I have a weird sort of zen yet somewhat nihilistic/fatalistic view of the world, one in which all social processes are a bit further from our control than we realize, making the soup of the world we swim in more or less our unchangeable lot (with minor steps forward and back here and there). The view is zen because I’m actually rather comfortable with thinking of the world largely being beyond our collective control, as there is something peaceful about realizing that not only am I a cog in an uncaring machine, but so is everyone else. The machine beyond our control isn’t particularly mean or hateful. It just is. The horror we feel when we see glimpses of its uncaring ways is likely because the thought of a world that operates without our existence just fine is so scary, we generally ignore it in order to reify (justify) our own existence, what Eugene Thacker called the “World Without Us” in In the Dust of This Planet.
That comfort I derive from the equality of other people’s fundamental similarity in human experience, even in light of arriving to life with different advantages/disadvantages, brings me to what I want to talk about today.
Many years ago, I went through an ordeal of being stalked and abused by a (even at the time) former significant other over the course of a year or so. She was truly unhinged, and when I say abuse, I mean virtually any and every form you can think of: verbal, physical, sexual, emotional, monetary, professional, public, private….if you can think of it, it probably happened. You’ve heard variations of stories like this through movies on Lifetime and in that woefully condescending mandatory course you had to take during freshman orientation in college about “awareness” of FUSCGOOHS(Fucked Up Shit Can Get Out Of Hand Sometimes). But back then (read: only a few years ago and pretty much the same as now), there was no frame of reference for men going through such an ordeal. Common wisdom was that women didn’t really do such things, or they were prodded to do horrible things out of protection from the real abuser (spoiler alert), the man. When I finally called the police after a couple of weeks of this stuff, they basically told me I would need a butcher knife sticking out of my eye before they could do anything (and virtually every man out there knows damn well not to call the police during an actual altercation, because tears and a self-inflicted bruise, if even necessary, will quickly end your ass up in the pokey, with an optional cop’s knee in your back to teach you a good lesson). Even among my friends, there was such a lack of a precedent for how to deal with such things responsibly and effectively, that they basically shrugged and said, “Woman scorned, what can ya do.” I never blamed them: I mean…what could they actually do? Not much. The whole ordeal teetered out when she found a new “love of her life” that I later heard she cheated on (like she did on me).
For years afterward, I was a bit shaken by the whole thing, not so much because someone had crazy’d out on me as crazy folks are want to do, but more I was shaken because there was such a lack of people actually full on saying this woman had done something wrong she should certainly be in jail for if the world was sane. Crazy bitch? Sure. But bitches be crazy sometimes, amiright. Sure she stabbed me and hit me with metal objects over and over again and left cryptic messages that could be interpreted to say she had harmed my pets, but I mean, I’m a dude, right? It can’t be worse than that football game in middle school when that running back
ran the fuck over me broke my tackle. And breaking into your house and blowing you while you’re asleep isn’t sexual assault: I mean, what guy doesn’t want to get blowjob, right? I likely bragged to my actual girlfriend at the time about it even. Hacking email accounts and emailing colleagues, breaking my doors, making false claims to the state agency’s…..sure , warn other guys about dating her, but let’s not get silly: we’re not talking actual criminal activity or anything. To this day, I’m literally not sure how I could handle it any differently if it all happened again.
It’s become fashionable after years of half-baked sociological doublethink to refer to people who have experienced sexual assault as “survivors”. In practice, I find this use of language fine, as you have to frame the experience some way, so the most optimistic way to look at it is probably the best. A problem does arise from it narrowing the scope of what gets to be considered survivor material. Personally, I sat through an entire playing of a Fleetwood Mac record once, and I think that should count. Your mother would likely say she’s a survivor of having to put up with your bullshit for so many years and why won’t you get a real job, Nancy! NO! Selling *unique beaded necklaces is not a sustainable career!
For myself, I do not an consider myself a survivor. In fact, the very term survivor irritates me for several reasons. For one, it tries to put me in a narrow box of what counts as a survivor. As someone who saw abused clients for years, here’s secret most media won’t tell you: most people who experience severe trauma are completely fine and move on with little problem. That’s not popular to say, as we all know that you have nothing but nightmares for years after the incident, and you have to miss a lot of work due to panic attacks and crying fits. At least, that’s what I think I read on Vox when I got redirected from what I thought was an article about why it’s improper to call trees “plants” as it allows us to transgress a fictional natural boundary men set up years ago to oppress possums or something. But it happens to be true. There are a lot of people that do have those nightmares and a hard time readjusting, and they certainly deserve care and deep consideration, but my point is the stereotype of the poor woman broken forevermore is far from even the most common response to such horror, let alone the only response. Yet, when you read the word “survivor” above, you almost certainly gathered in your mind some variation of the stereotype I described.
“Survivor” also rings hollow because I feel a lot more traumatized by every day occurrences, or at least as much, than by any one event. I feel like much more of survivor for not going nuts in a nutty world and putting a gun in my mouth on a daily basis than I do because of any one defining bad moment. The Buddhists believe that all life is loss as we annihilate zillions of options forevermore with each singular option we choose in any given moment. In that sense, all life is massive constant trauma and suffering with the consequences of those traumatic losses. This line of realization is precisely why you get the likes of the existentialists like Sartre saying things like “We live our deaths. We die our lives.” It’s that human condition of pain that we are all in. And it’s both horrific and beautiful at the same time. No amount of abuse and torture can ever compare. In that light, everyday above ground means you’re a survivor; even at 5 years old, you’re a survivor.
But the main reason I don’t refer to myself as a survivor is because I don’t want to denigrate other people’s pain and elevate my own. Like I said, I find comfort in knowing that everyone is caught in an uncaring system and struggling to do the best with it they can, even if they get confused and go nuts sometimes. There’s something fundamentally beautiful about the human struggle to exist when all things move to extinguish them. There’s something beautiful about the mask people put on in public to hide such voluminous and fractured lives, interesting every one of them. The abuse I suffered doesn’t make me different from them, it just restates that I am one of them. I am one of you. We are all one. All one in Fuckedville perhaps, but one none the less. So if Kim Kardashian bawls her eyes out for being denied the perfect pair of shoes, I recognize that pain as legitimate and every bit as serious as anything I’ve experienced. It’s not greater than mine, but mine’s not greater than hers. We’re all just trying to make it. We do what we can to improve things, but ultimately, we’re headed for the uncompromising dirt nap.
If you’ve experienced a certain trauma and refer to yourself as a “survivor”, that’s perfectly fine, and I hope that works for you. Like I said, you have to frame it some way, so you might as well go with the one that frames you in the best light, and survivor always trumps victim. But for me, it just doesn’t work. It feels shallow, like it’s trying to define me on one axis while denigrating the pain that I and others feel for what should seem like lesser experiences. For me, I tend to just say, “Yeah, that happened. I’m a guy that happened to.” Because I’m me, and getting bit by a giant dog also happened to me, and the waitress at the restaurant I was at on a date got my order wrong. That was also upsetting. And I had a blog once that nobody read.
Wait, am I a bad blog survivor?