Sen. Scott Brown - the face that launched a thousand talk shows
Listening Sunday afternoon to a radio show of interviews with men who have experienced sexual abuse as victims of it, I found myself irked by the way the host and his guest experts repeatedly referred to these men as “survivors.” I was going to write that day about poetry criticism, but lucky you, I am going to share with you my irkedness instead.
I’ve never liked the sobriquet “survivor.” It’s inaccurate at best and usually false. In most cases, including mine, the sexual abuse did not constitute any kind of existential threat. And in the cases where the abuse did involve some credible threat to the victim’s continued existence, it usually was conditional and ancillary to the abuse itself, for example, “Tell anybody about this and I’ll kill you,” or a result of the victim’s own reaction to what happened, for example, self-medication to the point of addiction. I became dependent on marijuana. I kicked this dependency. Does this make me a “survivor”?
“Survivor,” with its melodramatic punch, seems to me to shove away the hard and sordid and complex reality of what really goes on during sexual abuse and in the long years afterwards. It telescopes the whole difficult process into one big happy ending. Like people rescued from a life raft, the “survivors” get handed ashore and congratulated on their luck and fortitude and sent on their way. The audience to this gratifying spectacle doesn’t have to spend any time thinking about what exactly it is that they “survived” and why there are so many of them and how seamlessly it all fits into our society.
So don’t call me a “survivor.” At a very early age I had experiences that I should not have had, and these experiences bent my life in all sorts of ways and sent me in all sorts of directions that, in retrospect, were less healthy than other directions I might have gone. “As the twig is bent…”
All this happened on a level beneath consciousness. I was sexually manipulated, in the most literal sense of that word, at a very early age by a woman caregiver. I have no idea what her motivation was, but I suspect it was the way she knew to mollify a man. I also suspect that at some point in her life she had been sexually mistreated, and so she also may have been acting out some of the feelings she had as a consequence of that. At the time, of course, I had no idea what was going on, and no way to process it. I had no context within which to understand it, and barely any context for my perceptions of it. It became part of that armature of unexamined experience that I carried forward into the world, the inchoate, inarticulate basis of so many of my reactions, aversions, and tropisms. I dismissed it from my consciousness for most of the next four decades, for lack of a place to put it.
I don’t want to engage here in the debate about “recovered memory,” except to say that of course it is a phenomenon that is subject to faking, distortion, and outside influence, and also to say emphatically that the “experts” who deny it exists are ignorant about how memory actually works in the real world. When my daughter was born, I found myself struggling with a whole lot of rage. I had no idea where it came from and of course it was entirely inappropriate to the situation. With the help of a very good therapist, over the next year or so I figured it out. It had many roots. My childhood experience of sexual abuse was primary among them.
There came a time when I wanted to tell my parents what I had learned. It came out one day when we were standing in my kitchen. I had been particularly worried about my mother’s reaction. My abuser was someone of whom she had been very fond, and in whose care she had left me. Even for someone less emotionally layered and hidden than my mom, those factors of affection and guilt, added to the potential unreliability of testimony based on recovered memories, could have produced denial or rejection. Instead, she looked me in the eye and said, “Oh, honey, I am so sorry.”
Instead of the mawkish, congratulatory-pity of being called a “survivor,” how much better it is to be told, “We love you and we are sorry you were injured.” I think that is what everyone who has suffered sexual abuse and its aftermath really wants to hear. For that to happen, though, we would need to live in a society capable of rising above its own guilt and denial. Too bad. My mother was truly an exceptional person.