“A china doll with fault lines” is how Lauren McKeon sees herself after she is sexually assaulted for the first time. “I shattered more easily after that,” McKeon writes in My Hand Became a Fist, the devastating opening essay from the new Canadian anthology Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life After Sexual Assault.
In the wake of #MeToo, books from victims of sexual violence are proliferating, among them Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad, Laurie Halse Anderson’s poetic memoir Shout and Saskatchewan author D. M. Ditson’s forthcoming memoir Wide Open. “We become an unstoppable wave of undeniable experience,” feminist author Jessica Valenti writes in the foreword to Whatever Gets You Through.
What sets this heavy, potent anthology apart is that it charts the aftershocks of sexual abuse in women’s relationships and everyday lives, mining the ways trauma disrupts the nervous system and affects victims’ work, sleep, health and connections to other people. Here, the essayists also share their highly individualized coping mechanisms, from kickboxing and hockey to support groups and every possible mode of therapy.
The anthology’s editors Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee spoke with The Globe and Mail about how women “learn to adapt to a trauma that attaches itself to them.”
Your anthology explains why words such as “healing” and “recovery” can sound trite to those who’ve experienced sexual violence – the aftermath of rape is rarely this triumphant. Instead, you write, people learn how to live “side by side with it.”
Stacey May Fowles: The afterward is not something that is talked about a great deal: going to your job, taking care of your children, the things that you do every day with this shadow of trauma.
What do we still not quite understand about the after-effects of sexual assault?
Jen Sookfong Lee: People still too often focus on the criminal-justice model. They assume that once a complaint has been filed, gone through the court system and justice is served (or not served), that it’s over.
Fowles: That is both the popular and the fictionalized narrative of closure. Any given criminal drama, the gavel falls and it’s over and we walk away.
Sexual-assault trauma “changes your relationships, your faith in yourself, and your ability to trust and connect with the world around you,” you write. How?
Fowles: A lot of writers talk about fear and trust. It’s this feeling of a new experience of the world.
Women react to trauma differently, and you include some of the ways that aren’t “acceptable, or pretty, or inspiring.” Essayist Amber Dawn incorporates fantasies related to her sexual abuse into her consensual sexual encounters with “trauma play.” This is a lot for people to understand. Why do some victims respond this way?
Lee: Amber Dawn writes about kink and having to work out assault through her sexual relationships. So much emotional work is done through our sexual relationships, in whatever way that manifests for people.
Essayist Alicia Elliott chooses to actively forget her assault, seeing it as a “healthy alternative to intentionally remembering.” That’s not a popular avenue, given therapists’ warnings about denial and repression. What was your reaction to this one?
Fowles: When I first read that essay, it was revelatory for me. It’s shifted my perspective dramatically. We have this idea that you should talk about this as much as possible. Elliott’s essay disputes that. It’s important that we don’t have these very structured ways in which people have to cope with what’s happened to them.
Elliott argues, “Continually revisiting these negative memories not only keeps those memories fresh, it also keeps the person remembering them from feeling good.” Some critics say this kind of rumination – including the kind in your book – keeps victims stuck. What’s your response?
Lee: These essays are about the process afterward, and there is progress: These people are moving forward. This anthology creates a community of survivors who can speak to each other and to the wider world. Perhaps in reading these essays, a survivor can also see a way forward.
But what about this criticism floating around #MeToo, that some women are wilfully lingering in their victimhood?
Lee: Nobody wants to linger in victimhood. I take real issue with that term. Everybody will experience trauma at some point. One of the greatest traumas I’ve ever experienced was when my sister’s daughter died. Would anyone ever say to my sister, “Get over it, you’re just wearing the mantle of victimhood”? No – they’re only going to reduce sexual-assault trauma that way. That infuriates me.
Fowles: This idea that at some point you should be “over it" actually prevents the healing process because that marker feels too far away to even fathom. This can only be faced incrementally. We do what we can on a day-to-day basis to support ourselves and the people we love – to be connected to other people in a way that feels healing, rather than, “I’m going to get to this finish line and then never feel bad again.”
Sexual-assault victims can also be extremely hard on themselves. Some blame themselves for their decisions, their outfits, their drinking; others hate their bodies for freezing up and “betraying" them. Why?
Fowles: For me, that’s the thing that never goes away. To make strides and have this linger is one of the harder aspects. The world makes you doubt yourself and question your own experience and pain. You have it so ingrained that you do it to yourself, constantly.
Some of your essayists detail the attacks and others choose not to, being mindful of the voyeuristic reader. Why do people want the gory details?
Fowles: There’s this idea that survivors have to prove it: prove this terrible thing happened to you. That’s not what this book is about.
Lee: These essays are about coping and managing – not the actual assaults themselves. That’s what makes our book different than just the spectacle of trauma.
It’s difficult not to look at the spectacle of trauma. I’ve certainly been guilty of that. I watched Leaving Neverland, which was really about trauma. It’s just where we’re at and what we need to hear in order to believe. The spectacle of trauma can shock people into empathizing faster but it’s a shortcut. What people who aren’t there yet with empathy need to understand is that the after-effects of sexual assault touch everybody – it’s a social problem.
This interview has been edited and condensed.