keep my suitcase under the weight limit for the flight home.

I’m also inspired by excellent but non-pretentious cooking, beautiful but precise writing, long-lasting but progressing relationships (be they romantic, familial, or friendships). The more people I meet, the more I realize how rare and wonderful these things are.    

3) what do you hope to accomplish before the end of the year?

I just hope to transition somewhat gracefully into “the real world.” I hope to narrow down my interests and ambitions into something that would be satisfying and feasible to do as employment (and then find someone to hire me for it). I hope to figure out how to balance a job with creative outlets and exercise and taking care of myself. I want to spend this year remembering how to write creatively, practicing photography on my boyfriend’s fancy camera, cooking new things, learning to run, doing more yoga. But mostly, I hope to emulate just a fraction of the productivity I have seen from the women in my life (and men too). When I get home from an 8 hour work day, I just want to order pizza and go to bed.  I can’t believe all that my mother, grandmothers, aunts, Lara, and so many other women that I admire get done in a day.

taylor's tights, spicing up the d.c. workplace!

4) what is your favorite legwear.

Thus far, it has been too hot to even consider legwear. I’ve got some good tights picked out for the fall/winter though, and I can’t wait to use them to spice up my work clothes. Even when I’m dressing as professionally and conservatively as I can, I still tend to feel like people are looking at me like they looked at Elle Woods when she first shows up at Harvard Law.


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  2. Taylor,
    I'm fascinated to read about all you've done and are doing. And happy to see your writing has developed so beautifully--a voice unostentatiously open in both its idealism and humility. I found this refreshingly understated, simple and direct. And I liked the everyday optimistic turn at the end, concerning your time in D.C. Your work here has the loveliness that comes when a writer creates precise prose, but is disinclined to have that prose call attention to the skill involved in its making.

    1. I couldn't dream of a nicer compliment on my writing than this. I will treasure your praise.

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