The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’

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Illustration by Javier Jaen

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016

FOR MOST OF her life, Virginia Woolf suffered from what she called “looking-glass shame,” an aversion to seeing herself in mirrors. She wrote about it late in her career, not long before her suicide, recalling that the trouble began with one particular mirror. It hung in the hall of her family home, and when she was about 6, her half brother Gerald Duckworth lifted her onto a nearby table and put his hands under her clothes.

Woolf’s other half brother, George Duckworth, also began molesting her a few years later, paying her almost nightly visits for a time. She would go on to speak and write publicly about the abuse, which continued into her 20s — even confronting George — but mirrors continued to distress her. “It is so difficult,” she wrote, with uncharacteristic and moving awkwardness, “to give any account of the person to whom things happen.”

The question of what posture to take toward our own pain is unexpectedly complicated. How do we understand our own suffering — with what words and to what ends? Does great suffering always diminish us? These are the kinds of currents swirling around the word “survivor,” the increasingly popular term for people who have experienced sexual violence. Commonly used to describe those who had endured the Holocaust, the word was picked up by feminist groups organizing against the sexual abuse of children in the 1980s and has since broadened in scope and gone mainstream. At the Academy Awards in February, Lady Gaga performed her Oscar-nominated song for “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus rape, accompanied by 50 men and women who had been assaulted, their arms painted with words like “survivor.” A day later, she spoke out about being raped as a teenager. “51, surviving and thriving,” she captioned a group photograph on Instagram. On social media, people post messages of support to themselves or others with the hashtag #survivorloveletter. “You are not what they took from you,” one woman writes to her younger self. “You are the monument of survival and recovery you erected in its place … you are a queen.”

The word has caught on with law enforcement, the Department of Justice and the White House Task Force on campus safety: “We are here to tell sexual-assault survivors that they are not alone,” its first report announced in 2014. A “survivors’ rights act” intended to “empower survivors to make more informed decisions throughout the criminal justice process” and demanding longer preservation of rape kits, among other things, was recently introduced in the Senate.

The evolving legal definition of rape has always been a bellwether of changing attitudes to race and gender, and the legitimacy of “survivor” signals a subtle but important shift in thinking about sexual violence. The historian Estelle B. Freedman has argued that the story of rape in America “consists in large part in tracking the changing narratives that define which women may charge which men with the crime of forceful, unwanted sex and whose accounts will be believed.” But, with a few exceptions, there have been few historical records of how victims of violence have named and understood their own experiences.

After all, for much of history, the “good” rape victim, the “credible” rape victim has always been a dead one, a serviceable symbol of defiled innocence around whom a group can rally — a suicide like Lucretia, whose rape catalyzed the founding of the Roman Republic, or any of the Catholic Church’s patron saints of rape victims (none of whom, incidentally, were raped; they martyred themselves instead). In literature, women have been ingeniously silenced: In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” they’re turned into birds and trees. One has her tongue cut out to keep her from testifying — a grisly and beloved trope that reappears everywhere from “Titus Andronicus” to “The World According to Garp.”

But beginning in the 1970s, books like “Kiss Daddy Goodnight,” “I Never Told Anyone” and “The Courage to Heal,” which collected first-person narratives of women who had experienced incest and child sexual abuse, brought the issue to the fore of public consciousness. Continue reading