This is the era of the survivor. The people who think that we can go back to business as usual have not understood that we have become emboldened to speak our truth and to demand that we are treated better.
As the anniversary of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein is approaching, some of us survivors have been contacted by journalists wanting our thoughts a year on. What they don’t know is that many of us are now part of an email network that crosses continents. We had collectively decided that we didn’t want to talk about HW anymore, that we wanted to focus on all the positive things that have come from speaking out. Always happy to talk about trauma, I wanted to talk about the training the nonprofit I run (Echo) is putting on at Women In Film/SAG Foundation on Oct 4th. Other survivors wanted to talk about their work pushing forward legislative and workplace changes.
As a trauma specialist, I also recognize that every time we rehash the details of sexual assault, the neural pathways fire as if we were living the situation afresh. The survival responses we experienced at the time get reactivated in our bodies. Stress hormones raise blood pressure, dampen the immune system, divert blood from the gut, tense muscles, and over time – and in this case we’ve been repeating this story for a whole year – this turns into toxic stress with long-term implications for health and wellbeing. It can even change the architecture of our brain and functioning of our nervous system so that we swing between hyperarousal (agitated, angry, panicky) and hypoarousal (depressed, numb, fatigued).
I don’t expect everyone to know this information – after all, that’s why I have a job, teaching people about this stuff! – but I do expect that when we patiently explain it to journalists and politely decline to return to our experiences with a serial predator (which are all public record by now anyway) that journalists and their editors will back off. Not so. One British journalist working for a major newspaper told us “I’m afraid I’ve been given quite a specific brief… they want to remind readers of the horrific and varied nature of Weinstein’s abuse.” She also informed us that without those details we would not be included in the article.
I have met some journalists who are eager to learn how to become trauma-informed. Others, it appears, are more interested in selling papers.
So here are some tips for those journalists who care about not retraumatizing victims:
- Power-with vs power-over: Power and control were stripped from us when the trauma occurred – therefore being trauma-informed involves a ‘power-with’ approach. Put into action, it will involve the principles of being trauma-informed.
- Trauma-informed principles. I like the ones from Fallot & Harris: choice, collaboration, cooperation, trustworthiness, and above all, safety.
- Choice could be allowing us to choose which questions to answer instead of insisting on the details of the assault.
- Collaboration could look like working together on the direction of the article. Maybe the journalist and editors could have found a fresh new perspective if they had listened to survivors and what we wanted to talk about, rather than imposing their own lens.
- Cooperation could include allowing us to read our quotes to ensure they are accurate and not taken out of context.
- Trustworthiness is for example not saying you want the salacious details because British people are not so aware of the stories (really? Has the British public been asleep?) and then pretending that this was never the focus of the story.
- Safety means not pressuring us to do the very thing we’ve told you retraumatizes us.
Sadly, it’s not just journalists and editors who are acting as if it’s “business as usual.” Ask my friend whose lawyers thought it would be okay to have her tell her story of assault for the first time to a male psychiatrist. Ask the DA’s office who visited us, then removed the woman who interviewed us (and whom we all trusted) without informing us, and then contacted us months later (presumably to interview us all over again) with not a word in the interim. We can add transparency and predictability to our list of trauma-informed principles.
The science on trauma is out there. Now even whole nations have an understanding of what it is to be trauma-informed. We have to do better. It is no longer enough for journalists and lawyers to see survivors as ‘subjects’ who have no say in the process and nothing to contribute to professional growth. Who better than a trauma survivor to sensitize you to trauma? As the senators meet to hear the testimony of Professor Christine Blasey Ford, I hope they understand that we survivors, and increasingly the general public, expect more. The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no stuffing it back in.