“The Ultimate Violation”

By Charles Taylor

Topics: Books,

[Read the story.]

I would like to correct several factual inaccuracies in Charles Taylor’s review of my book, “Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self.”

First, he writes that “Brison claims rape victims share the same status as Holocaust survivors,” which I nowhere say and, on the contrary, explicity deny throughout the book. Although I do point out that such diverse groups as survivors of the Nazi death camps, veterans of the Vietnam war and rape survivors “frequently remark that they are not the same people they were before they were traumatized,” I add that “I do not mean to imply that the traumas suffered by these different groups of survivors are the same, or even commensurable.” In fact, I disagree with the title of the review itself, which calls rape “The Ultimate Violation.” I don’t myself see the point in ranking traumas, but, if forced to do so, I would, without hesitation, put what happened to me far lower down on the “trauma scale” than what happened to Holocaust survivors.

Second, Taylor says, mistakenly, that I “relat[e] the well-intentioned, ineffectual words of compassion [from] family and friends as proof that society doesn’t care about victims.” I say, instead, that our society suffers from a kind of “emotional illiteracy,” which can prevent some of the most caring, compassionate people from saying anything to a rape survivor, even “I’m so sorry about what you went through.” One of my goals in writing this book was to help to break this silence, a response endured by so many rape survivors.

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Third, Taylor criticizes me for promulgating “tinned certainties,” a charge that simply baffles me, since the book is one long argument against the very idea of certainty. Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by trauma survivors is figuring out how to carry on in a radically unpredicatable world. I suggest that “one makes a wager, in which nothing is certain and the odds change daily, and sets about willing to believe that life, for all its unfathomable horror, still holds some undiscovered pleasures.” And I end the book by saying that what I wish for my (now 7-year-old) son “is not the superhuman ability to avoid life-threatening disasters, but, rather, resilience … the supple tenacity of the wind-rocked bough that bends, the bursting desire of a new-mown field that can’t wait to grow back, the will to say, whatever comes, Let’s see what happens next.”

– Susan J. Brison

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