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.