Like many women who read JK Rowling’s essay last week, I was moved to tears. Not only was she ‘coming out’ as a fully informed, clearly reasoned gender critical woman, she shared some very personal, very difficult information about her past, in order to underscore the hows, whys and whens of her gender critical views.
The backlash has been intense, of course, and the obvious accusations of transphobia, along with the subsequent vile threats that seem to go hand in hand with such accusations, have been documented elsewhere.
While I have been part of the fight against self-ID myself for the past few years, what I have been mulling over the most has been the reaction to her disclosure of her past experiences of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Last year, I was attacked by the father of my six children. Our relationship lasted for 19 years before he decided to hit me. His attack left me swollen, bruised and emotionally broken. I had very little time to make the biggest decision of my life—do I continue to live with a man who had proved himself dangerous and capable of killing me, or do I leave him? When I framed the decision in my mind in such a simple way, there was only one obvious answer: I left him.
The backlash for this decision in my own private life still ripples around me. His arrest and acquiescence to the consequences of his actions means that he currently has very little access to the children; our previously mutual friendship group is no more and I no longer participate in our church community. My support network fractured irreparably after I chose to leave him. I was expected to forgive and forget. I was expected to move on. I was expected to make the repairs. I was expected to swallow my pain and transfigure myself into a shining example of so-called womanhood. I refused.
"My support network fractured irreparably after I chose to leave him. I was expected to forgive and forget. I was expected to move on. I was expected to make the repairs."
This refusal has made and continues to make some people uncomfortable with my presence. I made the decision to openly talk about my experiences to friends, family, acquaintances, and the wider world. I was a victim of domestic abuse. There is no shame about this fact, because I know I did nothing wrong. There is nothing I could do, say, or be that would deserve to be hit by the one person in the world who should have been on my side at every turn. He chose to hurt me, he chose to destroy the life we built. I chose to put it back together again on my terms.
But we live in a culture of victim-blaming. Examining the reaction to Rowling’s disclosure makes this very clear. There was a lot of “yeah...but…” going on. There was a lot of “she’s the real abuser” thrown around. There was a lot of “shut the fuck up” happening. And there were a helluva lot of death threats, rape threats, and various violent acts threatened against her.
Why the reaction? Why would a woman’s disclosure, whether a famous and influential one, or a single mother of six with a tiny twitter following, inspire such a vociferous, hateful backlash of further abusive language and threats? In my work with Dr. Jessica Taylor of VictimFocus, we spread the message of how victim-blaming is woven into the very fabric of our society. It is the air we breathe. Whenever someone questions a woman after she discloses abuse, and displaces the blame from the perpetrator to the victim, we are victim-blaming.
“What did you say to him?”
“Why was he so angry?”
“What were you wearing?”
“Why were you out so late?”
“If you wouldn’t say that, he wouldn’t get mad.”
“Why can’t you just shut up?”
This past year of my life has, if anything else, brought into sharp focus the kind of person I am.
When I am brought to the brink of pain, suffering and despair, it turns out that I am not the kind of person to lash out and inflict pain on others. I have control over my actions. I choose how to live. I choose how to behave. I choose how to react.
When my ex attacked me, I didn’t hit him back. I didn’t hurt him. He chose to hurt me. He was the perpetrator, and nothing I said or did removes his responsibility for his actions. He had time to calm himself and stay his hand. He did not. I do not accept any responsibility for his choices. He is an adult and he made a considered decision to set a bomb off in our marriage. Some things can’t be repaired.
"Disclosing abuse opens a woman up to more rounds of victim-blaming."
But in this world, the very language we use to describe abuse erases the perpetrator from the equation, as if abuse happens in a vacuum, or as a surprise, or is caused by some formless void floating through the air. We don’t point to the cause of the abuse: the abuser. We openly speculate why she couldn’t protect herself, why she stayed with him, why she didn’t diffuse the situation.
Disclosing abuse opens a woman up to more rounds of victim-blaming. She has recovered from her experiences enough to give voice to them, despite the lack of language available to her. She is ready to seek support, to work through her trauma, and then she is questioned and dismissed. This secondary trauma is a way to keep other women in their place. Other women see how she has been treated, and they get the message loud and clear: “put up with the abuse, be quiet; if you make us uncomfortable, you will suffer for it.”
Rowling has undoubtedly suffered for her disclosure. Days after she published her essay in which she very honestly gave an account of her experiences and the life-long ramifications of them—“the scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, no matter how loved you are, and no matter how much money you’ve made”—the front page of a UK paper published a picture of Rowling with her abuser, saying he was proud he hurt her. This shocking display of careless arrogance for the feelings of Rowling, compounded by the worrying increase in domestic violence across the country since lockdown, demonstrated how women who are abused remain in a double-bind forever.
We have two choices: We can silently suffer alongside other women, not truly knowing the extent of the societal problems of domestic violence, not able to access support or raise awareness and understanding. If we speak of these issues without disclosing our personal experiences, we are deemed unknowledgeable and not worth listening to.
“The scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, no matter how loved you are, and no matter how much money you’ve made.” - J.K. Rowling
Alternatively, we can tell others about the abuse we’ve suffered; we can talk and talk and talk, but we will still not be respected. We will be accused of ‘weaponizing’ our experiences, we will be accused of being hysterical—a particularly misogynist phrase. Those of us with personal experience of domestic abuse, nearly one in three women, are hand-waved away as inconsequential.
This double-bind of disclosure can be deeply disheartening. If a woman isn’t aware of this trap before she steps into the fray, before she openly tells others about her experiences, she can be wounded yet again. Even if she is aware, as I would argue Rowling probably was, she can still be wounded. Anyone would feel distressed at seeing national papers picking over the bones of your past like so many vultures, regardless if they were offered up willingly or not.
For myself, I had the vague notion that telling my story was important. I discovered it was cathartic; it was as if I had experienced a year of therapy in fifteen minutes. I was physically exhausted for days after delivering my speech. But the conversations I had with women in the hours, days and months since then were also galvanising and strengthening. Women were inspired to speak about their own experiences, and I have seen how important it has been for us all to speak. Rowling’s words have had the same effect, many times over. She has caused ripples that will extend across the world and back around again, for years to come. She has lifted the curtain of patriarchy and we have seen the dark reality of woman-hatred laced throughout our society.
What comes next? What will happen in the weeks to come? I can’t begin to say. The wheels of patriarchy continue to turn, but the attempt to cast Rowling as a real-life Voldemort—the woman who cannot be named—won’t be successful. We who have lived through the grueling process of domestic abuse stare unflinchingly at misogyny. We have survived before, and we will survive again.