The life-altering effects of sexual violence on a body and mind, and the complex processes of recovery that survivors of trauma face, are at the heart of philosopher Karyn L. Freedman’s powerful memoir. Deeply personal and meticulously researched, Freedman weaves her experience as a survivor of a brutal rape with research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and neuroplasticity to form a moving study of trauma and an important call to recognize the effects of violence women around the world face every day.
At the centre of One Hour in Paris is Freedman’s exploration of how surviving a rape forced her to live a double life – an experience common to trauma survivors. The assault on Freedman, which serves as the basis for the book’s title, occurred on August 1, 1990. The author arrived in Paris as a 22-year-old university student, filled with excitement and youthful insouciance. Within hours, she was raped at knifepoint by a man living at the apartment where she was staying. When she escaped, only one hour had passed, yet Freedman’s life had been irreversably altered.
The ongoing trauma Freedman suffered was rooted in violence, but its effects multiplied through silence. Save for French police, several close friends, and her parents, Freedman chose not tell anyone about the rape, a decision she later regretted. Returning to her hometown of Winnipeg with a fabricated story to explain why her trip was cut short (she told people she was robbed at knifepoint), Freedman threw herself into her studies and a new relationship with a man ignorant of what had happened to her. In raw and affecting prose, Freedman captures how sex and more prosaic activities – such as walking alone at night – become, for trauma survivors, freighted with emotional pain.
Freedman developed PTSD, a constellation of symptoms that include physical and emotional numbness, memory loss, and panic. Although it was 1980 before the term was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (the Bible of the psychiatric industry), PTSD was first noted in the 1860s as a phenomenon called “railway spine,” in which physically unharmed survivors of rail accidents developed inexplicable mental symptoms. Renamed “shell shock,” the term was used to describe damaged First World War soldiers. Vietnam veterans were said to suffer from “delayed massive trauma” symptoms such as rage, guilt, and shame. In the 1970s, feminists noted that women and children who are victims of violence suffer mental anguish similar to that of soldiers damaged by war. Today, sexual violence is understood as one of the most common causes of PTSD. Freedman writes poignantly about the shame she felt as a result of her experience and the ways – alcohol, work – she attempted to blot out the pain.
As both a survivor of trauma and an academically trained philosopher, Freedman is able to shuttle deftly between personal narrative and broader scientific context. She points to persuasive neuroscientific research about the reasons certain people affected by trauma recover relatively quickly, while others become debilitated by PTSD symptoms (foremost among them is resilience building begun in early childhood). Freedman also points out that while the exact causes of PTSD are still unknown, advances in the science of neuroplasticity have shown the traumatized brain to be capable of repair and recovery.
For Freedman, recovery began with therapy. Later, at a centre specifically designed to promote healing among survivors of sexual violence, she donned boxing gloves and “fought back” – something she was unable to do in Paris. (Certain theories suggest that physical helplessness causes chaos in the brain, and the simulation of self-defence can rewire it back into cogency.) Soon after, Freedman “came out” to friends and colleagues as a rape survivor, breaking a silence of nearly 20 years. “The double life I had been leading up until this point,” she writes, “had become relatively unsustainable.”
Explicit in the narrative is an argument that in our culture sexual violence is overlooked, even sensationalized (what certain feminists refer to as “rape culture”), a reality compounded by the silence of trauma victims. Freedman argues that sharing these stories is empowering and that, in silence, trauma is allowed to grow. Central to One Hour in Paris is a faith in the restorative power of remembering in pointillist detail (the writing is at times graphic, and Freedman warns readers that some material may be triggering). But for the author, silence is no longer an option.
In her prologue, Freedman addresses other survivors of sexual violence, stating that “this book [is] for you.” Yet One Hour in Paris is not only for survivors: it is a story of the audacity of courage in the face of trauma, a brave and moving book that deserves to be read by audiences at large.