I often feel that I am standing on one side of a large canyon. Everybody else – civilization, mainstream society, all my friends and family – is on the other side. It’s quite crowded over there – all those people living together. There is a whole world that they know and trust and belong to. I look around my side but I seem to have only me. And a lot of empty space. I yell out to the other side frequently. I wave my hands around and dance up and down, trying to get attention, gesturing madly, but I cannot seem to reach them. At other times, I am sure there must be a bridge or a path that connects the two sides and I spend a lot of time looking for it but I cannot seem to find it. Sometimes, on the other side, they hear me or see me and wave back. They think I am ok over here, they think I’m just being friendly, they don’t seem to understand that I’m calling out for help. What I’m trying to say just gets eaten up by the great, gaping abyss that exists between us. When I run out of energy for calling out to the other side, or looking for the connection, I sit down and watch them. You see, I remember what it was like to live on that side of the canyon, for, once upon a time, I lived there safely, too. Even though I know it doesn’t help, it only makes the deafening loneliness of my side of the canyon harder to bear, I cannot prevent myself from reminiscing somewhat bitterly about what it was like when I lived over there, too – how it felt to be comfortable among other people, to feel connected to life, to be at one with the world.
Somehow the actions of the rapist have resulted in me being sent into exile. There is the rapist living freely and harmoniously in the world – on their side of the canyon! What is he doing over there? Don’t they realise how dangerous he is? How did he manage it? How is it that I am outcast, that I am marked out as different, when he is not? It is as if he can willingly include himself among them because he does not see what he did as wrong, he does not acknowledge the truth of his actions. I, on the other hand, am only too aware of the truth of what was done to me, of the reality of trauma and the undeniably reprehensible nature of it. This knowledge separates me. It sets me out as different from all the rest, as not like the others, as someone to be wary of. Society would prefer that I forget this knowledge or, at least kept quiet about it. It could upset the order of things, it could make life challenging for people other than me. Wouldn’t it be better for me to just bear the consequences of this alone? But I will not forget (because I cannot forget). I will not, simply cannot, unknow or unremember or disconnect from this knowledge. Society, then, will have to keep me at arm’s length.
Betrayed twice over, it is as if the rapist has kicked you down into the gorge but then society, instead of assisting you in returning to your rightful place back up with them, returns you instead to the other side of the canyon – at a safe distance. This isolation is agonising. Rape is not just a physical, emotional and psychological crime, it is also a social one. Your connection to other human beings has been savaged, your faith in other people has been thrown back in your face with contempt and you have been humiliated for daring to trust another person. When anyone is treated like this, the result is not just a private tragedy, it is also a communal one. This is why it is so essential that the community as a whole responds to the crime of rape. The only way to rebuild a capacity for trust, to relearn how to safely, appropriately and genuinely trust others, is in reliable, gentle and honest interactions with other people, both loved ones and strangers.
However, there are many people who do not want to know about trauma, who can’t or won’t or don’t help you to construct the bridge that would allow you to cross back to the side of the canyon where life exists. They do not want to hear about the terrible things people do to each other. They don’t know how to respond, they don’t know how to manage this information, they don’t like to be asked to face uncomfortable truths. They would prefer to be kept safe from an awareness of trauma, to be protected from this knowledge and to safeguard their lives from the devastating impacts that they sense this knowledge would have. And so, they silence us. They prevent us from speaking out, they dismiss us when we do or they find ways to undermine the information we present. They become impressively adept at changing the conversation or ending it abruptly with dismissive or conclusive remarks. If only they understood how damaging this behaviour is. If only they understood that, in refusing to listen, refusing to bear witness, they are condemning us to a distressing isolation and desolate loneliness that powerfully compound the already overwhelming impacts of the trauma. As victims, we need to tell others how it feels, how endlessly challenging it is, how lonely and despairing and exhausting. It is the only way for us to find a path through it. I need to say that I will never be the same, that I will be forced to live always with rape accompanying me wherever I go, whatever I do, in one way or another. I need to be heard when I say these things, I need to be understood. I need empathy. I need love and care and support. We all do. Without it, we cannot recover.