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Victims Are Not Necessarily Defined By Trauma

More than trauma, more than a victim.

Key points

  • Trauma does not necessarily define a person.
  • Establishing one's own narrative is the task.
  • Self-definition is not limited to victimization.
  • It is through connection with the world that we thrive.

How do people define themselves? When Billy Connolly, the great Scottish comedian, was asked how it affected him to have been sexually abused as a child by his father, Connolly took a breath. The radio interviewer had asked the question breathlessly, in a way that reminded me of the intimacy of a psychotherapist.

“It wasn’t every day,” he said. And then he cackled with glee.

His point was that, catastrophic as it had been, as betrayed as he felt by his father, in whom he had placed ineluctable trust, he wasn’t defined by the violations. He was more than the abused child, and, strikingly, by implication, his father was more than an abusive man. These are hard things to accept and believe unless you’ve been abused, and certainly, it’s more expedient and categorical to reckon that Connolly might see himself as someone equipped to answer the question.

This is not to say that he still doesn’t see himself as a victim. In her biography of Connolly, his wife, Pam Stephenson, a psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy, quotes him as saying that while he was abused, he also continued throughout his life to love his father; not to forgive him, not even to accept him, but to love him. Nor from the book does it appear to have been a Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim loves the perpetrator; rather, that it’s not a categorical or defining subject. Connolly is insisting that he is more than having been an abused child.

Mind you, having a spouse who is a psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy speaks for itself.

Think, too, of The Elephant Man. Hounded by a mob, the character in the film by David Lynch cries out: “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” To admit to anything less would be a colossal failure, but it wasn’t just a tactical move. What makes the scene so frightening and sad is to witness this cornered man, facing probable death, holding onto his dignity, trying to convince the mob cornering him that he is not who they think he is. How he manages to hold onto that self-definition is puzzling and miraculous.

Telling One's Own Story Is Key

One possibility for his stamina may be found in his successful effort to see himself as more than a victim. That comes about because while others are observing and seeking to define him, he has his own set of observations and relationships that are independent of them. He is somehow capable of controlling his narrative.

He manages to do this by assiduously steering clear of how others see him. He relies instead upon a look away from himself, a look outwards. As he observes the world and recognizes his place in it, he can create his own set of validations, of belonging. By observing, he can forget himself for a while.

In her book, “Exteriors,” Annie Ernaux describes the force of this approach to life, and she acknowledges it as fundamental to human nature rather than unique to some individuals. Ernaux writes: “It is other people—anonymous figures glimpsed in the subway or in waiting rooms—who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us.”

Ironically, the shame and anger that Ernaux makes note of are received by an untarnished Self, a Self that can recognize the assault. The assault comes from outside; within, there remains an individual.

Victims Are Not Consumers

One challenge of societies that are organized around consumption is that it is necessary to categorize individuals so that marketing to them is maximized. People with histories of abuse, for example, are abuse victims who will watch programming that addresses that subject and purchase books that help or prescribe remedies. People with medical deformities can be pitched to based on their perceived disabilities.

The challenge is not only that this type of exceptionalism erases the individual; it also makes that individual interesting chiefly because of what happened to them. The person’s agency is diminished, and the identity imposed can bring about a degree of erasure.

But how do people define themselves independent of having been victims? What else is true about them?

They can’t possibly be interesting mainly because they were victims.

Can they?