Sometimes it seems that our culture operates in only two modes regarding trauma: victim-blaming or ignoring the prevalence of abuse and its impact altogether. Either can operate very overtly or in more subtle insidious ways. Thanks to @AfterSilence for Tweeting about an example of the subtle ways abuse gets minimized as played out in a case very much in the news: the abduction and abuse of Jaycee Dugard.
Like I discussed in Trauma Stigma: We Are Only As Sick As Our Secrets, victim-blaming hurts us all. It is a message that keeps us all stuck in cycles of violence and misplaced responsibility. Only by putting responsibility where it really belongs, on those who commit acts of violence and abuse, can we start to break this cycle.
An article by Elena Perez at the California NOW website takes a look at recent media coverage of this traumatic event. She makes the point that the phrasing and language in much of the coverage downplays the impact of this horrific trauma and even seems to shift some of the responsibility to the victim:
It’s taken me a while to pull together my thoughts on Jaycee Dugard, the woman who was kidnapped as a child and recently discovered living in a compound in the kidnapper’s back yard with her two children. Garrido was already a registered sex offender when he abducted Jaycee, and is also possibly connected with the killing of 10 sex workers in the 1990’s.
There should be no question that this is one of the most horrific cases of child abduction, rape, imprisonment, and forced pregnancy. There should be no wiggle room here, no question of whether the 11-year old Jaycee consented to being stolen from her family and subjected to repeated rape, no legitimate way of referring to Phillip Garrido except as her captor, rapist or abductor, no possibility, despite what the rapist may think, of this being a beautiful story of redemption. So why are there articles referring to him as the father of her children? Why is this being positioned as though she had a choice in whether to have children or not?
And I find this line completely inexcusable on the part of the Undersheriff:
He said Dugard was “in relatively good condition,” neither obviously abused nor malnourished. He added, “There are no known attempts by her to outreach to anybody.”
<sarcasm>Gee, I wonder why a woman kept in a sound-proof shed in a backyard compound for 14 years, who had never even been seen by neighbors, might not have been able to find a way to escape. I wonder why someone subjected to emotional and sexual abuse since the age of eleven wouldn’t be able to just pull herself together and break out? And clearly repeated rape, forced pregnancy and imprisonment can’t be seen as abuse, right?</sarcasm>
And the way language is being used to minimize what happened in this case is not an isolated incident. Just about every week we see rape being excused, denied, minimized, or blamed on the victims. The media thrives on the concepts of “allowable rape”, “grey rape”, and designating certain populations as “unrapeable” that even when the situation is as clear-cut as Jaycee Dugard’s, the same language and framing comes into play.
Language matters. This article is a good example of how language choice can frame a situation to minimize the reality of horrors like abuse and torture. And yes, I do consider kidnapping and confining a child, raping and impregnating her as forms of torture. To focus on whether the victim attempted to “reach out” or not shifts the onus of responsibility inappropriately to the victim. And ignores a huge body of research and information that clarifies why that might have felt impossible in such circumstances.
Horrors like child abuse make us all uncomfortable. Some respond to that discomfort by denying or minimizing the realities of the abuse. This coping mechanism, though understandable, does further damage. It creates further shame for trauma survivors and makes it harder to seek support and treatment. It lulls us all, as a society, into a false sense of security, believing that nothing that bad can really happen to us. Only by facing and acknowledging the realities of child abuse, rape and trauma in general can we appropriately address the issues involved.
Kathleen Young, Psy.D.