By Donna Provencher
I mulled a few hours too long about an uncomfortable Facebook message I got a few days ago, doing that thing where you read the message in thumbnail but don’t click into the box to send the read receipt that starts the time clock ticking on your response. (Maybe it’s my inner tournament chess player: To this day, I linger after a move before taking my fingers off the piece because once you do, no backsies.)
Someone had reached out to me about another girl, another time, another place, but a situation all too familiar. I was being asked by a victim who felt ill-equipped to write her own story to give her the words to tell it on her behalf and her terms to a local news outlet.
I felt a profound sense of unease. Not with the victim’s story — the facts as stand were airtight and left little room for doubt — but with her demeanor. She was erratic, angry — combative even. She demonstrated none of the articulate, weepy-but-not-too-weepy grace under pressure we’ve come to expect from the sort of sexual abuse victims we take seriously.
But “just the facts, ma’am.” What she was was the victim of a violent crime and a very plausible cover-up by a community.
I, perversely, didn’t want to help. But why?
As a culture, we have come to assess the legitimacy of a rape or sexual abuse claim, not on the merits, but on the monstrously sophistical grounds of how appropriately traumatized we feel the victim is behaving. But basic human psychology tells us that every individual responds differently to grief: I once made a “that’s what she said” joke on the table during a forensic exam (an isolated moment amidst 9 hours of crying in the hospital). People laugh during funerals. People get angry when they’ve been victimized by violence — and so they ought. When was the last time you saw a police investigation stalled or a bank robbery or kidnapping go unreported because the victim was “too emotional”?Moreover, I’ve been approached repeatedly by strangers the last few weeks — kind ones, even — in light of recent events, asking “How can I help but believe your story? You and Jessica tell it so well, I can’t do otherwise.”
But what if I didn’t write well? What if I were a bad speller, or a child, or severely mentally ill or psychotic, or poor and uneducated, or spoke English as a second language — or too traumatized to fight back, or too angry to exhibit grace under pressure? Would my story be somehow less worthy of belief?
Victims are under no obligation to comport themselves according to your specifications. Victims are under no obligation to tell you a compelling story. We should believe women not because they can turn a phrase, but because it is their right to have a wrong redressed.
I shouldn’t have to lend a suffering woman half a world away my words or my goddamn proofreading aptitude in order for her to believed. But I retold her story for her anyway. Because she asked me to. Because I have spent 32 years worrying about protecting men’s reputations, when maybe I should have been more concerned about saving women’s lives.
Not a sermon; just a thought.
(image via Pixabay)