Sexual Assault Survivors Don’t Owe Anyone Their Stories
A manifesto against telling the truth
Part 1: fuck telling the truth
At some point in 2015, I began writing a story about rape that didn’t have a rape scene.
Instead of describing the abuse that the protagonist experiences, I wanted to write about the boring everyday weirdness of the trauma that comes from sexual violence. The dullness and the silliness. The text offers no rape scene because it offers no “proof.” It’s full of silence and things that happen offstage because at the very center of my story is the assumption that you believe the protagonist. I was not writing to convince skeptical people that sexual violence happens or that sexual violence is bad.
I was writing for survivors.
Two years later, in November 2017, I signed a book deal. The Harvey Weinstein story had just broken.
Towards the end of the long months while we were searching for a publisher, #metoo statuses started going up. There were so many true stories to read, so much graphic detail. A lot of testimony and a lot of convincing. I didn’t post anything. I didn’t read all of them.
I’d just written a whole novel about rape, so I was tired.
I’ve tried to write this essay several times. I’ve had a draft in my mind, and scattered across the notes app on my phone, for years. I was trying to put together a sort of theory of the case for why I hadn’t written explicit descriptions of sexual violence, and every time the #metoo discourse developed and unfolded I added to this hodgepodge collection of notes. I wrote a first draft in November last year after watching Christine Blasey Ford testify.
In her opening statement Blasey Ford said:
“My responsibility is to tell you the truth.”
“Sexual assault victims should be able to decide for themselves when and whether their private experience is made public.”
It struck me that Blasey Ford only said the name Brett Kavanaugh to her husband and her therapist in 2012. Thirty years after the assault happened, she needed to explain why she wanted a second, separate front door on their refurbished house.
Blasey Ford did not want to share the story of her sexual assault publicly. She originally came forward when Kavanaugh was included on the Republican shortlist, then sharing her information confidentially. She had hoped that would be enough and that she could remain anonymous.
Fuck telling the truth. Fuck telling the truth to people who already think you’re lying. Fuck having to read and relive that shit. Enough.
Public testimonies of traumatic and violent events serve an important function. They are appeals to perpetrators to stop, for justice within the courts (as far as this exists), for interpersonal and legislative protection, to be believed.
And recently there have been so many: Lizzette Martinez, Drea Kelly, Kitty Jones, who came forward in Surviving R Kelly; Wade Robson and James Safechuck who came forward in Leaving Neverland, as well as the women I have already mentioned. I find it hard to express in words how I feel I when I watch them speaking. These survivors deserve every single good thing.
The question I ask myself is: how should we write for them? When they want to laugh, and show their teeth.
The answer I come to always, in some way, relates to joy. While I understand the strategic and personal importance that describing traumatic events can have, I see no joy there.
Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement, gave an interview on the subject of telling what she calls “trauma stories” in February 2018. Burke emphasizes joy as a part of the healing process:
“Sometimes we have to tell our stories to help other people and give them permission to tell theirs, right? Sometimes we have to tell our stories for ourselves, or in service of other people. But just having them available? That’s not the solution. Once a book is written about a bunch of trauma stories, what happens then? I really do believe that this movement should be focused on places where we can cultivate joy and love as a means to progress the healing process.”
The question she was answering was: “What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?”
I watched another kind of testimony last year: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. Towards the end of the stand up set, Gadsby returns to an anecdote she has told as part of a joke earlier in the show. She reveals that, actually, the real-life ending of the anecdote in question was not funny. In real-life, the man in the anecdote verbally abused her and beat her up. After telling us this, she describes other violence she has experienced, including rape.
Gadsby tells us she is staging an intervention, invoking the imperative, “I must”: “I must quit comedy,” she says, in order to “tell my truth and put tension [back] in the room.”
If her aim was to stop making her audience laugh and make us cry instead, it worked. By the end of the Netflix special, I was bawling.
But I had, and have, reservations about the explanation Gadsby gives for her intervention.
What is the effect of describing or showing a trauma-inducing event (this thing we are calling truth) and then giving your audience permission — the cue — to cry before closing their laptops, moving on with their lives, next up Friends? I am not sure it does create tension. Crying, after all, is a form of relief. For those who don’t share her experience, I worry it offers proof positive that they have empathized and may resume their normal lives.
For many who share her experience, her disclosure has been cathartic, affirming. It is this that makes her invention important. If the experience was cathartic and affirming for Gadsby alone, that is enough. As Burke says— sometimes we have to tell our stories for ourselves, sometimes in service of others.
As Burke also says, what happens then?
Survivors, presumably, might sometimes like to hear jokes. I don’t believe there is an artistic imperative to swap laughter for crying. Or “quit comedy” for “truth.” Laughter is not the opposite of the truth.
When we laugh at a bad thing, that can be a big fuck you. An exercise in power and control. A claiming of irony and bawdiness. Of being unlikeable, unbelievable, unpalatable. Evidence that we survived.
There can be joy in surviving and healing in joy. Like when Gadsby talks about how much she likes the sound of the tea cup hitting the saucer. That bit I really liked.
The weight of testimony is heavy.
Over the course of 2018, a Brazilian spiritual healer known as João de Deus (“John of God”) was accused of sexually abusing over 500 people, including his own daughter.
On February 2, 2019, Sabrina Bittencourt, the woman who led the campaign against him, killed herself.
In 2016 Bittencourt began the hashtag #eusousobrevivente (“I am a survivor”) which went viral in Brazil. Bittencourt, who was from a Mormon family, spoke about her own experience having been sexually abused in her family’s church from the age of four.
After #eusousobrevivente, Bittencourt founded “Combate ao Abuso no Meio Espiritual,” an organization focussing on exposing sexual abuse by religious and spiritual leaders. In 2018 she helped expose João de Deus and Prem Baba, another Brazilian spiritual healer. Bittencourt began receiving death threats and, fearing for her life, she fled Brazil for Spain, where she died.
Can artists owe it to their audience to take the omission, the lying, out of the craft? To tell more truth? To give testimony, like Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill before her, like the people posting #metoo stories? Can anyone owe anyone that?
I don’t think so. Surely this should be a thing survivors do only if they want to, for themselves. It cannot be something an artist, or anyone, “must” do. Blasey Ford should have been allowed her secrecy, her privacy. As we know, visibility isn’t always safe. Sometimes it’s just not what a person wants.
Plus, some people, maybe quite a lot of people, will still say that you are lying.
Meena Kandasamy has described her novel, When you hit me; Or the portrait of the author as a young wife, which was published in 2017, as informed by her own experience of an abusive marriage. She does not give the husband in the book a name, or the protagonist. Towards the end of the novel, she writes:
“Sometimes the shame is not in the beatings, the rapes. It is being asked to stand to judgement.”
Fuck being asked to stand to judgement. Fuck giving proof to the people who already think you’re lying. Fuck having to give proof of your pain, or your humanity. Fuck appealing politely, respectably, earnestly.
Part 2: in defense of masks
As an undergrad, I searched for books about dictatorship, colonialism. I knew from stuff my mum had said that this was the history of the Americas and Europe, although it was not what I was being taught. I loved a book by Edwidge Danticat called The Dew Breaker, a book in fragments about a sculptor whose parents are Haitian refugees in the United States. The middle chapters follow several different Haitian migrants to the U.S., most of whom never meet, who were tortured under the Duvalier regimes, perhaps by the same man. (And this man, we realize by the end of the book, may have been the sculptor’s father.)
I wrote about The Dew Breaker in my undergraduate thesis (for which I received an average mark: “The candidate writes about Latin American literature but neglects to mention magical realism”). I wrote in defense of tracing the spidery effects of trauma across generations, how it breathes in the mundane things (like where you put a door when refurbishing your home). I argued the case for bringing readers to an understanding of their own complicity, as Danticat does, without offering narrative relief or closure. Of not allowing them to tear up over a graphic scene—what an awful thing to have happened, there, then—and go on back to their lives.
In my thesis, I also wrote about another writer. I loved the way he showed how pain passes through generations until you lose count. How oppressive structures shapeshift and survive. How he kept Anglophone readers out by doing jokes in Spanish. I wrote him an email which said, “Why does the U.K. edition of Drown have a glossary? Also I am a massive fan and your books have changed my life.” I didn’t believe in glossaries, I told him; he responded quickly that neither did he. I was thrilled. Fuck glossaries!
I proudly shared this victory of mine with my family. I was offended by my cousin Pedro’s response: “Ha well, I’m sure Junot Díaz found your Facebook profile picture before replying.”
In his lauded New Yorker article, before disclosing experiences of child sexual abuse, Junot Díaz writes about a woman who approached him at a reading, asking about sexual violence in his books. He explains that, after years of angst, he is writing this article for her. He calls her “you”:
“I wish I had told you the truth then, but I was too scared in those days to say anything. Too scared, too committed to my mask. I responded with some evasive bullshit.”
There is a lot I overlooked in Junot Díaz for so long. (A lot.) But those two sentences pissed me off immediately. It isn’t bullshit to be evasive when someone asks you to disclose experience of sexual violence on the spot. And it is okay to be scared. There’s nothing cowardly in this evasion or “mask.”
My mother used to tell me stories of the student newspaper at her university in Brazil during the dictatorship. When they were censored, they used to fill the space of the censored stories with recipes, or leave them blank. It was a coded way of saying, we cannot say what really happened. But something happened. Believe us.
By the same token, many popular Brazilian love songs from that era are not about romance at all, but a covert way of expressing longing for political freedom and home.
After all, the plain truth—the possibility giving testimony safely—is not always available to survivors. Christine Blasey Ford has said she cannot go home. Neither can Sabrina Bittencourt.
This is something many of us know; it is why we deal in whispers.
Chico Buraque’s’s song Cotidiano, which he wrote in 1971, during the military dictatorship, when his music was heavily censored, starts like this:
Todo dia ela faz tudo sempre igual
[Every day she does everything the same]
Me sacode às seis horas da manhã
[wakes me up at six in the morning]
Me sorri um sorriso pontual
[smiles a punctual smile]
E me beija com a boca de hortelã
[And kisses me with her mint mouth]
Todo dia ela diz que é pra eu me cuidar
[Every day she says I must take care]
E essas coisas que diz toda mulher
[and these things that all women say]
Diz que está me esperando pro jantar
[says she’s waiting for me for dinner]
E me beija com a boca de café
[and kisses me with her coffee mouth]
Evasion, it seems to me, has always been a part of the craft. Díaz, always at pains to demonstrate his knowledge of our Latin American history, knows this very well.
On “truth,” Díaz wrote —
“We both could have used that truth, I’m thinking. It could have saved me (and maybe you) from so much.”
Within three weeks of publishing the article, Díaz had been accused of sexual assault. And more stories of misogyny came later, nearly all from black and Latina women. One magazine editor told the Washington Post, “Everyone in the literary world/the media knew this, or suspected it.”
Of course, Díaz’s testimony in the New Yorker was never about the woman in the bookshop.
Had the context of his disclosure been different, we might have speculated that Díaz wrote that article simply in service of his own healing, in which case the invocation of the woman in the bookshop would still have been self-aggrandizing and presumptuous, in particular his claim of “saving” her.
As it is, we might speculate that he made his disclosure in the hope of softening the blow of incoming accusations. In which case, the invocation of the woman in the bookshop is dehumanizing, as well as dishonest. Díaz isn’t writing for her; he’s using her as a prop.
As for the accompanying metaphor —that of the bad mask—it works to distract us by locating a pathology where there was none. His original evasion was not the problem. Díaz never owed the woman in the bookshop “the truth,” even if we believe that she is real.
In Díaz’s work, masks are often associated with physical deformation and ugliness, and used to symbolize violent repression—machismo covering up pain.
I see masks differently: a technology for survival, sometimes bound up with femininity. A full face of makeup, a deferential smile. Drag. A mask can be a performance, can be our craft; it can be full of joy, invisibility, abandon; a celebration as well as a holding back of information, a strategic deliberation.
In a world where masks keep us safe, where they help us heal, where they are the things that we have made for ourselves, there is nothing dishonest about a mask.
Part 3: in defense of fiction
I have had interesting encounters since the book came out in the U.K. earlier this year. Some reviewers have disclosed experiences of sexual violence to me in private, telling me that is why they related to the story. When they’ve asked me if the sexual violence in the novel is based on my own life I’ve declined to answer. Other reviewers, perhaps out of awkwardness, perhaps because the novel doesn’t contain graphic descriptions of rape, talk about the book as if it’s not about sexual violence at all.
Twice I have had my novel introduced as autobiographical during in person interviews, although nowhere do the promotional materials describe it in this way. Both times, while being recorded, I have corrected the interviewer. I have found it surprising that journalists do not understand what is at stake when they say that a book about sexual violence is autobiographical, when they present my fiction as my testimony.
Of course, I also google authors in the minutes after finishing their novels. I play the game of matching up dates, and hair color and cities of birth and figure out what I can, and more often than not it leaves me with more questions than I started with.
But that’s part of the deal with fiction, isn’t it? The reader doesn’t have a right to know, not really, not for sure, the location or quantity of the secret ties between the story in the fiction and the life of the author.
That’s the contract in fiction: the reader agrees to suspend their disbelief. The starting point is “you’re lying.” The starting point is also “I believe you.” This is what makes the writer of fiction free.
There is no jury, no trial, no evidence, no proof.
It is, in my opinion, the most wonderful mask.
We are so often surrounded by testimony and by trauma stories but fiction, Netflix comedy specials, New Yorker articles even, can be spaces of relief, where we don’t have to relive and reread. Whether they tell stories about sexual violence or not.
In an interview with the New York Times in October 2018, Tarana Burke said, “I want to teach people to not lean into their trauma. You can create the kind of joy in your life that allows you to lean into that instead.”
As a writer of fiction, I am interested in joy.
I want to write in defense of laughing at
In defense of irony
In defense of faking it
In defense of anonymity
In defense of not offering proof
In defense of not testifying
In defense of invisibility
In defense of secrets
In defense of masks
In defense of lying
In defense of fiction
In her book, The Promise of Happiness, feminist academic Sara Ahmed talks about, instead of happiness-as-goal, happenstance:
“When I think of what makes happiness ‘happy’ I think of moments. Moments of happiness create texture, shared impressions: a sense of lightness in possibility.”
I said I was writing for survivors. There’s no one way of doing this. And I don’t know if I am doing it right. For me, writing for survivors doesn’t mean saving or solving or going back in time. I know that healing isn’t a thing that can be done and dusted; it can’t be finished and shut and shelved like a book.
When I write I think about healing not as a destination, but as a joy that comes and goes and that is felt.