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Selling Our Grief

America’s appetite for the traumatized

“Writer and rape survivor Dominique Matti addresses the conflict over ______.”

My stomach tightened when I read it, the dek proposed by the editor of one of my commissioned pieces. Writer and rape survivor. Writer and rape survivor. So casual. Dominique Matti is a writer. She has also been raped. Her eyes are brown. Her favorite color is green. Her father was a fugitive for most of her childhood. She likes music. She’s a mom.

Since when has my trauma become an even remotely considerable descriptor of me? Why did the editor think it was pertinent to disclose in the dek before allowing me to self-identify? He did it to draw readers in. Because he knew it would work.

I watch a lot of reality TV. My husband and I have special shows that we don’t watch without each other. And while that leaves me all the bad shows to watch on my own, I’ve grown fond of it. Lately, I’ve been binging on The Bachelor. It goes against all of my politics, but some part of me finds pleasure in it. The other day, though, I was talking to my husband about it and said, “He sent the Russian girl home.” And he said, “Who?” And I said, “The one who had to eat lipstick when she was a kid because there was no other food.” It didn’t occur to me while writing those words that this information about her was more readily available to me than her name. Her name is Kristina. I just Googled it.

I remember this information about her because the conversation in which she revealed it was painful to watch. The bachelor, Nick, (likely pressured by producers) kept trying to tug information out of her during their one-on-one date, and Kristina (likely pressured by producers to “open up” if she wants him to love her) obliged. Nick cried a single tear. Kristina said, “Sorry.”

It reminded me of a conversation from the season I watched before, where Ben sat down with Jubilee and urged her to unearth her pain. The discussion seemed more like an interview than an intimate talk between lovers. Ben, looking somber (and seedy), asks Jubilee to tell him more about why she doesn’t like returning to Haiti, and Jubilee divulges that she is the only surviving member of her family.

This trauma becomes Jubilee’s character arc in a narrative the producers constructed as the story of her life, her core identifier. Army vet from Haiti whose whole family died, Jubilee. Orphan from Russia with very cruel mother, Kristina. Rape survivor Dominique Matti. Title before name.

In a way, my personal trauma is a major arc in the plotline of my life. It dictates massive elements of my personality. It affect all of my relationships, even determines who I’m most drawn to. The undercurrent of thoughts beneath my more mundane thoughts are plagued with attitudes that erupted from trauma. My mental health is affected as well as the rest of my body. In order to have a complete understanding of me, to know why I am who I am and how, I’d say you’d have to know about my trauma. So why did the dek bother me? Why did it seem sensationalized? Why did the testimonies of Kristina and Jubilee seem like exploitation?

It’s because I know how hungry the audience is for what hurts us. When Jubilee and Kristina tell their painful stories, millions of Americans consume it like a Tic Tac or some other thing tossed into the void as an attempt at quelling an insatiable appetite. Myself included. Why do we love other people’s trauma so much? Are we sadists? Or is it the simple fact that it’s not ours?

When it comes to shows like The Bachelor and Hallmark movies, I think it’s that we like to see trauma as linear, as resolute. This happened to me, but I’m better now. This happened to me and made me stronger. This happened to me, and I handled it gracefully, and the complexity it adds to my character makes me inherently more beloved by America.

Real-life trauma doesn’t look like that. Healing peaks and wanes and lurches forward and then regresses. Most times, your trauma stays with you. Sometimes it even embeds itself in your DNA and gets passed down to your children. I’m still surviving that sexual assault from years ago. I haven’t championed it. A more accurate dek would’ve read, “Surprisingly, Dominique Matti’s trauma hasn’t completely destroyed her yet. Surprisingly, she mustered the will to talk about it.”

In real life, trauma complicates relationships instead of making you more appealing. It makes love difficult. There is no surplus of glassy-eyed bachelors who hear your testimony and grant you both strength and vulnerability. More often, there are lovers who engage and then leave, unwilling to navigate the constant vacillation between being a raw nerve and being sewn shut. More often, your strongest long-term relationship is with your therapist, if you can afford a good one.

Television makes trauma tidy, and all of us messy people tune in to see if it’s true — if our aching can be as clean and simple as a story told between commercial breaks. But it can’t. Trauma takes something from you, and repairing what’s lacking is work, if the damage isn’t irreparable. And even after reparations comes the hard labor of maintenance.

Is it safe to consume the concept that trauma can be turned to gold (or true love)? I see it as an extension of the American dream, the close cousin of the bootstrap mentality. It leaves too much room for juxtaposition between good victims and bad victims. If our places on the healing map can be used as currency in competition, those of us processing in unpalatable ways are rapidly devalued against our more “put together” peers. The side effects of our trauma, then, become character flaws.

So I vetoed the dek. I rejected the editor’s attempt to make what happened to me a framing device for why I was worth hearing. I rejected his attempt at painting a narrative where I came out of that night in one piece, where I’m not still mourning the part of me that didn’t make it out. Because it’s not his story to clean up. It’s not the audience’s to consume and repurpose. It’s my jagged, graceless, multidirectional path to healing. And I’m still on it.

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