Sharing experiences of abusive behavior-how the hell should I do it?
Posted July 23, 2009on:
Posted by Carly, Providence SDS
For a year now, I’ve been struggling with the question of how to share my experiences, and my chapter’s experiences, of a member’s abusive behavior in a productive, conscionable way.
From the day it happened, I didn’t know who to tell, what to say, or how to deliver any of it. I had a hard time articulating to myself what had happened. It took me two weeks to tell him what he did made me feel uncomfortable, two months for me to stop blaming myself, six months for me to name it as sexual assault.
I had many conversations with people as I went through this process. I told my partner first, searching unsuccessfully for the words to name my experience. All I could really do is describe what happened. “He gave me three glasses of wine. He put his legs over me on the couch. He started stroking my hand…”
I became angrier and angrier as time went on, consistently walking out of meetings and snapping at the perpetrator. I felt I needed to share my story in order to justify my behavior to the other members of the group. When I approached someone as an individual to tell them, I relied on emotion and my old set of crude descriptions. For months, the only way I could share my experience was in furtively and bitterly describe the events of that night to individual friends. Maybe we would be the last ones left at a party, maybe my friend would be lending me a book. My only release from my anger and frustration came through these small fits of sharing.
In telling others, it became clear to me a vocabulary was missing. I didn’t have the words at the time to name what was going on, and those who listened didn’t have any either. The people I told were confused and hurt, which they expressed through silence. Our community lacked any sort of framework for understanding and confronting abusive behavior. There was no room in our group’s language for my experiences, no room for any of the other women and men who were affected by this one person’s behavior in other violent ways. As individuals and as an organization, we were paralyzed, effectively silenced by this person and the missing vocabulary and framework for understanding our experiences.
Finally, one incredibly strong woman called an emergency meeting of the women’s caucus. For the first time, we shared our experiences with each other not in whispers behind backs, but as part of a group. Sharing was awful, listening was gut-wrenching. Together, we created the missing vocabulary to name our experiences for what they were: abuse, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. We decided that as a group of twelve women, we would demand that the perpetrator leave or we would leave the organization to make the space safer for both women and men in our chapter.
From this moment on, the question in my mind was not “how do I share my experience with others,” but rather, “how do we share these stories with the whole group.” I didn’t know how my male friends would react to our stories or our decision. As I had said before, my experiences sharing had been pretty negative. My friends’ silence had eroded a lot of my trust in the group, and I was particularly scared to see how they would react to our decision to remove this person, who had been an integral part of the organization for years and a good friend to many members. I was afraid they might minimize our stories or doubt our decision. Our group had already been ripped apart by the abuser’s behavior in a lot of ways, and part of me feared that people would view it as a divisive, not healing, decision.
Telling my story to a group of twenty-two people was a nerve-wracking experience and very different than telling it to a group of women or a friend late at night. It was hard, but I felt bolstered by the group of eleven women sitting next to me. The organization’s response was incredibly positive, and people were supportive, responsive, and reflective. I left the meeting with renewed faith in my community. I have never felt more inspired by collective action, acting as a woman, in a group of women, to actually do something about patriarchy.
Among the barriers to sharing was this particularly slippery one, one that I struggle with to do this day. I didn’t want to ruin this person, and still don’t want to ruin this person. I knew that in a lot of ways, I was helping to make a decision that could potentially isolate and really socially damage someone who had used to be my friend, someone who I resented but didn’t hate. I believe in restorative justice, but what if the restorative justice process inadvertently becomes punitive? This person did legitimately shitty things. Sharing that and making it known would most likely be an unpleasant experience for him. People could react by pulling away from him, and he was no longer going to be in the organization. These things would be negative and could possibly be interpreted as punitive for him, but were consequences of a decision made with the safety of women and the organization in mind. I don’t know how to reconcile this.
As I’ve become more involved in national work, I’ve run into this same issue again and again. Do I share information that could possibly do further harm to this person? I don’t want to further damage this person’s relationships, but I definitely do not want to be silenced. The other day, I was triggered by someone who made a comment about sexual assault happening within chapters. I didn’t know whether I should share with her why I was triggered, and thought maybe if I had previously shared my story, she wouldn’t have made the comment in the first place. Again, I felt unsure as to how to speak about my experiences in a useful, fair way.
I think SDS needs to do a better job creating a community in which stories of sexual assault and interpersonal violence can be constructively shared. To echo something I heard a lot at the national convention, I think we need to build a community of trust so we can actually have a safe space to talk. I think we need a vocabulary to talk about these experiences. Finally, I would love conversations to take place about the act of sharing these experiences. Hopefully this piece will open up some space for us to talk about the processes of being silenced and speaking out, how to more effectively go about making sure our voices are heard, and how to create a safe and constructive environment for sharing our experiences.