It was from Virginia Woolf from whom I picked up the phrase and rolled it around clumsily in my mind as a smooth stone that I am compelled to clutch and rub. It fits my almost 5’4” frame with the precision of a costly, well-tailored garment that fell softly into contours of my soul. A ‘person to whom things happen’ is passive and powerless, in essence, a victim. I have always shunned others stories of violence, abuse, and misuse; they made me uncomfortable as it was too close to my own trauma. If I were to look at others story too closely, I would have to also look at mine; my powerlessness, my weakness; my victimhood; my reality.
This has caused a type of myopia for me, focused on the minimization of my own pain, my narrative, and my personhood. In my nearsightedness, I can look at my story and keep myself safe emotionally from the reality of what was. I can minimize the trauma to my personhood if I am not a person – a Nobody. Her statement brings me dangerously close to the revelation of personhood… my own.
Woolf was lifted at age six up in front of the hall mirror in her home by her half-brother and fondled. She would later go on to be molested nightly by another half-brother for a season. She understandably suffered from what she called “looking glass shame”, an aversion to seeing her image in the mirror. “It is difficult,” says Woolf, “to give any account to the person to whom things happened.”
In a recent article in the New York Times Parul Sehgal wrote on the Forced Heroism of the Sexual Abuse Survivor:
“In Japanese, the word “trauma” is expressed with a combination of two characters: “outside” and “injury.” Trauma is a visible wound — suffering we can see — but it is also suffering made public, calcified into identity and, inevitably, simplified.
Perhaps there was some latent wisdom in Woolf’s ungainly little phrase: “the person to whom things happen.”
Woolf’s statement centers on two things: the person and the happenings. The very thing that sexual abuse accomplishes with stunning accuracy is the total dehumanization of the victim, even to the person herself. Left unchecked to grow, as all filth does in dark places, sexual abuse becomes not only what has happened to you – but also who you are. It was Simone Weil who spoke of the stamp of scorn that affliction brands on the soul, along with it the self-hatred, guilt, and shame that a crime should produce in the offender, not the offended.
The gavel bangs loud signifying that court is in session. The judge looks at me over his glasses and says. “Call your first witness please.” I tuck my white shirt in carefully as I stand and smooth my grey skirt. I set gentleness as a soft scarf around my neck for her to focus on. I am about to cross-examine a young and fragile witness. In the court of personal opinion, I call myself to the stand. I place my hand on a Bible, and raise the other and solemnly swear to tell the truth.
Where you a child?
Yes, yes I was. We all were at one point.
Can you tell me about you as a child?
Yes, I suppose, what I can remember. I was little, lithe, sensitive, resilient.
Can you picture yourself?
I was blonde, with little Chiclet teeth, a sweet dimple on my right cheek, hair tucked behind my ears. I was hungry for love, play, attention, stability, food, and hope.
You were a person then?
I quietly look at the floor. I shift my feet stuck in white tennis shoes. “Yes… a little one.”
Tell me were you powerful, capable and commanding?
I get quieter still. “Well…no. No, I wasn’t. I was little, weak and powerless. I had no choice, no voice, and no options.”
I know this is hard, so take your time. Things happened, didn’t they… things you didn’t want to happen?
Sadness from my soul seeps into my eyes. I bite my lip, “Yes…” I whisper. Yes, they did. A lot of things happened.”
You agree then that you were a person to whom things happened? That what happened was important and that you are important too?
Yes… yes, I do.
No more questions your Honour.