by Cecilia Winterfox
Increasingly, women speaking about violence are expected to demonstrate our “lived experience” by disclosing details for others to assess: a trauma-CV offered up for scrutiny before we’re deemed sufficiently qualified – indeed suffienctly traumatised - to speak.
The idea that in order to have legitimacy to speak on a topic, one must have experienced it firsthand has gained significant traction in social discourse.
But when it comes to men’s violence against women, expectations of full and frank disclosure can lead to entitled, even cavalier, lines of enquiry that have little to do with understanding the political aspects of violence or supporting women, and more to do with satisfying curiosity.
Many women share their stories with incredible courage in the hope that it will bring about change. These women are survivors, they are strong and we owe it to them to listen and bear witness. But there will always be those who cannot do so. The reasons are complex and deserve consideration.
Violence operates on a spectrum. Undoubtedly experiences vary in severity and impact, but in terms of speaking out against violence, at what point is one deemed to gain legitimacy? After verbal abuse? Emotional/financial control? One punch? Two? The reality of is that violence functions to control all women.
Consider this: a particular woman may not have been bashed by a partner, but she has experienced threats and low level aggressions from men her whole life; a controlling ex, an angry brother, men who yell things when she simply walks down the street as a human being. She sees women being killed by men in the news every day. She’s seen how things escalate and knows that there’s a distinct possibility she will one day have “firsthand experience” so spends her life trying to avoid it. She is, as we all are, affected by men’s violence because it’s used as a way to control all women.
There is a salaciousness, a voyeuristic creep that clings like rising fog to women who speak about violence. In this fog, the line between speaking from experience and speaking to unsatisfied curiosity becomes blurred.
Unspoken questions hang loudly in the air: were you raped? Who was it? When did it happen? Were you a child? Was it "rape rape"? Did you report it? Did you like it?
We do not owe each other our stories. Not as activists, not even as friends. Sometimes we choose to share parts of them with each other in different ways and for different reasons; to show empathy, to express solidarity, sometimes in the hope of finding support but also sometimes just to have it acknowledged without anything else required. Still, we’re not obliged to share our stories nor are we entitled to expect them from others.
There is another element here and one that is hard to acknowledge, because when you’re a woman who speaks up against violence, people always want you to show them your scars. And sometimes you want to so badly, because it hurts to be accused of over-reacting or of co-opting the pain of “real” victims – those whose stories have been made available for public consumption. But you don’t, because there is something more important than you and your pain and your perceived legitimacy.
Very often, the story is not only ours to tell. It’s often a story shared by others who experienced it also but who are not ready, and may never be, to have it acknowledged.
A father who hit a child is also the husband of a woman who feels eternally guilty for marrying him, and the child loves that mother and doesn’t want to cause her pain.
Siblings grow up knowing that one of them was raped, but that sibling has blocked out the memory and it’s how they survive so no-one can ever speak about it because who wants to be the one that foists trauma upon a person who is living, perhaps even thriving, the best way they know how?
Bound to silence by love, thickets grow up around that part of their hearts and they lie at night wondering: has the other remembered but won't say? Do they feel lonely? But there’s no way to ever know because to ask would be to tell. So we live side-by-side through glass walls, and we feel love and anger and grief all at once and what it sounds like is silence, silence, silence.
Finally, sometimes it's entirely the case that we do not feel the need to buy into this thirst for detail because we are in fact ready to let trauma go. It gets heavy to carry around and revisiting it becomes a way to freshen the wound when we're ready to heal and move on. For me, becoming political and angry about the collective experiences of women – aka, a feminist – has helped me move away from the need to repeat and hold on to individual narratives of trauma. The strength of solidarity is powerful and incredibly freeing. In the ever-beautiful words of Jeanette Winterson:
“I’ve been unfortunate, it’s true, hard-hurt and despised. But should I tell that tale to every passer-by? Should I make my unhappiness into a placard and spend the years left decorating it? There is so little time. This is all the time I’ve got. This is mine, this small parcel of years, that threatens to spill over on to the pavement and be lost among careless feet. Lost. The water out of the sieve and the river run dry. The quietly contained sea where the waters don’t break.
I want to run up the hill in the freedom of the wind and shout until the rains come. Fill up my mouth, fill up my nostrils, soak the parched body, blood too thick to flow the channels. I will flow. Flow with summer grace along a crystal river. Flow salmon-flanked to the sea”.