‘People cannot stand victims’

Jessica Stern was interviewed on Word of Mouth on NHPR yesterday. The former National Security Council staffer and Harvard lecturer is an expert on terrorism, having interviewed terrorists and extremists around the world and written two scholarly books on violent extremism.

She is also a rape victim. When she was 15 and her sister 14,  they were raped in their Concord, MA, home at gunpoint by a stranger. Her father (who was overseas at the time) and the local police found the rapes implausible and downplayed them, and even Stern herself pushed the rape quickly out of her conscious mind, where it remained for 30 years.

Now, she’ s written Denial: A Memoir of Terror, a book about the rape and about trauma and terror.

What most interested me in her interview were her comments on victims. First she said that most of her academic peers have “utterly ignored this work. … Mostly people just don’t say anything.”  This led directly to a question about shame, to which Stern responded:

“There is something about rape that is so hard to talk about, even today. One of the reasons that I am doing this is because I sort of , I hit a limit in terms of my anger about how hard it is to talk about this. People cannot stand victims. I think that because I’ve shown myself to be kind of a tough cookie, I almost feel an obligation to reveal myself as a victim, because people can’t really put me in a box of  a weak, cowering victim. … It seems to be a dark side of human nature, that we really don’t like victims of rape.

In an article at aolnews, she’s quoted as saying, about her reluctance to write this book, “I was afraid nobody would ever take me seriously again. I have written about perpetrators, not victims. And it’s so personal. And there’s an element of shame that’s hard to get away from.”

This is certainly true for rape victims, that there is a a sense of shame about being a victim (to the point of ‘honour’ killings of girls and women who have been raped in some regions of the world, as she notes); the shame is also present for and about people who have cancer and other serious illnesses, those with physical disfigurement, and others who are victims because their bodies have been forcibly invaded, compromised, attacked — as is literally true of rape victims, and often spoken of in these terms in relation to people with cancer or who have a heart attack.

Is our shame about physical victim-hood — about our vulnerable bodies, about not being able to control what happens to our bodies — simply due to a fear of our own mortality? Are we just ashamed to be mortal?  Or is there something else going on here?

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