Readers should be advised that this article contains mentions of sexual assault.
There is a pervasive cultural image of “The Good Survivor.”
The Good Survivor can be seen on television, in Lifetime movies and in those real-life stories of sexual violence which we choose to highlight.
The Good Survivor is white, middle class and was attacked by a stranger. She fought back. She wasn’t drunk, she wasn’t on drugs and she wasn’t in a relationship with her rapist.
She is straight, and young, and articulate. She immediately goes to the police, who believe her, and her rapist is prosecuted. He goes to jail, and she moves on. The movie ends there, with the implication that she has been changed but not traumatised, and that her rape was a mechanism by which she became “strong”. She forgives her attacker. She’s not a victim, you see. She’s a survivor.
I loathe her.
Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry wrote, “man has the right and the privilege to declare himself in disagreement with every natural occurrence, including the biological healing that time brings about. What happened, happened. This sentence is as true as it is hostile to morals and intellects.”
Améry felt that when forgiveness is made a virtue, unforgivingness becomes the victim’s vice. The desire that victims forgive their abusers comes not from any wish for the victim to find closure, but to show that the victim was not irrevocably damaged. It absolves not only the attacker but those who allowed it.
When I was three-years- old, I trustingly followed my favourite uncle down to the basement. We were going to play a game.
The “game” didn’t end until he died five years later. In time, he started taking pictures.
I never told anyone. I didn’t fight it. There was a part of me, an isolated child with few friends her own age, that relished in the attention. It wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t right. But you can reconcile many things. I thought that I was special.
In a movie, one of the Good Survivor kinds, my mother would have noticed, or I would have told her, and we would have gone to the police. They would have used my testimony to take down my uncle and the men he shared my images with. I would have emerged triumphant.
In reality, I dissociate completely when anyone touches my neck.
It is popular to refer to rape victims only as “survivors.” I understand that this gives many of those people strength, and I would never condemn anyone’s methods of understanding their own trauma.
I didn’t “survive” my rape as one might a forest fire. It was not an act of God. It was a crime, and I was the victim.
I was once given a workbook that subtitled itself “From surviving to thriving!”.
I hated it. I hated it more when it became apparent that the book and others like it were focused on helping return people their identity and sense of self that they had before their rape.
I was raped before I knew how to read. The background of my early childhood is one of profound trauma, but one which was my normality. There is no returning to some previous whole. If I was broken, I was broken so early and so often that there is no me without this brokenness.
If this seems to you to be clinging to victimhood, understand that I cling to it in a context which so desperately wants me to forget. A culture which so desperately wants me to stop talking about it, to stop feeling its effects — the emphasis on survivorship in feminist communities has often struck me as being terribly insensitive to those of us who have to remind ourselves that what happened was a crime. If we are traumatised, if we are broken, it is because we have experienced something that was designed to break us.
I take my strength from being broken, from these proofs I have that I was hurt by someone’s deliberate choice rather than an amorphous inevitability.
I refuse to forget. I refuse to forgive. I refuse to rationalise.
I was the victim of a crime. This sentence is as true as it is hostile to morals and intellects.