(being an attempt to bring about a more reasoned and compassionate response for the victims/survivors of abuse upon ‘coming out’ and to demonstrate the hypocrisy and heartlessness of many current responses)
So, a friend or a member of your family has just spoken to you privately or gone public about the abuse they suffered at the hands of another. First of all, that’s wonderful isn’t it? That they’ve spoken out I mean. Not that it happened in the first place. That’s awful. But, how brave. Go them! That can’t have been easy, but I mean the truth shall set you free, right? I mean we’ve all decided as a society that keeping abuse hidden is a bad thing right? That it just increases the pain exponentially for the victim, while shielding perpetrators from consequences, and we would never try to silence an abuse victim would we? Would we?
I can see you’re upset and confused and since it’s a lot to process it’s very easy to say or do the wrong thing in this situation. This being so I’d like to offer some help if I may, and to that end I’ve compiled a list. It’s by no means exhaustive but it does I hope touch on the most common pitfalls to be avoided and will if utilised mean that you will be able to truly support this person who has suffered so much already and made themselves so vulnerable by their admission.
Types of replies to avoid:
1. The ‘you’re only focusing on the bad parts’ reply
“Ok, maybe they abused you but they also did a lot of good things for you and showed you love. Worked hard to put food on your table and a roof over your head. You can’t just focus on the bad things they did and not balance it by telling everyone all the good things they did for you.”
This one is best exemplified by catholic church apologists who urge us to focus not on the systemic child rape and associated cover up, but instead appreciate all the good works of the church. This attempts to minimise the victim’s experience by imagining that a surrounding context of other acts can somehow excuse the abuse. Please, don’t be that person.
2. The ‘That’s not my experience of that person’ reply
Friends and family members will sometimes feel the need to explain to the victim of abuse that their experience of that person differs. Which amounts to logic in the realm of, “Wow, that’s strange they murdered you cos they’ve never murdered me.” Let’s assume it a given that the person abused and someone who wasn’t abused have a different experience of the abuser. This information is neither invited, helpful or meaningful in any way. In fact quite the opposite. So please, don’t do this.
3. The “Won’t someone think of the abuser” reply
“You are causing so much hurt and pain by airing this dirty laundry in public. Obviously this is just a mean and nasty attempt to hurt them and all the people who love them. And you’re just doing this for attention you narcissistic monster.”
There are a few deeply unsettling messages hidden in this reply so let’s try to unpick them:
a) Your very own life experience is not yours to freely share with the world.
(Intense negation of the victim’s agency and autonomy here)
b) The strange belief that no one should be held publicly accountable for their actions in case it upsets them or the people that know them.
All of this and then a little projection at the end for good measure. Yeah, none of this is helpful.
4. The “What about me?” reply
Yes, really. I’m not kidding. Some people will take this moment of extreme bravery and vulnerability on behalf of the victim and make it all about how this affects them personally. “You’ve put me in a tricky situation, how dare you. Why did you have to rock the boat.” is the inferred message. The exact moment a victim of abuse needs the most support and understanding is sadly often the time they have the least from their family. How sad is that. You wouldn’t do that would you?
5. The “There’s two sides to every story” reply
Ah. The classic form of intellectual cowardice that has been successfully silencing victims for millennia. A close relative of rape culture favourite “There was drink taken.” The perfect cop-out that allows you to imagine that all disputes exist in a perfect balance of mutual culpability which ensures you will never have to examine it too deeply or fall out with anyone. It is not a badge of honour to proudly profess, “oh, I never take sides.” It is actually a declaration of cowardice and non-engagement.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” — Desmond Tutu
6. The “Higher Consciousness/New Cage Silencing” reply
These people know better than you how to heal you. They know that no good can come from publicly speaking about your awful experience. A silent, forgiving, martyrdom that holds no abuser accountable for their actions is the only path to healing in their view (usually accompanied by some platitudes about karma sorting them out on your behalf.) They are the unwitting allies of abusers as they are another force for silencing. If you’re actually interested in helping then please, don’t do that.
Well, what should I say then?
If you’re actually interested in being supportive and not causing any further unnecessary pain then it’s really, really simple.
Listen, acknowledge, and if you Will then ask how you can help.
That’s it, seriously. That’s the whole thing. As simplicity can sometimes be deceptively so, I’ll try to tease out the subtleties a little.
Just listen. With love and without judgement. Hold a compassionate space where the person feels held and heard. This alone is one of the greatest healing gifts you can offer a person at any time, to truly listen to them with love and compassion. This is not the time to cross-examine their version of events with a mind to discerning the “truth”. This is not a time to question this person’s experience in any way. No. Just listen.
This is really the culmination of the listening process verbalised with a simple message of recognition that communicates “I hear you”, “I’m sorry you had to go through that awful experience”. Simple and compassionate. This is not about you.
3. “Is there anything I can do to help”
If you Will, then offer help. Whether they accept or decline that help it is important here not to overstep the boundaries of invitation. Never step further than invited and offer your views or solutions or advice without explicit invitation. This is not about you. Trust that this person knows their experience and their needs and therefore the best course of action for them in this moment better than you do. Honour that with an openness that demonstrates “I am here if you need me.”
While I am heartened to see that many people already apply these principles, it is for the perplexed I have felt compelled to write this guide in hopes that in future, the brave souls who share their truth with the world are more consistently met with heart not hypocrisy.
[Dedicated with love to all the heroic and fearless truth-tellers]