In my early 20s, as part of a training program in psychotherapy, I had the opportunity to sit through a series of observership cases with my guide/mentor who specializes in doing work with women who experienced PTSD/MDD. After one of the more harrowing sessions, the young girl we were consulting with waited back for the psychiatrist to hand over some official papers. It was quite late and we were the only two people in the waiting room. She asked me if she could smoke and I pointed her towards the adjoining terrace. The aftermath of any emotionally heavy therapeutic session distills itself into a shared silence between the people involved in it. Being an observer whose presence the patient/client has consented to doesn’t make it any easier. I accompanied her to the small, open space and she slipped out of her kolhapuri sandals to plant her feet firmly on the cool marble as if she was reimagining the precision of gravity. She lit a cigarette and offered me one as well but I declined. Wayward smoke curled around her kohl-rimmed eyes and she looked at me directly –
“Am I a bad victim because I was drunk?”
It was an unexpected question. I was probably a couple of years older than her but she afforded me the same authority as she did the practising clinician. I had no answer. I wondered if it was rhetorical but quickly discarded that chain of thoughts because she kept staring me straight in the eye. The silence between us was slowly growing fangs and I could feel their tips edging into my neck. I told her there were no bad victims and that she should consider speaking about this state of mind with the therapist in charge. She brushed off my suggestion and rushed back in with a wry smile hinting at the futility of that conversation.
It has been many years and I have seen many different cases firsthand. But above and beyond that, I have been a case as well. I know the trauma of gendered violence personally. I know its impossibly staunch grip. I have clear memory of memorising the code of its self-defeating chants. I have tumbled out of beds clothed in the dark web of repeated nightmares while clutching my chest like I were on the verge of a cardiac arrest. I don’t merely understand the aftermath of an assault. I have been the aftermath of an assault.
And in all the years I have fought its grip, I have also allowed myself room for failures and fault-lines despite a larger societal expectation that as a survivor, I need to behave as per onerous standards set for survivors of abuse. Women who get raped and/or assaulted are expected to “perform” trauma for their stories to be believable. They have to look broken, act broken and continue to sink deeper in their brokenness for the sake of credibility. It is almost like being hurt is not bad enough, you have to keep digging deeper into the wound to show you really were hurt. Flimsy questions about plausibility, evidence, hair-splitting details that are designed to question the character of a victim not the violence of a perpetrator need complete and immediate cancellation.
Here is why : There are no good survivors. They don’t need to be.
There is no right way to survive an assault. More importantly, the invasive conjecturing frothing at the mouths of complacent cynics who never escape the shell of being a bystander, should hardly be priority for anyone who is trying to reacquaint themselves with their own life.
I am here for the “bad” survivors. Those who occasionally went back to their abusers because they were unsure, incapable of finding a firmer path to bolt and run. I am here for those who were in prolonged relationships with their abusers and made them breakfasts through a barrage of tears because they had nowhere else to go. I am here for the girls who got drunk and weren’t cognizant of whether consent was given or extorted. I am here for the women who didn’t report their assault because they were convinced that their past will be dragged under a microscope and the humiliation of one night would eventually turn into a chronic debasement. I am here for those who retracted their statements because familial pressure thwarted their ability to stand up for themselves. I am here for those who don’t fit the cut of that cloth which was tailored to my fortitude or vehemence. I don’t understand the exact comorbidity of motives but I do understand that they need my support as well.
Because the good survivor myth is a form of violation too. It forces a woman to abandon her own narrative and transform herself into a half-baked yet easily digestible morsel of untruth. I hear the murmured eye-rolling of but-what-was-she-wearing and the lizard-tongued tut-tutting about how sex workers can’t be assaulted. I witness the casual hand gestures to snidely dismiss domestic and intimate partner violence as “part and parcel” of a relationship. I am frozen by fear when my friend, a child psychologist, informs me about young girls conditioned into believing that they are responsible for their own abuse.
When a giant wave comes crashing at you, your first instinct isn’t to look around and see how other people will perceive the awkwardness of your movements. No. You do what it takes to save yourself. Import that same logic when trying to assimilate information about gendered violence and its survivors. There is no mandate for a finishing school for survivors. Human behaviour tosses its frequency across a wide spectrum and you can’t beseech it into a dubious binary.
In 2016, I started The Mira Project to harness the power of individualized storytelling while combating the pervasive, multi-headed hydra of gendered violence. I invited women and woman-identified, non-binary folks to explore their own encounters with street harassment, cat-calling and this whole venomous facade of “boys will be boys” culture by using poetry, photography and art as a channel of response. We don’t offer critiques, we don’t promise solutions. We gather for catharsis; as a community, as multitudes, as a swerving mandala designed to be a mirror for the societies we shape.
Here is my clear instruction sheet to those who engage with us –
Don’t expect a universal language for trauma post assault. Symptoms, signs, withdrawals might be shared across a wide range and demographics but they don’t have to translate into a predictable, practiced manifestation to satisfy your guesstimate.
Don’t pit your theories about an event against the experience of someone who was present and suffered. This is not a competition.
Don’t demand a neat, easy-to-categorize set of responses from those who battle assault related trauma. Their focus is their own survival and sustenance not the happy fulfillment of your expectations.
Gaslighting is pervasive and a lot of survivors are highly susceptible to it. In a gravely misogynistic world, survivors are forced into validating their injury and their healing through the eyes of others. These micro-aggressions are a form of systematic plunder of self confidence and faith. These pitiful re-occurrences are corrosive and can hollow some to a husk for no fault of theirs.
Your political agenda, communal crusades, cache of -isms can’t be played out against the backdrop of someone’s trauma. You do not have the permission to trigger them in order to politicize their survival for your own brand building. I am not avowed to your version of “solidarity” till I am ready to willfully enter my own waking which in all probability will never match yours and am ok with that. I will not be rushed. You will not rush me. You don’t own my story, I do. This is not a debate. In the very least, my life refuses to be the rocket fuel for your social media.
Back off when asked to back off. This is simple and easily doable.
People heal in their own time and for that they need to find their own space.Don’t crowd it. Don’t try to dictate their expanse. Don’t attempt to extrapolate the historical data of their traumas unless you are their therapist. They haven’t asked for it and your intrusion is pestilence.
There are no good survivors. Surviving assault is hard. Surviving abuse is hard. Surviving is hard. Period.
Don’t make it harder by questioning the veracity of someone’s survival when you are completely blind to their struggles.
This essay originally appeared in Feministing.
Scherezade Siobhan is an Indo-Rroma Jungian social scientist, community catalyst, and author. She is the author of a chapbook, Bone Tongue (Thought Catalog Books, 2015) , a full-length poetry collection, Father, Husband, (Salopress UK), poetry pamphlet,”to dhikr, i” (Pyramid Editions, forthcoming) & a second full length collection “The Bluest Kali” (Lithic Press, Forthcoming). She is the creator and curator of The Mira Project, a global dialogue on women’s mental health, gendered violence, and street harassment. She can be found squeeing about militant bunnies, here, or @ zaharaesque on twitter/fb/ig.