February 22, 2007

I’m myself, not an example

Posted in stereotypes, survivors, violence at 2:43 pm by nevavegan

A discussion in the survivors forum got me thinking yesterday about both good and bad experiences I’ve had when sharing stories of my past with others.

I’ve done a lot of that sharing in a lot of settings, the scariest type of sharing is in my “real life” where people know my face and might run into me at the store and interact with me at work, or activities or social settings.

One of the main benefits of opening up about being the victim of abuse and violence has been that it helped me bounce my thoughts off others who’d had similar experiences. It helped me figure out patterns, make sense out of things. By turning to others I’ve found tremendous emotional support.

There have also been cases where the reaction has been less positive for a variety of reasons. I’ve suffered in the past from blurt-ism, which means that someone asks me a question that they probably don’t want a real answer to and I blurt out the whole truthful, ugly answer. And then the other person is just left there, not knowing what to do with this negative information. I’m trying to get that under control, although it’s such a weird balance. I need to understand that while I don’t need to be ashamed of things that have happened in the past, most people don’t need to know.

The sad truth is that though sometimes I can isolate myself to interacting with thoughtful, intelligent, well-read, liberal people, there is a whole different population set out there too. There are a lot of people who don’t get violence, domestic violence, abuse issues, sexual violence and so on. Such people can make very harsh judgments about the victims of violence.

For example, when I was living in New York, a young woman was raped on a subway platform in my neighborhood. Apparently a man with a gun grabbed her, showed her the gun, told her to be quiet, and dragged her to an isolated area away from the crowd and raped her. Many people I knew had a very negative reaction to this story, saying that there were so many people around, why didn’t she just run, why didn’t she scream, why didn’t she try to grab the gun away from him… Of course they were all missing the point of what absolute terror does to a human being. Similarly, at a job a co-worker remarked on a domestic violence news story “Well, apparently it’s not the first time he hurt her, so she must have liked it to stick around.” What can someone like me even say to something like that? The gap of experience and understanding seems huge and unbridgeable.

Given these prevailing attitudes in society it’s very difficult for those of us with past issues to open up, because most of us have played this game in our own heads for years. “Why didn’t I tell someone?” “Why didn’t I try to get help?” “Why did I always believe that it wouldn’t happen again?” And so on. We’re so full of the recriminations of ourselves that to get any such reaction from another person feels like it could totally crush us.

There’s a whole different weirdness that enters this tricky arena as well–an idealization that doesn’t fit and can be equally crushing. I’ve gone (in the past) to a lot of feminist groups and working groups to address violence. In such an environment there are still risks to sharing my story/stories, but there’s also encouragement to share. So many people there have been victimized themselves, so there’s typically a lot of support. And then there’s this: “You’re so brave.” “You’re so strong.” and so on. It’s nice to get compliments, but there’s a point for me where this crosses some line and makes me nervous.

How do I put this? I feel that I have experiences that inform my view on these issues. I feel that experiences that come from real life have a value and immediacy that needs to be present in a discussion on violence and related issues. However, it’s not just real life experience that shapes my views, I’ve also read a lot on these issues, I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve done some hard work. Also, I’m not necessarily right. I have no doubt that what I say and what I believe on these issues is the best view I can come up with for me at the moment, and it was not one easily reached, it’s not coming from a point of ignorance. But should new information become available, I’m totally willing to revise my views, because that’s what learning more is about. So it makes me uncomfortable if someone seems to be setting me up on a pedestal as if my experience gives me the final word.

And that pedestal doesn’t just make me the “resident expert,” a role I don’t think I can fill. It also objectifies me, because it implies that I’m nothing more than the sum of my experience. And because I’m articulate, in those settings, I hate to feel set aside as some kind of example of “the person we want to help.” This is so tricky, but the point is that all victims of violence are different. Some victims of violence are violent themselves actually, and then it is the culture of violence we need to address. Some victims of violence repeatedly put themselves in bad situations and tend to refuse help, but that doesn’t mean they’re less deserving. Some victims of violence are mentally disabled, physically disabled, elderly, or very young, or whatever other conditions limits their ability to help themselves. Some victims of violence don’t do well testifying in court because they aren’t very nice or likable people, but they still deserve help. Some victims of violence are men, and people feel they should be able to defend themselves, but they also don’t deserve to be mistreated.

But to go back to the idealization: I’m not here to necessarily save others. I want to help people, I care about people. But I’m still a person, with other interests and hobbies and my own beliefs. I have a different background and culture from some of the others present as well. I’m not a poster child. I’m not going to like every other survivor I ever meet–sometimes my personality and theirs just won’t mesh. I don’t represent someone else’s goals or illustrate their points.

I’m just me, navigating a difficult existence and trying to find answers and if an answer seems to work for me, I’ll pass it along. It has frightened me in the past, in such group settings, that the leaders often hold some foregone conclusions and then work backwards from those conclusions, looking in the group for examples. To me, I don’t think we have all the answers yet regarding either the roots of violence, the solutions to stopping violence, or on recovery either. I found that some of the accepted “wisdom” didn’t work for me and could actually be damaging or limiting to me. I’m interested in what works, not what tops the best seller list.

Another trap is the feeling that if I share too much information people judge all my ideas and actions subsequently on the basis of that information. I’m not sure what to say on that one. I don’t want to put myself in a position where people have a reason to think less of me and dismiss my ideas. But I also don’t want to hide a huge part of my experience because I’m afraid of ignorance. I have personally had some negative experiences in that regard, where people have claimed that I’m “single issue” because of my background, or that I’m so emotional on topics of violence that I can’t hold a rational view. But there’s a more insidious thing where someone can be very sympathetic, but the stereotype they hold in their mind of what a victim is, makes them underestimate my abilities and input in the future.

The stupidest part of this whole thing for me has actually been, after going through therapy, realizing there are a lot of people out there who don’t handle stress, emotions, conflict, etc. very well. In many cases this isn’t a result of abuse or some kind of traumatic injury; it’s more about growing up without ever being taught good cooperative skills for working with others. So when I consider that, it makes it seem all the ludicrous to me that someone could be thought less of for having had a troubled past, as opposed to being judged on ongoing performance. But it’s always a risk to those of us who open up to others.

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