Survivors Cross Boundaries too, and it’s ok to talk about it

Seven years ago, I had my first job interview to work at a rape crisis center. It inadvertently was the same day as my sister’s wedding, so it stands out for a lot of reasons. And yet, the questions raised to me throughout that conversation still regularly inform my self-reflection.

It’s no secret that our passions often stem from personal experiences, and as I explored their website in preparation, I saw a note about survivors serving as advocates. It wasn’t a question, but a comment on building out your support system, and being mindful of the stress and exposure to crisis inherent in the role. In that vein, I chose to be honest about being personally connected to this issue, and my interviewer paused and looked at me neutrally while they asked, “Do you think you would care about this issue if you weren’t affected by it?” For whatever reason, the question didn’t shock me, and it also didn’t make me emotional. It made me thoughtful, and I paused to ask myself what was being asked of me. I responded, “You know, I can’t know that answer. But I would like to think yes.”

As our conversation continued, we talked deliberately about sexual violence in the context of power and control, but also in the context of structural violence, and factors that further marginalize survivors. I was asked to consider what might feel different or similar in my own experience compared to someone else’s, to factor in barriers that I don’t face, and to acknowledge diversity among survivors. The most truthful and most visceral answer that sprang out of me was simply this phrase, “I could imagine the removal of randomness”. Now when I look back, I hear those words differently, but at the time it was on my heart that trauma is systematic, and that privilege is relevant for us to talk about and challenge.

I’ve long been grateful to Shonda Rhimes, famed television producer, for consistently representing sexual violence in her scripts, and more significantly, highlighting a range of responses to violence, and responses from practitioners. The most recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy continues this, as a sexual assault survivor is admitted into the ER. This patient narrative parallels one of the involved doctor’s recollecting on a recent encounter with her birth mother, who discloses her own sexual violence history and its significance for the child she gave up. The two storylines weave in and out of each other, causing the viewer to reflect on the dialogue being exchanged, but also the contrasting emotionality and empathy. In both cases, we are asked to focus on the involved doctor, also the involved daughter, not as a survivor herself, though her history is referenced and shared by her at multiple points.

We see two chance meet ups, a conversation at a diner, and a conversation in a hospital room. The former centers on an adult child who has tracked down her birth mother’s identity, and approached her for an explanation. The latter includes a patient who is reluctant to elaborate on the extent or the nature of her injuries, or how she’s sustained them, yet exhibits visible stress and anxiousness. As her anxiety magnifies, she clings to one doctor in particular, Jo, who has just returned from meeting her birth mom. Jo asks another doctor to join her, attempting to encourage the patient to volunteer that she has been sexually assaulted and submit to an exam, though that’s not how the patient reacts. Only after Jo has disclosed her own history, and the patient has tearfully yielded, does a forensic exam occur. Jo acknowledges, “I don’t know how you feel, but one day you may feel differently,” because for her the forensic exam represents more choices later, which she wants to preserve for her patient. It conflates for her as a pathway to not being alone in your experience, and helping support find you sooner.

And yet, to get a yes from her patient, she has to ignore being told no several times, rationalizing that her intent negates her tactics. She uses her needs as a survivor to gauge her patient’s, canceling out the verbal feedback her patient was offering her.

As you see in the diner scene, similarly her mother does not initially agree to a conversation or volunteer an explanation for why she hasn’t reached out. She first seeks to understand Jo’s interest in her, even asking, “Did you come all of this way to punish me?” Upon hearing that, Jo shows her own vulnerability, a desire to know who her mother is, maybe even to relate to her. Jo’s mother discloses that she got pregnant with her following a rape, sharing with Jo some of the consequences that experience had on her. The part of Jo that empathizes with survivors is at odds with the part of her that feels betrayed and left vulnerable by this person, and that is the voice given more space to speak. What she hears from her mom is a rationalization that she can’t reconcile with her expectations and resentment.

It is relevant then, to see these two stories in tandem, to hear them as a sequence of one person’s 48-hour experience, of coming from that diner to then work a 24-hour shift, and within that shift being further exposed to sexual violence. Being simultaneously triggered by and responsive to someone else’s trauma that you identify with, wanting to give someone support and have them accept it.

Our personal experiences, and especially our personal experiences of violence, are a form of expertise. But they don’t entitle or even equip us to abbreviate consent.

They don’t override our other relational connections, and how those relationships include unmet needs and conflicting needs.

Listening to your own body may be so effortful that it leads you to stop reading someone else’s. Our powerful gut instinct may provide conflicting signals, perhaps so familiar to us that it happens unconsciously.

At no point in this story line does Jo get her needs met, and arguably neither does her mom. And all the energy poured into giving a patient support still is initiated non-consensually. A patient is in effect coerced into disclosing, led to put her faith in her doctor’s judgment instead of her own. Led to take risks faster than she felt ready for. Led to have her crisis responses further inflamed and on display.

Developing our professional credentials don’t necessarily address underlying trauma dynamics, because the nature of that knowledge is personal more than professional. And yet our professional selves are affected by our self-work and self-knowledge, and they have the potential to influence those we support. We are in positions to obscure power dynamics simply by forgetting how they’re present.

It’s easy not to realize when our triggers are present, especially if they are baked into our work. The feedback we get from our own survivor experiences may be reinforced by colleagues, complemented by others’ trauma responses, at odds or exasperated by them.

Personal trauma is a reference point, but fundamentally a reference is a marker. An indicator of what we bring into any situation, useful the more we understand and account for it, and yet dangerous if not integrated or acknowledged as a factor.

Perhaps the more salient take away from this episode of Grey’s Anatomy is that advocacy has yet to provide criteria for professions that encourages self-review. Professionalization side steps these questions, leaving us vulnerable to mis account for our own triggers, and our own trauma references. Our righteousness about critiquing systems must realize that abuse of power is transferable, and help us to articulate how we can be accountable to inherent risks related to over exposure to trauma.

Our desire to heal must grapple with how we’re still healing, and must temper our impatience with a commitment to prioritizing each other’s consent. And our conversations must help us to account for the presence of multiple survivors in need of support, not just one at a time.