Facing the Pain Head On

Until last Monday, if I thought about Stanford University it was as the venue of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, in which Professor Philip Zimbardo and his team recruited students to act as “prisoners” and “guards.” The plan was for the experiment to last for two weeks but it ended after just six days because of cruelty by the guards towards the prisoners and because Zimbardo and his team had lost their objectiveness.

This week, of course, Stanford University has been in the news because of the horrific sexual assault by one of its students, which resulted in an incredibly lenient sentence.

It seems a horrible irony that the main finding of the Stanford Prison experiment was that good people can do terrible things when placed in an “evil” situation and that Brock Turner cited peer pressure as an excuse for his behaviour. It isn’t an excuse and, as far as I’m aware, his peers weren’t with him when he attacked his victim.

Contrast this with the words of the one of the “guards” in the Stanford experiment. Interviewed two months later he says, “I really thought that I was incapable of this behavior. I was surprised, dismayed to find out that I could act in a manner so absolutely unaccustomed to anything I would dream of doing. And while I was doing it, I didn’t feel any regret. I didn’t feel any guilt. It was only afterwards when I began to reflect… and I realised that this was a part of me I hadn’t noticed before.”

This man felt remorse, but more than that, he realised that he behaved as he did because of some part of himself hadn’t previously recognised. Brock Turner and his father are in denial of that part of him. The “guard” takes responsibility; Brock Turner has not.

Many people have written with anger about the lack of remorse Turner shows, and while I can understand this anger, over the last few days, I’ve begun to see that taking responsibility is even more important than feeling remorse.

When I was seventeen, I was attacked at knifepoint by a man I vaguely knew and was trying to help. He bound me with ropes and threatened to rape me if I tried to escape. After the threat, he removed my lower garments – this, he told me, was to make sure I wouldn’t try to escape.

He left the room. Mobile phones didn’t exist then, and he wanted to make a phone call. I was a hostage to lure another girl to him.

In spite of his precautions, I escaped.

When the case came to court, he got four months, out after three for good behaviour.

The man who attacked me showed remorse. He said he was sorry for what he’d done. Yet, about a year later, he got a job at the place where I was working and told lies to other workers about me to gain their sympathy. One woman tackled me, asking why I was refusing to speak to him. I told her the true story, and her fury turned from me to him.

A few years on, he came up to me in a bar and apologised for what he’d done. But a few years on again, I heard he’d done something similar to someone else.

His apology didn’t stop him doing the same thing again. On the other hand, had he taken responsibility, perhaps it would have made a difference. It’s possible to feel remorse and to make excuses for your behaviour – just as Turner cites peer pressure or alcohol. I can’t honestly remember if the man who attacked me blamed alcohol for his behaviour, but he certainly did about other things, so it’s more than likely. I do remember that the feeling I got from his apology wasn’t one of relief but of feeling somehow even more sullied than I already felt.

Last week, I read the Stanford victim’s statement with a growing sense of horror and at times of recognition. While I cannot know the full horror of what she went through, I understood the shock she felt at seeing details in news reports.

What I didn’t have at seventeen, or even for decades afterwards was her clarity and strength. The passages in her statement that brought me to tears were not the horrific ones, but the ones that show her massive resilience, her enormous courage, that deep, deep strength.

Take this paragraph:

You should have never done this to me. Secondly, you should have never made me fight so long to tell you, you should have never done this to me. But here we are. The damage is done, no one can undo it. And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on.

In those sentences, it’s clear she is accepting responsibility – not for what he did, but for how she feels, for her healing. From comments elsewhere in the statement, it’s clear she is seeing a therapist, that she is facing the pain head on.

I did not do that, I made excuses for my attacker, and did not face my own pain head on. In that, I stayed stuck in shame for decades.

I find it strange that in spite of all the outrage this case has generated, very little has been written about the shame victims of sexual assault or of any violent crime feel. Yet this is an almost universal feeling for victims. A friend of mine who was raped says, “When I was walking to an appointment at the Rape Crisis Centre, I felt sure people would know where I was going. I used to sneak in and hide. I felt ashamed that they knew what had happened, and that there was something wrong with me, that it was my fault.”

We are totally, utterly not responsible for being attacked or raped, but we are responsible for facing our pain – including our shame. As long we stay silent about those feelings of shame, we are preventing our own healing and our silence gives our attackers the leeway to make excuses, deny and pretend we weren’t harmed.

This brave woman shows us the way forward. For that, and for her bravery and courage, I love her.

Comments

  1. Excellent post, Yvonne and yes, I love her too. Mostly I love her for helping other people who have been victims to gain a voice that they have not been able to find. I’ve read that many people have come forward wanting to talk about acts of violence against them that they’ve been quiet about. Also yes, Brock’s biggest problem is that he has shown no responsibility for his actions. He talks about how alcohol is evil and he knows he shouldn’t have drank so much. I’ve drank too much before and never assaulted anybody.
    Also I wasn’t familiar with the prison/guard experiment. I’m going to have to learn more about that.

    1. Author

      Kristi, yes to loving her for all the things you say too. In her statement she said, I am so glad to read that because of her bravery other people are coming forward. There’s so much about this case that is horrific and yet also so much that is inspiring, and there was so much more I wanted to write but couldn’t fit in! For instance, one of her sentences really stood out: “Sometimes I think, if I hadn’t gone, then this never would’ve happened. But then I realized, it would have happened, just to somebody else.”
      That says so much about her, I think.

      And the Standford prison experiment is definitely worth learning more about. I read the book a few years ago. It was heavy-going but very interesting, and the gist of it is on the website.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. What a thought provoking piece Yvonne. I’d not thought about the responsibility you describe for ones own healing but it makes so much sense albeit how difficult it must be. Thank you as usual for expanding my perspective again

    1. Author

      Geoff, yes, it is difficult I think, to take responsibility for one’s own healing because most of us are so much familiar with blaming – ourselves or others. If I expanded your perspective it’s because this woman and her courage also expanded mine.

  3. Always the most deep and beautiful thoughts from you, Yvonne, even on subjects of great pain. Couldn’t agree with you more here. That sense of responsibility for one’s own feelings, healing, etc. makes perfect sense. it also makes sense that it is so very difficult to draw upon.

  4. This is a new slant on an old old issue, it is good to look at things from a different angle. I suppose we are all responsible for how we feel and this is shaped by past experience as well as lots of other issues. Not always easy!

    1. Author

      Thanks Pam. No it’s not always easy, that’s for sure. But as you say, good to look from a different angle.

  5. What an epic post. For some reason, I felt compelled for at least a few days to read everything I could on the Stanford Case. The woman’s story captivated me and I wanted so badly for everything to turn out okay for her.
    I am in awe at your own story and the perseverance with which you have tackled life. You’re an inspiration, and you have demonstrated courage in sharing where so many of us fall short.
    We need to talk about the idea of shame – I so agree. Too often women feel guilty for things they shouldn’t ever feel guilty about. Honestly, we all need a strong dose of compassion and empathy and putting ourselves in one another’s shoes.
    Thank you for this wonderful piece!

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