Coming Forward About Sexual Assault – the Wisdom of Judith Herman

Coming Forward About Sexual Assault – the Wisdom of Judith Herman
October 18, 2017 Echo

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has left many people wondering whether to report their own experiences of sexual assault or abuse. As Executive Director of Echo, I thought it important to write this blog to catalogue the lessons I learned in going public about my encounter with Harvey Weinstein in order to help other survivors decide whether to come forward. I also wanted to educate the wider community about creating a trauma-informed and supportive environment so that survivors feel safe to trust us with their secrets.

We promised you an article on post-traumatic growth this month and that is still very much on our minds. (The article and infographic will appear next month.) However, the events of the past week made me go back to Judith Herman and her book Trauma and Recovery. What I read there is so profound, I wanted to share her wisdom. She wrote the book in 1992, back when Harvey and men like him operated with near impunity. I hope that today, in 2017, after everyone has come out to denounce this kind of behavior, we will see a change. I hope that her words will resonate with you and that you will feel encouraged to be part of building a world where all people are treated with respect and not as prey. (Of course, back in 1992, it wasn’t recognized that men and transgender people are also the targets of sexual abuse, so when you read the female pronoun, please hold in your mind and heart all victims of sexual abuse.)

Social Pressure

“As survivors recognize their own socialized assumptions that rendered them vulnerable to exploitation in the past, they may also identify sources of social pressure that keep them confined in a victim role in the present.” They must “overcome these external social pressures; otherwise, they will be continually subjected to symbolic repetitions of trauma in everyday life.”

Being polite, is something that Harvey’s victims constantly question about their response to his unwanted advances. Women are socialized to be deferential, to not make a fuss, and to take the blame on ourselves. Learning how to keep yourself safe even if it evokes censure or ridicule is empowering and can help you heal from trauma. A man sped up to walk beside me and tried to start a conversation on an empty hiking trail the other day. I told him I’d had a hard day and just wanted to listen to my music. He shrugged and backed off, acting as if I was being unreasonable. Little did he know that for me this was a small victory: Perhaps for the first time I did not feel compelled to be polite or to engage in conversation that would end with me feeling awkward about not giving him my number.

Silencing of Family

“Survivors who grew up in abusive families have often cooperated for years with a family rule of silence.” When survivors break the silence… “they renounce the burden of shame, guilt, and responsibility, and place this burden on the perpetrator, where it properly belongs.”

Family members may ask you to stay silent for many reasons that have everything to do with the perpetrator or those complicit with him/her but nothing to do with you. Elderly people do not need the shock, families do not need the upset, and the abuser probably does have a nice life that you are about to blow up, but whose fault is this? Not yours. And anyone who says different is protecting the abuser.

How and When To Disclose

The survivor should feel “ready to speak the truth as she knows it, without need for confirmation and without fear of consequences. The power of the disclosure rests in the act of telling the truth; how the family responds is immaterial.”

“The survivor should be encouraged to take charge of the planning [of the revelation] and to establish explicit ground rules. For some survivors, it is a completely novel experience to be the maker of rules rather than the one who automatically obeys them.”

“The survivor should also be clear about her strategy for disclosure. Planning in advance what information she wishes to reveal and to whom she wishes to reveal it.” Judith Herman suggests first approaching family members who may be sympathetic before confronting those who may be hostile.

Going Public

“By making a public complaint or accusation, the survivor defies the perpetrator’s attempt to silence and isolate her, and she opens the possibility of finding new allies. When others bear witness to the testimony of a crime, others share the responsibility for restoring justice. Furthermore, the survivor may come to understand her own legal battle as a contribution to a larger struggle, in which her actions may benefit others as well as herself.”

“As in the case of private, family confrontations, the survivor draws power from her ability to stand up in public and speak the truth without fear of the consequences. She knows that truth is what the perpetrator most fears.”

“The survivor… must be secure in the knowledge that simply in her willingness to confront the perpetrator she has overcome one of the most terrible consequences of the trauma. She has let him know he cannot rule her by fear, and she has exposed his crime to others.”

And that, I think, is the most fitting endnote we can give the Harvey Weinstein story.