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Scenarios of Victim Recovery: A Sexual Assault and Attempted Murder Victim

from Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding by Gregg Barak


Susan J. Brison is a professor of philosophy and the author of Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, a book about her recovery from a stranger’s attack in the summer of 1990. The sexual assault and attempted homicide occurred on the side of a country road in a village outside of Grenoble, France, as Susan was out taking her morning constitutional one beautiful summer day. In an abridged essay about her experiences, she describes her ordeal:

I had been grabbed from behind, pulled into the bushes, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Helpless and entirely at my assailant’s mercy, I talked to him, trying to appeal to his humanity, and, when that failed, addressing 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 came to, I was being dragged by my feet down in the ravine. I had often thought I was awake dreaming, but now I was awake and convinced that I was having a nightmare. But it was no dream. After ordering me to get on my hands and knees, the man strangled me again. 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. Eventually, after another strangulation attempt, he left me for dead. (Brison, 2002, p. B7)

This passage is from Violence & Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding Ch 8, which explores recovering from violence. This chapter and ch 9 (Models of Nonviolence) and 10 (Policies of Nonviolence), tackle the transformative processes involved in moving away from the reciprocal relations of violence and toward the reciprocal relations of nonviolence
Other excerpts include

Reel, Real Violence
Altruistic Killing
Victim Recovery

The author's website has a rotating selection of his writings. 
Violence Theory Workshop Sponsored by the National Institute of Justice 

Susan relates many of the thoughts and feelings she had while negotiating her victimization and post-trauma experiences. She does so from the vantage points of victim, woman, feminist, philosopher, and mother.

She begins her story of recovery in the Grenoble hospital where she spent 11 days following her attack. During her stay, she repeatedly heard from doctors and nurses about how “lucky” she was to be alive. Initially, Susan believed them, but it was not long before she had discovered what she had not previously known: “I did not yet know how trauma not only haunts the conscious and unconscious mind but also remains in the body, in each of the senses, in the heart that races and the skin that crawls whenever something resurrects the buried terror. I didn’t know that the worst—the unimaginably painful aftermath of violence—was yet to come” (Brison, 2002, p. B7). In examining the experience of trauma, hers and others’, Susan confronts the ambivalent feelings of going on (or not) with life:

Many trauma survivors who endured much worse than I did, and for much longer, found, often years later, that it was impossible to go on. It is not a moral failing to leave the world that has become morally unacceptable. I wonder how some people can ask of battered women, Why didn’t they leave? while saying of those driven to suicide by the brutal and inescapable aftermath of the trauma, Why didn’t they stay? Jean Amery wrote, “Whoever was tortured, stays tortured,” and that may explain why he, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, and other Holocaust survivors took their own lives decades after their physical torture ended, as if such an explanation were needed. (Brison, 2002, p. B10)

More than 10 years after the event, Susan has “recovered” as much as any victim of physical and sexual assault can. As she tells it, “While I used to have to will myself out of bed each day, I now wake gladly to feed my son, whose birth gave me reason not to have died. Having him has forced me to rebuild my trust in the world, to try to believe that the world is a good enough place in which to raise him” (Brison, 2002, p. B10).

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"to 'recover' from rather than merely 'survive' violence, there must be comprehensive efforts to deal not only with those victims and perpetrators of interpersonal abuse but with those bystanders to violence and the myriad policies that tend to ignore, dismiss, or deny the harm, injury, pain, or suffering experienced by millions of people daily as a result of the prevailing institutional and structural arrangements."

For the first several months after the attack, Susan felt a sense of unreality and disorientation. She didn’t know exactly where she was and how or if she fit into the world. It was “as though I’d outlived myself, as if I’d stayed on a train one stop past my destination” (Brison, 2002, p. B7). She explains how her sense of unreality was fed by the massive denial of those around her, a common reaction from loved ones and others toward those who have been victims of rape. Inadvertently, some people would communicate how the violent act might have been avoidable or somehow her fault.

Susan then explores why she found herself keeping her attack secret from all but medical and legal personnel. Shame was part of it; not wanting to be stereotyped a victim was also a motivation. In addition, she found herself in a professional dilemma. Having previously done some academic work on pornography and violence against women, she did not want her work to be discussed as the ravings of a “hysterical rape victim.” Susan did, eventually, go public as a rape “survivor,” but only after she had come to terms with what little control she had over the meaning of the word “rape.” In other words, “using the term denied the particularity of what I had experienced and invoked in other people whatever rape scenario they had already constructed” (Brison, 2002, p. B8).

Related StopViolence pages:

Rape (inc Acq Rape & date Rape drugs)

Domestic Violence (& Teen Dating Violence)

For Victims & About Victimization

Men Working to End Violence Against Women

See also 

Class, Race Gender & Crime by Barak, Flavin & Leighton

Integrating Criminologies by Gregg Barak

As a philosopher, Susan tried to make sense out of her experience, realizing that sometimes knowledge sets one free, and at other times it fills one with incapacitating terror or uncontrollable rage. Turning to philosophy for meaning and consolation proved to be of no assistance to Susan. In fact, she discovered that there was virtually nothing in the philosophical literature about sexual violence. About all Susan knew for sure was that she was not feeling herself. For a time, she even believed that she might have incurred permanent brain damage as a result of her head injuries.

Had my reasoning broken down? Or was it the breakdown of Reason? I couldn’t explain what had happen to me. I was attacked for no reason. I had ventured outside of the human community, landed beyond the moral universe, beyond the realm of predictable events and comprehensible actions, and I didn’t know how to get back. (Brison, 2002, p. B8)

Years later, after Susan had spent time off from teaching doing a full-time research gig, had returned to teaching at Dartmouth College, and had been speaking publicly on the topic of sexual violence, she would find herself losing her voice, both literally and figuratively:

Related Books

Diana Scully, Understanding Sexual Violence: A Study of Convicted Rapists

Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape.

Patricia Weaver Francisco, Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery

Jeff Benedict, Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes & Crimes Against Women

Helen M. Eigenberg, Woman Battering in the United States

It was one thing to have decided to speak and write about my rape, but another to find the voice with which to do it. Even after my fractured trachea had healed, I frequently had trouble speaking. I lost my voice, literally, when I lost my ability to continue my life’s narrative, when things stopped making sense. I was never entirely mute, but I often had bouts of what a friend labeled “fractured speech,” during which I stuttered and stammered, unable to string together a simple sentence without the words scattering like a broken necklace. (Brison, 2002, p. B9)

During the first year or so of her recovery, Susan found that although her abilities to speak would come and go, her ability to sing seemed to be more resilient:

For about a year after the assault, I rarely, if ever, spoke in smoothly flowing sentences. I could sing, though, after about six months and, like aphasics who cannot say a word but can sing verse after verse, I never stumbled over the lyrics. I recall spending the hour’s drive home from the weekly meetings of my support group of rape survivors singing every spiritual I’d ever heard. It was a comfort and a release. Mainly, it was something I could do, loudly, openly (by myself in a closed car), and easily, accompanied by unstoppable tears. (Brison, 2002, p. B9)

Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self

One Night: The Realities of Rape, by Cathy Winkler

Other Barak excerpts include

Reel, Real Violence
Altruistic Killing
Victim Recovery



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