… keeping my shame secret for so many years made it snowball into a kind of mad monster. Finding the truth of my deepest, most secret shames was terrifying, and agonising, but it fired and laid the pavers for my road to healing…’
Trauma gave me shame, and shame sent me mad. This post explores how unravelling my own shame in a ‘mock trial’ helped me to heal.
Trigger warning: This post talks in detail about the emotional impacts of rape.
Beginning with an unapologetic apology.
This part of my story is confronting. A part of me wants to apologise profusely for giving you such awful things to read. Another part of me is determined that I should never, ever apologise for speaking the truth. Yet another part of me just wants to run and hide.
This part of my story is confronting because it shares the parts of me that I’ve been most ashamed of. The aspects of my life that felt so terrible, so utterly unacceptable, that I didn’t, couldn’t, speak about them for decades. The parts of my story that drove me mad, really.
So, why do it?
I speak about what were my unspeakable shames precisely because of their unspeakable nature. This kind of topic is still so taboo, so unspoken. And I think these taboos cause great harm. Before I began to open up about my story, I thought there couldn’t possibly be anyone else like me in the world. I thought I was the embodiment of the worst evil imaginable. And yet, I have come to find that my story is remarkably, tragically, common. It’s just that no-one speaks about these subjects. And so we all marinate alone in our shame, feeling like freaks, unaware that we are part of a countless, anonymous tribe of survivors.
I speak about my previously unspeakable shame because it was only in hearing others do the same that I found the courage to pursue my own healing. For me, this is a way to ‘pay this courage forward’.
And I speak my truths because continuing to do so, despite how terrifying it can feel, is ultimately freeing.
My madness began with shame, and my shame began with trauma.
I experienced various types of trauma as a child, and they all composted into my mental health problems as an adult. My mother, struggling with her own mental health and childhood trauma, was loving, violent, protective and neglectful all at the same time. Sometimes I think of her as morphing between the Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. This made for some confusing developmental years. Regardless, I loved her deeply and I miss her since she passed away.
I was bullied by kids in the neighbourhood, both verbally and physically, for being Jewish. I was raised Jewish until I was 12, and I have fond but fuzzy memories of times spent at my paternal grandmother’s house, sitting in the background while elderly people played cards, bet with small change, and spoke about World War II. I would listen to them, and admire the wallpaper that was covered in ballerinas. I heard about concentration camps, and I learned how we must never forget. These were early, formative memories that shaped my values, and that made me aware that bad things happen in this world. Being bullied for the faith I was raised in was a strange experience. It made no sense to me, it was heartbreaking when my little friend from the block of flats next door would no longer play with me.
But the culminating trauma experience came when I ran away from home, aged thirteen. On the very first day I met an older man who encouraged me to go off to a regional town with him. For the next two weeks I experienced abduction and rape. Once the police found me, I was brought home. I never told the police or my mother what happened. No charges were ever laid against this man. I was punished for being a delinquent teen. And we never, ever spoke of it again.
During my recovery experiences I came to see that I needed to unpack these secret traumas. For years the mental health system had told me that my madness was actually an illness. That I was broken, that my brain chemistry was unbalanced. I was treated with pills and shocks and control.
But my peers in the consumer movement told me differently. So did my gut, eventually. The told me that madness was meaningful. They told me that I wasn’t broken, but society often was. They told me there was a way out. I needed to understand how my traumatic experiences related to my madness. I needed to make sense of what was happening to me, in order to transform it. And I was desperately hopeful that somehow this would help me to heal.
After climbing over many barriers, I began to see a sexual assault counsellor, called Marion. She was spectacular. The sense of power in our counselling relationship was totally different to anything I had experienced in the mental health system. She was a feminist, she believed me, she was on my side. And everything, always, was my choice.
Marion was the person who gave me the words ‘abduction’ and ‘rape’. I had never used these words about my experience until then. Inside my head I would call it ‘that thing that happened when I was thirteen’. Or ‘the first time I had sex’. These new words gave me power, too.
In my work with Marion it became increasingly clear that the elements of my madness were related to shame, but I couldn’t put my finger on what the real issues were. Telling my story felt scary and kind of helpful, but not enough. I knew that I thought I was evil. I knew that my voice, whom I called The Judge, wanted me to die or be punished. He called me a whore, a betrayer of all women, a rapist. I knew that I self-harmed frequently and cruelly. Sometimes in obvious places, sometimes in private, symbolic places.
People like Ron Coleman, Eleanor Longden, Peter Bullimore, Jacqui Dillon and Rufus May gave me enormous courage to make this journey. Their stories and ideas gave me hope that change was possible, and imminently practical ideas for how to pursue this path.
One of these ideas came to me from both Ron Coleman and Peter Bullimore. The idea was this: to put myself on trial.
It was a scary idea. I was to be both the prosecutor and the defence. I knew that The Judge voice would aid the prosecution. He would be the star witness, really. But the idea scared me for quite some time, and I avoided it. It was not until one night, after hours of agonising insomnia and desperately resisting hurting myself, that I just sat up, lit the first of many cigarettes, and began the trial.
What are the charges against the defendant? I asked myself. The judge didn’t hesitate to jump straight in. She is a filthy fucking whore evil scum. Well, I knew that already, but it still hurt. I drew the court of myself back together. I wanted specifics.
What are her actual crimes? I demanded to know.
They are sins, not crimes, screamed the judge. Sins against humanity.
This went on for a while, a struggle to move beyond vague generalisation towards the truth of the matter. I don’t know how I got there, but slowly, the charges began to emerge.
It is her fault that she was raped. She chose to run away from home.
Ah, this was something concrete. And it was true, I thought. I did make that choice, so it was my fault. This was a crime. I chose to run away, and as a consequence I put myself in danger.
Is this the only crime?
No, there were more. They kept coming, over hours and hours of tears and I don’t know how many cigarettes. Sitting in my bed, ash on the sheets, in the middle of the night, painfully extracting the roots of my inner evil.
You went with him willingly.
You had opportunities to escape and you didn’t use them.
You didn’t say ‘no’.
You were a responsible girl and you knew better.
You hurt and frightened your mother beyond belief.
I kept remembering how Ron Coleman talks about the layers of shame that he had to uncover for himself. Like layers of an onion. These ‘crimes’ or ‘sins’ felt true. They felt shameful. But I knew there was even more than this. I tested this idea. I became the defence, and I asked the prosecution whether, if the defendant was found guilty of all of these crimes, she would be found completely innocent.
And then, slowly, more layers began to emerge.
The prosecutor started to hit where it hurt: You wanted it to happen!
She did not, said the defending lawyer. That’s ridiculous.
Oh yes she did, piped in the Judge. She never told anyone what happened. That, right there, is a sign of guilt.
This was true. I never told a word. In the police divvy van, the man said to me don’t tell them what we did together, or they’ll hurt me. They’ll lock me away. So I didn’t tell.
Why didn’t I tell, I wondered. What’s wrong with me?
It’s because you loved him, the Judge told me. You loved your rapist. You fucking slut.
And here was a new, dark sin. I loved the man who abducted and raped me. This was, truly, disgusting. It was awful. I started writing down these sins, because I knew I had to remember them. This night was pivotal. I made accusing scrawls in the dark. A list of my own darkness, exposed in the moonlight. I cried.
I drew in the defence. I remembered Ron had told me that I had to give equal time to each party.
I don’t buy that, said the defence. No-one could really love someone who treats them like that. It’s nonsense. It’s not true.
Oh, but it is, came back the prosecution, now pretty much led by the judge. The court was against me. If it’s not true, then how come she has chosen, so many times, to have such twisted sex? I began to see the evidence. The random sex with strangers. The humiliating scenarios. How I’ve always gotten off on pain much more than pleasure. On degradation more than respect.
This was true, again. I knew it. I pulled up memories of all the ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ relationships I’d had. I have had those, too. But I knew, absolutely in that moment, that they had never been as satisfying as the dark, secret encounters. As the risky, painful humiliating sex. Here was yet another sin. I had re-created my rape in my teens, and my twenties, over and over. It was only since the madness that I had finally just drawn away from sex altogether.
What kind of fucked up person was I?
But there was one more crime to come. One more sin that I had never verbalised or imagined, that came out into the darkness.
You are beyond all evil because you are a rapist. You are a betrayer to every woman on the planet. You know it. I began to see what was coming, to feel the shape of it, and I didn’t want to hear it. But it was there, finally. The core of it.
You get aroused when you see scenes of rape on TV or in the movies. You get off on rape. That makes you a rapist!
And as I sat there, processing this terrible accusation, I realised that it was true. I thought about all the times this had happened to me, and how I hardly even recognised it happening. I had just leapt into self-harm, or feeling suicidal, or hearing my voice, or dissociating. I was aroused by the idea of rape. How could I call myself a feminist? What sort of abomination was I?
I began to self-harm after that. It was too awful. I knew it was true. I wanted to die but I wanted to live as well. So I hurt myself and sobbed until I went to sleep.
The next day I came to with a list of my crimes lying on the floor, scabs on my body, and a churning in my gut that told me I had uncovered something big and terrifying.
This was my charge sheet:
- I chose to run away
- I went with him willingly
- I had opportunities to escape and I didn’t use them
- I didn’t say ‘no’
- I was a responsible kid & I should have known better
- I hurt and frightened my mother
- I must have wanted it on some level because I never told my Mum or the police about what happened
- I must be really twisted; I must love pain & fear; because by the time the police found us I thought that I loved him
- I must have wanted it and enjoyed it because of all the times later on that I recreated the situation of violence, humiliation and degradation in my sex life
- I am beyond bad; I am evil; I am a rapist myself because when I see TV or movie scenes of rape, my body responds as though I am aroused. I am a betrayer to all women.
At first I didn’t know what to do with this. But I remembered that someone had told me that part of my healing would be to put the shame where it belonged. I needed to continue the trial, but I needed support. I drew on it from many people in my life, and slowly and gently I began to share my crimes, starting with the less frightening ones. Addressing this list became my work for the next few years.
The process I went through to find myself innocent of each of these crimes was a long one, and is a story for another day. But some of the most important elements were drawing on Ron Coleman’s idea of ‘intellectual and emotional innocence’. I learned a phenomenal amount from my counsellor about grooming, Stockholm Syndrome, typical responses to sexual assault. I began to read survivor stories. I began to test my thinking, over and over. Challenged my assumptions.
Eventually, I did find myself innocent. It’s not the world’s stickiest sense of innocence. I found myself intellectually innocent first. In other words, I came to see from a rational perspective that I was not guilty of any of these ‘crimes’ But being able to really feel that innocence, to really know it in my gut, that took a lot longer. And some days I still have to work at it.
These were the stand-out discoveries for me along this journey to innocence:
It does not matter whether I said yes or no or nothing at all. I was a child and unable to consent.
I began to spend time with thirteen-year-olds, and I came to see how little I really knew. How innocent and naïve I was. I did not understand the situation I was in, and I was not responsible for any of it.
I had been groomed to believe that it was my fault. That man manipulated me in ways that sexual predators often do to their victims.
I did not really love this man. Rather I experienced something like Stockholm Syndrome, where I formed an attachment to my captor in order to survive.
The blame and shame sits squarely with the man who hurt me. I gave it up and sent it back to him.
What about that last crime?
This last, seemingly greatest crime, was the hardest for me to overcome. It was so hard to understand.
One of the greatest reliefs came when I learned how our bodies can react to sexual assault. I had heard other survivors talk about feeling aroused during an assault, and how confused that made them feel. But I couldn’t relate to this, because in my case the feeling had continued for years.
I couldn’t understand how I could possibly feel aroused by the idea of rape, pain and humiliation unless it was something I actually wanted. Unless I was somehow deviant and disturbed.
And then I learned from others that these early sexual experiences can have profound and lasting effects, and that our bodies have memories as well as our minds. I came to see that my very first sexual experience was actually a co-mingling of fear, pain, sex and a confused child’s view of love. I came to see that, for whatever reason, these different sensations and ideas had become confounded with each other, not just in my mind, but in my body. Pain equaled sex, and sex equaled pain. This dreadful, early lesson had carved itself into me.
I came to see that this was not something I chose, but rather a consequence of something that was done to me.
Most importantly, I came to see that a rapist is someone who commits the act of sexual assault against another person. This was not something I had ever done, nor ever would do, nor have any desire to do. I would literally rather die. And, in fact, this was why my voice, The Judge, wanted me to die or destroy my genitals.
I accepted that my goodness as a human being was about what I did in my life, not what I felt or thought. And certainly my goodness was not related to unwanted feelings and thoughts that plagued me against my will. These have nothing to do with who I am or what I believe. They are not a reason for shame.
I began to realise that my voice, The Judge, was confused. He held the idea of all these terrible crimes because they were too much to hold in my conscious mind. He just wanted me to be good and true to my values. And in the face of these ‘sins’, as he called them, he couldn’t see many ways out for me other than absolute extremes.
So my greatest healing work came when I began to slowly re-educate the Judge with what I had learned. When he would attack me, I would soothe him, and remind him that we were both good people. I found a lot in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh that helped me here. I told him that my bodily reactions were not what I wanted to happen either. There were some kind of scar from what I had survived. I began to give my voice love, and compassion. And in the process, I began to give love to myself, as well.
Did I fully heal? Completely recover? I am not sure there is any such thing. But if there is, it hasn’t happened to me. I still struggle with the remnants of shame, and its costume, madness. It lingers like the smell of a dead body in the walls. It jumps out at me in unexpected moments. And I’ve been a frightful chicken about sex, really. I’ve just avoided it for sixteen years, which isn’t awfully brave. That helps keep me sane, but it’s hardly the most well adjusted response. What I can say is that I care for myself. I’m off antipsychotic medications, out of mental health services, I don’t self-harm, I’m working and making a difference. I can say that I cherish my life and I am grateful for every day of it, even the totally shit days.
The British poet and self-harm educator, Clare Shaw, has a poem called ‘I do not believe in silence.’ It’s a bloody brilliant poem by a bloody inspiring woman, and it echoes my feelings about unspeakable shame.
Because of the nights, and the sweats,
and the same rowdy thoughts;
because that one afternoon
when I nailed my own voice to the air
and because there was nobody listening
and through it all
and the sound of cars passing –
I do not believe in silence.
I now know that keeping my shame secret for so many years made it snowball into a kind of mad monster. Finding the truth of my deepest, most secret shames was terrifying, and agonising, but it fired and laid the pavers for my road to healing.
I also know that far too many of us keep these shames secret. I sit here typing these words, and parts of me are still worried about what I am writing, and wondering if I will have the courage to publish such a private account. My gut is churning, my breath is catching, and I am fearful of how people will react, even though I know that people will almost certainly be compassionate. This is the remnants of taboos. They are powerful things. The shames from sexual assault continue to live in the darkness for many of us. I am not sure that society wants to hear these things, to know of these silent battles. It is so much easier to write us off as mentally ill.
I dedicate these words, for what it’s worth, to people like me. The mad, the silent self-harmers, the voice hearers, the self-hating victims. All of us, really, survivors. We are not alone. We are legion. We are everywhere, each holding in our secrets like swallowed monsters that gnaw at our souls.
We are not to blame for what has been done to us.
There is a way into innocence. I never thought so until I found it.
You are not alone.
And your truth, should you choose to speak it, deserves to be heard.
I do not, obviously, remember the exact words and thoughts from the mock trial that I held for myself so many years ago. But I will never forget the list of crimes that I produced, the struggle with the judge, the long drawn out nature of squeezing out each crime. I chose to write about this night using dialogue, because I wanted to recreate what it felt like to have this tussle with myself over so many hours. I have been as faithful to my memory as I can be, and done my best to evoke what this experience actually felt like.