Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Everyday Atrocities and Ordinary Miracles, or Why I (Still) Bear Witness to Sexual Violence (but Not Too Often)

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Everyday Atrocities and Ordinary Miracles, or Why I (Still) Bear Witness to Sexual Violence (but Not Too Often)

Article excerpt

Seventeen years after having been jumped from behind, beaten, raped, strangled into unconsciousness, and left for dead at the bottom of a ravine in a rural area in the south of France, I still-as I just did-occasionally bear witness to the assault. Why do I continue to tell this story? It certainly isn't because I enjoy doing so: at this point, telling the story is neither therapeutic nor retraumatizing. Frankly, after telling this story hundreds of times, to perhaps a million people (if one counts the readers of the Sunday New York Times), I'm bored by it. ' But I continue to tell it, albeit with decreasing frequency, because doing so is bearing witness to something much larger, and much worse, than what happened to me personally: namely, the atrocity of widespread and ongoing gender-based violence against women around the world. I also mention it, somewhat paradoxically, to reassure other victims of sexual violence that I've moved beyond it and don't feel the need to talk about it regularly anymore.

Looking back on the several years before I was attacked, I see now that I was living a charmed life. I was newly married and had a full-time job I loved, teaching philosophy at Dartmouth, and enough energy and drive to teach additional courses at both New York University and Princeton, while sitting in on law school classes at NYU, taking tap dancing lessons in SoHo and musical theater classes in Greenwich Village, and singing jazz occasionally with friends in piano bars in the city. One term I managed to teach five days a week at Dartmouth and still spend every weekend in New York City with my partner going to cabarets and jazz concerts and Sunday night swing dancing at the Cat Club. And, then, wham! I lost it all, just that suddenly, and for a very long time, but-I can now report-not forever. In spite of my having written, years ago, that I died in that ravine, I now have more in common with my preassault self than with the person I became for more than a decade afterward.

Although I originally described my preassault life as a quite sunny one that suddenly went dark, I stopped thinking about it in that way after someone pointed out what he saw as the "gothic novel" structure of the tale I was telling. I became quite suspicious of the "reverse-conversion" narrative I found in many rape stories (including my own) and made a point of downplaying any contrast between my preassault happiness and my postassault misery. But now that I have emerged from the latter, I think I was genuinely blessed with joie de vivre and fortunate circumstances before that fateful day.

There are many different reasons to tell a trauma narrative, and I'm guessing that, over the years, I've told mine for just about all of them. The very first time, I told it (mentally) to myself, as it was happening: "What is this? This is a nightmare. No, this is a rape. No, this is a murder." The purpose ofthat narrative was to keep me alive, and by sheer luck, it did the trick. After my assailant had dragged my body to the bottom of a creek bed and choked me one last time, I played dead until he left, which enabled me to scramble up the ravine to a roadside, where I was rescued by a man in a tractor who took me to his nearby farmhouse.

My next attempt to bear witness to my attack was met with incredulity, as the people who gathered around me decided initially that I must have been hit by a car, even though I kept saying that I had been attacked by a man. After I repeated my story to the police and the doctor who had been summoned and my account started to gain plausibility, someone said, to general agreement, "It couldn't have been anyone from around here." As it turned out, my assailant was a young man who lived right across the road. But whatever I said fulfilled the function of the narrative at the time, since it brought the personnel necessary for my survival, including EMS volunteers with an ambulance, who took me on the forty-five minute ride to the Grenoble hospital where I spent the next eleven days. …

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