DOWNTOWN — Polly Johnson spent years avoiding discussion about rape but now she’s going right at it.
Johnson formed a rape survivors group, Face-2-Face, which will meet for the first time this Friday at the First Presbyterian Church on Second Street.
The UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica is known for its world-class treatment and counseling for rape survivors but, Johnson said, Face-2-Face is not meant to be seen as a substitute for professional help.
“The meeting itself is to provide a safe place for people who have been victims of sexual assault or rape and whatever you want to call it to come and just listen or bring issues that they’re struggling with and to see if anybody else has gone through the same thing. To see if they might be able to help them,” Johnson said. “It’s really peer support.”
The group is for men and women rape survivors of 18 years and up, or for minors with a guardian.
Johnson was raped in the 1980s and she said that the trauma causes people to turn inward.
“It’s all bad, no matter what happens,” she said. “The long-term effects of shame, guilt, which is totally inappropriate, but that happens. Suicide, which is ironic since it was something done to us and we want to kill ourselves. And drug abuse and severe depression and obviously problems with intimacy.”
Johnson started talking honestly about her experience 15 years ago when she got sober.
“Nothing is going to happen for anybody if they’re drinking and using because it’s just a way to cover up the pain and fear and all the other (stuff) that goes along with it. Sobriety is a gateway to healing and it’s a very very common thing. People will do whatever they can to not feel.”
From there, she learned not to feel ashamed.
“I didn’t ask for it,” she said. “It happened. If you get diabetes it’s not like people are wondering what were you wearing to get diabetes.”
The fight against that silence that follows rape has become one of Johnson’s missions in life. Last week, she took the LSATs with hopes that she will get into law school and one day change the sentencing guidelines surrounding rape.
Face-2-Face came out of a class called “writing for social change” that she took at Antioch University in Culver City.
“My project was to start a meeting,” she said. “I wrote press releases and donation letters and other things and I thought: I’m going to do this and so I did.”
Johnson speaks with relative ease about her past, stopping to laugh at her stumblings on the way to sobriety and acceptance. There’s a strength in her ability to transcend the tragedy. This is a strength she got partially from opening up to other people, she said.
“There is a connection that happens with people, much like Alcoholics Anonymous or other forums that are meant to be pure support and healing,” she said. “That is really lacking in, dare I say, the rape community because there really isn’t one.”
Johnson wants to get survivors talking so they can learn to be themselves again.
“You can see how the tentacles of that kind of trickle-down effect goes into the very fabric of our society,” she said. “A lot of people are walking zombies out there.”
Face-2-Face will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at the First Presbyterian Church at 1220 Second St.