And if that sounds stupid, it’s because it is.
I am something of an open book, because I don’t see the value in privacy when I have spent my life trying, and failing, to keep secrets that are not shameful – and then being shamed for them. I also remember the deafening silence around the many things I faced growing up – racism, body image, eating disorders, mental illnesses, sexism, abuse – and I made up my mind that even if my voice is just a shout into a void, that it would exist and that somehow my intent to call to attention my story will come into fruition, and that my story, however unextraordinary, can help someone think that they are not alone. The reason why I read and listen to podcasts and watch an extraordinary amount of YouTube is to hear these voices – some complementary and many conflicting with my own perspective – and in this conversation I have the courage to contribute, and there is real value in that, however insignificant my person may be.
I do not have a very large ‘following’, as it were. I am one of thousands of students at a very unremarkable university, I have spoken at a few small conferences that nobody has heard of and I write on a blog that has reached an impressively few number of people. But the people that I have reached are fascinating and valuable and we are thankful for this exchange, in the real world and in the cyberspace, and how having a symphony of voices can help us deal with the unbearable loneliness of existence.
It is not easy talking about the things I talk about. I have a reputation, as it were, of talking about very taboo topics, and often people come up to me and say that I am the first person that they have heard publicly voice opinions on topics that are dangerous or disgusting. Some of my friends have heard my story and were finally able to put voice and context into their own experiences, and that has allowed them to heal in a way that silence and ignorance specifically inhibits.
In the wake of my abusive relationship I began to write about it, and I have published some of that – both on my blog or on Facebook or in a magazine that I used to edit. And I’ll be honest with you; you start to feel like a fraud. This is mostly because emotional abuse makes you question your own sanity and grip on reality, but also because in this culture of deafening silence you start to feel alien in a world that has facilitated your abuse.
I often speak about not having words, and how most of the things in my life have been in pursuit of acquiring more words. There are no words to describe abuse; I think the main reason why victims and survivors shut up is because unlike physical abuse, when descriptions become too graphic and people switch off, descriptions of emotional abuse often end up sounding trite and whiny; like the description of anything remotely romantic or sexual in a badly written book. Putting words to pain, putting words to things that defy language; that’s really hard.
And this is why it is important to believe victims and survivors even when things don’t ‘stand up in court’. A rudimentary understanding of psychology will tell you that trauma leaves gaps and plot holes, which should speak to pain rather than lies. I am bad at explaining what happened, and I live in a world that encourages me to internalize a lot of guilt. But in speaking out, however poorly, is acknowledging that what happened to me was real, and wrong, and that I am not guilty.
The things that movies often miss is that bad things often happen to terrible people; and an admission of abuse is not a declaration that you were a perfect friend, or a perfect partner, or that you never on any occasion ever hurt your abuser. There is a world of difference between being a bad friend or submitting to the failures of humanity, and abuse. I have had plenty of shithead boys walk in and out of my life and some of them arguably hurt me much more than my abuser did, but abuse stands in its own category and should not be conflated with anything else. And in accusing people who speak out about their experiences of somehow proclaiming that they are perfect flawless angels, you are in a way buying into a culture of victim-blaming; that, by virtue of not being angelic, we deserved our abuse.
It’s always struck me how incapable people seem to be of respect; the lack of respect anyone shows to my narrative and the huge levels of respect afforded to my abuser; there is no stigma attached to being an abuser, especially abuse of this nature. There was an enormous level of respect that I had for this person, and the respect I continue to show when I choose, every time I put pen to paper, to conceal his identity when he does not deserve and is not entitled to anonymity.
I think people are confronted by the real power that women who write have; even women who write anonymously or about unnamed people. I have spent my whole life constantly being shut out, but technology and society has allowed me in some limited scope to have my say and people are petrified of that, and I think that’s sad; I don’t like that we live in a world where a man can hurt a woman in the deluded belief that she can’t do anything to fight back. And there is nothing immoral about fighting back – whether it is with a pen or with a fist. Women are human, and in our instincts lies our humanity. I think a lot about my uneducated paternal grandmother and my illiterate maternal one, and I think about how their lack of words have severely handicapped them in this vastly literate, fast-paced world. And it is a sign of respect to them that I never stop using the tools that I have been given that they never had a chance to hold.
Going public with stories is not a sign of disrespect. After what victims suffer we are not obligated to respect people whose actions exist in every minute of our lives. Very few people randomly construct stories of abuse as a form of retaliation; as I stated earlier, I learned very early on that there is very little I could do to impact my abuser in any way, and that my only power lay in putting my story out there for people other than him. And being open should not be a vulnerability, something you whip out to shut me up over some unrelated issue; the threat of following through with ‘his story’ just should not be a thing; especially in a society that, by default, privileges his narrative over mine. It is hard enough to be an abuse survivor and I don't need the stress of worrying how my audacity at being open about my life is going to be weaponized against me. In the years that have passed between then and now, he hasn’t said anything in his defence, either privately or publicly; and I think it is a signifier of how little this impacts him, and how he is able to move on with his life in ways that I cannot. Or maybe, I like to think, that it is at last a tiny scrap of respect thrown in my general direction; the knowledge that the real fraud would be to cast doubt over what I have said and what I am trying to say.