Yesterday, alone and feeling perfectly content in a window seat at a pizza restaurant, I sat thinking about Dylan Farrow.
The first properly bright day of the year, the sun warming my face through the glass. Why was I thinking about Dylan Farrow? I tried to trace my thoughts back. There was the #Ibelieveher Twitter campaign – I’d posted about how hard it must have been for her to speak out – and then of course there were all the articles and links on blogs and facebook, all the messages of support…
And then suddenly, oh god yes of course! A voice, unbidden, popped into my head to gently remind me that I had also been sexually abused as a child by my adoptive father. And that was why I was thinking about Dylan Farrow.
I do not mean to sound flippant. Such is the nature of trauma. My brain is well versed in the art of forgetting; of burying deep and putting to one side. It is a coping mechanism that served me well in my early years, and although I “came out” (for want of a better expression) years ago to friends and family as having been abused by my father, somehow the memory remains slippery and fleeting. Now you see it, now you don’t. And so that is how I came to find myself in a pizza restaurant, two whole days after first reading of Farrow’s public disclosure, suddenly remembering that (oh yes of course!) I had had the same experience.
I have given much thought to the publishing of this post. I’ve spent time examining my motivations and preparing myself for possible consequences. What if revealing myself as vulnerable means people lose respect for me and stop taking me seriously? What if they read this and find themselves unable to laugh at my attempts to be funny anymore? What if they think (oh yes, please don’t imagine this hasn’t occurred to me too) that I’m selling myself out for just a few more lousy page views? These are my fears around disclosure and nobody even knows who I am.
Indeed this post began life with the title simply, “I believe her” – my intention being to write a more distanced and intellectualised critique of the judicial system and the attitudes of suspicion and hostility that surround survivors who speak out. But I couldn’t do it. Not after I remembered. The little voice popped into my head to gently remind me of why I felt such an affinity with Dylan Farrow and it left me unable to muster the necessary detachment. So I wrote this instead. Because it feels more honest, more real, and more human, and because I hope it might reach out and touch someone somewhere. I hope it might help them. I hope it might help me.
Please know, reading this, that I have experienced the rank sense of betrayal, confusion, and fear that comes from a much loved parent taking ones trust and smashing it against the wall. Notice I don’t write “adoptive” parent. I see the papers are doing that. Trying to create a little distance. Trying to make it somehow less. The little girl inside thinks, ‘they’re on his side.’
Know that I have also experienced the frustration, pain, and self doubt of not being believed or protected. Adults can be self serving. Messy, poisonous fall-outs are to be avoided at all cost. Believing compels the believer to act. Bad news can paralyse. The little girl inside feels utterly, utterly alone.
But I’m an adult now and yes, you could say I was angry. It’s an anger mixed with acceptance however. Sometimes some sadness. But what I’m not, is ashamed. I am not ashamed because I know, without reservation, that it was not my fault. There wasn’t anything that I could have done. You want to know what it was? Bad fucking luck. These things happen to some people and they happened to happen to me.
And no I have never gone to the police, and no I don’t ever intend to. Because I know full well that the investigation and court process would likely be lengthy and distressing, and that at the end of it all I would be extremely unlikely to secure any kind of conviction. Anyone tempted to ask me, “But how would you feel if you discovered that he had done the same to someone else?” can go and eat a crap sandwich. I was not in any way responsible for his behaviour back then, and I am not in any way responsible for his behaviour now.
So yes, you could say I was angry. Angry about all of those things. But the thing which makes me the most angry may surprise you. I will explain…
Here it is. I am not a victim. What I am is a survivor. SO PLEASE STOP TELLING ME THAT MY LIFE HAS BEEN RUINED FOREVER, THAT I AM DAMAGED BEYOND REPAIR, AND THAT I AM A POOR THING WHO NEVER STOOD A CHANCE. Those things aren’t true. They were never true. And I do not need or want that sort of sympathy.
Yet this is the message we so often convey to women and girls. That to be raped is worse than death, that to be abused means you can never be happy, that to be a victim means never, ever being the same again. This stereotyped fantasy of the “ruined” woman (after all, who will marry her now?) has its roots deep in mysogyny. In our well intentioned efforts to sympathise with victims and express our condemnation of perpetrators, we risk perpetuating stigma and severely disempowering those we seek to support. Survivors of sexual violence need care, yes of course we do, but more than that we need respect. Respect and justice. We have no real use for the bleeding hearts and flowers.
And yes I understand that trauma has many and varied responses. That all are valid and not to be dismissed. But these are only ever hugely compounded by a lack of respect and no justice. We live in a culture that is heavily invested in protecting the perpetrator while it discredits and patronises the survivor. The horrible end result is that some of us do not make it.
Me? I did not escape unscathed. Old wounds left to fester undoubtedly helped to fuel the alcoholism and addiction that, until recently, plagued my adult life. I am slow to trust. I am fearful of the man walking behind me in the street. But I am also full of compassion. An habitual supporter of the underdog. I have strong feminist values and a keen sense of social justice. I believe in the importance of not judging others until you have walked a mile in their shoes. I believe in the human capacity to change.
Who knows how I may have been different had I grown up differently. I can’t know that. The woman I am is the only woman I have. But that woman is still very much alive. Still with a brain, a heart, a body, a spirit, and probably more than half a lifetime ahead of her.
And that life will never be ruined. Because it is not over.
If you have been affected by this post then here are some links you may find useful: