Focus beyond victims

People who have experienced sexual violence typically report negative social responses to disclosing their experiences as well as active attempts to distort these memories in favour of the perpetrator. Violence is widely misrepresented in legal and mental health settings (Coates, 1997; Coates, Todd & Wade, 2000; Bavelas & Coates, 2001; O’Neill & Morgan, 2001; Coates & Wade, 2004), where language is used to distort memory by (a) concealing the violence by calling it something innocuous such as ‘a domestic’, (b) obscuring perpetrators’ responsibility, (c) concealing victims’ responses and resistance, and (d) blaming and pathologising those victimised.

The victimised person’s acts of resistance to their experiences might be recast as problems to be treated (Wade, 1997; Todd & Wade, 2003). At times professionals use misleading terms and metaphors (Coates et al., 2000; Coates & Wade, 2007). For example, Nimisha Patel rightly pointed out to me that my use of the term ‘persecutory rape’, when writing asylum reports, obscured the ways in which all rape is persecutory.

Perpetrators of sexual abuse or domestic violence often try to ensure that their abuse remains unseen, unacknowledged and not remembered. As Herman (2001) points out, ‘in order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting’ (p. 8). People who perpetrate abuse rely on the power they have to distort and manipulate the victimised person’s reality. In addition, those who perpetrate abuse deliberately isolate those they abuse, in order to try and ensure that the victimised person’s memories are made up of the perpetrator’s distorted version of the victim and a version of reality that justifies abuse. Isolation disconnects the person from those who might challenge these versions of reality. The victimised person might also become separated from the importance of their resistance to abuse, with respect to what is meaningful to them (White, 2004b). Memory difficulties could be viewed as an attempt to create coherence in the face of active attempts by perpetrators to create chaos and confusion. By distorting the memories of ‘victims’, they are:

  • • less likely to report the abuse, oppression and violence
  • • more likely to blame themselves for their experiences
  • • more likely to experience intense and long-lasting distress
  • • more likely to receive a diagnosis of mental illness even after the abuse has ended (Coates et al., 2000; Coates & Wade, 2004).

If the aim of perpetration is to victimise, silence and distort people’s memories, therapy might direct its focus to:

  • • highlighting the strategies of perpetration
  • • highlighting the resistance of those victimised
  • • supporting those victimised to reclaim their preferred memories (Wade, 2007; White, 2004a).

Donna was sexually abused by her uncle who terrorised her for most of her childhood and died when she was a teenager. Donna had a diagnosis of schizophrenia because when she was ‘unwell’ she felt ‘mentally chaotic’ as a result of recurring nightmares and flashbacks. We explored Donna’s intrusive experiences and how she understood them. CMM levels of context served as a useful framework for exploring strategies of perpetration as the power of contextual forces and Donna’s strategies of resistance as the power of implicative forces.

  • • With respect to cultural context we explored the negative ways the media and criminal justice system often responded to those sexually abused, why this was and what Donna thought about it.
  • • With respect to family and relational context we explored responses from significant people in Donna’s life to her disclosure of abuse. For example, Donna’s mother pretended she had not heard what Donna had said; whereas Donna’s husband and best friend were supportive. We explored Donna’s ethical position on the negative responses she received, what Donna would do differently if being disclosed to and what her alternative approach said about her. We reflected on the consequences of open resistance to these negative responses - such as her mother cutting Donna out of her life - in order to make sense of the form Donna’s resistance took (a commitment to sustaining the relationships that were important to her).
  • • With respect to relational context we explored the ways in which Donna’s uncle actively attempted to distort her sense of what was real and not real.
  • • Exploring Donna’s identity context meant asking her what her experiences (of abuse and the mental health system) had her thinking and feeling about herself. It was also important to listen out for Donna’s strategies of resistance and build on this story. We explored the origins of Donna’s abilities, qualities and convictions (for example, Donna described a positive relationship with her drama teacher who supported Donna’s skills in amateur dramatics, which enabled Donna to creatively escape the constraints of her family life by being someone else and experimenting with the fluidity of personal identity).

As Donna started to experience herself as more and more coherent and happy with herself she began to experience more frequent intrusive images of her uncle. We explored the relationship between Donna developing a positive sense of herself and the increasingly menacing presence of her uncle, having to become more and more present as the power to define Donna waned.

Rather than Donna’s flashbacks indicating that she had a disorder and was becoming unwell, they were an indication of her growing strengths. Donna felt that the stronger and happier she was becoming, the harder her uncle had to work to take back the power he previously had over her. Donna felt stronger than her uncle for the first time, realising that she was living the life he said she would never have.

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