The wall of abuse

Amidst the news of catastrophic earthquakes, hurricanes and attacks on innocent people, the announcement of Bill Cosby’s retrial date being set has understandably slipped under the radar. The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein may refocus attention on influential people and their abuse of power through sexual assault.

Cosby’s retrial will undoubtedly find its place in the headlines when it is held in April, 2018. The female complainant will again be questioned about her relationship with Cosby ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ the assault.

It will be another sensationalized nightmare.

I have been deeply troubled by the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby trials, specifically about the witnesses who have been dragged over the coals, both in the courtroom and in the public sphere. I recognize the confusion people feel over why women waited to speak out and continued to have contact with their abusers. It seems baffling to some that the women appeared to have interactions with these men that could be considered “non-fearful” or contrary to the expected reactions the abusive actions invoked. The women might not know their own motivations. They were in a state of trauma, in unfamiliar and shaky territory.

There is no manual, no “victim behaviour for the recently sexually assaulted” handbook.

I wish these women had not been in contact with their abusers after their assaults but they were. I wish that for their own sake, not because it was wrong. I cannot explain their reasons. Most importantly, I cannot judge them. We do not know what they went through at the time of their assaults or before or after.

Everyone views the evidence presented in trials through the lens of their societal norms – yet, what is the ‘norm’ for a traumatized person in a post-assault situation? What is the ‘right’ or reasonable way for a person to act when their right and reasonable expectations of normalcy are distorted by violence?

Does the fact the women reached out to their abusers, in some way – even some way which seems inconceivable to outsiders – does it mean the abuse didn’t happen, that it wasn’t “that bad”?

The way I see it, once you are assaulted, your life has a line. A clear, indelible line. The pre- and post-assault lives. You can want to be on the ‘before’ side of the line, desperately. You may behave in a way that, for a moment, is like ‘before’ in hopes that you can figure out what the hell happened, why it happened, how it happened. But you cannot be there. Because, it’s not really a line.

It’s a wall.

These women were thrown over that wall into a disorienting, foreign place.

From person to victim. From subject to object.

I want these women to be believed, listened to and understood because of what happened, what bricks and mortar built their wall. That is what they deserve.

I want them to be believed because they have spent so much time and energy trying to be believed. They have been questioned and doubted. They have doubted and questioned themselves. They have thought and wondered and worried that they did something to deserve their abuse. That they are somehow responsible for something that they had no control over.

When these women went to trial, they knew that they would be questioned as to why they kept in contact with their abusers. They were aware they would be judged, possibly more harshly than the person accused.

Ultimately, though, they had to move forward: they knew that they were victimized. They knew that a person in power overpowered them, mentally, emotionally and physically.

The women had come to a place where the knowledge that the abuse was wrong was stronger than the fear of taking the stand. The cost of staying quiet was too high.

The women took the stand and they said what needed to be said. They bravely stood on the wall and looked back at the past. And the system, the process, tried to Humpty Dumpty them. They were broken, never to be put back together again in quite the same way.

You can explain everything and still not be understood. Still be blamed for your victimization.

So, yes, to many, the actions seem out of place with what these women say they are feeling and what they have experienced at the hands of their abusers.

I see things differently: these women were trying to work with the cards they were dealt, even when no one explained the ‘game’ or the ‘rules’ and no one explained the hundred new ways they could lose.

I cannot imagine what having to disclose both their abuse and their subsequent actions has done to these women.

Retraumatization is a word that comes to mind.