The Collapsible Woman
the collapsible woman—one model of mental health for an uncountable number of individuals. She is too weak to hear debate, too soft to speak openly about her experience, and too fragile to expect much from. This definition doesn’t come close to accounting for the grit and character that can be found among us. Instead, it paints us as humorless and diluted, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the sickly Victorian “angel of the house.” And now, like then, when a model of total fragility is held aloft as virtue, women live up to the image out of a lack of alternatives. “Break yourself,” we whisper. “We’ll be there to catch you.” And if you don’t, call us when you’re ready. Every major media piece on the subject of rape or abuse presents us with the same vision of a collapsible woman. We see the same fight for sanity and purity and the same picture of life after the cathartic process of renewal. Stories of “survivors” fall under headlines that remind us that we will forever be scarred. This can be seen as support for violated women, or as victim culture—but neither stance offers us much worth striving for. There has to be something better than the toaster prize of being called a survivor, an alternative to the role of the pain-haunted neurotic.
A difference exists between healthy vulnerability, which is the ability to trust and take the inevitable hurts of closeness, and the deification of fragility. The latter offers us nothing but a religion in which the pinnacle of holiness is the ability to break down at any moment, over anything, and call it a return to sanity. I’m not questioning real emotions, nightmares, tears, and pain; they are the inviolable right of every human. How though, from this, have we come to portray the ideal “recovering” woman as someone who can’t go to the grocery store without having her “issues” “triggered”? Sure, there are days, sometimes months, in the life of anybody who has been violated when the need to protect oneself from the callousness of the outside world is absolute. We need, however, to hold up more than a skinless existence as an endpoint.
What young girl, confronting her past for the first time, can respect an adult woman whose sensitivities are so sharpened that she can no longer socialize normally and must instead be swaddled in emotional cotton to feel “safe” in the most basic of human encounters? Will she say “I want to be that”? Will she view coming to terms with her past as a desired step toward maturity? No—she is more likely to build the walls that pass for strength instead of the needed defenses and confidence that are strength. With all the media coverage and attention paid to rape victims in recent years, we still lack models that praise women for getting on with their lives rather than just getting through them.
As a culture, we tell girls from the cradle that rape is the worst thing that can ever happen to them. We say it will destroy their lives and that they will lose their sense of purity. We tell those who were sexually abused that it is natural to feel dirty. We do this because it’s true, and we’re trying to prepare them so that they don’t feel alone when it happens. But aren’t we also setting them up to be destroyed, to feel dirty and impure? How much are we training ourselves to crumble? The convenient use of words like “survivor” and “victim” don’t really change the messages we are given. While there is no positive side to rape and abuse that could be emphasized, we should tell another, fuller truth. We should say, “This may wreck your life for a while,” or “Sometimes you’ll feel dirty.” But we don’t, and we are left with the impression that there is no healthy response other than breakdown. It’s as if we see moving beyond the trauma as denying its impact.
A violated woman is expected to fall apart, and not just privately, either; she must disintegrate publicly, in front of friends, in front of professionals, in front of Starbucks. It satiates our craving for arena-style pathos. We want to cheer our gladiators for bravery while they hack themselves to bits in the ring. If a woman chooses not to play, but to find her own private way back, we say she’s “in denial.” If we don’t see her fragment, we say that she’s not “dealing with it.” We award no respect to women who draw a line in the sand and say, “I will not go down for you.” We either treat them as emotionless or we minimize the importance of their rape/abuse experience because we have not been privy to their personal dark nights.
The belief that a cathartic experience is necessary for sanity and healing must be questioned. I have seen some women push themselves, trying to trigger a dam break, and, instead, become trapped in neurotic fear. I have seen the release that follows catharsis replaced by a gnawing sense that the revelation wasn’t quite deep enough; I have watched as women blame themselves for their inability to fall apart. Instead of being honored for an unwillingness to break, they are dismissed as “not quite ready.” In this way, we put the blame for distress back on the victim. It becomes her fault for not being spiritually developed enough to crack. Until she cracks, she can’t forgive, and until she forgives, she will never be fully healed. Breaking itself has become the goal.
Other writers have voiced similar complaints about the rhetoric of recovery. Unfortunately, many of them think that sexual abuse and rape are overblown problems that women just need to get over, thus leading them to trip over—rather than pose—good questions. In The Morning After, Katie Roiphe implies that raising awareness about rape and abuse perpetuates victimization itself. At no point does she concede to human experience or compassion, and so her arguments end up as no more than shallow posturing and pet theories, intended to shock. It’s not that her thinking is totally without merit—but because her delivery is so boorish, it’s easy to overlook her few valid statements. For instance, she states, correctly, that there is an eerie similarity to what she calls “the victim’s tale,” but then assumes, ignorantly, that common syntax means insincerity. But a shared narrative style is not sufficient proof that the content is meaningless: Millions of Catholics recite the Apostles’ Creed, and, while rote to some, others find it a powerful experience. Given the tenor of Roiphe’s approach, it is not surprising that smart feminists have rejected her completely. While I in no way agree with her core argument that so-called “rape crisis feminists” are more of a problem than rapists, her observation that debate about abuse can be killed simply by saying, “You don’t understand,” is astute and needs to be addressed.
Underlying that defensive phrase is the implication that a woman who has been raped or molested is too weak to hear an opposing view. If grilling a traumatized woman about her particular methods of coping is tactless and probably cruel, the assumption that we are incapable of handling debate on a broader level is even worse—it’s demeaning. Any dialogue that automatically squelches dissent on the grounds that it’s just too painful to continue isn’t a dialogue, but rather a manipulation of the very mode of debate. We desperately need to broaden the range of responses considered healthy for survivors of abuse. Right now, we have a model of collapse and we have its shadow sister, repression. If you’re not collapsed, you’re repressed. Period.
The way out of this bind is to discover and create new images for woman and the aftermath of rape. But before we can talk about introducing new images, we must first examine how we see the experience itself.
If you have been raped or abused, you’re scarred for life. You will never be as you were before the experience. This is also true for falling in love, getting your heart broken, going to war, having a child, or reading a great book. Everything that cuts deeply marks us. Being “scarred for life” isn’t the defining characteristic of a person who’s been raped; we’re all scarred for life the second that we intimately relate to the outside world. The difference is in the nature of the wound.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a system by which the brain represses memory that, if available, could destroy a person’s sanity. While not all victims of sexual abuse and rape have it, it is common among survivors. When the system is intact, it makes it possible to get through the day without becoming totally incapacitated. When it begins to break down, a person can become temporarily catatonic or be thrown back in time to the period of trauma. Abused women, however, are not the only large group with a sizeable portion of members who suffer from PTSD; it is also common in veterans. Looking at both groups, one predominantly female and the other predominantly male, can illuminate the gender bias surrounding trauma, PTSD, and recovery.
Veterans have in no way had it easier than abused women. They have had to fight hard to overcome the cartoon image of the crazy Vietnam vet—but some headway has been made. Movies such as Born on the Fourth of July and others have effectively introduced a new picture of veterans. Today, when we see veterans in dramatic films, they are often strong, deep characters who command respect. At some point, they tell a story of how they overcame, or got through, their wartime experience. Frequently, they refer to support from other vets. The emerging image of a veteran is one of a man who, though scarred, has found sanity and dignity. In the real world, when we meet someone who was in Vietnam, we often have a quiet sense of respect for the horrors he has seen. We give ground, deferring to the deeper scope of his human experience. Yet, when we meet a woman who has been sexually abused or raped, that complex sense of respect is reduced to pity, or the urge to protect her as if she were a child. She is not afforded the same dignity or honor for having traversed similar ground.
All acts of violence that change our lives are also acts of betrayal. Rape is betrayal. Sexual abuse is betrayal. Finding out that your country is capable of vast atrocities is betrayal. Currently, our cultural vocabulary includes an image of the veteran who, though he may have been through episodic fragmentation, has come out stronger and, perhaps, more fully human. We have no such images for raped women. We don’t ever expect them to feel safe without a concerted mental effort and a protected environment. Logic alone would dictate that people who have been under fire and seen people blown to bits would have issues of safety as intense as people who were raped or abused, but we still judge their capability by separate standards. While some of that bias can be chalked up to old stereotypes that call men tough and women sensitive, that doesn’t account for all of it. Both rape and war involve traumatic violence. In recent years, feminists have fought hard to portray rape as an act of violence and not lust. While this has been necessary and difficult, it is somewhat misguided. The real problem is not that we treat rape as sex, but that we treat it as theft.
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines rape as forced sex and also plunder—“robbing or despoiling,” to be exact. Therefore, a raped woman is the victim of theft. You weren’t just violated, we tell her. You were pillaged. Something of intrinsic value was stolen from you. The fervent belief that this is true is evident on all sides of the issue. From traditional cultures that treat a raped woman as bankrupt to progressive movements that speak in terms of “reclaiming” oneself and “owning” the experience, we consistently use the language of theft. We tell a woman loudly and clearly that if she was sexually violated she has been robbed, and that the objects stolen were purity and innocence. With the best of motives, we still say to her, “I’m sorry for your loss.” We will ask her to “reclaim” her experience, rather than realize its effects. The truth is, if you were raped or abused, nothing was stolen from you. The low-life who did it threw his soul in the trash, but yours is intact. As long as we cling to the concept of rape or abuse as theft, we are ultimately led back to the belief that a woman’s worth and sense of self lie in her sexual purity. As long as the artifacts “stolen” are her defining virtues, we can speak of her condition only in terms of ownership and loss. To imply that deep within every woman is something essential that can be seen or touched, a vessel containing the real her that can be stolen by someone else, is an absolute objectification of women.
As much as we need to rethink our cultural definitions of rape, the well-intentioned but limited reframing of rape as violence, though seemingly intuitive, is difficult and insufficient. We all know we’re supposed to think of rape as pure violence, but, try as we might, the closest most really get is seeing it as a violent act of sex. There are good reasons for this. When someone is violently, but not sexually, attacked, he or she naturally feels invaded—but the sense of invasion stems more from the metaphorical than from the physical. Anyone who is raped, however, is invaded. Someone else is inside of you. It’s not metaphor. It’s real. Rape is, therefore, forced intimacy as well as violence. We can’t look at it as a sexless crime because it isn’t one. Some rapes are motivated by a desire for power through violence and others are motivated by lust and selfish rationalization. Either way, the act itself involves sex. When you’re raped, it is not a simple attack—it’s complete violation of both body and sex along with a very ugly reminder of several thousand years of female subjugation.
Unfortunately, until we can change societal conceptions of rape, these are the messages we get and we have to deal with them. Women do feel robbed—and that’s real. Society treats us like amputees and doles out the same condescending pats on the back: “You walk really well for someone without legs.” Gee, thanks. Although talking about sexual abuse or rape has become more acceptable in the last fifteen years, it is still only acceptable when adopting a specific, testimonial tone. Oddly enough, this comes less from the victim’s quarter than it does the listeners’. The palpable discomfort of friends often makes it difficult to speak. You don’t want to bring them down when they’re talking about a book they just read, even if the subjects are related. The problem isn’t that we’re so sensitive that we’d end up in a group hug sharing tears of release instead of finishing our conversation. The problem is that the image of a violated woman doesn’t allow her to be anything but a cripple from the second she opens her mouth and says, “I was sexually abused.”
The biggest block to introducing new models of acceptable response to rape and abuse is our own good intentions. After years of hearing, “Get over it,” doctrines that urged us to be as soft as children were a welcome change. There is a point, however, at which tenderizing oneself can cease to be a release and become a debilitating obsession. Unfortunately, the meanings of words like strong and weak have turned to taffy, so that even discussing a new direction for our response becomes fraught with unintended political bias. Today, in self-help culture, a strong person is someone who shows her emotional weakness and a weak person is someone who hides behind a wall of strength. This kind of group-speak has become its own dogma and can make debate confusing at best, and, at worst, impossible.
At its core, America still dotes on stoics. We romanticize the role of the tearless hero, even when we know better. In many ways, this is the heart of our national identity. It defined the ideal American male up until the ’50s, and it affects all of us. We may have tried to kill it in therapy, or squash it under the heel of the sensitized New Age, but it’s bred into us. On the surface it represents a brutish mentality that stops at nothing and tunes out emotion like white noise on the radio, and yet we can’t shake it off—because underneath this ode to repression lies something much more powerful. Throughout every formulaic John Wayne story is the message that we can survive anything. You don’t have to compromise, it says; you can get through without letting them break you. As demented as the packaging is, the message itself has some value.
The limited imagination of backlash-feminists in the ’80s brought forth a model of feminine power that was no more than a mirror image of the ’50s male. It adopted only the bad packaging of the power-hungry aggressor, rather than the quieter message of survival. Under the banner of “now it’s my turn,” women who used men for status and ego bolstering, or thrived in cutthroat office politics, felt endowed with feminist glory. Even though such posturing was clearly divorced from any real movement for social change, the act of replicating the repression and tactics of the stereotypical American male was seen by some as a political stance. Sanctifying puffed-up bravado was a dangerous shortcut to envisioning a more powerful woman. It allowed such irrelevant statements as “But I wear lipstick” to appear topical and divert women from a myriad of substantive issues.
Unfortunately, sexually abused or raped women, unconvinced by current images of recovery, often fall back on this model of repression and false toughness. Who can blame them when the only “positive” option presented is one that promises total breakdown and the permanent absence of skin? The brassy, swaggering bravado of some poor girl who’s afraid of her own emotions is a sad statement on what we’re offering her as a way out.
There was a scene in a movie, I think it was Mi Vida Loca, in which one girl turns to another girl who’s been screwed over and tells her to “be a macha” and take care of herself. Instead of macha being the feminine twin to macho, the bullheaded brute, here it is more like the Yiddish mensch: Be a stand-up guy. Be a human. Show some dignity. The command to be a macha then becomes a call from one woman to another to find her guts and get through whatever is trying to destroy her without losing her pride. Sadly, we have no language in our current dialogue on rape or abuse to convey this to each other. Our history leads us to interpret such a statement as an order to feel nothing and achieve. We automatically assume that vulnerability, compassion, and the need to rely on others has no place in this kind of thinking because we relate it back to the bravado model of feminine strength borrowed from the ’50s male.
The question then becomes how to disentangle the powerful call to be a macha from the callous expectation of bravado and repression. In the context of an America that glorifies the iron will of the individual, even introducing a macha model alongside the ravaged image of a sexually abused or raped woman is difficult. We are culturally trained, traditionally, to see these ideals as opposites and interpret the “stronger,” stereotypically male model as the preferred one. Paradoxically, in self-help culture, we are trained to throw out the “stronger” model and favor the ravaged, traditionally female one for its emotional demonstration. This polarization is an unnecessary construct; at times both are a natural response to a traumatic experience. What I am suggesting is that we widen the range to include something more representative of our true potential.
We need to articulate a new vision that equates feminine strength not with repression and bravado, but with compassion and grit. In the ’50s, middle-class women were torn from their sisters, aunts, and grandmothers to face social isolation in the suburbs. The single-generation dwelling that caged the young housewife was championed as the right of the modern woman. Instead, it turned out to be a legacy of silence and Valium. The single model of recovery from sexual abuse and rape that requires a woman to live in a cocoon of self-obsession and call it a safe environment has the same potential for social isolation.
It also bears an eerie resemblance to the “separate sphere” mentality that early feminists fought so hard to destroy. In the Victorian Age, for example, it was popular to be sick. There were even fainting couches, furniture designed to collapse on. The idea was to wane visibly because it was better to be honored for a tragic demise than not honored at all.
Once again, fragility has become vogue. I am not suggesting that periods of extreme vulnerability are orchestrated or insincere. Idealizing a state of breakdown, however, rather than the strength it takes to get past one, traps women into believing that moving beyond the trauma is heresy. We need to be able to turn to each other and say, “Be a macha,” and know that that means, “I’ll cry with you, hold your hand, and give you time. But I won’t watch you lie down.” Until we can whisper the truth—nothing was stolen from you, that was a lie—and honor women for both their compassion and their guts, we won’t stop unraveling. We will always be the collapsible woman.
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