Today in Survivor Culture

[Content Note: Discussion of victims and survivors of various form of violence.]

I have, in the eight years since I started this space, written a lot about people who have been victimized by violent crime, by hate crimes, by sexual assault, by harassment, by bulling. Most of the time, I'm writing about people I don't know. Sometimes, I don't even know their names, depending on whether the nature of the crime, or their age, or their continued peril, compels media to protect their anonymity.

Very occasionally, I have been contacted by the people about whom I've written, or members of their immediate family. It has, so far, always been to thank me for telling their stories, for standing unequivocally in their corners.

Those who resent advocacy for empathy, for boundaries, for inclusion, for respect for agency and consent, for expecting more also contact me, once in a while, to accuse me of exploiting victims in service to an agenda.

I plead guilty to that agenda without reservation. I have a broad and unyielding agenda to use my teaspoon to the dismantling of a culture of abuse that creates the victims about whom I write—myself included among them. My agenda includes telling victims' stories, because visibility of victims is integral to challenging narratives that facilitate abuse.

I have given much consideration to whether that is exploitative. After all, I cannot secure consent from every person about whom I write. I don't even know that I can perfectly define what constitutes exploitation—although I feel, to borrow from Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it. But of course it is always easier to gaze at something from a distance, something outside oneself.

* * *

Deeky calls me Lint Trap, because I remember everything. (Except for all the things I don't.) My memory is legendary among my friends, who celebrate like lotto winners when they remember something I don't, which always makes me laugh, because I have no control over and did not earn my strange ability to recall 20-year-old conversations nearly verbatim.

It is a gift. And it is a curse. And it is the thing that keeps me connected to the people about whom I write.

I remember them. And I think of them often. Over my holiday, I thought about dozens of the women and girls about whose rapes I'd written, about the survivors of clergy abuse who have bravely testified to their experiences long past the statute of limitations would have afforded them justice, about gay and lesbian couples whose homes have been vandalized, about the women who have intervened to stop rapes, about the men, famous men and not-famous men, who have spoken up about surviving abuse… Where I knew their names, I remembered them.

I hoped for the survivors that they were safe, that they had access to resources they need for their recovery, that they did not feel abandoned by their communities. I hoped for justice and for peace.

I want to remember them. And I do.

* * *

They are putting up memorials to remember the Newtown victims. As I watched a news story about it over my holiday, and the terrible debate about whether Nancy Lanza should be included, I thought about how there are no memorials for most of the people about whom I write, because most of them are from populations who "don't matter." And because most of them have survived.

I do write about people who have died. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. Savita Halappanavar. Jacintha Saldanha. Tyler Clementi. Angie Zapata. Krissy Bates. Tammy Zywicki. But even more often, I write about people who have survived abuse. Jamie Leigh Jones. Lara Logan. Greg Jeloudov. An 11-year-old gang rape victim in Cleveland, Texas. A 15-year-old gang rape victim in Richmond, California. A 19-year-old gang rape victim in Saudi Arabia. A 16-year-old gang rape victim in Steubenville, Ohio. A 23-year-old gang rape victim in India. Hundreds of women in DR Congo gang-raped by soldiers… There are 475 entries featuring the Today in Rape Culture label, and I only started using labels in 2009. I have written about a lot of survivors.

It isn't any easier or harder to write about the living; it's just different.

We have awkward and imperfect language to talk about death, to share our condolences and convey our sympathies, but we have no such familiar construction to talk about surviving abuse. Which is partly because we are encouraged and cajoled and forced into silence about abuse, in most spaces. There are no "Sorry you were raped" greeting cards—although maybe there should be.

Instead, we expect survivors to "get over it," as swiftly as possible, and preferably in isolation where we don't have to look at the grief and the pain of surviving abuse. Survivors are not encouraged to mourn the loss of their lives as they knew them. Moving suddenly from security to insecurity, or slowly from the reliable horror of sustained abuse to a life strangely disquieted by safety, is difficult. And we expect people to navigate these transitions mostly alone.

Or, at least without a lot of uncomfortable talk about it, outside of the designated support groups that are meant to provide what most families and friends cannot.

Life after abuse can become split in two—the people who understand and support and listen to me, and the people who don't, or can't, or won't. Eventually, surviving safely often necessitates finding a single unified path again, which can mean loss of people who one might have loved and trusted once upon a time.

Life shatters, and then we put it back together, as best we can.

And there are rarely public outpourings of outrage (and half of them are directed at victims), no ribbons, no flown-in comfort animals, no passionate exhortations to never forget. If we're lucky, or unlucky, the media tells our stories—briefly, maybe fairly, and then on to the next one. If we're very lucky, there is justice.

There are no monuments for survivors. Nothing permanent erected in memory of the damage done to individual people, every day.

Surviving can be a lonesome pursuit. It is inglorious, and steeped in institutionally engineered forgetfulness.

I remember the people about whom I've written. I think of them often. If any of them pass this way, and wonder what they and their stories meant to a person who wrote about them, I can say with honesty: Everything. I survive alongside you.

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