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Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault

by Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee (eds.)

What does it mean to be a survivor of sexual assault? Faced with this question in a new collection of essays edited by Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee, 12 writers respond with equal parts canny observation and hard-won personal reflection. Making meaning out of violence is difficult at any time, but doing so with private traumas in the context of the sweepingly public #MeToo movement has its own specific challenges.

“Writing [about trauma] is learning to live inside your failure to heal,” Gwen Benaway points out in her essay, “Silence.” While women are culturally rewarded for appearing to move past their sexual traumas, the reality is that language is constantly failing survivors. Writing, Benaway explains, can create an outward appearance of healing by providing the means to retrace and recount painful memories – without actually providing any method of undoing that pain.

The issue of how to talk about one’s assault – or whether to do so at all – comes up throughout this collection. At trials and hearings, survivors are not only asked to disclose the details of being assaulted but made to repeat those details again and again, providing opportunities for others to pick them over. As soon as they make the decision to pursue justice, survivors are publicly tone-policed, questioned, and doubted. Even when accepted as honest, “the survivor becomes a personality for consumption,” writes Kai Cheng Thom. “The more sensational or cathartic the story, the more validation the survivor receives.” Because the victim narrative reduces people to one dimension, no room is left “for the kind of silence that is healing, for relationships that are authentic, for stories that are complex.”

The myth that telling the story of one’s assault is positive, necessary, and leads to healing is part of a larger myth: one that pretends healing in a complete sense is possible at all. The myth of healing gives a direction and development to survivorhood that denies its true non-linearity. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha explains, “I do not want to be fixed if being fixed means being bleached of memory, untaught by what I have learned through this miracle of surviving.”

Heather O’Neill’s unsettling, experimental short play, “The Goose,” spins out cultural expectations in a conversation between a narrator and a young girl. Lauren McKeon’s essay on learning to kickbox argues against the expectation that proficiency at fighting will prevent women from being assaulted, but it can teach one how to be vulnerable and engaged with the body again, or at least how to try. It joins Karyn L. Freedman’s essay on playing hockey in an eloquent discussion of the body’s ability to reclaim physical and mental space for itself. It’s not possible to cure survivorhood, not as an individual and not as a culture. Nor, this collection argues, should we, because it can be a powerful source of creativity and power.