• How Philosophy Attempts—and Often Fails–To Grapple With Experiences of Trauma

    Susan J. Brison on Perceptions of Self in the Wake of Sexual Violence

    On July 4, 1990, at 10:30 in the morning, I went for a walk along a peaceful-looking country road in a village outside Grenoble, France. It was a gorgeous day, and I didn’t envy my husband, Tom, who had to stay inside and work on a manuscript with a French colleague of his. I sang to myself as I set out, stopping to pet a goat and pick a few wild strawberries along the way.

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    About an hour and a half later, I was lying face down in a muddy creek bed at the bottom of a dark ravine, struggling to stay alive. I had been grabbed from behind, pulled into the bushes, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Feeling absolutely helpless and entirely at my assailant’s mercy, I talked to him, calling him “sir.” I tried to appeal to his humanity, and, when that failed, I addressed myself to his self-interest. He called me a whore and told me to shut up.

    Although I had said I’d do whatever he wanted, as the sexual assault began I instinctively fought back, which so enraged my attacker that he strangled me until I lost con­sciousness. When I awoke, I was being dragged by my feet down into the ravine. I had often, while dreaming, thought I was awake, but now I was awake and convinced I was having a nightmare. But it was no dream.

    After ordering me, in a gruff, Gestapo-like voice, to get on my hands and knees, my assailant strangled me again. I wish I could convey the hor­ror of losing consciousness while my animal instincts des­perately fought the effects of strangulation. This time I was sure I was dying. But I revived, just in time to see him lung­ing toward me with a rock. He smashed it into my forehead, knocking me out, and eventually, after another strangulation attempt, he left me for dead.

    In spite of my conviction that I had done nothing wrong, I felt ashamed.

    After my assailant left, I managed to climb out of the ravine, and was rescued by a farmer, who called the police, a doctor, and an ambulance. I was taken to emergency at the Grenoble hospital where I underwent neurological tests, x-rays, blood tests, and a gynecological exam. Leaves and twigs were taken from my hair for evidence, my fingernails were scraped, and my mouth was swabbed for samples. I had multiple head injuries, my eyes were swollen shut, and I had a fractured trachea, which made breathing difficult. I was not permitted to drink or eat anything for the first thirty hours, although Tom, who never left my side, was allowed to dab my blood-encrusted lips with a wet towel. The next day, I was transferred out of emergency and into my own room.

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    But I could not be left alone, even for a few minutes. I was terrified my assailant would find me and finish the job. When someone later brought in the local paper with a story about my attack, I was greatly relieved that it referred to me as Mlle. M.R. and didn’t mention that I was an American. Even by the time I left the hospital, eleven days later, I was so concerned about my assailant tracking me down that I put only my lawyer’s address on the hospital records.

    Although fears for my safety may have initially explained why I wanted to remain anonymous, by that time my assailant had been apprehended, indicted for rape and attempted murder, and incarcerated without possibility of bail. Still, I didn’t want people to know that I had been sexually assaulted. I don’t know whether this was because I could still hardly believe it myself, because keeping this information confidential was one of the few ways I could feel in control of my life, or because, in spite of my conviction that I had done nothing wrong, I felt ashamed.

    When I started telling people about the attack, I said, simply, that I was the victim of an attempted murder. People typically asked, in horror, “What was the motivation? Were you mugged?” and when I replied, “No, it started as a sexual assault,” most inquirers were satisfied with that as an explanation of why some man wanted to murder me. I would have thought that a murder attempt plus a sexual assault would require more, not less, of an explanation than a murder attempt by itself. (After all, there are two criminal acts to explain here.)

    One reason sexual violence is taken for granted by many is because it is so very prevalent. The FBI, notorious for underestimating the frequency of sex crimes, notes that, in the United States, a rape occurs on an average of every six minutes. But this figure covers only the reported cases of rape, and some researchers claim that only about 10 percent of all rapes get reported. Every fifteen seconds, a woman is beaten. The everydayness of sexual violence, as evidenced by these mind-numbing statistics, leads many to think that male violence against women is natural, a given, something not in need of explanation and not amenable to change.

    And yet, through some extraordinary mental gymnastics, while most people take sexual violence for granted, they simultaneously manage to deny that it really exists—or, rather, that it could happen to them. We continue to think that we—and the women we love—are immune to it, pro­vided, that is, that we don’t do anything “foolish.” How many of us have swallowed the potentially lethal lie that if you don’t do anything wrong, if you’re just careful enough, you’ll be safe? How many of us have believed its damaging, victim-blaming corollary: if you are attacked, it’s because you did something wrong? These are lies, and in telling my story I hope to expose them, as well as to help bridge the gap between those who have been victimized and those who have not.

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    Sexual violence and its aftermath raise numerous philo­sophical issues in a variety of areas in our discipline. The disintegration of the self experienced by victims of violence challenges our notions of personal identity over time, a major preoccupation of metaphysics. A victim’s seemingly justified skepticism about everyone and everything is perti­nent to epistemology, especially if the goal of epistemology is, as Wilfrid Sellars put it, that of feeling at home in the world. In aesthetics, as well as in philosophy of law, the dis­cussion of sexual violence in- or as- art could use the illumination provided by a victim’s perspective. Perhaps the most important issues posed by sexual violence are in the areas of social, political, and legal philosophy, and insight into these, as well, requires an understanding of what it’s like to be a victim of such violence.

    One of the very few articles written by philosophers on violence against women is Ross Harrison’s “Rape: A Case Study in Political Philosophy.” In this article Harrison argues that not only do utilitarians need to assess the harmfulness of rape in order to decide whether the harm to the victim outweighs the benefit to the rapist, but even on a rights-based approach to criminal justice we need to be able to assess the benefits and harms involved in criminalizing and punishing violent acts such as rape.

    In his view, it is not always the case, contra Ronald Dworkin, that rights trump considerations of utility, so, even on a rights-based account of justice, we need to give an account of why, in the case of rape, the pleasure gained by the perpetrator (or by multiple perpetrators, in the case of gang-rape) is always outweighed by the harm done to the victim. He points out the peculiar difficulty most of us have in imagining the pleasure a rapist gets out of an assault, but, he asserts confidently, “There is no problem imagining what it is like to be a victim.” To his credit, he acknowledges the importance, to political philosophy, of trying to imagine others’ experience, for otherwise we could not compare harms and benefits, which he argues must be done even in cases of conflicts of rights in order to decide which of competing rights should take priority. But imagining what it is like to be a rape victim is no simple matter, since much of what a victim goes through is unimaginable. Still, it’s essential to try to convey it.

    How many of us have swallowed the potentially lethal lie that if you don’t do anything wrong, if you’re just careful enough, you’ll be safe?

    In my efforts to tell the victim’s story—my story, our story—I’ve been inspired and instructed not only by feminist philosophers who have refused to accept the dichotomy between the personal and the political, but also by critical race theorists such as Patricia Williams, Mari Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence, who have incorporated first-person narrative accounts into their discussions of the law. In writing about hate speech, they have argued persuasively that one cannot do justice to the issues involved in debates about restrictions on speech without listening to the victims’ stories.

    In describing the effects of racial harassment on victims, they have departed from the academic convention of speaking in the impersonal, “universal,” voice and relate incidents they themselves experienced. In her groundbreak­ing book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Williams describes how it felt to learn about her great-great-grand­ mother, who was purchased at age 11 by a slave owner who raped and impregnated her the following year. And in describing instances of everyday racism she herself has lived through, she gives us imaginative access to what it’s like to be the victim of racial discrimination. Some may consider such first-person accounts in academic writing to be self­ indulgent, but I consider them a welcome antidote to schol­arship that, in the guise of universality, tends to silence those who most need to be heard.

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    Philosophers are far behind legal theorists in acknowl­edging the need for a diversity of voices. We are trained to write in an abstract, universal voice and to shun first-person narratives as biased and inappropriate for academic dis­course. Some topics, however, such as the impact of racial and sexual violence on victims, cannot even be broached unless those affected by such crimes can tell of their experi­ences in their own words.

    Unwittingly further illustrating the need for the victim’s perspective, Harrison writes, else­ where in his article on rape, “What principally distinguishes rape from normal sexual activity is the consent of the raped woman.” There is no parallel to this in the case of other crimes, such as theft or murder. Try “What principally distinguishes theft from normal gift-giving is the consent of the person stolen from.” We don’t think of theft as “coerced gift-giving.” We don’t think of murder as “assisted suicide minus consent.” Why not?

    In the latter case, it could be because assisted suicide is relatively rare (even compared with murder) and so it’s odd to use it as the more familiar thing to which we are analogizing. But in the former case, gift-giving is presumably more prevalent than theft (at least in academic circles) and yet it still sounds odd to explicate theft in terms of gift-giving minus consent (or coerced philanthropy). In the cases of both theft and mur­der, the notion of violation seems built into our conceptions of the physical acts constituting the crimes, so it is inconceivable that one could consent to the act in question. Why is it so easy for a philosopher such as Harrison to think of rape, however, as “normal sexual activity minus consent”? This may be because the nature of the violation in the case of rape hasn’t been all that obvious. Witness the phenomenon of rape jokes, the prevalence of pornography glorifying rape, the common attitude that, in the case of women, “no” means “yes,” that women really want it.

    Since I was assaulted by a stranger, in a “safe” place, and was so visibly injured when I encountered the police and medical personnel, I was, throughout my hospitalization and my dealing with the police, spared the insult, suffered by so many rape victims, of not being believed or of being said to have asked for the attack. However, it became clear to me as I gave my deposition from my hospital bed that this would still be an issue in my assailant’s trial.

    During my deposition, I recalled being on the verge of giving up my struggle to live when I was galvanized by a sudden, piercing image of Tom’s future pain on finding my corpse in that ravine. At this point in my deposition, I paused, glanced over at the police officer who was typing the transcript, and asked whether it was appropriate to include this image of. my husband in my recounting of the facts. The gendarme replied that it definitely was and that it was a very good thing I mentioned my husband, since my assailant, who had confessed to the sexual assault, was claiming I had provoked it.

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    As serious as the occasion was, and as much as it hurt to laugh, I couldn’t help it, the suggestion was so ludicrous. Could it have been those baggy Gap jeans I was wearing that morning? Or was it the heavy sweatshirt? My maddeningly seductive jogging shoes? Or was it simply my walking along minding my own business that had provoked his murderous rage?

    After I completed my deposition, which lasted eight hours, the police officer asked me to read and sign the transcript he’d typed to certify that it was accurate. I was surprised to see that it began with the words, “Comme je suis sportive…” (“Since I am athletic…”)—added by the police to explain what possessed me to go for a walk by myself that fine morning. I was too exhausted by this point to protest “No, I’m not an athlete, I’m a philosophy pro­fessor,” and I figured the officer knew what he was doing, so I let it stand.

    That evening, my assailant was formally indicted. I retained a lawyer, and met him along with the investigating magistrate, when I gave my second deposition toward the end of my hospitalization. Although what oc­curred was officially a crime against the state, not against me, I was advised to pursue a civil suit in order to recover unreimbursed medical expenses, and, in any case, I needed an advocate to explain the French legal system to me. I was told that since this was an “easy” case, the trial would occur within a year.

    In fact, the trial took place two and a half years after the assault, due to the delaying tactics of my assailant’s lawyer, who was trying to get him off on an insan­ity defense. According to article 64 of the French criminal code, if the defendant is determined to have been insane at the time, then, legally, there was “ni crime, ni delit“—neither crime nor offense. The jury, however, did not accept the insanity plea and found my assailant guilty of rape and attempted murder.

    As things turned out, my experience with the criminal justice system was better than that of most sexual assault victims. I did, however, occasionally get glimpses of the humiliating insensitivity victims routinely endure. Before I could be released from the hospital, for example, I had to undergo a second forensic examination at a different hospi­tal. I was taken in a wheelchair out to a hospital van, driven to another hospital, taken to an office where there were no receptionists and where I was greeted by two male doctors I had never seen before. When they told me to take off my clothes and stand in the middle of the room, I refused. I had to ask for a hospital gown to put on.

    For about an hour the two of them went over me like a piece of meat, calling out measurements of bruises and other assessments of damage, as if they were performing an autopsy. This was just the first of many incidents in which I felt as if I was experiencing things posthumously. When the inconceivable happens, one starts to doubt even the most mundane, realistic perceptions. Perhaps I’m not really here, I thought, perhaps I did die in that ravine. The line between life and death, once so clear and sustaining, now seemed carelessly drawn and easily erased.

    When the inconceivable happens, one starts to doubt even the most mundane, realistic perceptions.

    For the first several months after my attack, I led a spectral existence, not quite sure whether I had died and the world went on without me, or whether I was alive but in a totally alien world. Tom and I returned to the States, and I continued to convalesce, but I felt as though I’d somehow outlived myself. I sat in our apartment and stared outside for hours, through the blur of a detached vitreous, feeling like Robert Lowell’s newly widowed mother, described in one of his poems as mooning in a window “as if she had stayed on a train / one stop past her destination.”

    My sense of unreality was fed by the massive denial of those around me—a reaction I learned is an almost universal response to rape. Where the facts would appear to be incontrovertible, denial takes the shape of attempts to explain the assault in ways that leave the observers’ worldview unscathed. Even those who are able to acknowledge the existence of violence try to protect themselves from the realization that the world in which it occurs is their world and so they find it hard to identify with the victim. They cannot allow themselves to imagine the victim’s shattered life, or else their illusions about their own safety and control over their own lives might begin to crumble.

    The most well-meaning individuals, caught up in the myth of their own immunity, can inadvertently add to the victim’s suffering by suggesting that the attack was avoidable or somehow her fault. One victims’ assistance coordinator, whom I had phoned for legal advice, stressed that she herself had never been a victim and said that I would benefit from the experience by learning not to be so trusting of people and to take basic safety precautions like not going out alone late at night. She didn’t pause long enough during her lecture for me to point out that I was attacked suddenly, from behind, in broad daylight.

    We are not taught to empathize with victims. In crime novels and detective films, it is the villain, or the one who solves the murder mystery, who attracts our attention; the victim, a merely passive pretext for our entertainment, is conveniently disposed of-and forgotten-early on. We identify with the agents’ strength and skill, for good or evil, and join the victim, if at all, only in our nightmares. Although one might say, as did Clarence Thomas, looking at convicted criminals on their way to jail, “but for the grace of God, there go I,” a victim’s fate prompts an almost instinc­tive “it could never happen to me.”

    This may explain why there is, in our criminal justice system, so little concern for justice for victims-especially rape victims. They have no constitutionally protected rights qua victims. They have no right to a speedy trial or to compensation for damages (although states have been changing this in recent years), or to privacy vis-a-vis the press. As a result of their victimiza­tion, they often lose their jobs, their homes, their spouses­ in addition to a great deal of money, time, sleep, self-esteem, and peace of mind. The rights to “life, liberty, and the pur­suit of happiness,” possessed, in the abstract, by all of us, are of little use to victims who can lose years of their lives, the freedom to move about in the world without debilitating fear, and any hope of returning to the pleasures of life as they once knew it.


    Excerpted from Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self by Susan J. Brison. Copyright © 2023. Available from Princeton University Press.

    Susan J. Brison
    Susan J. Brison
    Susan J. Brison is the Eunice and Julian Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values and Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College.

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