What She Was Wearing
by Shawn Aveningo Sanders
How long can you keep a dark secret before you become completely unraveled? In What She Was Wearing, Shawn Aveningo Sanders uses poetry, prose, and letters to tell her #MeToo story—one that has taken over 30 years to reveal.
In this collection, Shawn shares her nightmare of being raped at a fraternity toga party, and examines the event from a variety of perspectives, including poems written from the viewpoint of her attackers; the toga she was wearing; homecoming years later; and even the moment she told her college-aged children. As Shawn’s story unfolds, the reader will come to understand how significant the aftermath of rape can be. For decades, she was “triggered” in the most unexpected ways and is just now recognizing how those triggers impacted her self-worth.
Inspired by the countless number of women who are bravely opening up to share their truth, she adds her voice to the fight against the oppressive, misogynic times we live in. It’s time to stop blaming the victim and to stop asking what she was wearing! For Shawn, writing through the pain and sharing these poems has proven to be cathartic and even epiphanic at times. It is her hope this work can help women of all ages face and cope with their own traumas, while letting them know they can indeed heal and go on to enjoy loving, trusting relationships.
Video from Book Launch at Annie Bloom’s, Portland, OR, Jan 8, 2020:
Dedicated “to those who have suffered in silence,” this book is a testimony to Shawn Aveningo Sanders’ courage. For thirty years, she kept a secret that verged on unraveling her, a secret so devastating she once attempted suicide. But here she transcends the traps of shame and self-reproach to confront—in a sequence of poems and epistolary prose—the four men who, as college fraternity brothers, raped her. Forced into silence for too long, women all over this world are now speaking out, saying #MeToo. What She Was Wearing is Sanders’ brave voice joining this transforming chorus..
—Paulann Petersen, Oregon Poet Laureate Emerita
Shawn Aveningo Sanders’ story of living with the aftermath of violence emerges like a geode that’s been cracked open after years underground. Each image has been remembered and re-remembered, stored, pressurized, and slowly shaped into a single facet of the experience. From the earrings she was wearing to explaining the assault to her college-age children years later, Aveningo Sanders spares no detail and lets no one off the hook. Starkly honest and memorably graceful, these poems are a virtuoso performance of feminism and survival, as well as a wholly human story that far too many women will understand.
—Amy Miller, author of The Trouble with New England Girls
Some of the women and girls who’ve spoken out in the #MeToo movement have spoken in anguish, and in grief. Some have spoken in shame. In What She Was Wearing, Shawn Aveningo Sanders has turned that shame, anguish and grief into poetry, as poets have done for thousands of years. Most of us read about the assaults sustained by those women and girls online, connecting with their words through machines. Here, we learn about their flesh and blood, their spirit, in a profoundly different — indeed, a classic — form, in poems. When poems are made of fear and rage, do the readers of those poems feel fear and rage? When art is made of pain, does it hurt its audience? Or does it teach that audience about pain in a way they will absorb and comprehend, creating deep levels of empathy?
The latter effect is surely likely for Shawn Aveningo Sanders’ poems, poems that persist in questioning personal responsibility over decades, struggling yet to understand. The variety of form the poet has chosen (compelling in its inclusion of lists, erasures, rhyming stanzas), and the characters she has included (her own children, years later; the girl she saved from the rapist who attacked her) are notable choices, moving readers from personal history, the event itself—still burning inside the body of the poet, to social history in this time of burning revelation.
—Judith Arcana, poet & activist for reproductive rights,
author of Announcements from the Planetarium
Instead of pretty, she felt like a whore. A toga—it was a toga she wore. This, from a poem in Shawn Aveningo Sanders’ What She Was Wearing, feels like a call to every “mythology” of rape: the fraternal sexual assault under the guise of Greek hedonism, the dismissal of damage, and the culture of secrecy and shame. Shawn’s work reminds me that riveting poetry sometimes is not so much about the language and the “craft” as it is the bravery and the honesty—the simplicity of reality and rawness of emotion. This bareness is what is fresh and unflinching in Shawn’s work. Wearing a toga is not inviting gang rape. Being able to unmask the predators/the past is the voicing of courage. She wears it well.
—Leslie Anne Mcilroy, award-winning poet
& co-founder of HEArt, Human Equity through Art
What She Was Wearing begins with the author’s violation by men whom she once considered friends. The reader is not permitted to look away as Shawn Aveningo Sanders recounts a terrifying story that is all too familiar, a maddening reminder that rape can happen to anyone, anywhere, without warning. These poems also remind us of the damage caused by blaming the victim. What She Was Wearing demonstrates how sexual assault impacts the entirety of the survivor’s life and shows us how one can fight their way back to feeling whole again.
Unfortunately, the story Aveningo Sanders shares is one of many. Books like this one ought to be distributed to our daughters and sons so that one day sexual violence will no longer be a commonplace occurrence. May all who have endured such horrors someday find the strength to tell their story as a step on the road to healing and may each person who reads this book benefit from the poet’s courage to speak truth to power.
—Christopher Luna, Clark County, WA’s inaugural poet laureate (2013-2017),
founder of Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic,
author of Message from the Vessel in a Dream (Flowstone Press, 2018)
I’m a little uncertain how to adequately express my admiration, if admiration is the right word to use when the subject is gang rape of an innocent, but Shawn Aveningo Sanders’ poetry on this brutal subject stunned me. As a fellow #MeToo survivor, all 25 poems in the book spoke to me, but particularly “Can’t Hide the Truth,” in such an unusual form; “How to Survive Suicide,” for its last lines, Wake up / thirty-five hours later and wonder/ if anyone noticed you were gone; as well as the persona poems, but especially the title poem, “I Am What She Was Wearing”—for that last stanza, written from the toga’s voice. These poems promise to build a bridge of solidarity for an untold number of women. It’s also a must-read for young men.
—Sharon Wood Wortman, poet, storyteller
author of The Portland Bridge Book
About the Author
Shawn Aveningo Sanders grew up in St Louis, Missouri and after a bit of globetrotting finally landed in Portland, Oregon, where she miraculously overcame her lifelong fear of birds upon meeting two baby juncos in her backyard. She believes poetry is the perfect literary art form for today’s fast-paced world, due to its power to stir emotion in less than two minutes.
Shawn wasn’t always a writer. She graduated Summa cum Laude and earned a degree in Computer Science with a minor in Marketing from University of Maryland, while working for U.S. Army Logistics in Stuttgart, (West) Germany. Through the years, she’s been a software developer, real-estate agent, productivity coach, soccer mom, PTA president, website designer, and book publisher/designer. At various crossroads, her inner-muse would appear, urging Shawn to follow her passion for poetry.
Since 2008, Shawn’s work has appeared globally in over 150 literary journals and anthologies. She’s a Pushcart nominee (2015), Best of the Net nominee (2017), co-founder of The Poetry Box® press, as well as managing editor for The Poeming Pigeon. She was named Best Female Poet-Performer in the Sacramento News & Review Reader Poll (2009) and was winner of the first poetry slam in Placerville, California (2012).
Shawn is a proud mother of three amazing adults, and she shares the creative life with her husband, Robert. You can learn more about her at RedShoePoet.com.
Book Launch & Readings