“How did you find feminism?” “Why did you get involved with feminist activism?” Questions which seem innocuous, even banal. But they prompt me to make a decision before I respond. I have to decide how safe I feel with this person, at this time. Am I feeling up to dealing with the shame of being visibly upset if I tell the whole truth? Because what happened is that, for a year when I was 18, I was in a physically, emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship with a man who stalked and humiliated me when I left him. I was obliterated and I had to start from scratch. I found feminism for myself whilst trying to put myself back together, finding myself unable to forgive or to accept what I had been through.
I often hide this part of my ‘political history’ because of a kind of political shame that I imagine is shared by other survivors/victims (and there are so, so many of us). What if my comrades perceive my involvement as a form of therapy of self-help practice? Political organisations and collectives aren’t support groups, don’t you know?
But I’m more preoccupied by the past than the present. Who was I at 18 that I allowed that to happen to me? Could I have called myself a feminist then? I ask these questions of myself despite knowing that I did nothing to deserve it, that nobody ever deserves it. The questions don’t originate from me, but from the people who are so shocked when I tell them what happened. “But you’re such a strong, feminist woman. I can’t imagine you in that situation.” They say this as if feminists are protected from abuse, as if being strong means being able to transcend the structural and literal violence of patriarchy. As if ‘strength’ sets you apart from other women. If I’m strong now, was I weak then?
And, for me, this is the problem with so many of the narratives around healing. We are supposed to move from being the type of person that abuse can happen to, to a position of strength which protects us from trauma and allows us to come to terms with what we experienced. What does this teach us to feel about our past selves who were abused? What room does this leave for the necessity of politicising our experiences? It seems to me that this particular path to becoming healed encourages us to lay blame for our trauma at the feet of our past self, and break from the person we were entirely, as we blossom into tougher, healthier individuals. But as feminists and revolutionaries, we know the limits of this approach. Physical, psychological and sexual violence happens in our relationships (regardless of our politics) but it is also a structural part of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and all attendant oppressions. If this is the case, why should we try to come to terms with trauma?
I’m not denying the need to learn to cope with our experiences if at all possible. To be able to put them away long enough to laugh, dance, organise, fuck (if we want to), read or even to sleep. We need to make space for ourselves, but this doesn’t mean we need to forgive or heal in the way we’re encouraged to. Any ‘strength’ I have comes from my anger and a refusal to forgive. Feminism has given my anger shape and purpose. I’m angry not just for myself, but for everybody who is exploited and terrorised by systems of oppression. It’s what gets me to meetings and actions when I’m so miserable I can hardly get out of bed. Anger, which I experienced first as personal, is what politicised me.
Maybe feminism is collective not-healing. A collective process of refusing to come to terms. When we organise and fight back together, in the face of a culture which demands we resign ourselves to ‘getting over it’, we reassure each other that we’re right to be furious and unforgiving. We’re right to reject acceptance because it doesn’t move us forward together, it doesn’t give us what we need to be able to fight. Alongside our rage is the warmth of solidarity and sisterhood. This is what can help us find the space and care for ourselves that we deserve, and it doesn’t demand that we calm down or shut up to get it. It rounds the edges off the pain and allows us to get on with the job of surviving to scrap another day.
If healing is leaving behind fragility, fear and a desire for everything to be turned over and smashed to pieces, I don’t want it. I refuse to accept what I find unacceptable. Let’s refuse together.
Written by Lydia Harris
To read more from Lydia please visit her blog