Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen.

On Believing Victims

Regardless of whatever happened in Kavanaugh’s past.

The process of admitting aloud that someone’s hurt you, all by itself, without any outside judgement from the world, can be intensely shameful. Admitting this can also mean admitting to yourself that you’ve been someone’s victim, and everyone — everyone — feels a natural fury at the idea of someone else taking advantage of them. Many people blame themselves for getting abused, thinking, however unrealistically, that they “let it happen,” and maybe even become saddened by the idea that they deserved being hurt, for allowing themselves to be so vulnerable, and exposed.

In short, someone abused begins to victim-blame, which is made much harder because they are the victim.

And this is common.

Then there’s admitting it aloud to people you’re close to… how will they take it? Already there is so much shame and guilt that it happened. And telling people who love you that you’ve been victimized will impact them. How will they react? Will they fall into themselves, saddened for you? Will they become ashamed that they couldn’t save or help you? Will they become angry that you didn’t share this information with them sooner, they thought you were closer than that? Could they even unleash fury at you, and judge you for being “stupid enough to be victimized?” Could they even understand what you’re going through? What’s more: will their view of you change from that point forward? Will they see you as a shattered glass of a person? Walk on eggshells around you? Consider that every time you’re angry, saddened, or even annoyed in the future, it’s always because of what happened to you, what you’ve endured in the past?

And then we get to the point in your personal capacity when you can finally admit it to the police, in which case you are asked to essentially relive the abuse and trauma moment by moment. The setting, the moment it began, what happened throughout the abuse, and what happened after… action by disgusting, skin-crawling action. And in the process, of course, sharing these details will activate all those brain and body memories from the original traumatic event. Though it means holding the abuser accountable, why would anyone want to go through the inner chaos of remembering such a painful, invasive event in your past? Especially in front of people you don’t know, and are not certain will bother to care about a fair outcome? Sometimes it takes years to get to this point, and by then the statute of limitations to hold the abuser accountable has passed… then all this pain and exhaustive reliving of the event will have been for, essentially, nothing.

And then, finally, there’s saying it publicly. And if the abuser is famous, or polarizing, or in a position of power, why would anyone take your side? Why wouldn’t they all just, instead, discount you, and insult you, and tell you you’re lying, reject you, say you’re a fool for being victimized, expect a point-by-point retelling of the event, as though you need to convince them personally, and still just not believe you, because the very idea that you’d have the bravery to say something aloud, to anyone, and not just endure the pain quietly, tragically, and in the process uphold some sort of cruel status quo, infuriates the public?

Why, I sometimes wonder, do strangers on the internet naturally conclude that victims are lying when they come forward? Could it be because talking about abuse aloud is so piercingly re-traumatizing that it sounds impossible for most people to do? So it’s easier to explain a victim’s story as “lies and posturing” than “they’re brave enough to tell their truth?” because no one can imagine another person who’s that brave?

Could it be because truly ugly behavior sounds so foreign to some people — regular, good people — that they’d rather pretend it doesn’t happen at all than help someone who’s gone through it? This to me is a very sad possibility.

Or maybe our society’s abusers needs society’s victims to stay in their roles, as victims, to keep an ugly hierarchy in place… and their weapon to stay on top is public victim-shaming, and discounting bad behavior as normal, something we should all simply “deal with.” Maybe even idolizing it.

I’d never ask you to take a side here. I’m instead just wondering about what exactly it takes to believe someone who tells you they’ve been hurt, whatever the timing, however suspicious you assume it is.

And about the many, many ways we justify not believing, and even shaming people who’re just trying to tell their story.

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Tony Chavira

Tony Chavira

Radical Empathy. Inclusive Morality. Reflections on Grief, Trauma, Modernity, Media, Shrift & Society from L.A. —LSE, USC, Pepperdine