Lara Naughton’s vacation in Belize took a horrifying turn when she was kidnapped by a cab driver and raped. She survived, she says, by exercising compassion for her captor, listening to him for clues to his life that might help her to escape. Now Naughton, a writer and chair of the creative writing department at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, has written a memoir about her experience. We spoke to her recently about her book and what she hopes to accomplish.
Q: Your book describes a terribly traumatic event in your life. It seems very brave to be so open and publish a book about it. Why did you decide to do that?
A: In "The Jaguar Man," I grapple with the trauma of being kidnapped and raped at knifepoint while traveling in Belize, along with the unexpected compassion that arose from that experience. When I returned from Belize, I started writing the book as a way to help myself understand who and what I had just encountered. I also quickly discovered that I hold a perspective that isn’t always shared: That it’s both my right as a victim to get well, and my right as a victim that my rapist get well. I wanted to publish the book as my contribution to the larger, national conversation about sexual violence, about the way we care for each other (or don’t), and ultimately about how there’s room for compassion in hard places.
Q: How did you survive?
A: My rapist, who I refer to as “the jaguar man," talked incessantly about his life, which gave me insight into his pain, anger and sense of disconnection. Sexual violence is never justifiable, and he was obviously trying to soothe his rage in a horrifying, criminal way, but it was clear I was caught in the web of his pain. I realized that if I wanted to survive, he would have to change. So I began to care for him at the place of his pain. I responded to what he said with kindness and concern, I counseled and calmed him, and eventually his anger dissolved enough that he lowered his knife. I didn’t walk out of the encounter untouched, but I walked out alive.
Q: How did you change?
A: At first I was confused, emotionally numb, and unable to express my deep grief. Then healing became a communal process. I told people I trusted about the experience, received expert counseling, learned to meditate, and returned to Belize many times to make peace with the place, all of which emboldened and grew me in healthy ways. I had so many questions about the nature and power of compassion, I also enrolled in the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University and became a certified compassion cultivation trainer. For me, healing hasn’t been a linear process and holding compassion takes work, but I know for certain that great gifts can come from the most challenging circumstances.
Q: What is it that you want society to understand about women and sexual assault?
A: All genders are raped and all genders rape. The majority of victims, however, are female, and the majority of offenders are male. Rape is usually seen as a women’s issue because it affects so many of us (1 in 6 women will experience a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault). But how many men does it take to assault 1 in 6 women? These men must be all around us. By and large, they’re not getting caught, not getting punished, and not getting better. Sexual assault has nothing to do with the victim. I think we need to train our focus on the men, examine the root causes of their sexual violence, and intercept violence before it builds. It shouldn’t be a woman’s responsibility to not get raped. In my opinion, rape is a public health issue, a public safety issue, and ultimately a men’s issue that ought to be addressed by men, for men. In that way, we will all be safer.
Q: What is your life like now, and what are you working on?
A: It’s rewarding to see different interests intersect. In addition to teaching at NOCCA, I started a project called CompassionNOLA. I’ve been offering compassion cultivation training, and also incorporating compassion practices into personal narrative writing retreats for people who want to tell their own stories. With the release of "The Jaguar Man," I’m talking a lot about rape, which I’m glad for because we need to work together to address the epidemic. I also get to have conversations about compassion. We all have challenges, and we all suffer. Finding compassion for ourselves and others can help ease the pain.