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The Downgrading of Trauma


Last week I watched my friend as she listened to the MPR story about the abuse she suffered as a child at the Children’s Theatre Company. The story reports that sex trafficking is a billion-dollar business in this country and Minnesota is ranked number 3 for this problem. Take that in, Minnesota. Not a statistic I’m proud of for my home state. Dismantling a system like that looks near impossible. How do you take on something that has so much power when no one wants to even acknowledge its existence?

I wept and wept, thinking of my friend enduring what she describes in this interview. It’s unfathomable. Gut wrenching. It goes into territory that no child should ever have to endure. And for my own trauma, I have no tears. I see people wince when I tell them I was assaulted for the first time when I was ten, but I am numb. I’ve downgraded it to make it more tolerable.

At the same time my friend was throwing the lid open on childhood sexual abuse and the issues of sex trafficking, Harvey Weinstein was settling some of the cases brought forth by the more than 80 women that exposed him for what he is. This didn't happen in a courtroom, it happened in a board room somewhere, out of sight, with lawyers and insurance companies, who have little to no understanding about the physical and psychological damage these women have endured. They’re playing a numbers game. They’re making a business transaction, and the numbers are based on an arbitrary list they have that says what a sexual crime is worth.

It’s likely that these women will have to sign a non-disclosure agreement that doesn’t allow them to tell their stories publicly. It happens all the time. Their voices will be cut off. For a survivor of sexual assault to come forward and disclose means they have to dig painfully deep to find their voice around it. To have that voice cut off is as damaging as the assault itself. But this is the system. And none of this money will come from Harvey. He gets to sit on his pity pot, making himself look like the victim. It’s all about insurance money, and believe me, these insurance company owners and their lawyers are not looking at these women as victims of crimes, they are looking at the potential losses in their multi-billion-dollar profits. There is no room for the human equation in these boardrooms. They are doing everything they can to downgrade the experience of these women so it won’t cost them so much. The legal system not only allows it, it’s built this way.

I spent most of my life downgrading the harms done to me by labeling what happened as “assaulted” or “molested”. It was much easier to stomach that way. Deciding to come forward meant I had to allow myself to be present to the full reality of all that had happened to me, to see these event’s for what they were and let that into my heart. So, I did, I let it in, and then spent the next four years in an arena that wouldn’t use the proper terms, see it sterilized in an official way, not just my own coping mechanisms softening the impact of the reality. My own lawyers, who are, in their field, far more advanced in the area of being trauma informed, but even they don’t fully understand. I was being pulled in opposite directions, trying desperately to finally embrace my humanness in an environment that has no space for that and would fight to discredit my human experience.

After reading the court documents for my filings in my case, I was disturbed that there was not a single document that described what happed to me as “rape”. They use words like “criminal sexual contact”, or “penetration”. Why? Rape is an ugly word, so why not sterilize it a bit, downgrade it? My guess is this sterilization was imposed by old white men, long ago, because it was uncomfortable for them to hear the word spoken aloud. It conjures disgust because it’s disgusting. The heavy lifting of speaking what’s true in a rape trial is put to those that have endured the trauma, and there is nothing in place to hold us up in a courtroom. The people running the show are uneducated about trauma and end up doing terrible damage to already wounded people. It is barbaric.

I’m an over achiever, partly because it’s the way I’m wired, and partly because I’ve worked hard to keep distracted from having to look at the mess in the shadows. If you live life as if you are always on a speeding train, you literally don’t have time to focus on the smaller details. At a distance, I look very put together, and I have accomplished things in spite of being shut off emotionally. I look successful, but I wasn’t able to share myself authentically through most of my life, even with people who I considered safe.

When I was going into the courtroom to testify, I was told to allow myself to be the most vulnerable Laura, to show my wounds that I have camouflaged. I sat out in the hallway and let myself be fully present to the damage inside of me, that I have spent decades burying. I looked at my shaking hands, took a deep breath, stood up and entered the courtroom. It was like walking naked into a room full of strangers.

Trial for a sexual assault survivor is no place for justice. It’s a wounding room. A place where victims are re-victimized, where skilled practitioners sterilize the experience of victims who don’t understand the system and aren’t able to defend themselves. People who are shackled to their pain so they will look the part. There is no moment when you can stand up and let out a primal roar, even though you want to so you don’t have to keep your most vulnerable parts under a white-hot light. You can’t let them see you strong if you’re trying to show them how broken you are, because that is what the insurance companies base their numbers on. It’s not about justice, it’s about a fucking list of numbers.

In a murder trial, the focus in trial is on how heinous the act was, not how dead the victim is. If it’s a trial for armed robbery, the focus is on the robber, not the person that was robbed. You never hear, “Are you sure you didn’t do something to make that person believe you wanted them to rob you?” Trial for a sexual assault survivor is about scars, mostly hidden ones because the damage is inside us, in our psyches. And these scars are poked and prodded and made to bleed again because if you’re not bleeding you must not be hurt. If you’re not in the psych ward you must be lying if you say you feel like you’re going crazy. There are price tags on harm and we have to prove the worth. “Did you Scream?” No. Must not have been so scary. “Did you tell anyone?” No. Must not have been so traumatic. “Did it happen again?” No. Two times would have been worse, much more painful. “Did he have a weapon?” No. Must not have been forced.

Here’s the ugly truth, I’ve even done this myself. This year, a male friend told me that he had been assaulted by a respected member of our community. I believed him of course. He had no reason to lie to me. In spite of that, my mind when to, “Was it just touching or was he fucked? We should find out if there were others so it will add legitimacy to his claim.” I got sick to my stomach that these thoughts that would even enter my mind. I hated myself for it. This is how rape culture is embedded in me, a rape victim myself. We are trained, programed to downgrade sex crimes. I hear about a gang rape and I wonder “how many guys. Five? Ten?” Isn’t one enough? Honest to god, isn’t one rape bad enough? I can tell you from my own experience, one is enough.

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