Last month, Harvey Weinstein was in the news again following his extradition to Los Angeles, where he faces additional charges of sexual assault. I am a Weinstein survivor. My case falls outside the statute of limitations and therefore will never be prosecuted. But because I have been public about my experience—and also because I have made a career of training and writing related to trauma—I can usually expect requests from media for my thoughts on the latest updates.
I am usually happy to oblige. But after one recent interview, I realized that for some time now, my interlocutors have drawn me into a narrative that’s foreign to me. Again and again, I am asked the same questions about whether survivors like me are angry—and what I hope will happen to Harvey. And then in the three-minute-or-less segments of network news, I eventually supply the sound bite that makes everyone happy: Harvey should rot in jail.
Who is this vengeful woman, calling for punishment and retribution? It’s not me, but rather an archetypal version of me that interviewer and viewer alike have been conditioned to expect. Even the word the media tends to use for survivors—accusers—suggests pointing fingers, or terrifying old women with snakes for hair emitting fiendish cries. Despite the cultural reckoning after women around the world embraced #MeToo, our understanding of the myriad feelings a female sexual survivor may have about her abuser seems to be restricted to a stale stereotype that is as old as ancient Greece.
In life away from the camera, a survivor’s feelings toward their abuser may range from forgiveness to retribution—and anywhere in between. Most of us have complicated feelings because sexual assault is complicated, and when the abuser was someone you knew or even loved, your history together may include memories that are positive. In my case, even though I never had more than a passing acquaintance with Harvey, I still experience a twinge of compassion when I see him bowed over, hobbling into court on a walker. The skeptics will snort and say Weinstein is playing to the gallery with shameless bids for sympathy. Maybe. Or maybe my reaction is less about Harvey and more about my own capacity for pity, even if these displays of frailty are just a calculated attempt to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison. Regardless, a survivor’s response is ever nuanced, sometimes unexpected, always personal, and never for others to judge.
Many seem intent, however, on propagating a one-size-fits-all response among survivors of sexual assault. It would be easy to point to continued male dominance in media as the reason for this lack of imagination, but in my experience, female interviewers are no less prone to posing questions that presume survivors are angry and bent on revenge.
Even when women get the chance to create a different sort of survivor with a more complex set of reactions, we often find female-written and female-directed dramas driven by rape-revenge fantasy. Such is the case with Promising Young Woman last year and the last season of The Handmaid’s Tale. The emphasis on bloody revenge makes me wonder whether these women writers are not sexual assault victims and are imagining what would be cathartic for a survivor or, conversely, if that is exactly who they are, and it is their revenge fantasies that we’re seeing.
While there is no “correct” reaction to trauma, and anger and revenge are perfectly understandable responses to sexual assault, Judith Herman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, offers this note of caution in her classic book, Trauma and Recovery:
Though the traumatized person imagines that revenge will bring relief, repetitive revenge fantasies actually increase her torment. Violent, graphic revenge fantasies may be as arousing, frightening, and intrusive as images of the original trauma. They exacerbate the victim’s feelings of horror and degrade her image of herself. They make her feel like a monster. They are also highly frustrating, since revenge can never change or compensate for the harm that was done.
If writers of rape-revenge dramas are drawing on their own unprocessed trauma, they may unintentionally reinforce the vengeful woman stereotype, with all the limitations and impediments to recovery that Herman suggests. And if this one-note view of the varied and nuanced ways women respond to sexual assault and its aftermath is all popular culture offers survivors—whether on the news or in prestige dramas—no wonder we feel obliged to play along and bury our more complex and confusing feelings.
The complicated truth is that, like many trauma survivors, I never know what I’m going to feel on any given day. When Weinstein’s lawyers offer ridiculous excuses for why he should be given special treatment, such as the demoralizing effect of incarceration, I grow angry for all the women who were not merely demoralized after being assaulted by Harvey, but whose lives and careers were destroyed. But absent such provocation, I can feel sad about what Harvey’s life could have been, the help he could have afforded the young women who looked up to him. After all, I met with other powerful male figures in the movie industry when looking for mentorship at the beginning of my career; many chose to help me, and all of them managed not to assault me. My sadness at lost potential extends also back in time to the little boy Harvey, who suffered his own trauma. To simply dismiss Harvey as a monster would discount my understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences.
This is not what many people want to hear. But when we resort to oversimplified narratives about what a sexual assault survivor should or should not feel toward their abuser, we shut down the full range of responses a human being experiences. The mythical Furies terrified the people of ancient Greece and were meant to act as a deterrent against horrific crimes, such as murder. I hope that Harvey’s reckoning also provides a deterrent to powerful men who believe they can get away with sexual misconduct. But I don’t want to become an archetype rolled out to scare unscrupulous men into better behavior. I deserve the dignity of my full humanity—every irreducible, unabridged part. I am looking forward to that person showing up in future interviews.