Fourteen years after writing the first draft of my memoir, I was standing in front of audiences, published book in hand, reading about the period of my life in which I was, as most readers understand it, the victim of a predatory man, namely my junior high English teacher. My book, Excavation, had not been an easy one to write (what book is?), but had been made even more difficult by the confusion I felt during its writing. As I began the first draft in my mid-twenties, I struggled with how my story might be read. Would readers be able to understand the conflicted feelings I had for the person who abused me? Would I be able to reflect the nuances of this dangerous relationship? How could I escape from the binary of victim/perpetrator, which could not completely capture my experience? Perhaps the most frightening thought was: How will other women view me? And underneath that: Will my personhood, my humanity, be heard and respected in light of this experience?
The first time I read the chapter “Why I Didn’t Tell,” I was pointedly asked to read it. It was not a chapter I ever would have chosen read to aloud to strangers. It was also the chapter that was the hardest to write, and the chapter readers—privately and publicly—most often point out as a moment of deep resonance. My interpretation of this resonance, guided by reader comments, is that what is deeply understood is the internal conflict that sexual abuse at the hands of someone you know creates. If I tell you that I understand this experience to be one of harm, how can I also tell you that it was also, at times, an experience other than harm? How will I be read or understood then?
With age, many years of personal psychotherapy, and eventually, in my training as a therapist, much of my ambivalence around sharing the story with the world dissolved. It became more important to me to frame the story in its complexity. Avoiding its complexity would only serve to tell a version of the story that might sit more comfortably with the standard cultural narrative that posits abusers are bad and should be punished and victims are victims (and sometimes survivors, if we exhibit the behaviors appropriate to that role). That version of the story is black and white.
In my writing, I’ll often use a variety of constraints, which is a tool I use to force myself to think beyond the language I might normally employ, or to confine myself to a measured space in order to work out a concept. In Excavation, I used a constraint to help me more accurately describe the interiority of a 13-year-old junior high student in a sexual relationship with a teacher, a man of 28. I could have used the terms “victim and perpetrator” or “victim and abuser.” I could have also used commonly accepted terms to describe the teacher himself: “predator,” or even “monster.
More accurate was describing the troubled, vulnerable, and sexually curious 13-year-old me who came into contact with the friendly, charming, gregarious English teacher and basketball coach, against the backdrop of, among other things, the late 1980s, the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, and my dysfunctional alcoholic home. Adolescent me believed and behaved as though she was in a tumultuous love affair and did not sit for very long, ever, with the idea that she was “abused.” In fact, there were takeaways from this complicated and illegal relationship that the adult I am now acknowledges as “problematic”—meaning they were not always completely positive or completely negative, but existed elsewhere, in the gray. I used this constraint to not only reflect my experience, but to allow the reader their own space in which to define these characters—ultimately, with the hope of troubling the accepted narrative that the situation can be read in only one way.
This dissonance—the space where I’m able to discern the multiplicity of my experience and have conflicted feelings about it—represents to me why we need to move beyond binary survivor-perpetrator framing; it will never capture all of us in its restrictive narrative. This restrictive narrative does not allow the full humanity of the victim/survivor or the abuser/perpetrator, and labeling people as one or the other perpetuates the cyclical nature of abuse. It dehumanizes one set of people (“predators”) as a way to superficially address the needs of another set of people (“victims”).
Calling out abuse can be a powerful act for an individual, but without support beyond this act, it’s difficult to locate a place of power or “justice.” The shunning, isolation, and in many cases, incarceration of people who fall into the “perpetrator” category does not solve the problem of sexual violence, and often overlooks, if it does not outright ignore, the fact that the person’s behavior is possibly, even likely, part of a familial or generational cycle. Opportunities for healing on an individual level, let alone a community level, are lost.
From Fiction to Real Life
Three recent books of fiction serve to illustrate the problem of viewing perpetrators/abusers with a black and white lens. In The Child Finder, Rene Denfeld gives us the character Naomi, who has survived childhood abduction and sexual abuse, and makes a life finding missing children. Denfeld is a prolific writer, chief investigator at a public defender’s office, and survivor of sexual abuse herself. In the book, one of the main characters, B, who we understand to be an active perpetrator, is presented as a more dimensional character than just a perp. We learn how B came to be the abuser, which can’t be untangled from the abuse he also endured.
In D. Foy’s Patricide, the live-wire-near-water narrative painfully and viscerally describes the negative potential of a boy brought up in a physically, sexually, and emotionally abusive household—later to become a deeply wounded man. In one scene, when the narrator is an adult in a position of power over his father wielding his physicality over him, he thinks, “The pleasure I felt in that moment of power was matched only by my horror at my father’s paralysis beneath me, and by my disappointment and sorrow. I was at once jubilant and sickened, arrogant and ashamed…. I could do anything I liked with him, anything at all.”
The book consistently ruminates on vengeance. The father figure in Patricide holds “an allegiance to the notion of family” that is so toxic it has created a son who struggles with notions of masculinity and the aftereffects of a damaged self-perspective, substance abuse, and suicidal attempts, among other symptoms.
In Russell Banks’s 2011 novel Lost Memory of Skin, we’re introduced to a paroled sex offender. Banks has said that he was inspired by an encampment of homeless sex offenders in the shadows of Miami Beach. The novel indeed highlights the problem with laws that broadly categorize sex offenders, which includes a person caught urinating outside (charged for indecent exposure) alongside serial rapists. Readers are taken inside the head of the emotionally stunted, confused Kid, who has impulse-control issues with internet porn and unwittingly attempts to have sex with a minor. He is a minor himself, and forever a registered sex offender.
Readers have a variety of responses to these complex fictional characters. In an interview in The Rumpus, Denfield said, “People relate and respond to the more complex and important truths of these issues.” I have found this to be accurate with regard to readers’ responses to the character of “Mr. Ivers” in my real life story in Excavation as well. I’ve also found a deep resistance to seeing Mr. Ivers as anything but a “monster,” whether it’s in private conversations with friends or in online reviews of the book in which strangers are concerned I have been “brainwashed.” There is a fear that in humanizing a person who has sexually abused others, I am somehow accepting/promoting terrible behavior, and at worst, victim-blaming.
Imagine, though, if we are able, as readers, to lesh out the humanity of lives such as these, might we also begin to escape the confines of the survivor-perpetrator binary? And if we reject this binary, what new paths emerge for those in most need of healing?
There is a fear for some that in humanizing a person who has sexually abused others, I am somehow accepting/promoting terrible behavior, and at worst, victim-blaming.
For or Against
For much of my conscious life, I’ve developed something of an identity around resistance. This resistance has, at times, shown up in my refusal to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance starting in high school, and in my early twenties, in the amount of street demonstrations I attended, megaphone in hand. The image of a completely black armband tattooed around a bicep enchanted me, and I imagined it would serve as a symbol on my body of everything I felt “against.” The wrongs committed—whether by the state, the workplace, college, or by the individuals in the social justice circles I ran in—began to take on a different hue when I imagined how those wrongs could be “righted.” The time I spent in the office of my therapist recounting one wrong in particular—the sexual relationship that I’d been initiated into by my seventh grade English teacher—became one locus where I’d imagine upending the boundary between what “justice” means and what my own loss, trauma, and confusion engendered, which at times were sophisticated, as well as rudimentary, fantasies of vengeance.
Much later, after years of metabolizing my own stories of sexual abuse, the image of a black armband did not have the same charge it did before. In fact, my preference would be for an image that epitomized not a position “against” but a position that could include what I might be “for.” This shift seemed to coincide with another shift, one in which I positioned myself in a different power dynamic than the one I’d once been a victim of. I remembered that I could, and would, write about my experience. This would be, to me, a form of reclamation.
Reclamation, according to its dictionary definition, is “a process.” With regard to surviving sexual assault, this process is likely not linear or simple. The reclamation I chose (or that chose me) was writing; reclamation may be a silent, private act, or a public one involving elements specific to, or that counter, a specific instance of assault; for instance, Karmenife Paulino dressed as a dominatrix with male models in submission in front of the frat house in which she was raped. As a writer, psychotherapist, a parent, and a human, I’m deeply interested in how people define themselves by/around sexual assault. I believe in people’s inherent wholeness while also bringing light to the fractures that occur over a life that, without repair, may turn a victim into an abuser—keeping alive the constant reminder that one may be both over a lifetime.
The Possibility of Repair
A frequent refrain in my psychotherapeutic work is “repair is always possible.” Typically, I’m saying this to remind myself and clients that we have the choice to move towards repair, to enact repair when we have caused harm to others. This refrain might also be familiar to readers of Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, a recent book that argues in favor of repair (among other things). Restorative justice and transformative justice practices too contain within them the belief that repair is possible, and offer more depthful processes than our current retributive justice system offers.
The roots of restorative justice practices can be traced to some Indigenous tribes of North America, for whom talking circles served as a process for resolving conflicts and harm. The use of talking circles expanded in the 1990s, when First Nation people were looking for alternatives to mass incarceration. Through group process involving an investment in connection, dialogue, and accountability, people used the talking circle to foster community and promote healing. Non-Native people have benefited from the teachings of Native people in the philosophy and practice of talking circles since. Over time, these circles have been taken outside the carceral system and, in fact, have been used and are in use in a variety of contexts.
The Centre for Justice and Reconciliation defines restorative justice as “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.” Cooperative processes include involvement of all parties through restorative, mediated encounter(s). Meetings (whichever form they take, if not in person) focus on direct communication through narrative. While reconciliation is promoted, it’s understood that it is the aim, as opposed to an expected outcome. Transformative justice, while bearing a strong similarity in intention with restorative justice, includes a component of examining how social structures and circumstances contribute to harmful behaviors. The impact of harm on the community and not just the individual is addressed in both approaches, but the transformative approach places more equal weight, perhaps, on the individual and the community’s long-term healing by focusing on questions and resolutions that promote an understanding of how social systems contributed to the problem.
As an alternative to prosecution and imprisonment, restorative and transformative justice approaches are practiced in limited settings in this country, and most typically we see it enacted (if we do) in cases involving violent crime. In the peace psychology and violence prevention fields, there are numerous examples of how restorative justice practices have impacted the lives of people around the world: from survivors of genocide to small social justice communities that suffer from the ills of what they’re fighting against “out there” (the macro) within the group itself (the micro). This work is challenging on many levels—there are compelling reasons for people to resist confronting trauma, the most obvious of which is that it’s often painful, messy, scary, or there’s a belief in place that nothing will change. Mia Mingus, cofounder of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, told Everyday Feminism last November, “people talk about [transformative justice] as though it’s ‘soft’ [but] it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do.” There is nothing easy about addressing trauma between people, with community presence and investment. There is nothing simple about preventing further harm by addressing the heteropatriarchal structure that holds up our current retributive justice system. But to not do this work is to rely on punishment-based approaches that we are so often fighting against in other contexts—the prison industrial complex being the most obvious.
Human to Human
When the hashtag #MeAt14 appeared, I knew that reading the tweets would be a difficult experience. What was most difficult for me was a group of women (some had identified as victims and others had not) who tried to publicly shame men out of preying on adolescents by displaying a photo and description of themselves at 14 years old. They thought this would be enough to stop it. One tweet by Lizz Winstead, cocreator of The Daily Show, read, “I was on the gymnastics team and sang in the choir. I was not dating a 32-year-old man.”
I briefly considered posting a photo of myself at 14, when I was “dating” at 28-year-old man. What pithy descriptions could I share about who I was at 14? Did the #MeAt14 crowd consider how their method might impact those who have survived sexual abuse at that age? The shame I’ve had to shoulder and transform over time returned reincarnated as I scrolled through the tweets of women who perhaps didn’t realize that they were, in essence, shaming me and survivors like me.
It’s very strange to feel silenced in this cultural moment after I’ve written a very personal and difficult book about my own experience with a predator. I knew, at age 15, 16, and 17, that if I had gone to authorities to report what was happening, as a victim, I’d be subject to the criminal justice system. Even at that young age, I knew from television, movies, and personal anecdotes that my sexual history would also be on trial. I would have to prove my “innocence”—and my feeling was that I would not stand a chance.
And still: In the current cultural milieu of mounting accusations against powerful individuals across industries, of hashtags linking us to thousands upon thousands of stories that, for some, empower, and for others, retraumatize, I’ve felt parched for nuanced discussions that might expand the notion of what accountability and, indeed, “justice” might look like for survivors of sexual violence. Responding in part to the “sudden national conversation about sexual violence that feels silencing” in a Facebook thread, author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore wrote: “People are mistaking punishment for justice. Haven’t we learned anything? …[W]here are the connections between sexual violence and war, racism, imperialism, colonialism, police brutality, incarceration, and other systems of oppression, domination, and control expanding right now on a mass scale?”
If we are willing to only call out abusers, to scapegoat and isolate, what progress have we made toward healing for the survivor, and even the abuser?
We are left with questions. If we are only willing to call out abusers to scapegoat and isolate them, what progress have we made toward healing for the survivor, and even the abuser? If we press charges and enter the criminal justice system to seek justice and an abuser is incarcerated, how does this address the harm done on a human-to-human level? And how are we complicit if we stand by without questioning any of the methods currently in favor when dealing with the avalanche of accusations occurring in a retributive, rather than a restorative, system?
Again and again I come back to my experience as a writer who is invested in artfully rendering some of the most confusing and painful experiences in a life. It’s in these spaces—outside of binaries—where I can see the most hope, and most importantly, it’s where I can also see more of myself.