18:04, July 21 60 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-21 18:04:03
'We all have stories like these': breaking the silence of rape to heal

One woman describes her grooming, assault and rape by her uncle when she was seven years old. It foreshadows an adulthood of sexualised harassment and abuse.

Another woman realises a ferocious desire to kill when fighting for her life against a rapist.

Still another relates her impossible choice between staying with a male partner who punches her face black and blue, or returning home to a stepfather likely to kill her.

One woman is mutilated by her rapist, and left with lifelong scars.

Other women are betrayed by men they should have been safe to trust; in their families, or under hypnosis, or in front of a crowd.

This isn’t a list of Law and Order episodes, or scenes from a horror franchise, or a sensationalised crime novel. These are true stories.

The women aren’t survivors of a barbaric cult, or a war zone, or trapped in communities either subject to tyranny or abandoned to lawlessness.

They’re Australian academics, journalists, writers, editors, lawyers, advertising gurus, artistic leaders and commentators who more regularly pop up in the pages of broadsheets or on TV. Each have contributed their personal stories to Unbreakable, a startling collection of essays edited by Jane Caro that explores the brutality of female experiences that ancient, abiding social stigmas tend to hide or obscure.

The chapters document not only the extremes of sexual violence, but survivals of other cruelties and exploitations. The story of Caro’s own sexual assault foregrounds the book, while the experiences related range from the irrational savagery of racism, to slut-shaming, family dysfunction, depression and miscarriage.

The essays come from public figures that include Tracey Spicer, Kathy Lette and Dee Madigan. I am also a contributor. Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, admits in the book’s introduction that for all her political power, she, too, inhabits the same female reality as the writers. “We all have stories like those in the book,” she says, “I’ve had death threats, rape threats. I’ve been assaulted walking home at night.”

But Caro’s stated aim with the book is a hopeful one; to remind others of what devastations women have managed to survive, and “pass on courage” to those who may be engaging these horrors on their own.

They’re horrors that so many struggle to discuss, and for good reason. Our society has grown to acknowledge its violence against women, a legacy of misogyny and the specific traumas of female experience, but it’s a recognition that too often takes place detached from its living human subjects.

The English-speaking west retains a culture predisposed to victim-blaming. Old mythologies that insist on female inferiority are still woven into our traditions, our rituals, our language and the vast majority of the literature we consume. These myths convince perpetrators of a right to perpetrate, and when women do reveal our most painful experiences, we’re often trivialised or not believed.

Alternatively, admissions recast us into roles that overwrite our complex identities with debasing gendered stereotypes, defining us forever by our trauma. Rape victim. Battered wife. Unfit mother. Scorned woman. Stupid girl. Dumb slut. Vengeful bitch. I’ll spare you the racist epithets that can come attached to more hateful designations.

Fear of social judgment is a rational response for women. More than one woman included in the book admits reluctance to explain her source of distress to those closest to her, understanding that the emotional impacts of disclosure will be more chaotic, or dangerous, than a silent endurance. A contributor who finally brings charges against an abuser is ostracised from a family who refuses to believe her story. Another doesn’t want her mother to blame herself for what she’s suffered. Still more don’t want their parents to learn of their humiliation, their bosses to learn of their vulnerabilities, or to be diminished in their lovers’ eyes.

Intersect this with the direct psychological effects of trauma and the disincentive to an open discussion of these experiences is powerful. Nina Funnell’s terrifying physical assault detailed in Unbreakable is something her mind endures out-of-time, “valiantly trying to protect me from the trauma of what was occurring”. When memories are rendered unreliable, doubt can be instinctive. And self-blame can be a means of regaining a sense of personal control – an analeptic, if false, affirmation, that different behaviour could have diverted events that were actually someone else’s decision. In the case of sexual violence, the female body’s response to forced contact can physically mimic arousal, compounding terror, disgust and violation with confusion and sickening self-loathing. The effect of all these internalisations is a shame no less overwhelming for being undeserved.

It was to liberate women from shame that motivated Caro to compile the book. Shame brings women to silence, she explained in a recent radio interview, and, in silence, the horrors are able to continue. “This is training that predators rely upon,” she says in the book, “It is, perhaps, a form of gender-wide grooming.” For Caro, the opportunity of the book was to “place the blame where it lies,” she says, “squarely on the shoulders of those who use their power to exploit and damage others.”

For all its bleakness, I drew comfort from the stories of the other contributors. I am not going to claim my contribution to the book was an act of courage, as much as it was one of exorcism. The sharing of personal horror creates a community that tends and heals deep wounds. We are not alone, as the poet said. We know that we are not alone.