On 26 July 2015 New York magazine rolled out its new issue with a cover that echoed across oceans. Seated in rows were 35 women. Thirty-five women out of more than 40 who had decided to go public with sexual assault and rape allegations against comedian Bill Cosby.
Seated alongside those 35 women was an empty chair, a symbol of the women who had not come forward, who did not want to expose themselves to public scrutiny. Social media loved it. Here were 35 women who refused to remain silent, go under a pseudonym or blur their image. And here was a large media outlet giving them a significant public platform.
The image of those 35 women on the New York magazine cover has not left me. I did not need a trigger warning I was elated. My heart beating rapidly, I drank in their stories. They were speaking out. They were seeking justice. They were doing everything I could not do. Everything I had always lacked the courage to do.
Almost immediately, comments started rolling in: ‘If what they said happened to them actually did happen, why didn’t they speak out sooner?’ ‘Why didn’t they go to the police?’ ‘Why wait so long, unless this is part of a targeted campaign, not for their own sense of achieving justice, but to destroy a man’s life?’ Predictable and frustrating.
People who have not experienced (even second-hand) domestic violence, rape, assault or abuse often underestimate the real difficulty of speaking out. Just recently in Australia the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has revealed to us how painfully draining speaking out on abuse can be, and the emotional toll it brings. I have thought at length about what prevents people from speaking out. What people often miss, when they ask ‘why didn’t you speak out sooner?’ is the difficulty of admitting to yourself that you are in an abusive relationship; that what is happening to you isn’t normal; that you don’t deserve what you’re getting; that you are a victim; and that you can—and deserve to—get out. I can appreciate how ridiculously obvious these statements may seem to people who haven’t experienced abuse. But I also know how real they are. Nearly 20 years later, I am still coming to terms with them.
I had just turned 13 when I met him. I was at the central bus depot, waiting for the bus to my friend’s house, where we were having a slumber party. He was nearly six years older than me, flirtatious, charming, intelligent. He wasn’t handsome, or even pretty, but I was so flattered and charmed by his attention. I gave him our house number so that he could ask me out. Unknowingly, I had entered into what would become two years of emotional and physical abuse. I was young. I was so young, but I thought I was so much older and wiser.
One of the challenges of revisiting this relationship now is the visceral, physical reaction I get. Even when I bring to mind the moment of our first kiss—before ‘it’ all began—my stomach turns, and nausea rises up in my chest. But I bring this moment up regardless, to remind myself that there was a time when he was good, that based on that time I could not have known what was to happen. I do not doubt that he loved me. ‘You make me crazy,’ he would say. ‘I am crazy around you.’ That was just another way in which I was responsible for what happened, why it was my fault.
My parents, who did not know until much later, refused to let me see him. But I was steadfast in my ways and they couldn’t stop me. I would skip school and walk two hours each way across the highway connecting our cities to meet him. At the start, because I wanted to. Then, because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t go. I recall his rage. His face. But I went back. I tore my family apart, I broke my parents’ hearts every day for two years, but still—I was breaking too, and they could not know. Not until my body had broken down and I had starved myself almost to death. I felt so full of secrets that I did not have the appetite to eat, so I told my mum and she told my dad and they too carry this pain now. I have broken them, in some way, but at least I am not the only one who is broken.
I could not speak when ‘it’ was happening because I did not know ‘it’ was happening. I thought that this is how men treat girlfriends. And in any event, it was all my fault. ‘Look at what you’re making me do’, he said the first time. We had been together for less than three months. I had not even been naked around him. But I told him about a new friend—a boy in our neighbourhood—and how I went to his house and we chatted about books. My new friend tried to kiss me, and I said no, I have a boyfriend. But my boyfriend didn’t believe me. He became overwhelmed with jealousy. I was cheating on him, he accused me, behind the closed doors of his room. Lifting his dog in his hands, he said she was worth more than me. I was worth less than a dog. I needed to make up for it, so he laid me on the bed. It was my punishment. This is how girlfriends are punished. A stabbing pain shot though my stomach. As it does now, nearly 20 years later.
I would be punished regularly. Always in his room. Always behind closed doors. Behind those doors was the bed, a single bed, and in that bed was a man, and this became my world. My whole world, for two years. All I knew was that this man who ruled my world loved me, and because he loved me he wanted me to behave like a proper girlfriend, and that I always did something wrong. I was late. I spoke to a boy. I didn’t come the day before. I didn’t come to the phone when he called. I went to a friend’s place instead of his. Soon the need for excuses died out, and this would be my life, my routine. I would look out the window as day rolled into night, measuring the time that stretched out with silence, until I could go home.
Detaching myself emotionally from the situation, from the room, from the bed, became my method of dealing with what was happening. I was not present: just a body on a bed, underneath or beside a man, and this was normal. This was fine. This was how I managed, how I survived. Then and after.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I began using the word ‘rape’. To this day I speak it under my breath; it’s a word that doesn’t roll off my tongue, but rather is pushed out with a wispy gasp of air. It exhausts me and my whole body to speak it.
It is a physical word, and by this I mean I physically react to it. Whether it be reading, saying or hearing the word ‘rape’, my muscles will immediately tense up, my stomach tighten, and a deep sigh will begin inside. Today when I use it in a sentence like ‘I was raped’ I immediately think about the ensuing conversation. I anticipate the downcast expression on the other person’s face. The sympathetic ‘aww, I had no idea’ (of course you didn’t … how could you? I am not marked) and ‘can I do anything to help?’ If I confide in a friend, a lover, they will probably get angry, and express a desire to hurt the person who hurt me. But the truth is that I don’t use the word ‘rape’ very often. Despite nearly 20 years since the first of many times, I still am coming to terms with what it means.
I recall reading as a child stories of rape in the daily newspapers. The victim—always a victim, as we did not adopt the language of ‘survivors’ back then—was anonymous. If she was identified at all, it was always only by the first letter of her name or a pseudonym. It seems important to pause briefly on language. In particular this one word: victim. In Hebrew, the language in which those articles and papers were printed (I grew up in Israel), the word for victim is korban (קָרבָּן), a word with a biblical meaning. ‘Korban’ translates as ‘sacrifice’ (victim, sacrifice, offering, vow), and is the word used for the animals slaughtered as a sacrifice to God at the holy temples. Only the best beasts were brought to the altar. Thus the word victim invokes strong biblical connotations: helplessness, but also purity, sacrifice and holiness. And so we read the papers through the eyes of a child taking in stories of rape, and the anonymous woman, the victim, her body a sacrifice on the altar of power and sexual domination. There were, and are, many victims: anonymous, pixelated; sparse biography pieced together (she knew her attacker or did not, etc.). So we could place any victim in a given situation, as we could not distinguish horror story from horror story, pixelated face from pixelated face. We glossed over the words. ‘The victim, anonymous, 17, attacked by a man while walking home from a friend’s place’ … and on it went.
Why are we so invested in anonymity for victims of assault? Seemingly, for their protection. But I think there is more at stake. There are a couple of elements at play: first, the hegemonic framing of ‘victimhood’ as something to be ashamed of, to the point where anonymity and disguise are necessary if one is to speak out. What are we telling victims here? Victims carrying so much burden and shame regardless. We insist on disguising victims of assault for our own protection, for our own social cohesion, rather than theirs. It is far more convenient to keep women silent, and with blissful ignorance we can put aside the fact that one in five women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime (and one in 20 men).1 Think of five women in your life, and consider that at least one of them has experienced sexual violence.
Try to reconcile the fact that you may not know this because the woman concerned was too ashamed to come forward, and because we do not have systems in place to support victims. Indeed, we are reluctant even to hear victims when they speak out, questioning the legitimacy of their claims, doubting, distrusting, privileging the voices of non-assaulted men who speak for victims. This is systematic and ongoing silencing, whereby society tells victims that they should carry the shame and burden anonymously, and when they speak out, their claims usually fall on deaf ears, as we wait for a man to validate them.
But there is another more curious element under the surface and underpinning our reluctance to afford victims a voice. It is our fear of violence that drives us to avoid anything threatening, our desire to subdue any violent events. But what of a body that has known, and has come to know itself through, violence? In our attempt to hush victims, cross out their stories, blur their faces, we deny their experiences. We deny their right to justice, not only in a court but in other profoundly ontological ways too.
Our response to bodies that have known such violence is: be silent, hide your name, hide your face. This is a potential denial of lived experience and identity. We are too concerned with the need to ‘protect’ as an outcome of assault that we do not pause and consider whether we have taken the right approach to support victims. We need to stop seeing victims in terms of the ‘momentary’ or ‘singular’, whereby we only afford them a platform to speak out once as they give testimony in court. Through this they satiate our egotistical social needs, as we cry in unison ‘We have justice! We have been avenged!’ We need to see it rather in terms of ‘continuity of being’ (to borrow from Donald Winnicott).
For the victim, the violence has already taken place. We cannot retroactively prevent it happening, and our attempts to protect victims with anonymity are concerned more with trying to protect us from hearing their stories. To invoke Winnicott again, our social obligation is not to eradicate the faces of those who come forward but rather provide a ‘holding space’. Modelled on the nurturing emotional environment that a loving mother provides to her child (how she holds her baby, physically as well as emotionally, and how she is attuned and attentive to her child’s needs), Winnicott’s notion of a ‘holding space’ or ‘holding environment’ extends this nurturing environment to patients in psychiatric treatment. This is a measure that demands a consistent responsiveness, but it cultivates security and a sense of being. It is time for us to observe our role as that of the ‘mother’ and to this end be cognisant of the connection with and responsibility we have towards others. We must provide a holding space for victims to come to terms with and even share their experiences, ensuring they feel safe and secure doing so.
Thinking back to my teenage years, there were a few reasons I was certain it was not rape. One was because he was my boyfriend. Also, it was my fault. I made a mistake and I was being punished. Punishment isn’t rape, right? Especially not if he’s your boyfriend. Then I doubted it was rape because it kept happening. Can rape be routine? Isn’t it just a moment, an event that happens once or maybe twice but not every day, surely? Is it rape if at some point I stop resisting because I am so exhausted from crying and lie mute on the bed? Do tears qualify as resistance? Does silence? Also, the fact that I was 13.
Thirteen-year-old girls don’t ‘get raped’ by their boyfriends. Rape is just something that happens to women who are dressed scantily and walk down dark streets unaccom-panied. ‘They are asking for it,’ a friend told me one night. ‘My dad told me so,’ he said. We were taking a stroll and spoke about a recent rape case that featured in the news. I was 14, and still with that boyfriend. Incidentally, this friend’s dad ranked high in the police force where we lived. My friend’s dad had told him that girls who are raped are asking for it. Their short dresses whispering an unequivocal message. Surely me, in my long, ill-fitting jeans, my short hair, goth eyeliner, surely I was not asking for it … Rape only happens to women in short skirts, by strangers. But then, what if I was asking for it? Then I am still to blame.
A few years later I was hospitalised for an eating disorder. Keeping my abuse a secret from everyone made me feel constantly full. Additionally, I tried to gain control of my life, and food is the one thing I found easy to control. I didn’t eat for months, and had been secretly starving myself for years, simultaneously implementing a punishment as well as a discipline. When my weight dropped to 36 kilos I knew I was dying, and I also knew that I didn’t know how to stop. I had lost control.
I had no more food to bring up, so I vomited my secret to my mum, breaking down in her arms in a corridor of a hospital where my grandfather was undergoing heart surgery. I could not carry my burden alone any more. I have no memory of this conversation, I do not know how much I said, but clearly remember saying one thing: don’t tell dad. I wanted to protect him. I was so ashamed. That evening, when I came downstairs from the shower and saw them both at the table, silent, their faces red and solemn, I knew she had told him. I heard his footsteps coming down to my room. I remember the blanket on my 15-year-old body, heavy, suffocating, drowning. Every part of me was shattered as he sat beside me, his face wet with tears, at a complete loss, not knowing what to do or how to help. I had been silent for so long, and I could not speak then, but at least I had room for food, and I knew I could live.
In the closed ward with other young girls like me who refused to eat or ate too much and then purged, I was made to see a therapist every day. Despite seeing a therapist for much of my life, even during the years the abuse took place, this was the first time I had ever told anyone. First my parents. Now a therapist. And with her, I remember, I defended him. I don’t recall if I told my parents I had been raped, or just that he had hurt me very much, but I do remember not being able to say that word in front of the therapist. Was it shame? Probably. Disbelief? Likely. I couldn’t believe this had happened to me. I was strong, powerful, in control, undefeated, and now I had to concede that I had been raped. Not just once (although I do remember that first time) but many times. This, in addition to the emotional abuse I was subjected to, by a weak man who relied on me to build his ego and give him meaning. I remember him smashing his fist against the wall. I remember him telling me his dog was worth more than me. I remember him saying I deserved it, all of it, and more. I should be thankful—any other man would have killed me by now. That was my life for just over two years. This is my life sentence.
The abuse does not define me. I am not a victim, sacrificial and holy on the foot of an altar. Nevertheless, I have grown up struggling to make sense of life as a young woman (even a girl) who was so hated and so loved (yes, loved), not knowing just how wrong and how damaging what I went through was.
We read about victims of abuse, rape. As ever they are anonymous, just a letter to their name, unidentified. They could be anyone, and everyone. But we do not read what happened to them. How they went on to negate everything that happened. Deny it, make excuses, lie. Carry the blame, feel ashamed.
Over the following 20 years I began to notice the paradigm shift, and observe as even the language around rape and assault evolved from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’. And then those pixelated images of anonymous women that were present in every rape story were replaced by 35 portraits on the cover of New York magazine. Bill Cosby’s accusers, no longer invisible. Faces, names, details. One after the other their stories unfolded on the page, alongside powerful emotionless portraits, eyes penetrating the lens, as if to say defiantly: ‘I am beyond your reach now. You can’t hurt me here.’ Sadly, in the case of the Cosby accusers, we cannot say that we did not know. Ten years ago, 14 women came forward and said Cosby drugged and assaulted them. We have a ten-year-old deposition that Cosby made, admitting he bought Quaaludes to drug women. All this, and still we needed comedian Hannibal Buress to repeat what those women were saying for us to actually hear it. It is easy to tell women, Go to the authorities, when we are so reluctant to listen and in any event, it is more likely someone will hear if a man speaks for us, in our place. You can recapitulate our stories but our bodies will always remember—this is not transferable.
One of the ramifications of living in a country with a statute of limitations on rape was that by the time I developed the emotional courage to begin to consider a legal process to seek justice for what happened to me, it was too late. Even then, courage isn’t a thing that happens once and then remains with you. It may be fleeting, momentary. In fact, there is a continuous process of ‘encouraging’. In similar vein, there is always a ‘reawakening’. They come hand in hand. I like to think I was always strong. It takes a strong person to survive what I went through. It takes a strong person to shatter their family in the ways that I did. It takes a strong person to admit that they cannot be broken alone, and share their secret. It takes a strong person to turn 19 and tell her new boyfriend what happened to her. It takes a strong person not to break down when that new boyfriend tells her he can’t be with her, because she is damaged goods, and because he is not strong enough to help her. It takes a strong person to say: I did not ask for your help. I am stronger than you could ever dream of being, and your weakness is weighing on me.
It takes a strong person to say the word ‘rape’. Twenty years later, I am beginning to say this word.
When I was 15 my parents saved my life by moving halfway across the country. They had the courage I lacked. I couldn’t walk away from him, and they dragged me screaming and shouting into the car, away. I did not tell him where we moved to, because I was so very relieved to be away. I was too tired. I wanted a new life—any life.
Despite moving hours’ drive away, I would often see his car parked on our street. I would answer our new phone number and hear his voice breathing down the line. Every birthday he would call me, no matter how many numbers I changed. Every birthday I would cry. Years later I moved from the other side of the country to the other end of the world and now he doesn’t call me any more for my birthday. Still, every birthday I cry. Every birthday I reject calls from unknown numbers with shaking hands. Twenty years later I am just as strong as I was back then and just as weak. A survivor, yes. A victim also.
I think about trying to explain how difficult it is to come to terms with being abused. To convince yourself it was not your fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault but his. To refuse to let anyone other than him carry the blame. To say: I was raped and abused by my boyfriend for two years from the age of just 13.
Inevitably, people will want to save you. They will ask, what can I do to help? And you will say: how can you help me? Have you not heard what I said? Do you not see how strong I am to have carried this burden all this time? You cannot share this. You cannot help this. But you can listen. And you can allow survivors and victims of abuse to speak. And you can give us room.