Breaking the code of silence

Storytelling, in itself, will neither eliminate sexual violence nor entirely heal PTSD. But it can help shift the conversation to a narrative that avoids shaming survivors, carving out a space for understanding.

Roxanne Krystalli
8 December 2011

In the summer of 2011, I was sitting in a bar with two friends who had recently completed military service. One of them had been a combat soldier and was sharing stories about the life-altering brutality he had observed during war. “I cannot imagine the trauma you witnessed and carry with you,” I said. His friend, who had served in the army in a non-combat capacity, joked “PTSD is for dramatic people!”

Even though the comment was made in jest, it is in line with an existing attitude about coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In June 2011, Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland wrote a personal account on GOOD of her experience with overcoming PTSD. Regardless of one’s opinion on McClelland’s coping strategy, the conversation following the publication of her piece revealed some troubling views on trauma and conflict. Amanda Taub of Wronging Rights has summarized the main critiques of McClelland’s piece in the public sphere as follows:

  1. PTSD isn't real, it's just San Francisco therapy-speak for "having a bad day," so McClelland must have been a self-obsessed narcissist to write about it as if it's something to be taken seriously;
  2. PTSD is real, but McClelland either had no right to develop it or was faking it, because reporting about other people's trauma doesn't seem like it should be that hard; or
  3. McClelland was allowed to get PTSD, but isn't allowed to write about it being triggered by reporting from Haiti, because that might give people the impression that bad things can happen in Haiti, and that is clearly racist and colonialist.

Not only is PTSD real, but it also disproportionately affects women. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) study on gender disparities in mental health, “women’s risk of developing PTSD following exposure to trauma is twofold higher than men’s.” In addition to higher rates of PTSD among women, the disorder also appears to be more persistent among this gender group, as women have longer periods of recovery from it, according to the same study. Most alarmingly, “the high incidence of sexual violence against girls and women has prompted researchers to suggest that female victims make up the single largest group of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.” Per the report, “a nationwide survey of rape in the US, found 31% of rape victims developed PTSD at some point in their lives compared with 5% of non-victims.”

On an individual level, there are psychosocial resources for both men and women who seek to acknowledge the existence of PTSD and move past it, although the accessibility of these resources can be limited in the conflict zones that need them the most. On a community level, there is an additional barrier to responding to PTSD and its devastating effect on women who have experienced sexual violence or other trauma: The shame associated with the conversation.

On February 11, 2011, CBS Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan was in Cairo, reporting on the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. A violent mob attacked Logan and her crew, singled her out, and proceeded to sexually assault her. A few months after this experience, Logan chose to speak out about the incident, sexual violence and trauma. Logan acknowledged that releasing a statement about the attack and discussing the incident “didn’t leave me to carry the burden alone, like my dirty little secret, something that I had to be ashamed of.” Logan further discusses breaking the code of silence that typically governs incidents like these for female journalists: “women never complain about incidents of sexual violence because you do not want someone to say “well, women shouldn’t be out there.” Lynsey Addario, a renowned photojournalist who was on assignment in Libya when she fell in captivity in March, echoed Logan’s concerns: “Some comments said: “How dare a woman go to a war zone?” and “How could the New York Times let a woman go to the war zone?”

Logan and Addario have both spoken out about the shame that is often associated with being a survivor of sexual violence or a person affected by trauma and conflict. Women – as well as people of all genders affected by PTSD, sexual assault and conflict at large – will continue to be reluctant to acknowledge their experiences if the process of doing so can backfire. How, then, can communities become more receptive to the conversation? Dr. Brené Brown, a prominent researcher on issues of shame and vulnerability, argues in The Gifts of Imperfection that “the less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.” She continues, “shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgment.” Following Brown’s logic, part of the answer in the public conversation about women, sexual violence, and trauma lies in creating safe, open, receptive and judgment-free spaces.

I encountered an example of such a model during my time in Colombia. I was there in affiliation with the Foundation for Reconciliation in order to design and implement a series of workshops on the theme of gender conflict, aiming at the reintegration of ex-combatants, displaced individuals and survivors of conflict into peacetime communities. Part of the process involved training local leaders to continue and expand this initiative after my own departure from the country. On the first day of the ‘training of trainers’, Maria presented me with a book. “I need you to read my story,” she asked. The book, titled “War – for what? Memories of ex-combatants”, chronicled her journey from forcefully abandoning her children to join a Colombian guerilla group to witnessing guerilla commanders joke about or perform sexual assault of female combatants. She discussed the threats, consequences and violence associated with speaking out or being more than a silent witness to atrocities at the time. Now an ex-combatant, Maria wants as many people to hear her story as possible. When I shared with her that I was in awe of her courage, she responded that she “wanted people to know. If you know, you will never again find another justification for conflict. Nonviolence and peace will be the only route.”

The Foundation for Reconciliation, with help from international organizations and donors, created Centers of Reconciliation, which are spaces in zones of ‘high vulnerability’ in which ex-combatants, displaced individuals, and women and children who are survivors of violence can share their experiences, participate in civil education and receive psychosocial support. For Maria, the experience sharing element is central to the success of this model.

Storytelling, in itself, will neither eliminate sexual violence nor entirely heal PTSD. However, shifting the conversation in both our communities and the digital space to a narrative that resists shaming survivors, acknowledges and respects their trauma and does not delegitimize their story is a step in the right direction.

Note: Some names have been changed in order to protect the individuals referenced in this article.

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