Before he got drunk on vodka and brutally assaulted her at knife-point for an hour, Karyn Freedman’s rapist made them dinner, chicken and salad. It was 1990 in Paris, and Freedman, then 22, had been backpacking through Europe. On her first night in Paris, she arrived to the apartment of a professor who had mentored one of her friends. The rapist lived there, too, and played host before the vicious attack.
Freedman, now an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, battled post-traumatic stress disorder for more than a decade following the assault. She details her ordeal in the new book One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery. Blending memoir with psychological and neuroscientific research into what it means to live in a body that has been traumatized, Freedman examines the significant cost of rape on a victim’s life – distrust in relationships, a sex life “corrupted” by paralyzing flashbacks and an understandably tainted view of the capabilities of her fellow humans.
“Trauma changes us,” writes Freedman, who also looks at recovery, including new modes of therapy that heal the brain by using the body and even boxing gloves. Freedman, who lives in Toronto with her partner of 10 years, spoke with the Globe about going public and what concerns her about life on campus.
We readily expound on rape culture, but we’re less willing to discuss the trauma that rape victims actually face. Why is that?
Despite all the advances in women’s issues we’ve seen over the years, sexual violence remains a taboo topic. We don’t talk about the long- or short-term effects. That’s a serious detriment to survivors and to society as a whole. We fail to get a broad understanding of what individuals go through. That makes it easier to sweep experiences under the carpet.
How does rape affect victims’ beliefs?
When you’re the victim of sexual assault or some kind of interpersonal violence, you revise your beliefs about the world. There’s a narrative that we tell our children: The world is basically a safe place and so long as you’re careful, you should be able to protect yourself from any harm. When that’s used as a strategy to prevent violence against women, it’s a total failure. There are similar positions being staked, that all you need to do to be safe is don’t go drinking at a party. It’s a myth, and the statistics don’t bear that out.
Why do some victims recover relatively quickly and others not so quickly?
The literature on the neurobiological effects of trauma suggests that when individuals who are pre-disposed to anxiety or depressive disorders experience a terrifying life event over which they have no control, they may have a compromised response. In part it’s our biological and genetic environmental histories and in part it’s the extremity of the experience. It’s also about the choices we make around our own recovery in the immediate aftermath. I, like many rape survivors, was deeply ashamed and did not want a single soul to know what had happened to me. There are lots of complicated reasons for why women choose to pretend, bury it and walk away and it makes a serious impact on whether we’re able to recover. I basically ignored the devastating effect it had on me for as long as I could before I realized, if I don’t deal with this I’ll be in serious trouble.
Your recovery involved somatic psychotherapy techniques of “living in” your trauma. How does that work?
There’s a trend in trauma theory toward using the body as a way of retraining your neurological responses. My experience was that the way to become freer from the hold that the traumatic memories had over me was to return to them in mind and in body, with the safety and guidance of a professional. I would be in one of these sessions lying there imagining my rapist draped all over me, and I literally couldn’t move. You’re re-experiencing the event, but differently. It gives you power over it that you didn’t have at the time, to be able to fight back. If you’re able to feel safe in the moment and then move through it, you retrain your neurotransmitters. It deflates a lot of the fear and anxiety. At one trauma centre, they had soundproof rooms, gym mats and boxing gloves.
What state are you in now?
Trauma is a chronic condition. In a particularly stressful time I find it difficult to breathe, have more anxiety than usual, panic attacks. That happens, but I’m much more stable. I see my therapist and occasionally rely on anti-anxiety medication. I’m quite fond of single-malt scotch. I also find empathy pretty grounding, connecting with people. In putting out a book like this, every second person has a story to tell me. These are people I’ve known forever.
Do you feel vulnerable recounting your hour-long attack in great detail?
Whether I go into detail or not, it really does feel like an unburdening. Some people are very uncomfortable when they hear about this book, they don’t know how to approach me. People have lots of different reactions and I’ve been fairly immune to taking on those different reactions. I wouldn’t have written or published this book if I thought that I couldn’t manage other people’s reactions to it.
You believe that when victims remain silent, rape is reframed as a personal problem rather than a social one. But other advocates question the push for women to go public. They’re concerned about the stigma these women might face, and they wonder why the onus falls on the victim.
I have a lot of sympathy for that. Women face potential repercussions in their families, communities and workplaces. They face the horrible reality of people saying to them, “What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Why were you with this guy in the first place?” In certain parts of the world, coming out brings stigma to your whole family. It can be lethal.
I don’t think that women should be pressured into coming forward. But somebody like me – in my position of real privilege, where I’m not going to lose my job, partner, family or friends – I have a certain responsibility. When women don’t come forward, we end up seeing rape as a series of isolated events as opposed to a systemic problem that faces women and children worldwide.
The reputable anti-sexual assault organization RAINN recently expressed reservations about the term “rape culture,” concluding in a February report that “rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.” For RAINN it’s about predators, not society.
I think RAINN is wrong to turn away from the problem in the culture that enables certain kinds of behaviours to persist. It’s not that we don’t want to focus on predators. There’s a culture. The recent case at the University of Ottawa, these five guys writing Facebook messages about ramming it into this woman leading the student union, their language was so violent. And it was just normalized.
Just as much as we’re failing our women, we’re failing our men on college campuses. These guys who go to school, get peer pressured and don’t know that what they’re doing is horrific and will damage people forever.
This interview has been condensed and edited.