Powerful Women of the World: Kristine Irwin

By Rachel Jones | Photograph from Archie Carpenter

The infuriating truth about sexual violence is that it is as prevalent as it is silenced — which is why Kristine Irwin wrote “Voices of Hope” and created a nonprofit of the same name. Detailing her own experience with rape, the healing process, and the motivation to become an advocate for other victims and their loved ones, Irwin’s book empowers all readers. Check out an excerpt from the book, here, as well as our exclusive interview with the inspiring Pittsburgh native.

From “Voices of Hope” by Kristine Irwin:

The person who called the ambulance for me was a complete stranger. Over a decade later, I’m still indebted to this woman, and I don’t even know her name. 

The woman told the police that when she saw a car at a stop sign on her street, she initially thought nothing of it. When the car was still there a few minutes later, the woman began to watch it. Eventually, she watched as the passenger door opened and I spilled onto the ground. The car drove away and left me by the side of the road, covered in mud and leaves. The stranger called 911 and stayed with me until the ambulance came. I remember none of it.

I do remember waking up in the hospital, feeling disoriented and asking a nurse, “What am I doing here?”

Answering, the nurse pulled no punches, “You are here because you were raped.”

The crime occurred on October 4, 2004, when I was 19 years old and a freshman in college.

I had come home from college excited to spend time with my crush, whom I’ll call Steve. I had met Steve the previous summer while working at a convenience store. For reasons I’ll never fully understand, I became obsessed with Steve and fitting in with his group of friends, even though I had great friends of my own. My obsession had led me to make five months’ worth ofbad decisions, enough that my friends and my parents were worried about the change in me. I’d begun drinking heavily and sneaking around. In spite of repeated warnings and red flags, Steve—and fitting in with his friends—were the only things that mattered to me.

For months, I had been chasing Steve. Looking back, I realize he wasn’t particularly into me. But it wasn’t Steve who raped me. It was his friend, whom I’ll call Karl. This book is the story of how the whole thing happened and what I’ve learned from the experience. It’s also about how my rape affected my family and friends and what we have all learned because of the experience.

I want to tell you my story for a number of reasons. For one thing, telling my story helps me to heal.
The rape is a major event in my life, and talking about it is a way to keep the crime from defining me. Although it’s been over a decade since the incident, I’m still integrating the experience constructively into my life. Talking reduces its power over me.

I believe we all need to talk more openly about rape. Currently, we have a culture of silence surrounding this topic. The silence has multiple consequences. For starters, perpetrators get away with, and repeat, their crime. Victims suffer in silence and shame, too embarrassed to reach out for the support they deserve. Families of victims also suffer in silence, protecting the privacy of their victimized loved one. In this way, families become isolated when they really need support. This pattern often leads to brokenness and even divorce within the families.

If we do talk openly about rape, we can learn to be realistic about the danger, and take steps to prevent it from happening to us or our friends.

Q & A

How did your book, “Voices of Hope,” come to be?

Kristine Irwin: ‘Voices of Hope’ really kicked off after my first child was born in 2015. I’ve done speaking engagements in the past, every now and again. It was a great way for me to heal, but I was looking for other ways. When I had my son, I said, you know, there’s a project I’ve been wanting to work on, which was ‘Voices of Hope,’ the book. Once I started working on that, Voices of Hope the nonprofit started to develop. It all just started to snowball from there. The driving force, though, was my son. I realized that I didn’t want my child or anybody’s child to grow up in a world where survivors are not believed or they’re blamed. For them to speak up and get reprimanded for it, is absolutely horrible. If I can do anything, even if it’s just to influence one person, I’m doing exactly what I should be.

In the book, you talk about your loved ones’ role in your healing process. Why was that an important aspect for you?

KI: For eight or 10 years, I didn’t talk about it with my family. Once I started to get more comfortable, I thought, ‘What did my first college roommate think when she got a call from me saying I wouldn’t be back at school for a week? What about my best friends?’ I needed to reach out to these people, my friends and family, and ask them how they feel. The responses were just amazing, especially my dad’s. It took me a year to give my dad his letter, and he gave me his response back the quickest. He was like, ‘Finally — someone is asking me how I feel.’ That’s kind of emotional for me as well.

What did you take away from these letters?

KI: It finally made me realize that people don’t really know how to respond to someone telling them that something like this has happened. My mom’s one initial reaction was, ‘You know, you could get charged for underage drinking.’ She says to me now, ‘That probably wasn’t the best thing I should’ve said.’ There is no appropriate way to respond. You never know where someone is in their healing process. But there are definitely ways you can advise, help, and guide people on how to respond, should they come across this situation.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

KI: I hope that those who don’t have a familiarity with sexual violence, domestic violence, or sexual harassment educate themselves. For somebody that’s gone through something like this, I hope it’s able to help them heal in a sense. And that someone who hasn’t spoken to anyone about what happened to them will open up to a trusted friend. Sometimes, just talking about their experience can be extremely healing.

How do the current movements in our culture advocate for victims of sexual violence?

KI: With #MeToo and TIME’S UP, it’s everywhere. That’s a good thing. It’s opening up a lot of doors to having that conversation. But there’s still so much progress to be made. I can’t do all of this alone. That’s why it’s wonderful to have movements like this because it takes a community to change our culture.

In what ways is the nonprofit Voices of Hope advocating for victims of sexual violence?

KI: One of the campaigns is our Consent Coaster campaign. We partner with restaurants throughout April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and they distribute coasters that educate on consent. There are some light phrases on the front of the coaster like, ‘If you wanna be my lover, you’ve gotta get my consent,’ then the back has an educational piece. This year, the back will be something like, ‘So no one ever has to say #MeToo, remember that consent is about respect.’ Then, there’s a spot for someone to be a voice for a survivor and write encouraging words. #BeAVoice is a campaign that we’ve done throughout the year where we ask others to submit words of kindness and encouragement to survivors. With ‘Voices of Hope,’ what’s going on currently, and the campaign, the message is: be a voice. Voices of Hope, voices-of-hope.org

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