Silenced by Reality
Last weekend, my friend, Cathy, and I went to see The Wife starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Price. At the end of the movie, other movie goers filed out in silence. Cathy and I sat mute as we watched the credits. Then we looked at each other, still unable to utter a word. I went to the restroom. In the past I’ve had lively conversations with other movie goers about the film we just viewed. The restroom was silent.
The Wife is an up close and personal look at an almost forty-year marriage. The husband is reaching the pinnacle of his career. He basks in and enjoys the great acclaim coming his way. His wife takes a backseat as she accompanies her husband to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature for his prolific body of work. Always the caregiver, she makes sure he takes his medications and brushes crumbs from his beard at receptions. She is the peacemaker between her husband and son’s volatile relationship. Cathy and I agreed that no one could have played the part of “The Wife” any better than Glenn Close. As the movie unfolds, we learn of the compromises she made to fulfill this role. We witness her silent complicity.
Cathy and I walked out of the theater and headed for the car in silence. Finally words came in subdued tones of recognition. “That was powerful … real … hit close to home.” Watching such an intense portrayal of the reality for women of our generation moved me to ponder how my life might be different today had I lived in a society that valued my gifts and talents and supported me in contributing them in the wider world … how the lives of so many women would be different if we lived in a society structured to support women.
We were told in the 80s we could “have it all.” Regardless of how successful we may have been outside the home, the truth is that “having it all” is just a figment of someone’s imagination and a tactic to divert our attention from the reality.
Even today’s progressive politicians seldom think to include quality care for children and the elderly, the responsibility that falls primarily to women, in their litany of concerns. They rarely mention the income disparity between men and women and the inordinate burden born by women of color, especially single mothers.
The Taboo of Silence
Then a blog post written by a friend of mine dropped into my inbox. She wonders if the “taboo of silence” always lurking in the shadows of her mind will ever go completely away. It surfaces at unexpected times and she features one of those in her blog.
I suspect Mary Jo’s taboo will recede once her book, Patchwork: A Memoir of Love and Loss is published. Once the “thick tangled labyrinth of lies, deceit, manipulation, and false beliefs” that gave her entry into the “#me too” movement are out in the world … as she opens the door for the abuse survivors among her readers to come forward and break their silence … I believe she will be set free from the secrecy so carefully and painfully taught to her young self.
Silenced by Fear
Shortly thereafter, for the first time, I heard the name, Christine Blasey Ford, breaking a silence she held for more than three decades. As usual, blaming the victim arose. “Why did she wait so long to come forward?” Dr. Ford’s allegation interrupted a tidy timeline.
To counter this victim blaming, Beverly Engel, a therapist who has worked with victims of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment for forty years, wrote an article in the November 2017 edition of Psychology Today. She wrote it because “even highly educated people are continually baffled by why women don’t come forward.” The full article can be read here. The following is a list of some of the highlights:
- Shame = a natural reaction when invaded leading to feelings of being defiled, humiliated, dehumanized, helpless, and at the mercy of another person. Victims often blame themselves instead of the sexual misconduct of their perpetrator.
- Denial & Minimization = downplaying the extent of harm … trying to move on and forget the whole thing. Symptoms bring them to therapy where they have the opportunity to face the reality of the damage done.
- Fear of the Consequences = repercussions in the workplace … won’t be believed … being punished … being labeled an opportunist … retaliation … frightened by perpetrator’s position of power
- Wound to Self-esteem, Self-concept, and Sense of Self = even the most confident lose their confidence and often give away their integrity
- Feel hopeless and helpless = seeing the way others have been treated, they feel it useless to come forward … it’s hopeless because they won’t be believed and their reputations will be tainted or ruined … the trauma produces a sense of powerlessness called learned helplessness … robbed of the belief they can change their circumstances, they are unable to summon the emotional strength it takes to stand up and come forward.
Can you feel into Christine Blasey Ford’s journey with silence … with her struggle to come forward? Let us not forget the alleged victim amidst all the political wrangling and media sensationalism:
- In 1982: “I’m not ever telling anyone this. This is nothing, it didn’t happen, and he didn’t rape me.” Christine worries about getting into trouble with her parents for being at a party where teenagers are drinking.
- Sounds like denial and minimization to me.
- Sounds like downplaying the event and trying to move on with her life.
- From 1982-1987, she struggles academically and socially. She describes herself as ill-equipped to develop healthy relationships with men.
- Normal for sexual abuse survivors
- In 2002, she marries. Early in their relationship, she tells her husband that she has been “physically abused.”
- Could she have been too ashamed to admit to having been sexually assaulted?
- She struggled with anxiety and PTSD symptoms.
- Normal effects of trauma
- In 2012, realizing this trauma is affecting her marriage, she reveals the incident in couple’s therapy — the first time she has told anyone of the incident in any detail.
- Could it be that she denied the damage done until her marriage was in trouble?
- She wouldn’t be the first.
- In 2013, she enters individual therapy to overcome the long-term effects of the “attempted rape.”
- Could she be suffering from the weight of
- Damage to self-esteem, self-concept, and sense of self
- Learned helplessness
- Could she be suffering from the weight of
- In early July, she posts anonymously on The Washington Post tip line and contacts her Congresswoman.
- Can you imagine the courage it took to do that?
- Could it be that this is her process of regaining her personal power?
- In late July, she writes a letter to her Senator describing the incident and asks that her story be kept confidential. She signs with her professional name.
- Could it be that she is trying to exercise her personal power while protecting her family?
- She refuses to speak to The Washington Post on the record for weeks.
- Can you imagine the sleepless nights she must have endured?
- She grapples with concerns about what going public would mean for her and her family
- Could it be the bizarre questioning of Anita Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee playing out in her mind?
- She grapples with her duty as a citizen
- Could she be regaining her integrity in an effort to live with herself when this is all over?
- Could she be weighing her responsibility to her country against her personal comfort and the safety of her family?
- She hires a sexual harassment attorney. Her attorney advises a polygraph test because she is likely to be attacked as a liar.
- In early August, she takes the polygraph test administered by a former FBI agent. The results indicate that Dr. Ford is being truthful.
- She continues to grapple with coming forward.
- Could it be that the consequences and repercussions of coming forward are becoming more real and scary?
- By late August, she decides not to come forward. She believes doing so would upend her life and wouldn’t make any difference. “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?”
- Could her hopelessness and learned helplessness be trying to defeat her?
- And/or is she facing the reality of what is likely to come?
- On September 12, her story is leaked in the media, naming sketchy details about a letter her congresswoman received. Her identity is not revealed.
- Can you imagine the fear that must have welled up in her?
- As she faces this huge and powerful arena, she must be wondering, “How will they annihilate me? Throw me to the lions?”
- On September 13, a reporter comes to her home and then tries to speak to her as she leaves a classroom where she teaches graduate students. Another reporter asks her colleagues about her. The New York Times reveals that the letter includes “possible sexual misconduct.”
- Her fear of the powerful position of her alleged perpetrator must be overwhelming.
- On September 14, the letter to her congresswoman is printed in the New York Times. Dr. Ford’s full name is included.
- If I were in her shoes, shock waves would have coursed through my body.
- Her privacy is violated. Inaccuracies are being spread.
- She must be wrestling with how to protect herself and her family while maintaining her integrity.
- She can no longer avoid the inevitable. She says that her civic responsibility now outweighs her anguish and terror about retaliation. She decides to come forward.
- What courage it must have taken for her to throw herself into the fray.
- She would have had to summon all her emotional strength to face this contentious political environment.
- She recounts what happened to the best of her memory, trying to correct the inaccuracies reported earlier.
Her emotional strength and personal power will continue to be tested. She and her family have already received viscous harassment and death threats. They have had to move out of their home. Her life is upended big time.
- Will the government designed to protect her let her down? They let Anita Hill and her family down.
- Will our elected officials learn from the gross mistakes they made with Anita Hill in 1991?
- Will they make Dr. Ford’s coming forward matter? Will it make a difference? Sexual abuse survivors are watching.
- Or will we repeat history?
- Will our electoral officials perpetuate the reality that men and their concerns are of more value than that of women?
- Will we as citizens continue to celebrate men basking in and enjoying their power and privilege as they come to the pinnacle of their careers while ignoring the compromises made by the women around them?
- Will we make “coming forward” worthwhile … mean anything?
- Will we teach our boys to be responsible with their sexual urges?
- Or will we perpetuate the “boys will be boys” message that has led to the arising of the #me too movement?
For Dr. Ford’s sake, for Mary Jo’s sake, for all the women and men coming forward or trying to summon the courage to say “#me, too,” … and for the sake of our country, I pray that Lincoln’s 1861 hope for the prevailing of the “better angels of our nature” will finally become a reality.
Just today, Dr. Ford showed that she isn’t going to count on “our better angels.” As I write, there is breaking news that she wants a full FBI investigation before she is willing to testify before the Senate Judicial Committee…the step they should have taken anyway.
I applaud her courage. What about you?