Judging Trauma: #MeToo, Only Kinda * CoveyClub Reinvention for Women

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#MeToo, But Not that Bad?

We have to stop judging our own trauma to allow ourselves to heal

By Susan Schoenberger

The word “trauma” has been thrown around a lot lately, and for good reason. The entire population of the planet has suffered collective and individual trauma during this shocking pandemic, and we’ll be dealing with that for years to come. 

But when women speak of trauma, it’s most often related to their experiences with men. What I’ve noticed, even after the #MeToo movement, is the tendency women have to cart their trauma to the “scale of all trauma” and weigh it, diminishing what they’ve experienced if it doesn’t rank at the extreme end.

My own example is a good one. The night before the Challenger shuttle exploded in January 1985, a stranger attacked me in a parking lot. I was leaving my newspaper job around 11 PM when a man followed me, waited until I opened my car door, then threw an arm around my neck from behind and pushed me into the driver’s seat.

There was a struggle. I somehow managed to keep my foot wedged in the door so my attacker couldn’t close it. I fought him and screamed, even as he tried to keep his hand over my mouth, and by some miracle, a policeman down the block heard me and came running. My attacker fled but was caught, and I was brought to the same police station where he was being held to tell my story.

As a policeman took my statement, another officer arrived to tell him — and me — that I had been lucky. The man had a 9-inch knife hidden in his sock. The second policeman also told me my attacker was suspected of raping two other women at knifepoint in a nearby town. You were lucky, the cops kept saying. You were lucky he didn’t show you the knife. You were lucky we heard you.

My attacker was convicted and sentenced to 12 years, likely served less, and while it could have been so much worse, I served a different sentence. For a year, I suffered from nightmares and insomnia. I didn’t reach out for professional help because the police, and most others around me, kept saying I’d been lucky. The day after it happened, as people were processing the Challenger tragedy, it almost didn’t evoke much of a reaction. Oh, people said, thank God you weren’t actually raped. Thank God he was caught. Thank God you’ll be okay.

I do need to be clear: The attack didn’t ruin my life. Parking lots still make me nervous, but after the first year, I thought about the incident less and less and rarely talked about it. I went on to get married and have a beautiful family. But when the #MeToo movement went viral a few years ago, it turned me inside out in ways I didn’t expect. Even though my winter coat never came off as I wrestled my attacker, I knew what kind of assault it was. The psychic wound it created was something like a crushed bone. I had put a splint on it, and it had healed imperfectly, leaving me to constantly test it and probe the pain.

So many of us — so many — have kept things inside because we didn’t think our experiences were any worse than those of the next woman. We play a mental game of “my trauma is nothing compared to her trauma,” then we swallow hard and move on.

But trauma is trauma, period, and these experiences shape and mold our lives. How many women have made significant life decisions to avoid just the memory of past trauma? We might decide to live in the suburbs because we fear city parking garages, or in the city because silence is what scares us. We might take a job, or turn one down, to feel safe.

We might date someone to avoid provoking their anger, or not date anyone because we can’t risk being vulnerable. Some decisions are as minor as buying a black car over a red one because we don’t want to call attention to ourselves. Don’t we have to ask: What would our lives have been like if the women before us had told their stories? What would happen if we told our stories now because they matter, not because one matters more than another?

Sometimes I think about the colleagues and bosses I “protected” because their suggestive remarks or propositions might have gotten them in trouble. Relatively speaking, I would think, it was nothing. In staying silent, I diminished the harm done to me and allowed it to happen to other women. I weighed my trauma and found it too insubstantial to make a fuss, which perpetuated the behavior. 

Ultimately, I have realized that I was both lucky and unlucky on that cold winter night decades ago. I was unlucky to have emerged from a building alone when a rapist was lying in wait. I was lucky a policeman heard me scream and lucky the assault ended when it did. I was unlucky to be called lucky, which stopped me from getting help and understanding how such an attack would reverberate for the rest of my life.

Could it have been worse? Of course. Much worse. But was it still a terrible violation? Absolutely. Both things are true. The only way things get better is for all of our stories to merge into a tidal wave of truth. In the telling, we underscore the validity of every victim’s trauma so we can dismantle the “trauma scale.” Only then will we dismiss the idea of “lucky” vs. “unlucky” and allow ourselves to get help when we need it. This is when the healing begins.

Susan Schoenberger is the award-winning author of A Watershed Year and The Virtues of Oxygen. Her newest release is The Liability of Love, a novel about reckoning with past trauma.

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