Once the polite 30 seconds of sympathy are over, the intrusive curious questions and blame begin. Why is that?
But people do care, you may be saying. People as a whole are good-hearted, generous, and protective of those who are suffering. But people are not a whole, they are individuals, and they are individually very selective about who and what they “care” about. If you’ve ever found yourself in the “not so much” column, you’ll know what I mean. And you will have asked yourself “why don’t people care?”
Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery has some answers in the first few pages of her classic book about violence. If you have been on the receiving end of the invisible slap in the face that is not caring, her words may bring you some resolution and comfort:
…when traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides.
It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.
…In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. if secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of the victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization.
After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.
The perpetrator’s arguments prove irresistible when the bystander faces them in isolation. Without a supportive social environment, the bystander usually succumbs to the temptation to look the other way. This is true even when the victim is an idealized and valued member of society. Soldiers in every war, even those who have been regarded as heroes, complain bitterly that no one wants to know the real truth about war. When the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic events of her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her experience becomes unspeakable.
Asking a friend, partner, or parent to support you turns out to be a much bigger deal than you might think because of the burden of joining you in your pain and shame to stand with you. Herman suggests the answer lies in forming a responsive social alliance to counteract the automatic advantage that goes to abusers:
…To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, lovers, and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered.
The systematic study of psychological trauma therefore depends on the support of a political movement. Indeed, whether such study can be pursued or discussed in public is itself a political question. The study of war trauma becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the sacrifice of young men in war. The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the subordination of women and children. Advances in the field occur only when they are supported by a political movement powerful enough to legitimatize an alliance between investigators and [victims] and to counteract the ordinary social processes of silencing and denial.
In the absence of strong political movements for human rights, the active process of bearing witness inevitably gives way to the active process of forgetting. Repression, dissociation, and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness. (p 9)
If you’ve been assaulted, abused, stalked, or experienced any of a number of bad things that can happen, you have not only been hurt by what happened, but hurt again by the response of those around you. The remedy is to connect with hotlines and resource organizations specializing in domestic violence, rape, and abuse and receive validation of your experience and knowledge about what to do next. Family and friends can be a supplemental source of support. They can’t be what you need on their own.
When you are secure and in recovery, you can be one of those people that builds a movement for social change that supports people like you.