Google describes bearing witness as a term that refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. This term has been on my mind most of this year as I grapple with the hashtags of empathy and wondering why I had no desire to add #metoo to my status on Facebook. Maybe I just don’t believe in the existence of a global sisterhood. Maybe I don’t believe in the implied solidarity of a universal womanhood in need of rescue. More specifically I question the efficacy of a white sisterhood with its awareness of intersectionality and its commitment to being my ally. But that, as they say, is another blog post.
It is the publicity given to Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger and their co-authored book, South of Forgiveness, that I wish to mostly focus on in this piece. Icelandic Elva was raped by the Australian Stranger as a teen and started up a correspondence with him which resulted in the pair getting together to talk and write about their experiences because, apparently, women bearing witness isn’t enough. When a man points out that remorse is possible and rape is wrong, it is suddenly a game changer in the narrative. Stranger raped an unconscious Elva for two hours. Now he appears on TED talks discussing his ‘repentance’ while Elva speaks of her need to establish contact with her violator as a means towards acceptance and healing.
Online forums hummed with dissent over this particular book for a while. Discussions polarised women; some advised strident feminists to listen instead of indulging in binaries and tired arguments about safe, sacred spaces. In one such forum, a woman made this extraordinary statement to another – ‘lynchings get us nowhere.’ The commenter appeared unaware of the charged racial connotations of the word despite having it pointed out to her several times. She also saw no irony in making that comment to a brown woman, offering up an apology of sorts a few comments later; acknowledging that words can be ‘funny’ sometimes and that a ‘fear of trampling’ over people’s feelings may prevent women from speaking out. It was hard to see the apology in that comment so I concluded that none was intended, and the word ‘lynching’ hung in the discussion like the proverbial post upon which the act was carried out in America. The concept of intersectionality came up often in the discussion as well, as a plea for understanding the perpetrator instead of condemning him. I prefer Kimberle Crenshaw’s take on intersectionality, where she advises bearing witness to the reality of multiple forms of exclusion. Such as the exclusion practiced in this particular forum when language was used specifically to disempower rather than authorise.
There are, however, other books written by women that put forward several passionate and reasoned arguments that may help change the narrative. One such book is Feeling the Fleshed Body by Brenda Downing. Downing uses somatic enquiry, lyrical prose and performance making responses to the trauma of rape. ‘Once touched, the body cannot be untouched,’ she says quietly at the start of her erudite and wide-ranging work on the body’s subversive capacity to express trauma through symptoms that are not always readily understood.
Feeling the Fleshed Body proposes that trauma significantly reduces the body’s capacity to be compassionate to itself, and that unacknowledged grief causes a fracturing of the mind and body that needs to be restored before acceptance and healing can begin. Downing refers to her ‘raped and censured body’ as crucial in finding the imperative for embodied forms of post-traumatic expression. ‘The struggle to speak and be heard’ is at the forefront of this enquiry into the aftermath of rape. The emphasis on ‘the feminine language of our bodies’ positions this work beside neuroscientific, philosophical and therapeutic contexts to argue that a separation of mind and body (inevitable when rape occurs) must be acknowledged before change can happen. As I read first hand accounts of the women Downing interviewed for her thesis, it is harder to accept that bearing witness must include a male perspective, as posited by Elva and her supporters. This is because women often relate their experiences of ‘not being heard’ by (male) health professionals, partners or parents. They speak about feeling claustrophobic, disconnected, discounted and unheard. They report that they struggle with lifelong issues of trust and safety.
‘But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it?’ asks Elva. Really? Tom Stranger discounted the humanity of Thordis Elva when he raped her. He was a guest in her country and her home. He violated the expectations of her parents who thought he would look after her. He left her and went on with his life of privilege, education, employment and family, while hers fell apart. He did nothing to find out how she coped. She contacted him. And gave him a forum, a stage, a book deal. He accepts being labeled a ‘rapist.’ Should we applaud this enormous concession made by a man who raped a woman?
Clementine Ford speaks about the ‘mechanics of internalised misogyny’ in her excellent book, Fight Like A Girl. She says that women who dare to name and shame and call out patriarchy when they see it, are set upon by their own as well as men. She points out that she ‘doesn’t position men and their feelings front and centre.’ And this is an important point, which appears to be missing in the race to acknowledge Elva as ‘brave’ and her abuser as ‘perceptive.’ By positioning the feelings of a man at the centre of a narrative of rape, we discount the humanity of women like Ford who are routinely threatened and abused online by men for her activism and candour.
When women like Elva tell us their story, duly authenticated by a man, they push back the conversations Ford and Downing have made possible. Thordis Elva simply perpetuates the myth that a man’s acknowledgement of his crime will change the narrative of violence. Elva is entitled to her delusions but it is crucial to remember that the reality is far more dangerous. South of Forgiveness is not a game-changer. A 2014 news report revealed that one in six Australian women experienced sexual assault, making sexual crime in Australia, the third highest in the world. A man shoots his wife in front of her 4 children. Media reports indicate that he was a ‘nice’ man and this was ‘out of character.’ Ford suggests that society always finds ways to explain violence against women as an aberration, as a glitch on the radar, as the sudden breakdown of an otherwise ‘good bloke.’ Which is why reading Elva and Stranger’s story of redemption cannot be the only story. Humanising, normalising and validating a rapist because he happens to be educated and good-looking and remorseful, does us no favours. We need to continue to have nuanced discussions that truly bear witness.
Crenshaw, K. (2016) The urgency of intersectionality https://www.ted.com/taks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/ TED Woman October 2016
Downing, B. (2016). Feeling the Fleshed Body. Berlin: Peter Lang
Elva, T. & Stranger, T. (2016) South of Forgiveness. Melbourne: Scribe https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconiliation/ TED Talks February 2017
Ford, C. (2016). Fight Like a Girl. Australia: Allen & Unwin