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Dec. 21, 2022

Episode 59: Pursuing Healing After Sexual Assault with Robert Uttaro

Robert, or Bobby, as he likes to be called, is a rape crisis counselor for the last 15 years. He joins us today to talk about his experience in that field to encourage us to know about the resources in our local communities, so that we can be good friends to others who have experienced this. Or, if we have experienced it ourselves to know that there is help available out there. He has written a book titled, To the Survivors.

Robert Uttaro is currently in his 15th year as a rape crisis counselor and community educator. Inspired by his undergraduate studies in Criminal Justice, he continues to embrace a lifelong commitment to activism and advocacy for survivors of sexual violence. Serving as a counselor, Uttaro supports rape survivors and their significant others through mental, emotional, spiritual, and legal issues. He also facilitates workshops that unpack the realities of sexual violence and offers strategies for support and prevention with a focus on healing. Uttaro has been featured in magazine publications across the country and on international radio broadcasts. Through the grace of God, Uttaro's work and his book To the Survivors continue to impact peoples’ minds and hearts globally.

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🎶 Podcast Intro: Welcome to the pursuing uncomfortable podcast, where we give you the encouragement you need to lean into the uncomfortable stuff life puts in front of you, so you can love your life. If you are ready to overcome all the yuck that keeps you up at night, you're in the right place. I am your host, Melissa Ebken let's get going. 🎶

🎶 Episode Intro: Hi, welcome back to the podcast. Robert, or Bobby, as he likes to be called, is joining us today. He has been a rape crisis counselor for 15 years. He joins us today to talk about his experience in that field to encourage us to know about the resources in our local communities, so that we can be good friends to others who have experienced this. Uh, or if we have experienced it ourselves to know that there is help available out there. He also has written any book titled, To the Survivors. Let's meet Bobby. 🎶


Melissa Ebken  0:01  
Bobby Uttaro, welcome to the Pursuing Uncomfortable podcast. How're you doing today?

Robert Uttaro  0:06  
I'm doing well. Thank you for having me. How are you?

Melissa Ebken  0:09  
I'm doing great. Thank you. Although I have to say a few days ago, here in Illinois, it was summer and 75. And now it's in the 30s. And we're gonna have snow tonight. So otherwise, I'm great.

Robert Uttaro  0:22  
Good luck with that.

Melissa Ebken  0:23  
Yeah, how are things out on the East Coast?

Robert Uttaro  0:27  
Same, actually, it's been really warm. And then today, it's been pretty cold. So I am getting ready for the winter.

Melissa Ebken  0:32  
Yeah. Well, Bobby, you do some amazing work. And I would love to just jump right in and get to the heart of what you do. Can you tell us a little bit about your job, and we'll take it from there.

Robert Uttaro  0:45  
Sure. So for anyone who's listening, I am a rape crisis counselor and public educator, so I do my best to help people affected by sexual assault in any way I can. And that's obviously a very heavy topic. So for anyone listening to please take care of yourself, you know, during this podcast, and after, so please do whatever it is that brings you peace, could be running, writing, you know, praying, music, dance, something, just take care of yourself after. So yeah, I've been doing this work now for about 15 years, trying my best and my own, you know, flawed human self to help people anyway can. So that can be direct counseling that can be, you know, working with students on presentations that can be working with significant others and family members, and even hopefully, in ways that we might be able to prevent things as well. So I love working with people, I love talking to people like yourself. And when I work with different schools or organizations, I try my best to cater to their needs, and whatever they think is relevant for that specific population at the time surrounding these issues.

Melissa Ebken  1:53  
So it sounds like you have a lot of different areas that you cover, you are the person sometimes on the phone, if somebody calls in sometimes you're the person that's out in the community, giving information and education to encourage people to do what they need to do in their next steps for their healing, whatever that might be. You're out there talking to other folks about how they can be a support. And then you get into the legal stuff, how they can access what they need, emotionally, financially, and in other ways. That's a pretty broad experience you have,

Robert Uttaro  2:31  
It's interesting, when you bring up the legality, I've never once and will never tell people to that they must go to court, they must go to the police. But if they if that's something they want to and choose to, though, I would support them, we get other people to support them as well. And I recently have a woman now, who is was interested in doing that. But she really, she said she can't do it. And I said what do you mean, you can't do it like meaning? Do you not want to do it? Or do you really think you can't do it? Because it was two different things. And she's just not in the place. And that's okay. And she doesn't have to but if there is a desire for her to, you know, report crimes about her perpetrator, that she doesn't have to do that alone. And if not, she won't do it.

Melissa Ebken  3:15  
Now, those of us outside of that situation don't realize the many and broad legal issues that surround assault. And since we're here, let's just jump into that real quick, some legal issues and HR issues that surround this, can you inform us a little bit about what women are up against in these situations and men, because rape doesn't only happen to women, right?

Robert Uttaro  3:43  
Women and men and children, you know, people of all backgrounds, people of all genders. It's tough, because, you know, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a judge. You know, I'm not a police officer. And I'm not a politician. So what I do know is that this is is the least reported violent crime. And so often it's kind of hidden in secrecy and shame. And so often, there's really not much evidence or any evidence at all. So when people are possibly pursuing legal action, it's very difficult for many reasons, it's very difficult to talk to someone about these issues is difficult to talk to police, it's difficult to, if you know, the perpetrator to actually speak against that person that you know, even if you know, could be a family member or close friend. So there's all these different reasons, but also, if there's no evidence at all, even if a district attorney, you know, would love to pursue this in court, they might not be able to because there's just no way they could ever get a conviction at all. So even people within the court system want to work with people and try to help them but sometimes given the lack of evidence, there's really nothing they can do. One of the main reasons why that's really never my focus, unless it is something is important to someone. My focus is their life, their health. their empowerment their growth, that to hopefully have this not, you know, cripple and destroy people. And to let people know, a big part of my message is to let people know that hope is out there, hope really does exist, people really do heal. People really do live functional and healthy lives, with relationships and marriages with children, throughout their lives, even through something as horrific as this.

Melissa Ebken  5:24  
What are the financial implications for someone who has experienced this assault

Robert Uttaro  5:30  
Could be many different things. If it could be housing, what if you're, essentially, if you're married, and your husband, if your husband is sexually abusing you, and you try to leave. If, especially if that person controls the finances, or you know, now you have to get your own apartment, possibly, you know, all those kinds of different issues with moving could be quite expensive. There could be many different financial reasons, if you look at the health care system, or just, you know, having to possibly go to therapy if they choose to pay, but if they don't have insurance, housing is a big one. But also, you look at maybe our prison population, and many of our many of our female inmates specifically, have been sexually abused, abused in many different ways. There's definitely a massive connection of our prison population of sexual abuse. And that costs taxpayers tons of money. So that's kind of two different ways in which this could affect people's finances. Or even if someone really is struggling, and what if they can't function in their job? What if they, you know, can't, if they possibly drop out of school, or they can't function of the job, but they ultimately become addicted to substances, how that can trickle down into finances.

Melissa Ebken  6:51  
I'm sitting here thinking that if an assault happens, you may or may not want to report it, as you have mentioned, and no judgment either way there; a person has to do what is best for him or her. However, healing has to happen. So if someone has been assaulted, and they have a full time job, how do they move forward there? What if they're not ready to talk about it, but they need time off? How do you manage that situation?

Robert Uttaro  7:24  
It's really difficult. I don't think there's an easy answer to that at all. I think many people don't take time off. They, one woman recently said to me, she couldn't fathom how people can experience, you know, certain kinds of trauma, and then kind of get on with their day and just kind of almost put on a face because I think she can't do that. So I think people all around us, you know, all around us are going to school, work, being with their families, and hiding a lot. I think we all had things at times. So not everyone does take time off. If if that was if there was a an employer, for sake of argument that was open to giving extra time off for something given. If they even knew the truth, that'd be a really interesting conversation to have. I don't know how many employers would do that, you know. So I think many people just kind of go on with their days, and they, they suffer often in silence. And this can impact many different aspects of their lives, almost all aspects of their lives. So but it's really challenging. However, people can still sometimes work as a great distraction. For people in suffering, sometimes, it's really healthy to get up and go to work, you know. So it's a whole mix up a whole mix up.

Melissa Ebken  8:41  
Yeah. Unless the perpetrator is in the workplace, then that would be a whole new layer of 

Robert Uttaro  8:42  
Or maybe someone will try to move from that job. Maybe they try to get into a different job. Maybe they try their best to get away or yeah, they have to see that person every day or most days of the week.

Melissa Ebken  9:03  
So many layers to this issue, beyond what we see on TV in those popular TV police dramas. There are a lot of different ways, as we've mentioned, that you work in your environment to help folks that approach you. Tell us a little bit about what it's like to go out to places and inform and educate folks.

Robert Uttaro  9:28  
I love it. It's actually you know, people really think it's incredibly depressing work. And it can't be at times, but it's actually awesome. It's incredibly fulfilling. And you see people who are really interested, really engaged, you see people shaking, you see people triggered, and then you might be able to even have counseling on the spot and really impact people's lives in that moment in time. But I love interacting with people. I love listening to people and that's a big part of my work is actually listening. It's more important for me to listen, than to speak. So yeah, being out in communities, different events, again, I keep mentioning schools, being with our youth. And really hearing from them is is is awesome. And I really love it, I highly recommend anyone, if they if they have a passion for it, if they feel a call to do this, to get involved and go do it.

Melissa Ebken  10:22  
I know of maybe one, possibly two places to recommend to someone or to turn to if I needed those services, but I'm guessing they're a little more prevalent than what we might imagine. Is it difficult to get the word out that you exist that these centers, these places for help are around in our communities?

Robert Uttaro  10:46  
Oh, yeah. Very difficult, but doesn't mean you don't keep trying.

Melissa Ebken  10:52  
Yeah, for sure. 

Robert Uttaro  10:54  
And that's one more reason I'm very appreciative that you would speak to me today, you know, because this is one way out of many ways that we can get really good messages out to people.

Melissa Ebken  11:03  
Yeah. What would you say to someone to be a support? If, if someone comes to me, and tells me about an assault or an experience that they've had, what would be your best wisdom for me to be a supportive person in that situation?

Robert Uttaro  11:22  
I give a tool, it's an acronym called BLESS. So I ask you to BLESS them. The B stands for believe. So if you if someone comes to you and shares something, not just with assault, but anything but specifically say with a rape or assault, to believe them. When people are not believed it is causing immense danger and damage/destruction. So believing them is just huge. The L is to listen, right? So it's better to listen than to speak. And then when time comes, maybe you might say something or ask a question. But listening is huge in this. The E is empathy. So try to empathize as best as you can, right to do your best to try to attempt to understand what they might be going through what they might be feeling, what they might be thinking. The S is safety. So depending on the situation, to ensure their physical safety, mental, spiritual, emotional safety, to the best of your abilities. And the last one is to support you know, so if they really just want to go grab an ice cream and watch a movie that, you know, you do that with them, you know, if they are like, No, I would love to, I want to go to the police, then you go with them. So really, depending on what the needs are at the time.

Melissa Ebken  12:35  
Is it helpful to say how can I support you in this?

Robert Uttaro  12:39  
Yeah, yeah. How can I help you? Is there anything I can do for you? What do you need? Instead of telling people what to do? It's really important to listen and ask them questions and and see where they're really at. You know, some people would love to call a hotline. Many people don't. Some people would love to go in for counseling, many people don't. You know?

Melissa Ebken  13:00  
And trauma experts tell us that to heal from a trauma, there is so much to be gained by empathetic listening, that if someone can just speak through their experience to someone else, who doesn't judge, doesn't offer advice, just holds the place of safety and listening, that that is huge in healing. Is that your experience as well? 

Robert Uttaro  13:26  
100%. That's what I try to teach people to the best of my ability.

Melissa Ebken  13:33  
And how do we do that best?

Robert Uttaro  13:36  
It's tough, right? I mean, it's, everyone's different. And some people are so quick to judge. Some people are so filled with anger and rage, and they want vengeance. Other people are so shocked, you know, we talked women and men and children are sexually abused, I can tell you that I've seen many men who have looked even worse than their female partners, because they just recently learned that the women they love were raped. So now they're in a deep depression, they don't know what to do. Right. So even listening to them. So yeah, I think it's just important for people to stop talking so much and get out of their own self, get out of their own head, and just attempt to try to put themselves with someone, meeting them where they're at, you know, wherever that may be. And it changes in time that can change and it changes in many different ways. But in that moment, in time, whatever it is to just sit with them, be with them, as you already said, and if you do that, you can change your life, possibly even save a life.

Melissa Ebken  14:41  
That's profound. How did you get into this?

Robert Uttaro  14:44  
All by simple listening. It's not that hard. It's not that complicated. It's quite simple. And we have the ability to do it. 

Melissa Ebken  14:51  
It's pretty miraculous when you think about it. Yeah. How did you get into this work?

Robert Uttaro  14:58  
I was a college senior. I took a class called Women in Crime. So we were learning about, you know, female inmates, female gang members, female aspects of criminal justice. And there was a core, we will read a book on rape, and women from a local crisis center came and spoke to our class. And these three women walked in, and they were like, angels to me. I found them to be so strong and so gentle. And I was really in awe with them that they did this, like full time, like, how do they do this, you know? And then they gave us amazing training. And they showed us a six minute interview of a perpetrator, a reenactment of a perpetrator. And I was so angry, and that rage, scared me actually, that rage, then turned into like a deep disgust where I thought I was gonna throw up in my chair in class. And I knew God was working in me. And I heard God, I heard it, I heard God say, will you help? And I was so nervous and so scared, and every negative thing came at me. And I ultimately just said, Yes. And I asked these women after class, if I could volunteer. There were volunteer opportunities. And they took my information, I ultimately beat a couple people out for an internship. And my life's never been the same. I've been doing it ever since.

Melissa Ebken  16:18  
And you've written a book about it. Yeah. Yeah, thank you for sharing that with me. I've been able to read through that. And it's really opened my eyes to the many different ways that this impacts a person's life. Especially the legalities the workplace. I had a me too moment back in the 80s, when I was in training with the military. And, you know, back then it was a much different day than it is right now, although many things still remain the same. But one of the things that I took away from that is, even though I prevented the assault, I wasn't assaulted. And I didn't do anything wrong. But it was so hard to talk about it, it was so hard to tell that story. And I felt guilt, I felt shame. And I did nothing wrong. I did everything, right. And it's really crippling for anyone to relate those events to talk about it.

Robert Uttaro  17:24  
Yeah, thank you for sharing. How are you doing now? Would you like to talk more about that? Or no.

Melissa Ebken  17:32  
I have had a long time to heal, and to talk about it. And to spend time with people who were empathetic listeners. Even at that time, I had some allies. And that made all the difference to me. The people that I trained with the men that I trained with supported me, and that made it possible to heal. It would have been a much different situation. otherwise. 

Robert Uttaro  17:56  
That's awesome. Yeah. If I was with you, in person, I might ask to give you a hug, but

Melissa Ebken  18:01  
I would take it. Okay, cool. But I think that's something we can overlook, that telling a story brings about so many negative feelings. Yeah, even if it's not logical, right, and to give people space to experience that.

Robert Uttaro  18:19  
And then you say, Thank you, you know, for your strength to share that, to me and to anyone seeing this. And you're right, you didn't do anything wrong. And it is heartbreaking. When people are judged and condemned and blamed for these things when they do nothing wrong. That is one of the deepest parts of this, the self blame that people feel, and then the blame that comes at them from too many people. So I'm very thankful that you had people that treated you well, and you see how different your life has been, and how different it can go in the negative way,and in a destructive way. When we don't believe you, when we don't listen to you. When we treat you poorly. When we blame you. This is causing deep destruction in human beings and in this world. And I'm trying my best to change that in any way I can and you clearly are, as well.

Melissa Ebken  19:16  
Absolutely. And because of the experience I had with other people's support and encouragement, that became one of the most strongest times in my life. That was a hard time, one of the difficult times, but it became an experience that really gave me strength. Had that gone a different way, with the support of other people being lacking, that would have been a much different outcome. Absolutely. Even though there wasn't an assault, and I think we need to highlight that, that an individual doesn't have to have intense physical assault to have huge reactions. Sure. Obviously, when it happens, there is a huge reaction, but never underscore a person's experience thinking, well, the worst didn't happen. Because to them, it did.

Robert Uttaro  20:18  
Agreed, and how it changes so much, and how it can still last in time.

Melissa Ebken  20:24  
For sure. And it's important that men are involved in this work too. 

Robert Uttaro  20:31  
It is, it's important for men. Sorry, I was just gonna say it's important for men to get involved, if they choose. To be kind, and loving to their, you know, to our women, to our men, it's important for people to understand that women commit assaults and that our men, some of our men are very angry and depressed and addicted, because of sexual abuse they've experienced as adults or mostly children. Yeah, it's, it's, it's a serious problem. And anyone, if people out there really do want to get involved, they can. They have the tools, if their heart is in the right place, and they genuinely care about this. They can again, impact and possibly save lives. You know, look at what you're telling me right now look at the impact you've had of your own experiences and what people have done for you and with you, and how special that really is.

Melissa Ebken  21:19  
And I want to thank you for doing the work you do. Thank you.

Robert Uttaro  21:23  
I'll try my best. I try my best.

Melissa Ebken  21:23  
Shall we talk about your book a little bit?

Robert Uttaro  21:25  
If you want to, like I said, if I was there, I'd give you some tissues, too. Yeah. How are you doing? Now? By the way, before I talked about my book, is it okay? Are you okay to express this now?

Melissa Ebken  21:42  
Yeah, absolutely. 

Robert Uttaro  21:43  
Okay, awesome. Yeah, my book To the Survivor is about my journey as a rape crisis counselor with true stories of women and men and one transgendered man who've been raped and sexually assaulted. So it's all in their own words, there's interviews, written stories and poetry. You know, you and I have spoken today about speaking, but there's many different ways we can get this stuff out. And some of that is through writing, right. So if people are writing can be a very powerful way to express yourself and to heal from anything painful in your life. So it shows what happened to them how it happened, how it hurt them, but how they've come out of it. So it's not as depressing as many think, even though it's very difficult to read for so many, and it's very, it's very intense. So if someone's out there, that doesn't want to read it, they shouldn't, right, you don't have to, you know, but knowing that is out there, and it exists. And if there ever comes a time, you want to check it out, feel free to because I believe these stories are so powerful, there's just power in truth, and seeing how they've come out of it is pretty inspirational to me. But it deals with many different issues and issues of legality, of justice and injustice deals with philosophy and spirituality, depression, you know, someone doesn't have to be sexually abused, to be suicidal and depressed, you know. So it deals with a lot. But I hope that it can be a beneficial resource in this world.

Melissa Ebken  23:11  
One of the benefits that I experienced reading this book, it was opening my eyes to the many and broad impacts in a person's life, the issue of the woman in the workplace, I don't want to tell HR, what happened to me, but I need time off, you know. We don't think about those things. But those are out there. And if we work in a place where someone can come to us and need to ask for grace without giving details, maybe this book can help us understand that there are issues that we don't know about, and maybe we don't need to know about. But we can extend a little grace in those situations. Yeah, the book, there are stories, frankly, that I skipped, because I didn't want to go there. And there were, I really appreciated the different manifestations of the agency, you work with; their legal department and their advocacy department, that there are so many ways to be involved in this work.

Robert Uttaro  24:21  
Yeah, I love what you just said; that you skipped over it. More than okay. I hope anyone does that. And like I said, if they want to check it out, if you want to know what it was like, you know, for a man who was sexually abused as a kid, you can flip to the chapter Jim. If you don't, don't you know, I kind of wrote in a certain way that you can pinpoint where you want to go with it. So I'm really glad you did that. And that sounded like a safe choice. And that's awesome.

Melissa Ebken  24:48  
And tell us the name of the book and where we can find it.

Robert Uttaro  24:51  
The name of the book is called To the Survivors and you can find it really on any online retailer. If you just go to amazon.com, Barnes and Nobles, you can just type in my name or the book, and it will show up.

Melissa Ebken  25:03  
And the links are in the show notes. So if you're listening to this, and you want to check out the books, just go to the description, the podcast description, or the show notes and click that link there, and it'll take you right there to get a copy. So we've talked about a lot of different aspects of, of all of this. I'm gonna let you have the last words as we close today, what would you like to share that we haven't talked about yet? What do you really want people to know?

Robert Uttaro  25:32  
Well, first, I just thank you again, you know, for having me on. And for opening up and being vulnerable, you know. You doing that does resonate with people, and it does connect with people. And I think it even gives some people permission, and maybe more confidence to open up to someone. Right, and I can't stress this enough, it doesn't have to be me as many people that don't speak to me. And that's totally that's more than okay, right. But to really open up to someone you love and trust someone that will really treat you well. If you do that and you aren't treated well, if you're treated poorly, to find someone else to not keep this inside, because it will really hurt you. So to find that right person, the right organization, whatever services you need, there are things out there, there are people out there, there are people who will sit and listen to you. Nothing that you have experience is unspeakable. Nothing can't be dealt with as long as you stay alive on this earth. As long as you stay alive. On this earth, we can deal with anything that comes. So knowing that things are out there and that people really do heal. And you're obviously an example of that. So I can't thank you enough and to just tell people that you're not alone, never alone, and it's not your fault to anything that happened to you of what someone else did.

Melissa Ebken  26:58  
And I love that message. You can heal, you can heal, even if it doesn't feel like it at the moment. Know that you can heal,

Robert Uttaro  27:07  
You absolutely can.

Melissa Ebken  27:09  
Thank you Bobby,

Robert Uttaro  27:10  
Yeah, thank you very much.

🎶 Episode Outro: Thank you so much for tuning into today's episode. If this encouraged you, please consider subscribing to our show and leaving a rating and review so we can encourage even more people just like yourself. We drop a new episode every Wednesday so I hope you continue to drop in and be encouraged to lean into and overcome all the uncomfortable stuff life brings your way. 🎶

Robert UttaroProfile Photo

Robert Uttaro


Robert Uttaro is currently in his 15th year as a rape crisis counselor and community educator. Inspired by his undergraduate studies in Criminal Justice, he continues to embrace a lifelong commitment to activism and advocacy for survivors of sexual violence. Serving as a counselor, Uttaro supports rape survivors and their significant others through mental, emotional, spiritual, and legal issues. He also facilitates workshops that unpack the realities of sexual violence and offers strategies for support and prevention with a focus on healing. Uttaro has been featured in magazine publications across the country and on international radio broadcasts. Through the grace of God, Uttaro's work and his book To the Survivors continue to impact peoples’ minds and hearts globally.