Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Rape Victim's Shame

Why don’t rape victims come forth more often? For one they fear having the world thenceforth envisioning them in a degrading position. For another they abhor the treatment they will receive at the hands of defense attorneys.

If the facts are public knowledge, as happened to Elizabeth Smart, the victim has very little choice but to become something of an advocate. Smart did not have a choice between exposing her identity or not. And yet, what happens when the victim’s identity is unknown, when the media and the courts do everything in their power to protect her identity.

Such was the case of the women dubbed Emily Doe, the victim of a rape perpetrated by one Brock Turner outside a Stanford University frat party. Now, Emily Doe has chosen to come out, to name herself the victim of Turner’s attack, in order to reduce what she calls her shame and to advocate for tougher sentencing guidelines. She also discovered that by naming herself she allowed her friends to commiserate with her.

Her name is Chanel Miller. Today she is publishing a book about her experience. It’s title: Know My Name. As you might guess, I have not read it. 

Concepción De León describes the book in The New York Times:

But while millions of people read or heard her words, many in Ms. Miller’s life didn’t know she was Emily Doe until The New York Times reported it this month.
“It let me have a life in which this never happened,” she said of her decision to keep the assault and trial hidden. She wanted a chance to define herself, she said, beyond “the nameless, faceless, half-naked body from this case.”

Unfortunately, by naming herself Miller has defined herself as the nameless, faceless half-naked body in the case. Of course, no one knew that she was that body... until she told everyone. Apparently, she did it all to reduce the shame:

Her statement went viral, yet most in her life remained unaware of the trial, something she now thinks may have stalled her recovery. “Shame grows when it’s in a contained space,” she said. “As soon as you let a little bit of air in, the shame loses its power.”

Did she learn this piece of sophistry from her therapist. We do not know. We do know that her therapist had read the victim impact statement-- without knowing that the woman speaking to her had written it. 

Ms. Miller began working with a therapist, disclosing that she had been sexually assaulted. The therapist, unaware Ms. Miller was the victim in the Stanford case, urged her to read the statement that so many people were sharing online.

Sad to say, shame does not grow within a contained space. The idea sounds like a platitude that therapists have been hawking. Shame involves how you look to other people. You cannot and should not try to manage it by making a case for shamelessness. You cannot deal with it by exposing yourself to the world and telling the world that they should think about you the way that you want them to think about you. Henceforth, Miller will be known, above and beyond all else, as a rape victim. Try getting that one out of your head.

As noted, the justice system did everything in its power to protect her. It is certainly a good thing that the system, the courts and the media, protects rape victims from exposure. I am not sure why it is a good thing for victims advocates to proclaim that all victims should come forth.

Most victims do not want to be identified by an experience that they did not consent to. Some might need to, but most do not want to. In all events if they do come forth they are deciding between bad and worse. Theirs is a self-sacrificing gesture. It might help to obtain justice, but it certainly exacts a toll. Again, protecting the victim's identity is a great step forward.

For her part Miller believes that the redeeming virtue of exposing herself lies in the compassion that her friends felt for her:

“An incredible thing I’ve learned is the people who love you want to suffer with you,” she said. “I spent so much energy trying to protect them from everything, when the whole time, they really did just want to be beside me, weathering the storm.”

As noted, the reasoning is so off base that you suspect that Miller learned it from a therapist. Elizabeth Flock made the point in Washington Post:

In a full interview on “60 Minutes” on Sunday she also shared a dream — to write children’s books — and a fear: “no parent is going to want me as a role model, if I’m just the discarded, drunk, half-naked body behind a dumpster.”

Now that she has identified herself as a discarded, drunk, half-naked body, will parents want her to be their children’s role model. Any time she accomplishes something, the story of her rape will be added to the biography… thus making it impossible for parents to want their children to grow up to become like here.

Just in case you did not get the full picture, Flock offers the horrific details:

The book begins with what Miller remembers of that night — how having drinks at a college party with her younger sister devolved into a nightmare. She describes the horror of waking up in a hospital with no underwear on, no memory of what happened, and no one willing to tell her. First, she felt a deadened calm like a “still dark ocean,” and then panic that “would arrive like a fish,” leaping out of the water again and again. It is the first of many sentences that will haunt the reader.

Apparently, she got blackout drunk. And then there was the indignity of the examinations, in the hospital and in court. Did we really need to know her name? Did we really need to put a face on the images. Does she really need to allow this experience to define her?:

She expresses alarm over the way photos of her naked body were splashed in court for everyone to see. When her father saw a police photo of her lying behind the dumpster, she writes, it seemed to him that she was dead. It is details like these that convey the true horror of sexual assault.

Apparently, she could not put the images to rest. Keeping the secret required too much energy. Or else, we might ask whether her therapist encouraged her to go public, as a therapeutic exercise. We might also ask whether the therapist proposed any other ways to manage her anguish:

Though Miller often writes with anger, she also aims to comfort, offering others who have been affected by sexual violence a path to survival. She recounts trying to put the details of the assault away in a kind of mental jar to cope, and then realizing that “our bodies kept it in storage no matter how many times our brains took it to the trash.” She imagines all the other women out there — one in four, if the statistics are right — who feel the same way. “The slivers we show, the mountains we hide,” she writes. She tells survivors it is okay to need extra, and at times to unclench their fists.

Exposing your shame is not a path to survival. It might be the path to a book contract, but we do better not to confuse that with survival. Being as Miller did nothing to elicit the rape we do better to think that it did not really happen to her, that it does not reflect on her character. And thus, that it would best be forgotten.

Actually, shame is not just a feeling. It reflects the way people see us. You cannot control it by doing mental exercises. If you expose it in public, you most often redouble the pain. You are inviting people to see you in that posture. Would you say that the best way to get over your feelings of shame about your genitalia is to publicize them via sexting?

Anyway, Miller has become a political activist. She believes, not unreasonably, that Turner got off easy. So, she is telling her story to advance the cause of criminal justice reform. 

Mostly, though, “Know My Name” is an indictment of the criminal justice system, which in the beginning failed to inform Miller of the details of her attack — and in the end failed to deliver justice. She saves an especially pointed critique for the intensive process by which rape victims are questioned, and even smeared, as she relates being painted in court as a liar and a drunk. “It never occurred to me that the system itself could be wrong,” she writes. She’s sure of it now. 

Again, she was not painted as anything in the courts. The courts protected her identity. As for the need to reform sentencing guidelines, I do not see why her putting her name out will advance her cause.

Among the most horrifying aspects of a rape trial is a defense attorney’s assault on the victim. The good news is that the criminal justice system found a way to protect Miller’s identity and not to subject her to the added indignity and the added violation. Apparently, her therapist missed that point.


whitney said...

I don't think you can underestimate the desire for fame here

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I'm afraid that you are right.

trigger warning said...

I agree, but I also don't underestimate the monetary value of mass cooing from the NYT dovecote and a first-class seat on the Remainder Table Express.

Anonymous said...

If she had not been told that she was sexually assaulted, only that she got drunk, passed out and fell down, would her mental state have been different? I’m not trying to be flippant, but as she was not at risk of pregnancy or an STD, did the medical staff and/or law enforcement have to tell her (other than to make their legal case?)

UbuMaccabee said...

Also agree with Whitney on motive. “Look at me, I’ve been raped!” NYT: You’re so brave. I’m learning Mandarin as fast as I can, tough language.