Institutionalized voyeurism, Kavanaugh, and linear narratives

by Hayley Brooks

The past few weeks for me have largely been a series of remembering moments I’d like to consciously forget but that my body holds onto. The way the body recalls is often miraculous to me, but I also often wonder what my body is trying to tell me by remembering. Two weeks ago was the fourth anniversary of one of the most traumatic nights of my life. The morning following that night, I remember texting a friend about the “strange” night I had had, recalling humorous details in an effort to brush it off as simply another date. As the weeks progressed, more and more details became clear to me, triggered by small things—someone brushing up against me accidentally, driving past the bar where I was assaulted, someone touching my neck. Eventually I created a timeline of the night, from the moment I left my house to the moment I returned. This was the first time I had pieced together my own trauma, creating a narrative which the trauma had interrupted. I listened to the nightmares this time, something I had not done in the past.

There were circumstances in my life at the time that led me to interrogating this trauma in ways I had not learned to in the past — that I was taking a break from college for a semester and I had more tools to name my experience than I had ever had previously. I want to also be careful to name that this should never have happened to me, it did legitimately ruin my life. I know if it had not happened, the trauma I had experienced previously would resurface in one way or another. But because it did, I learned something seminal about my body: it remembers.

Over the last four years, I’ve told many people I love and trust (and many I do not) about this experience. There have been many who have asked for details about it, and those people have never been fellow survivors. I have watched eyes widened, as if in a sort of ecstasy, enticed by what we as a society have framed as “scandal.”

The morning following the 2016 election, I woke up in the same panic I remember waking up in following  the night of my assault. The day of the Kavanaugh hearings conjured similar feelings. I did not report my assault, for many reasons, among them that I know that my assailants would purse their lips the same way Kavanaugh did in response to my accusations. That image of his pursed lips, tearful eyes: I know that anger, I’ve carried that anger for my abusers for the past four years. And I am in awe of Christine Blasey Ford’s bravery in transferring that anger to its rightful owner.

In this moment, what is most troubling for me is the way the justice system and society has demanded details from survivors in service of sensationalism. Think about how many times we’ve seen the media frame the #metoo movement and public naming of abusers as “sex scandals.” On September 27, the New York Times published an article with the headline “Updates From the Riveting Testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh.” This is such a disservice to survivors. Our stories are not tantalizing, they are horrific. And I understand morbid curiosity; I have my fair share of strange interests including cults and serial killers. But this isn’t morbid curiosity, this is a demand from abusers to frame their immorality and dangerous behavior as fascinating and interesting. Think about the industry of revenge porn, how popular Law & Order: SVU is, the fact that video games and movies use the same audio clips to illustrate both the violent murder and orgasms of women. We’ve been taught over and over again that our pain is what makes us interesting, that we as survivors must carry pain because our abusers do not deserve pain for their actions.

I do not offer the minute details of my trauma publicly anymore. I will offer the impact and what my healing process has been like because those are tools for other survivors to name and know their experiences. The only specific detail I do offer of that night, because it is important in naming the ways sexual violence is framed as tantalizing, is that one of my assailants continually asked my other assailant to kiss me throughout the night. There were moments when she (one my assailants) would say no for the both of us, but there were also moments when she would grab me and kiss me. His pupils dilated and eyes widened when she placed her hand on the back of my neck. I recognize those eyes when I am asked for the details of my assault. I can feel the gratification of both the asker and my assailant in my body, the fear it creates, the urgency I feel in my stomach.

And I could see those same widened eyes in the senators and the prosecutor who repeated details of Dr. Ford’s testimony back to Kavanaugh. This is institutionalized voyeurism. This voyeurism places the onus on survivors to report and seek justice, which inevitably demands that survivors offer minute-by-minute timelines that abusers can outright deny. Think about the way many murders are processed in the justice system: we eventually demand that the murderer create a timeline of their actions (except for murders of people of color by white police officers), that they offer a confession. We rarely if ever demand this from perpetrators of sexual violence. This is what rape culture looks like: cisgender men seeking satiation for their learned understanding of women/trans/non-binary peoples’ pain as their own pleasure, at the expense of understanding the true impact of this violence on survivors.

This is what makes Dr. Ford’s testimony so moving. She was forced to offer details, but she also offered the impact of this violence on her life for the past 35 years. We have Anita Hill to learn from and thank in this moment as well, for shifting the narrative from “scandal” to violence. We did not offer Anita Hill the justice she deserved then, but we have the opportunity to not make the same mistake again.

When we shift from understanding rape and sexual violence as scandal to what it actually is, violence, we also shift our attention from linear narratives to cyclical narratives of impact. Patriarchy largely employs linear narratives to understand and name history. Part of this framing includes a collective forgetting, moving forward in a straight line without looking back to understand the impact of what our histories have been. We operate out of these narratives so often we rarely name them. Kavanaugh has clearly employed this type of narrative for his life. Dr. Ford challenged that, challenged him to look back, and offered a cyclical narrative for his sins. The way the body processes trauma is cyclical, we move in and out of healing, we relive the experiences in our bodies again and again. And when we listen to our bodies, we reframe our trauma not as a singular moment in our life, but something that shapes and reshapes how we experience the world. This is where healing begins and where we shift from an abuser-focused understanding of sexual violence to one where survivors name and know themselves in spite of the scandal of abusers forgetting their crimes.

Hayley Brooks is a poet based in St Paul, Minnesota who received her B.A. in English writing from Goshen College. Her poetry focuses on reframing trauma and shifting from body/soul dichotomies to body- and gynocentric narratives. She has previous work published in Lavender Review, The Mennonite, Our Stories Untold and Lipstick Party Magazine. Visit hayleyjbrooks.com for more of her work.