This is an excerpt from Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault, out April 16 from Greystone Books.
Recently, I was auditioning a new therapist, who asked me in all sincerity during the intake if I thought the therapy I’d gotten in my twenties had “resolved my childhood sexual abuse.”
I had high hopes for this therapist. She was a woman of color with a Cesar Chavez quote on her website. She worked at the local healing justice center staffed entirely by people of color healers. She said she was “trauma-informed” on her website and listed working with survivors as one of her areas of expertise. Plus, she was cheaper than the therapist I’d been seeing for seven years, who was one of the smartest, weirdest healers I’d ever met, but still lived in Oakland, where I’d been priced out. Maybe seeing a therapist in person, not via Skype, would be a good thing?
But there I was, in the office with my mouth slightly open and the rug pulled out from under me. As it turned out, we had some really different understandings of trauma, healing, and survivorhood. She really thought that childhood sexual abuse was something to manage, something you could get over and “move on” from, a cut that could be stitched up with butterfly bandages. Not: My abuse isn’t something to resolve, a number on a pain scale, a simple wound that can go away with Neosporin. My trauma is an opera, a gorgeous and tough dress made out of my best scars, a seed library, a Gutenberg Bible, a thunderstorm to climb and buck in a small plane, a mountain range, a supernova to map.
It’s trauma. It’s also a resource. A resource that isn’t just an individual one, but one that connects me to other survivors and their collective knowledge. Knowledge that we have used to survive, and that we could potentially use to change the world, end rape culture, and create new forms of healing, family, communication, and justice.
When I composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t really think of it like that. I think that I’m on a lifelong journey of learning from and healing my trauma. You know what I mean?” You know what I mean, right?
She smirked at me with that poor-dear-sure-let-her-think-that look. And I didn’t go back.
The idea that survivorhood is a thing to fix, cure, or get over, and that a cure is not only possible and easy but is the only desirable option, is a foundational belief in mainstream ways of understanding survivorhood and survivors. And the idea of survivorhood as solely an unfortunate condition to cure is an idea with deep roots in ableism.
Ableism believes that when there’s something “wrong” with a body/mind, the only desirable outcome to that wrongness is cure. It also believes that you can either be fixed or broken—there’s nothing in between. It certainly believes that there is nothing valuable in inhabiting a body/ mind that’s disabled.
The idea of “getting over it” is also deeply seductive to survivors. We want the pain and trauma of surviving sexual abuse or assault to be over. Who wouldn’t? What’s the problem with that?
As I write this essay, the #MeToo movement has toppled senators, movie moguls, and many other famous white men (and some Black and brown ones), but more importantly, it’s created an explosion of survivors telling our stories. A movement created in 2007 by Black survivor activist Tarana Burke, #MeToo encouraged survivors to break silence about the rape and abuse we’d survived and was then Columbus-ed by several white North American cis lady media figures in late 2017. But #MeToo also took on a life of its own, claimed by many everyday survivors as a strategy to make space for us to speak, argue, and organize around survivorhood in all its complex iterations.
The thing I like most about #MeToo is how it, for a moment at least, transformed the experience of being a survivor from one that—despite me being embedded in survivor culture—still so often feels freakish and lonely, to one where the truth is out there: rape and childhood sexual abuse are the norm and most people are survivors. #MeToo created space where the weaponization of sex wasn’t seen as a rarity or an accidental tragedy befalling a sad handful of people, but as a system of oppression that’s everywhere, in the water and the air just like any industrial pollutant.
This is dangerous information. As survivors, we often feel powerless because rape and abuse are an attempt to destroy our power, and we often lack systemic power (when the legal system is racist, whorephobic, inaccessible, and not our vision of justice anyway, when people don’t believe our experiences, when we can’t afford therapy). But we survivors are also supremely powerful. Our stories of rape and survivorhood are a thundercloud, a nebula. They are huge and awesome and, if spoken, can and do bring rape culture to its knees.
Rape culture and its proponents know this, and it scares the shit out of them. The power our stories have scares the shit out of them. So rape culture creates many things to manage survivor knowledge and tamp it down. Sometimes, I call it the Survivor Industrial Complex: the web of institutions, practices, and beliefs that works to manage, contain, and offer resolution to survivors of sexual violence. Similar to how the nonprofit industrial complex contains and manages dissent. Its reach is huge, stretching from the nurses who administer rape kits, to YWCA therapists who run twelve-week group therapy sessions. From the six-week “solution-focused” therapy that is the only kind available at the sliding scale clinic, to the cops and district attorneys who decide who counts as a “perfect victim,” and who is too slutty, poor, Black, brown, crazy, or trans to deserve victim compensation funds.
One of the biggest ways the Survivor Industrial Complex manages all those messy, powerful survivor emotions and truths is by deploying the idea of the good or fixed survivor. The Good Survivor is the survivor you see on a talk show or a soap opera, the one who received three months of therapy and is all better now. The abuse is a vague memory; there are no visible scars—physical or emotional—and they don’t talk about the invisible ones. They’ve moved on. They don’t talk about abuse in an ongoing way, ask for accommodations, get triggered during sex, have a new memory, or figure out something else about their trauma years later. They don’t ask that survivorhood or trauma be talked about or held in our movements, communities, or queer scenes, or insist that understanding those things could strengthen those movements. They don’t bother you with “their drama” or “their stuff,” and they know that talking about it for sure would be a bother.
The Good Survivor is someone I’ve never met in person, because they don’t exist. But their archetype haunts me and many other survivors I know. We beat ourselves up for not being them. And often, unfortunately, our partners, friends, co-workers, and comrades want us to be that good, quiet, all-better survivor too.
In contrast, the bad survivor is the one who’s still “broken,” still freaking out, still triggered, still grieving, still remembering. Still making you remember. They have a panic attack during the action, they think they can perform a certain sexual act but disassociate or throw up anyway, they tell you terrible stories that haunt your dreams, they’re pissed off at the local rape crisis center for being racist or transmisogynist or just fucking inadequate. They haven’t forgotten shit. Bad survivors see the secret insides of rape culture every day, and talk about it. They’re the femme with baggage you scroll past on Tinder because they look like too much drama. They’re the survivor who kills themself and who is described later in sorrowful tones as “broken, but now at peace.” They’re the bitch, the hysteric, the dyke. And often, as survivors, we don’t want to be them, because being them means being not healed. It means that we’ve failed at surviving.
These archetypes are binaries. The world reinforces these stereotypes in a million ways, but we also repeat them to ourselves. We torture ourselves with them, and also—let’s be real—they’re seductive. They make things feel simple. If we believe that some survivors are just too annoying or bitchy, too out of control, we can feel better about ourselves by promising we’re not like that and then distancing ourselves from those high-maintenance bitches. And if the promise of ease is a possibility, maybe someday we can achieve it.
The promise of a cure for survivorhood is what lies inside the Good Survivor, and it’s tempting: most people experiencing pain want it to stop. As a young survivor, I was in torment every single second of every day, and I wanted to get some goddamned peace. I wanted to fuck. I wanted to stop being so gone from my body that the whole world looked like a TV screen. I wanted to not feel like broken glass. I wanted to be able to think or talk about something other than my incest memories twenty-four/seven. I wanted those things because it hurt, and because of the rolled eyes, imagined and real, of the people around me who were impatient about me discussing all that depressing stuff all the time.
And there was more. I wanted to interrupt the cycles of abuse and intergenerational violence in my family. I wanted to grow up to have relationships that weren’t violent. To know pleasure, not martyrdom. Most of all, I wanted to be happy, and I wanted to know freedom, joy, and liberation. Even though and especially because I had no idea what those things actually felt like.
These are powerful, fierce survivor freedom dreams. Dreams like these are where I see many survivors in our fiercest power as revolutionaries. There is revolution in survivors remembering the omnipresence of rape, insisting that we remember shit right, and using our deepest dreams to create new worlds that we have never seen.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting less pain, or a different experience of it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to transform generations of passed-down trauma. But what gets more complicated is when those desires bleed into the ableist model of cure. That model and its harsh binary of fixed and successful versus broken and fucked is part of what contributes to suicide and struggle in long-term survivors. I’ve seen survivors, including myself, struggle with feelings of failure and self-hatred when we’re thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, or older and we’re still triggered, grieving, and remembering, when we haven’t reached that mythic cured place. What keeps me alive and thriving is my work as a disabled survivor. Undoing and picking apart that binary and naming its poison as ableist. Bringing together crip and survivor struggles and knowledge. Mapping a new model of survival that charts where my scars and my still being crazy in adulthood are not signs that I’ve failed.
You can read the rest of this essay in Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault, out April 16 from Greystone Books.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is the Lambda Award winning author of Tonguebreaker, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, Bodymap, Love Cake, and co-editor of The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities.