Monday, 19 August 2013

Triggered: On Trauma, Survival and Perpetrator Impunity

This article was first published on 19th August 2013 in the Huffington Post. The piece was removed from the Huffington Post in 2014 following a terrifying legal threat. The threat is marked 'not for publication' but any known contact who wants to see it can email me.

Whenever I write about sexual violence or domestic violence - which can involve sexual violence, non-sexual violence, psychological terrorisation without physical violence or any combination of these - I add a trigger warning. I do this out of respect for survivors and an understanding of what intense reactions a certain phrase, image or description can prompt. When survivors are triggered, they are not overreacting. Rather, their response is an accurate indication of the depth of suffering caused by the perpetrator’s deliberate actions.

Despite the care I take not to trigger others, yesterday I managed to trigger myself. An individual whom I know to be an abusive man is appearing at an event on a day which overlaps my own attendance there. An acquaintance mentioned him in passing and I felt like I’d been shot. A few minutes later, when my stomach stopped churning, the sensation of drowning receded, my hearing came back, my nerves stopped tingling and I regained the power of movement, I said, “I’m so sorry, this is going to sound really weird, and you haven’t done anything at all, and this is in no way anything about you, but you mentioned That Person a few moments ago? I hope you don’t mind, and I’m so sorry to do this, but I’d really appreciate it if you never again mentioned That Person’s name again. I never want to be in a room with That Person or at any event or in any building with That Person, or likely to bump into That Person. I survived an abusive 'relationship'* with That Person and I just had to say something. I’m really, really sorry.”

And then my face crumbled. I had to recompose myself, it took a long time and it was obvious - bizarre for others and humiliating for myself. I was in a room full of famous and almost-famous artists, some commentators and specialists from various sectors from business to politics, press people and other publishing and media industry types. There was a jolly atmosphere, but it was a professional environment. I was there as a presenter. It was two minutes before an event I was chairing, in front of a full audience.

I’m kicking myself for having said anything. I should have swallowed the unpleasant shock and let it pass. At moments like those I find myself pinned, despairing and immobile. If I say nothing, I have protected a perpetrator and colluded in maintaining the fine image which provides cover for his mistreatment of women. Yet if I speak up it is somehow I who am diminished, not him. What I say seems improbable, even grotesque, as the perpetrator is so well-regarded. And even as I say it I feel the sordidness of the whole thing.

As a result of my confession I have achieved nothing except to humiliate myself in front of an individual whose opinion of me directly affects my career. The previous time I was triggered was at the Women’s Literature Festival in Bristol this year. I was talking to an artistic young man, a family friend of the organiser. He was gamely telling me his views and I was gamely listening. Then he said, “Did you see That Person’s [talk at an unrelated event]? He said that  – ” “I am so, so sorry,” I interrupted, trembling, “this is going to sound really weird, and I know I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but could you please not mention that name to me again? I’d just really appreciate it. Thank you.” I could feel my lunch rising in my throat. The young man looked confused. “Shall I just... carry on the anecdote without mentioning that specific name?” he asked, showing a pleasing resourcefulness. “Oh! Sure!” I desperately replied. And so he did, looking more awkward by the second, gabbling his words, eyes scraping the room to find an escape route. At soon as he hit his last full stop I lunged for the bathroom and did my crying, retching and shaking in there, with pure visceral horror, and when I got back the young man had changed seats and didn’t speak to me or look at me again.

At a party last December I was drifting about when I heard a friend, a woman whose work and ethics I’m a huge fan of, remark to someone, “You know That Person’s coming on [a trip] next year? Have you met him? He’s great. I’ll introduce you. He’s so great.” I sank back and looked slowly and deafly around the party, which was full of the good and the great. My life flashed before my eyes, quick but clear. I thought to myself, If you step away now, you will lose 80% of your career and 100% of your friends. Yet I would sacrifice anything to be assured that I will never see or hear the perpetrator or see or hear his name again. The other assurance I seek – that he is not harming other women – will never come.

I can’t live like this, being triggered and retriggered, continually building up my strength only for it to be felled with a whisper the second I let down my guard. How is it that a woman as strong as me can shatter by the mere mention of a name? The sound of it fills me with dread and disgust. Four years on I am more menaced, not less. The perpetrator is known as one of the last good guys. It bothers me that even though I am recovering, he is still mistreating women.

I will no longer stop people when they mention That Person’s name because I can’t deal with their puzzled reactions, their disbelieving revulsion (against me, not the perpetrator) and the new light in which they see me, as something broken, scarred, damaged and pitiful. I never think about the perpetrator consciously but he is always there, a shadow stretching around my life. The shadow trembles with jeering laughter. When I make myself think specifically about him I imagine putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger.

Much of my disgust is about the mismatch between the outer appearance and the inner reality, the distance between surface good manners and abusive actions conducted in secret. It would be easier if people with nasty personalities had nasty faces to match. I have read and indeed written countless articles about how we must change our thinking about abusers and move away from the extreme language we use about them. Abusers, rapists, beaters, bullies, exploiters, manipulators and violators are not oddities. They should not be thought of, with a tabloid mentality, as weirdos, beasts, outcasts, monsters or masked lunatics waiting in alleys. They are functional and that is their cover. That is how they get away with it. Perpetrators are ordinary-seeming individuals, sometimes pillars of the community, able to talk to neighbours, colleagues and friends and leave them with an excellent impression of intelligence, decency, civility and normality.

Bad people are good actors. I know this not only through personal experience but through my professional experience of working in prisons and other institutions and talking to perpetrators, victims, psychologists, victim support workers and police officers on all sides of the abusive situation. Of all the abusers, the charming, voluble, politically sophisticated ‘really nice guys’ are the most pernicious of all. They don’t have split personalities and aren’t suffering from any clinically diagnosable psychological condition. They are not abuse victims themselves, nor do they come from deprived, troubled backgrounds. They are just good old-fashioned arseholes: entitled, misogynistic, arrogant, duplicitous and hypocritical, brought up neck deep in privilege and patriarchy, no matter what feminists they pretend to be. They enjoy abusing women because they hate us, and if they did not enjoy it they wouldn’t do it. They are perfectly capable of maintaining high level and sometimes public careers and pretending to be egalitarian, or humanitarians, or charity workers, or whatever, because they get off on the extreme contrast between their successful outer pretence and their abuse. They are intelligent and strategic enough to fool everybody including, in the case of abusive relationships, their victims, who are usually deep within the abuser’s strategy by the time their instincts tell them something isn’t right.

For a long time, I was cut through with pain and confusion and the sheer naive hope that it had all simply been a misunderstanding. It’s only since December 2012 that I confided in a few people and discovered that the perpetrator was a serial, simultaneous, long-term emotional abuser. I realised I had been set up, professionally used, physically and mentally exploited and then hardcore scammed  in some kind of psycho Bernie Madoff con trick, a sicko Ponzi scheme. In a weird way, I found it comforting that there had been many other victims simultaneous to, before and after me and this wasn’t just my special karmic destiny, as if I was one cursed individual going round with Kick Me written on my forehead and that the Gods were up there laughing amongst themselves, 'Ha ha ha, Bidisha. She's so stupid.' Because Gods, believe me, I have said that to myself one million times.

Literally and metaphorically, I am worn down with hiding in fear while the perpetrator takes coarse advantage of worship and grovelling from groupies and enablers, allies and cronies, peers and club members. I’m done. But what happens in the gap between a trauma ending and a new life beginning? I don’t want to slink away, cowed and beaten, to roam the earth in virtuous poverty, grinding myself into the ground doing good works like some saint. Do I accept defeat and quit? Do I stay and fight to maintain a professional existence that now feels stale and tainted, reduced by horror, defiled with fear?

I don’t know.

* I do not in any way regard what the perpetrator did as a 'relationship', which implies some kind of mutuality, dynamic or reciprocal and implicatory involvement. The word turns my stomach. I was targeted, set up and played; had I known what the perpetrator was, I would have fled. I used the phrase to my colleague unthinkingly in a moment of shock.

Further reading: