It’s not unusual for strong women to deny that abuse has harmed them. (Germaine Greer’s interview, and the piece on Claire Denis in the New Yorker.) Refusing victimhood is powerful, life-affirming, says I am bigger than what hurt me – or even, I have always been bigger than that and it had no power to hurt me. It denies victory to the abuser. Yet it is paradoxical that these strong women are speaking openly about the experience of rape in a context where other women have opened the floodgates, and many of them are actively seeking justice against the rapists and talking about the impact of these rapes on their lives. The choice to speak about an event suggests that it is meaningful to the speaker, and merits attention, while the denial of suffering refuses emotional connection whether of pity or empathy, allowing only admiration.
There has always been an aspect of voyeurism, and a distasteful appearance of catering to voyeurism, in any attempt to move public feeling and opinion to oppose injustice. We use terms like ‘disability porn’ or ‘poverty porn’ to describe the salacious telling of stories with details of hardship and degradation at the hands of others in ways that objective the person and expose her private life to public view. It implies that this person’s vulnerability is public property and that she barters her privacy for pity – or if her story has been stolen from her that she has no privacy that anyone else need respect.
But that is a conundrum for survivors of an atrocity. We have the desire to bear witness. We have knowledge that needs to be spoken. The impact of rape, starvation, forced drugging, any form of torture or abuse, is not possible for many of us to deny. All our experience is contextual, one atrocity may pale in light of another, and we bring whatever innocence and strength we possess to these experiences, sometimes discovering hidden weakness or hidden courage. Audre Lorde’s distinction between poetry and rhetoric might be exactly this difference – telling our story to the extent it needs to be told, sharing knowledge, bringing forth what we have inside us, or instrumentalizing our story as a weapon or as currency for achieving social change.
Does law or politics demand that we instrumentalize our stories in ways that make us, or others, public property? I think it is political processes of denial, resistance to change, silencing and suppression, and capitalist media, that shape the double and triple victimization of those who tell their stories of vulnerability in the face of aggression. It is also a specifically patriarchal reinforcement of the public/private divide that treats women’s suffering at the hands of men as shameful; it is our fault for having been born female. The only way out is to be as much like a man as possible by denying this specifically female suffering; they intend us to suffer therefore we will not and earn admiration by colluding with aggression, agreeing that it’s not a big deal and if a woman suffers more than we did it’s her own fault.
In relation to sexual violence, there is a specific demand to prove that we were harmed, because men have long deemed their sexual aggression against women to be natural, desirable, necessary and fun. The assertion of harm is more than an attempt to seek justice for the individual, it demands a change in the overall politics and law that is brought to men’s sexual violence against women. Similarly, telling our stories of being harmed by forced drugging and other psychiatric violence demands policy change because there is no way to achieve justice individually for the vast majority of us, given the permission that is built into the law for these acts of medical aggression against people psychiatrists select as ‘mentally ill’.
Being a survivor as such means that you did not die from the atrocity. Like Irena Klepfisz said about the Holocaust (in the poem Bashert), there is no blame or glory simply for having survived or having not survived. Once it is done, if it is done, you have to live with what you did and didn’t do, with what you learned about yourself and what you learned about other human beings. Suppressing that knowledge, suppressing the emotions and the urge to bear witness not only to the atrocity but to the harm, coming to accept the inability of others to ever fully understand, is also part of the journey; so is telling and sometimes over-telling, seeking relief and finding moments of connection. If survivorship is something active, if it demands action, a choice to live, to take what is offered, to affirm life grudgingly or joyfully, it always has a reference point, a vortex, a moment or process of change, that cannot be escaped. That is the paradox, that survivorship returns to the scene and moves away from it all the time.
Survivorship does not have to be the biggest thing in your life; it might or might not be so depending on who you were when the atrocity happened, the nature of the atrocity, whether you affirmed life and self actively in the midst of the atrocity or got lost, etc. On this memorial day when we can remember all the victims of our country’s wars, let’s also honor the victims and survivors of the dispersed wars and the wars of containment within our own country. Let’s reject and deconstruct the public/private simplistic honor and shaming of patriarchy, and instead honor the victims and survivors as witnesses who teach us about human nature and justice.
what will you remember this memorial day?
you ask and indrawn breath gets me again the leaves want to brush over this for years i have tried to make the memory one like any other memorial day 40 or so years ago not wanting to know the exact number
green leaves hot streets white obliteration walking the breath keeps on when the soul is dead or what does it takes to convince myself i am not soul-dead
what will i remember the small mourning without a stone the bright smile survivorship no room to mourn
second birth, come out fighting (again)
sad and cautious green leaves hot and oppressive enter and be at peace no one will get you there but the memory will never fade
it’s in my aura my mantle my specific gravity these green leaves are cool it’s their place and not the city somewhere there is justice in my heart a song of power and peace and wrongdoing and love a tentative joy a desire to spread my wings the trees all around stronger than i am waiting for me to let go
(c) Tina Minkowitz 2018