One of my favourite writers these days is Rebecca Solnit, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and a frequent columnist in the Guardian newspaper.
Solnit writes a lot about the world of violence in which women live and the silence that is imposed on us when we try to speak about that violence. It is from her essay “Grandmother Spider,” that I have taken the title for this piece.
In her essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” which is equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and enraging, Solnit talks about how violence is one way to silence people. I would add that silence also serves to enable violence: if abusers know we won’t talk about it, then what’s to hold them back?
The dangers of likeability
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes:
“We teach girls to be likeable. . . and we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice.”
When women talk about the violence in our lives – individual sexual violence, intimate partner abuse, systemic violence including rape as a weapon of war, sexual harassment at work or school, culturally/religiously condoned violence – we are silenced by those who claim that we are not reliable witnesses, not even to the violence that has been done to us. We are told that our version of the truth is not truth; that these are not our stories to tell.
Disappearing violence by silencing women
Judith Herman writes about this in her book Trauma and Recovery:
“Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. . . . The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”
But, often, we don’t even get far enough to need someone to actually silence us. We silence ourselves, because we know we won’t be believed when we tell. Or, because we are embarrassed to have “let” this happen to us. Or, because we feel shame. Or, maybe it really was our fault; after all we did have too much to drink or we did argue with our partner when we knew he was already having a bad day. Or, or, or . . .
Almost every day in my work, I talk to women who silence themselves. Overwhelmingly, whether they are talking to me because they want to leave an abusive relationship or because they have been sexually assaulted, we come back to the same couple of points:
Fear of not being believed
“What’s the point in telling anyone? No one will believe me. After all, I did go to his apartment/did not call the police the 25 other times he hit me/was drunk/missed his mother’s birthday party/had sex with him before/shoved him once when we were fighting. . . . “
“I am so embarrassed that I let this happen. How could I ever tell anyone?”
The silence about violence against women that has been imposed on those of us who have lived experience with it creates the perfect breeding ground for more of it to happen. Mothers have been silenced and don’t share their stories of violence with their daughters, so those daughters keep their stories to themselves too.
We learn quickly that no one wants to hear about what has happened to us. Even when someone listens, they immediately reshape the story to fit their narrative, their world view. We are made invisible, because our stories are too inconvenient for other people to have to think about.
The power of speaking up
And, yet, women refuse to be silenced. Some of them famously so – I think of the women who reported Jian Ghomeshi to the police and endured the public spectacle of the criminal trial that eventually followed; the New York City hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo, who refused to be silent after she was sexually assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, and so many others whose names and stories we know and are inspired by.
But I also think of the women whose stories I hear in my work; the women who say they will not be silenced. Whether these women speak out by reporting what has been done to them to the police; by telling coworkers about a sexually harassing supervisor; by telling family members that their partner has been abusive to them; by telling their therapist – it doesn’t matter. These women are claiming back their right to their story; their right to be witnesses to their own lives.
Quiet zones are fine around hospitals, but it is time to end the quiet zones that have been placed around women’s stories of violence and abuse.
As Rebecca Solnit writes:
“Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity and to liberty.”