Susan J. Brison personal page, here


After I was raped

On July 4 1990, at 10.30 in the morning, I went for a walk along a country road in a village outside Grenoble. It was a gorgeous day, and I didn't envy my husband, Tom, who had to stay inside and work on a manuscript with a French colleague. I sang to myself as I set out, stopping along the way to pick a few wild strawberries. An hour and a half later, I was lying face down in a muddy river bed, struggling to stay alive. By Susan Brison


Wednesday February 6, 2002
The Guardian

I had been grabbed from behind, pulled into the bushes, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Helpless and entirely at my assailant's mercy, I talked to him, trying to appeal to his humanity, and, when that failed, addressing myself to his self-interest. He called me a whore and told me to shut up. Although I had said I'd do whatever he wanted, as the sexual assault began I instinctively fought back, which so enraged my attacker that he strangled me until I lost consciousness.

When I came to, I was being dragged by my feet down into the ravine. I had often thought I was awake while dreaming, but now I was awake and convinced I was having a nightmare. But it was no dream. After ordering me to get on my hands and knees, the man strangled me again. This time I was sure I was dying. But I revived, just in time to see him lunging toward me with a rock. He smashed it into my forehead, knocking me out. Eventually, after another strangulation attempt, he left me for dead.

After I was rescued and taken to the Grenoble hospital, where I spent the next 11 days, I was told repeatedly how "lucky" I was to be alive, and for a short while I even believed this myself. At the time, I did not yet know how trauma not only haunts the conscious and unconscious mind but also remains in the body, in each of the senses, in the heart that races and the skin that crawls whenever something resurrects the buried terror. I didn't know that the worst - the unimaginably painful aftermath of violence - was yet to come.

For the first several months after my attack, I led a spectral existence, not quite sure whether I had died and the world was going on without me, or whether I was alive but in a totally alien world. The line between life and death, once so clear and sustaining, now seemed carelessly drawn and easily erased. I felt as though I had outlived myself, as if I had stayed on a train one stop past my destination.

I was initially reluctant to tell people (other than medical and legal personnel) that I had been raped. I still wonder why I wanted the sexual aspect of the assault - so salient to me - kept secret. I was motivated in part by shame, I suppose, and I wanted to avoid being stereotyped as a victim. I did not want the academic work I had already done on pornography and violence against women to be dismissed as the ravings of a "hysterical rape victim".

A few months after the assault, I sat down at my computer to write about it for the first time, and all I could come up with was a list of paradoxes. Just about everything had stopped making sense. I thought it was quite possible that I was brain-damaged as a result of the head injuries I had sustained. Or perhaps the heightened lucidity I had experienced during the assault remained, giving me a clearer, though profoundly disorienting, picture of the world. I turned to philosophy for meaning and consolation, and could find neither. Had my reasoning broken down? Or was it the breakdown of reason? I couldn't explain what had happened to me. I was attacked for no reason. I had ventured outside the human community, landed beyond the moral universe, beyond the realm of predictable events and comprehensible actions, and I didn't know how to get back.

As a philosopher, I was used to taking something apparently obvious and familiar - the nature of time, say, or the relation between words and things - and making it into something quite puzzling. But now, when I was confronted with the utterly strange and paradoxical, philosophy was, at least initially, of no use in helping me to make sense of it. And it was hard for me, given my philosophical background, to accept that knowledge isn't always desirable, that the truth doesn't always set you free. Sometimes it fills you with incapacitating terror, and then uncontrollable rage.

When I resumed teaching, the first student who came to my office told me that she had been raped. Since I had spoken out publicly several months earlier about my assault, I knew that I would be in contact with other survivors. I just didn't realise that there would be so many - not only students, but also female colleagues and friends who had never before told me that they had been raped. I continued to teach my usual philosophy courses but, in some ways, philosophy struck me as a luxury when I knew, in a more visceral way than before, that people were being brutally attacked and killed - all the time. So I integrated my work on trauma with my academic interests by teaching a course on global violence against women. I was still somewhat afraid of what would happen if I wrote about my assault, but I was much more afraid of what would continue to happen if I, and others with similar experiences, didn't make them public.

It was one thing to have decided to speak and write about my rape, but another to find the voice with which to do it. Even after my fractured trachea had healed, I frequently had trouble speaking. I was never entirely mute, but I often had bouts of what a friend labelled "fractured speech", during which I stuttered and stammered, unable to string together a simple sentence without the words scattering like a broken necklace. During the assault itself, my heightened lucidity had seemed to be accompanied by an unusual linguistic fluency - in French, no less. But being able to speak quickly and (so it seemed to me) precisely in a foreign language when I felt I had to in order to survive was followed by episodes, spread over several years, when I couldn't, for the life of me, speak intelligibly even in my mother tongue.

For about a year after the assault, I rarely, if ever, spoke in smoothly flowing sentences. I could sing, though, after about six months and, like aphasics who cannot say a word but can sing verse after verse, I never stumbled over the lyrics. I recall spending the hour's drive home from the weekly meetings of my support group of rape survivors singing every spiritual I'd ever heard. It was a comfort and a release. Mainly, it was something I could do, loudly, openly (by myself in a closed car), and easily, accompanied by unstoppable tears.

Even after I regained my ability to speak, more or less reliably, in English, I was unable to speak, without debilitating difficulty, in French. Before my ill-fated trip in the summer of 1990, I would never have passed for a native speaker, though I had visited France many times and spent several summers there. I came of age there, intellectually, immersing myself in the late 1970s in research on French feminism, which had led to my interviewing Simone de Beauvoir (in Rome) one summer. Now, more than 10 years after the assault, I still almost never speak French, even in francophone company, in which I often find myself, given my husband's interests.

People ask me if I have recovered now, and I reply that it depends on what that means. If they mean am I back to where I was before the attack, I have to say no, and I never will be. I am not the same person who set off, singing, on that sunny fourth of July in the French countryside. I left her in a rocky creek bed at the bottom of a ravine. I had to in order to survive. The trauma has changed me for ever, and if I insist too often that my friends and family acknowledge it, that's because I'm afraid they don't know who I am.

But if recovery means being able to incorporate this awful knowledge of trauma and its aftermath into my life and carry on, then yes, I have recovered. I don't wake each day with a start, thinking: "This can't have happened to me!" It happened. I have no guarantee that it won't happen again. I don't expect to be able to transcend or redeem the trauma, or to solve the dilemmas of survival. I think the goal of recovery is simply to endure. That is hard enough, especially when sometimes it seems as if the only way to regain control over one's life is to end it.

A few months after my assault, I drove by myself for several hours to visit my friend Margot. Though driving felt like a much safer mode of transportation than walking, I worried throughout the journey, not only about the trajectory of every oncoming vehicle but also about my car breaking down, leaving me at the mercy of potentially murderous passersby. I wished I'd had a gun so that I could shoot myself rather than be forced to live through another assault. Later in my recovery, as depression gave way to rage, such suicidal thoughts were quickly quelled by a stubborn refusal to finish my assailant's job for him. I also learned, after martial-arts training, that I was capable, morally as well as physically, of killing in self-defence - an option that made the possibility of another life-threatening attack one that I could live with.

Some rape survivors have remarked on the sense of moral loss they experienced when they realised that they could kill their assailants, but I think that this thought can be seen as a salutary character change in those whom society does not encourage to value their own lives enough. And, far from jeopardising their connections with a community, this new-found ability to defend themselves - and to consider themselves worth fighting for - enables rape survivors to move once more among others, free of debilitating fears. It gave me the courage to bring a child into the world, in spite of the realisation that doing so would, far from making me immortal, make me twice as mortal, doubling my chances of having my life destroyed by a speeding truck.

But many trauma survivors who endured much worse than I did, and for much longer, found, often years later, that it was impossible to go on. It is not a moral failing to leave a world that has become morally unacceptable. I wonder how some people can ask of battered women, "Why didn't they leave?" while saying of those driven to suicide by the brutal and inescapable aftermath of trauma, "Why didn't they stay?" Jean Améry wrote, "Whoever was tortured, stays tortured," and that may explain why he, Primo Levi, Paul Celan and other Holocaust survivors took their own lives decades after their physical torture ended, as if such an explanation were needed.

Those who have survived trauma understand the pull of that solution to their daily Beckettian dilemma - "I can't go on, I must go on" - for, on some days, the conclusion "I'll go on" can be reached by neither faith nor reason. How does one go on with a shattered self, with no guarantee of recovery, believing that one will always stay tortured and never feel at home in the world? One hopes for a bearable future, in spite of all the inductive evidence to the contrary. After all, the loss of faith in induction following an unpredictable trauma has a reassuring side: since inferences from the past can no longer be relied upon to predict the future, there is no more reason to think that tomorrow will bring agony than to think that it won't. So one makes a wager, in which nothing is certain and the odds change daily, and one sets about willing to believe that life, for all its unfathomable horror, still holds some undiscovered pleasures. And one remakes oneself by finding meaning in a life of caring for and being sustained by others.

While I used to have to will myself out of bed each day, I now wake gladly to feed my son, whose birth gave me reason not to have died. Having him has forced me to rebuild my trust in the world, to try to believe that the world is a good enough place in which to raise him. He is so trusting that, before he learned to walk, he would stand with outstretched arms, wobbling, until he fell, stiff-limbed, forward, backward, certain that the universe would catch him. So far it has, and when I tell myself it always will, the part of me that he has become believes it.

Susan Brison is an associate professor of philosophy at Dartmouth College and a visiting associate professor of philosophy at Princeton University. She is the author of Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, being published this month by Princeton University Press.



Remembering to forget
Jonathan Mirsky

By Susan J. Brison
Princeton, £13.95, pp.165, ISBN:0691016194

In this exploration of her pain, terror, and ten years of barely surviving the trauma of rape and near-murder, Susan Brison’s most piercing words are, ‘For months after my assault, I had to stop myself before saying (what seemed accurate at the time), “I was . . . ” ’

On 4 July 1990, on a bright midday in the French countryside near Grenoble, Brison, a young assistant professor of philosophy at an Ivy League college, was out jogging and berry-picking. She was seized from behind by a man she had just greeted. He dragged her into the bushes, raped and strangled her, pulled her down into a ravine, strangled her once more, and smashed her on the head with a rock. The assailant, a local man, said he had to kill her and left her for dead. She crawled out of the ravine and was taken to a Grenoble hospital where she was examined from top to toe including swabbing of her mouth; the man had orally, not vaginally, raped her. It took her ten years to write this slim book which I read in one concentrated afternoon. On the day she finished the manuscript her assailant, who had unsuccessfully claimed insanity, was released from ten years behind bars.

Professor Brison refers to other women who have suffered rape and other forms of torture, whose reactions are strikingly but not surprisingly similar to each other’s and hers. Unlike Britain and the United States there is no adversarial procedure in French trials like hers, so she never had to endure a cross-examination by a defence lawyer who might have suggested, as they do here, that she had been careless, tempting, or even lying. She notes that when Iraq invaded Kuwait one of the reasons given for condemning this attack was that Iraqi soldiers raped their female captives:

That many more women were raped, during that time period, in the United States, was not viewed as a politically significant event, but, rather, as simply part of life.

The ordeal, to put it minimally, has marked Professor Brison forever, although she had been advised to get over it, get on with it, and come to terms with it, to buck up, and be grateful she hadn’t been killed. The French Avocat Général advised Brison that ‘when the trial is over, you must forget this ever happened’. She found that many people cannot bear to hear about trauma. It is too painful in itself or it reminds them what life can become at any moment.

The first card I received from my mother, while I was still in the hospital, made no mention of the attack or of my pain and featured the ‘bluebird of happiness’, sent to keep me ever cheerful.

Her mother’s second card bore these words: ‘Isn’t the sun nice? Isn’t the wind nice? Isn’t everything nice?’ Three months afterwards, an aunt with whom she had been close all her life, sent a birthday card, saying she was sorry about her niece’s ‘horrible experience’ but adding that the victim would now be ‘able to help so many people’.

Four years after the assault and a long period of fear of sexual contact, Professor Brison had a son, Gabriel, whose trust and unquestioning love have given her some strength to go on; but she dreads the day she will have to tell him what happened that day near Grenoble; she hopes it will not ‘turn his tender heart to stone’. She still leaps with fear when a leaf scrapes across the pavement behind her; she is overcoming a stammer, and rarely speaks French, in which she was once fluent. She finds herself ‘oscillating between hyper-vigilance and lethargy, between panic and despair’. She has tried a vast pharmacopoeia of prescription drugs, some of which helped for a while.

Rape victims recall their helplessness, and anger seems useless, she notes, unless one feels it will have an effect. Professor Brison was able to become angry at the rapist and murderer after self-defence classes gave her that confidence. Group conversations with other rape victims, psychotherapy and confiding in sympathetic listeners — Freud’s ‘talking cure’ — she seems to prize above all, and she no longer suffers acutely what many women do who have been raped: guilt that they were somehow careless. It is remarkable, as she says, that women who eventually yield to their rapists, out of fear that they will be killed or because they are exhausted, have to explain themselves, while anyone who turns over their wallet to a mugger gets plenty of sympathy.

Professor Brison writes lucidly and explains vividly. She was told she could get tenure even though her book is largely — and painfully — personal. Perhaps to justify writing it to her colleagues she includes a number of pages which only an academic could love: she explains why she has dared to write in the first person and displays her knowledge of the scholarly literature on rape and trauma. Much of it is stupid or crass. There is little philosophical writing on violence against women, she says; her first example is an article by a British academic called Ross Harrison who

argues that not only do utilitarians need to assess the harmfulness of rape in order to decide whether the harm to the victim outweighs the benefit to the rapist, we need to assess the benefits and harms involved in criminalising and punishing violent acts such as rape.

In these professionally correct pages, Professor Brison also cites numerous feminist theorists and great names like Plato and Descartes, while I mentally begged her to resume her gripping and profound story and make any conclusions that arose from it without needing to enhance her credibility by referring to ‘the literature’.

She says she sometimes wished to carry a gun ‘so that I could shoot myself rather than be forced to live through another assault’, and observes:

My nervous system is set at a precariously high level of sensitivity. It doesn’t take much for the input-monitoring needle to tilt into the red-danger zone. That is just what it is, for me, now, to be alive.

I think this is a great book — I use those words sparingly — deeply revealing and fundamentally pessimistic. It is more painful and far less sentimental than Anne Frank’s diary. A friend, succumbing to ‘the gambler’s fallacy’, noted that the chances of her ordeal happening again were remote. What her friend couldn’t grasp is that although Professor Brison is still alive, she’s right; she was, in a way, murdered in France.



  The ultimate violation

Two writers -- a philosopher and a working-class Southern man -- describe the horror of violent rape and their long journeys back from darkness.

By Charles Taylor

May 8, 2002 | Of all violent crime, why is it that rape strikes so many of us as particularly horrible? One of the reasons, as Susan J. Brison says in her book "Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self," is that rape is a form of torture. It's a crime whose purpose is always to inflict suffering. And because it's inflicted on parts of our body that we associate with emotional and physical closeness and pleasure it seems especially cruel.

How do people survive a crime that aims to annihilate their identity? Does a person who is trained in logic have an easier time in making sense of that violation? Can you make sense of it at all? For Brison, a Dartmouth philosophy professor, the answer to the second question is no. The answer to the third isn't so clear.

Ten years ago, Brison, a Dartmouth philosophy professor, was attacked while on vacation in France and left for dead: Her attacker strangled her twice and hit her on the forehead with a rock. She survived; her attacker was apprehended almost immediately and convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After struggling with depression, including days spent so shellshocked and/or tranquilized she could barely get out of bed, Brison is living her life with remarkable strength. She has written and lectured on her experiences, gotten involved with anti-rape activism, and she and her husband Tom have had a son.

"Aftermath" is her attempt to write about her experience within her discipline. She intends the book to be both a first-person account of her rape and its aftermath and an investigation into the philosophy of trauma. She sums up the conflict between those aims by quoting Bertrand Russell, who championed "the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter" -- in other words, what Russell saw as the emotional detachment necessary for philosophy.

But to Brison, the idea that you can separate your experience and its effects on your identity from your apprehension of the world is impossible. As a feminist philosopher, she valued the way experience shaped someone's worldview before she was attacked. Her own rape has only intensified that conviction. She sums up her approach by quoting Nietzsche's statement that every great philosophy is "the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir."

She's not wrong. Still, that doesn't save "Aftermath" from being conflicted, from lapses of logic in its arguments. (The weakest point is when Brison claims rape victims share the same status as Holocaust survivors.) And how could it be any other way? If any idea comes through strongly in "Aftermath" it's the subjectivity of trauma. Brison doesn't even have the sliver of comfort available to combat veterans or the survivors of last September's terrorist attacks, that is, the ability to know that someone has shared the exact same event you went through.

However, Brison is wrong when she relates the well-intentioned, ineffectual words of compassion she hears from her family and friends as proof that society doesn't care about victims. The hardest thing to do when someone you love has been traumatized is to express your concern in a way that is adequate to their experience -- without piling your own anguish on top of what the person is already suffering. (It's not a failure of compassion but a limit to our imaginations.)

Perhaps unconsciously, though, Brison's anecdotes get at the gulf that opens between a trauma victim and people she once considered to be her most intimate friends. Who could argue that anyone but Brison (or another survivor of as vicious an attack) could grasp what she went through? In terms of philosophy, however, that subjectivity inadvertently winds up supporting Bertrand Russell's appeal for "abstract and universal knowledge." I'm afraid that the intense personal nature of Brison's suffering doesn't suit the rigorous logic required of philosophy, even philosophy grounded in personal experience.

Though they are often presented in a thicket of academese, there are cogent points to be found in "Aftermath." I was particularly interested in Brison's discussion of posttraumatic stress disorder. Brison notes that some feminist writers have held that a diagnosis of that disorder for rape victims is merely a means of turning a woman into a victim all over again. It suggests, they claim, that there is something wrong with women's responses to rape. Brison disagrees. For her, being able to identify the symptoms of PTSD in herself, and being able to control those symptoms with drugs, meant that the depression and fear and zonked-out feeling that followed her attack were not just "in her head," not something she could shake by bucking up and getting on with life. The implication seems to be that rape victims are still, to some extent, thought of in the way that manic-depressives were thought of not that long ago: as people too weak to deal with their problems. For Brison, PTSD is a "mechanical" problem in that it can be treated.

In contrast to what the feminists Brison takes issue with have claimed about women who accept the diagnosis of PTSD, Brison is clearly someone who has done what she can to reject "victimhood." Not everyone is so strong. There are fragile people who can be destroyed by rape. And it would seem, from Brison's own experience, that the value of rape counselors lies in their ability to recognize what kind of person they are dealing with. In Brison's case, she was fortunate to have a counselor who gave her good, solid advice. "You will never be the same," she was told. "But you can be stronger." Which is substantially different from the stories some rape victims have recounted of being told by counselors, "You'll never get over this," which seems a way of ceding all power over your future to your attacker.

Power is a key issue for Brison. The most surprising admission in the book is that she felt no anger toward her rapist. She was, she explains, too terrified. Brison quotes Aristotle saying "no one grows angry with a person on whom there is no prospect of taking vengeance, and we feel comparatively little anger, or none at all, with those who are much our superior in power." Brison's husband, on the other hand, wanted to kill the guy. And in his memoir "Where the River Bends," Barry Raine writes about the revenge fantasies he indulged in after witnessing a friend's rape. A few years after the attack, Raine was walking with a young woman in Italy when a gang of local toughs surrounded them, calling his companion "putana" (whore). Raine describes the satisfaction he felt when he grabbed one of them by the back of the head and hit him hard in the face.

If rape opens up a gulf between a victim and her loved ones, it also opens a gulf between the victim and her former self (the subtitle of "Aftermath" is "The Remaking of a Self"). Brison, unfortunately, seems to be implying that people who live as if "it can't happen" to them are in a state of foolish denial. How do you live in a world where violence is a real threat? Too often, I got the feeling that Brison thinks "fearfully." She writes of "the potentially lethal lie that if you don't do anything wrong, if you're just careful enough, you'll be safe."

Brison's attack occurred in the daylight, while she was berry-picking in the French countryside. The horror of many violent crimes is that they occur in "safe" settings, and no amount of precaution guarantees safety. But denial is too strong a word for what's a necessary strategy for coping with the world, and also a way of maintaining some basic faith in your fellow human beings.

Brison is, understandably, not interested in people (artists, writers, critics) who attempt to get inside the heads of rapists and batterers. For a rape victim, that attempt at understanding can only intensify feelings of alienation. ("How come you care how he feels about it when you still clearly don't understand how I feel?") It would be wrong to expect Brison, or anyone who's suffered such an attack, to try to understand how someone could do such a thing to them. Which is why the logical shortcomings of "Aftermath" suggest that such work is best left to those of us who haven't experienced an attack. Maybe getting inside the head of rapist (or other violent criminal) requires the ability not to think of yourself as a potential victim. "Aftermath" ends up being, in ways Brison clearly didn't intend, the book she set out not to write: an affirmation of the importance of emotion in conveying what happens to victims of violent crimes.

There is no shortage of emotion -- sometimes choked, inchoate emotion -- in Barry Raine's "Where the River Bends." But while for women rape represents violation, for men, the rape of a woman is likely to stir guilt by implication because it's a perversion of lust, of our own sexual desires. Raine talks about the male guilt over rape not as a perversion of lust but from another perspective: as the failure of chivalry, or at least the failure of some men to protect the women in their lives from assault. In the early '80s, Raine, his brother and some friends were drinking wine in a New Orleans park when they were approached by a black man, obviously high on something, who offered to sell them cocaine and, when they refused, pulled a gun on them and raped their friend Catherine, the only woman present. One friend, a street hustler they knew named Alex, managed to get away and summon the cops. But he was too late for the rape to be prevented.

Raine makes his position very clear: He never compares the guilt he and his brother went through with the experience of Catherine. And though he got her permission before embarking on this memoir, he never presumes to speak for her. What there is of how the rape affected her comes in her own words.

As soon as the rape began, and even more intensely afterward, Raine wondered about how his failure to save Catherine was going to reflect on him. The Raine brothers were lucky to meet a New Orleans cop who, shortly after the attack, told them, "Lemme set you straight on somethin'. Ya'll alive, right? You got away from him. So y'all done the right thing. And you're going to have to remember that every time someone asks you what went on." That's the voice of someone who knows all too well where heroics in the face of violent crime can lead. (In fact, Catherine had a gun, given to her by her father, in her purse that her attacker found. She had been too terrified to make a move for it.) But despite the cop's advice, Raine says, "sitting with my brother and Alex ... I grow more and more convinced that Catherine's father and my father and every other man who will ever hear about this will look at me and my brother and will wonder how we could ever have let this happen."

In fact, Raine did try to intervene to prevent the rape; the attacker kicked him in the balls and then pointed a gun at his head. Had he continued, he would likely have gotten himself or Catherine killed. But he is all too right about the reactions of Catherine's father and his own. Raine's macho, working-class father (a man of whom he was -- often cruelly -- embarrassed) reacted to the news by asking, "How we gonna live this one down?" And Catherine's father, informed of the rape by Raine's mother (who had taken the girl under her wing and spoke for her when she couldn't face her family) asked her "What kind of men are they?" It doesn't help Raine's ego that his assailant is captured later that night by a woman whose apartment he breaks into. (Telling him she's going to get him a beer, the woman takes a can she had left in the freezer and cold cocks him with it.)

There are no conclusions drawn in "Where the River Bends," no theorizing on the causes of violence or the pathology of rape. Raine sticks to the events -- the capture and trial of Catherine's attacker, how memories of the event followed him during his student year in Italy, the strain and eventual healing of his friendship with Catherine. This just-the-facts focus works to give us a larger sense of this event than all of Brison's theorizing can. Raine's writing on Catherine, never pretending to see inside her head, is a fine example of intelligent, sympathetic observation. And his description of her experience being cross-examined is one of the most devastating I've encountered of the indignities rape victims are subjected to on the stand.

Brison (whose own trial experience seems relatively free of that abuse) could use Catherine's experience as an illustration of her contention that rape victims need to be given some special consideration by the law. The rapist's lawyer was a public defender named Alain Dupuy, now a New Orleans criminal-court judge. Maybe it was the mountain of evidence against the accused -- multiple witness identification, not just from the rape but other crimes he committed that night, the fact that he had been caught at the scene of another crime -- that led to Dupuy's desperate tactics.

He began by attacking Raine's brother as a privileged rich kid because he was on a scholarship (that's typical of his "logic") and then set about attacking Catherine, asking why a young woman would be alone in a park with only male friends (i.e., she was asking for it), asking her to describe what sexual positions she was forced into. Most of the questions were interrupted by the D.A.'s sustained objections, but Dupuy was so obviously out to humiliate the woman that it's impossible to read these passages without thinking that the old shibboleths about rape will never go away.

In much of the book, Raine tries to deal with his own prejudices. He had grown up with a mother who resisted and criticized his father's racism. That doesn't keep his hackles from rising when he first sees his black assailant approaching him and his friends in the park. (To be fair to Raine, anyone in the shabby, drugged state this man was in might have set alarm bells ringing.) He is obviously conflicted on questions of class. While he recognizes his prejudices and shame toward his own father, that doesn't prevent those prejudices from coloring his descriptions of the man. And his writing about the feisty, working-class woman who captured his assailant turns her into a trailer-trash caricature (he even includes his brother's description of her court outfits as "tart wear"), though she never shows anything but sympathy for what he and his friends went through.

But "Where the River Bends" also shows an ability to recognize the ways people can grow and change, particularly Catherine's father, who endures his own later encounter with violence. And Raine's final sentence -- "What is written here can never be complete because the mystery at its core can never be explained" -- shows an admirable resistance toward ideology and generalization. Brison, for all her good intentions, writes to shut down the vagaries of experience, to replace them with tinned certainties. It's not a reduction Raine has any use for.

About the writer
Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.




Diary of a Mad Law Professor by Patricia J. Williams

No Vengeance, No Justice

[from the July 2, 2001 issue] 

Now that Timothy McVeigh has been executed, I suppose we're all supposed to stop talking about it--to "enjoy closure," a bit like the election.

But McVeigh's execution was troubling on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. It was alarming to watch the procedural impatience, the official "just get it over with" mentality, despite defense lawyers' not having had a chance to go through more than 4,000 pages of FBI documents that no one disputes ought to have been turned over before McVeigh's trial.

It was distressing to hear the semantic shiftiness of our President as he described the event. To us individualists at home, he said that it was McVeigh who "chose" this method of reckoning; to a European audience it was "the will of the people in the United States." Like some libertarian Pontius Pilate, Bush washed his hands of any responsibility, skillfully uncoupling the role of the executive from execution. It's bad enough to have a death penalty; it is positively chilling when the chief poohbah shrugs it off as though helpless, assigning federally engineered death to forces beyond him.

It was incredible to see anti-death penalty commentators apologizing constantly, always having to blither "of course no one condones his actions"--as though arguing for life imprisonment made one the squishiest, most bleeding-heart of moral equivocators. As a New York Times commentary observed, "Experts said it was the wrong case to debate--many people who do not approve of the death penalty wanted Mr. McVeigh to die."

Yet if one really wants to test the commitment of a civilization to its expressed principles of justice, the McVeigh case is exactly the right case to debate. There was little question as to his guilt (even if the question of conspiracy remains an open one in some quarters), his crime was inexpressibly reprehensible and he maintained a demeanor of controlled, remorseless calculation to the end. In other words, it is precisely the dimension of his evil that presses us to consider most seriously the limits of state force. The question is whether we want to license our government to kill, rather than just restrain by imprisoning, the very worst among us.

Much recent debate about capital punishment has focused on probabilities: the repeated demonstration that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a matter of considerable uncertainty and outright error. I have recommended before Actual Innocence by Jim Dwyer, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and I do so here again. These lawyers' work with the Innocence Project has led to dozens of releases from death row and to calls for moratoriums in states where pro-death penalty sentiment once ran high.

There is also the question of disparate impact, particularly upon minorities and the poor. "There are no racial overtones in [McVeigh's] conviction," wrote the New York Times in an editorial. Perhaps that's true if considered in a vacuum, but certainly not with regard to its procedural legacy. If the FBI couldn't get right the most important and supposedly most careful investigation in its history--and still no stay was granted--then there is no hope in any other case. McVeigh's "nonracial" fate, moreover, will surely be invoked highhandedly in all those more routine, less highly scrutinized cases. The fact that of the remaining federal death row inmates only two are white is, according to John Ashcroft, merely "normal." For more on this aspect of the debate, I recommend reading Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future, by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and The Nation's own Bruce Shapiro. Forthcoming from The New Press, it is an eloquent argument against the inequity of the death penalty's administration and makes a compelling case against its violent irreversibility, its unredeemable finality as pursued by prosecutors, judges and juries who are, after all, far from all-knowing or divine.

One of the saddest parts of the McVeigh saga was listening to the endlessly amplified testimonials of those survivors and family members whose sentiments were premised on vengeance being "mine" rather than the Lord's. One woman wished the electric chair had been used, because it would have been more painful. Another said, "I think bombs should be strapped on him, and then he can walk around the room forever until they went off and he wouldn't know when it would happen."

Such traumatized expectations led to predictable disappointment. "I really wanted him to say something," said one witness. "I wanted him to see me," said another. "I thought I would feel something more satisfying, but I don't," said a victim's son. "For him just to have gone asleep seems unfair." This sort of desire for "more" leaves us poised on the edge of an appetite for re-enacted violence and voyeurism. Given the horrific losses McVeigh's crime incurred, this primal hunger can be almost seductive--a howl of mourning very hard to resist, never mind debate. But it is dangerous if it allows us to lose sight of the fact that the debate we must have is, again, about the limits of state force, not about devising the perfect mirror of each victim's suffering.

But the bottomlessness of that individual trauma is not something we can afford to ignore either. For a wise and extremely moving reflection on this dimension, I recommend Susan Brison's Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, forthcoming from Princeton. Brison, a Dartmouth College philosophy professor who was raped, strangled and left for dead, analyzes the post-traumatic stress syndrome that still colors her life and reflects on the resilience needed to carry on. "Trauma," she writes, "destroys the illusion of control over one's life. It fractures the chronology of a life's narrative--not in the way a stopped watch makes time look like it's standing still, but like the thirteenth chime of a crazy clock that throws everything that came before into question."

"9:03" reads an inscription on the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Would that we could undo that awful moment in Oklahoma City by sacrificing McVeigh's one life for all the others, but the difficult paradox of healing is having to live on and through that wilderness of grief with no illusion of control.



Une affaire de viol
Victime d'une agression sexuelle, une philosophe féministe américaine tente d'ajuster son expérience et ses présupposés théoriques . Entretien.


jeudi 08 mai 2003

Susan Brison
Après le viol
Traduit de l'anglais par Soumaya Mestiri, Jacqueline Chambon, 188 pp., 20 €.

Il y a treize ans, lors d'un séjour en France, Susan Brison, professeur à Dartmouth College (New Hampshire), spécialiste de la philosophie du droit et des théories féministes, a été victime d'un viol et d'une tentative de meurtre. Après le viol, qui vient de paraître en France, est à la fois un témoignage et un essai où cette chercheuse qui avait déjà travaillé sur la violence sexuelle, réfléchit aux «conséquences philosophiques soulevées par (son) agression».

Les présupposés théoriques de l'auteur (en particulier la «philosophie du droit féministe») et les concepts auxquels elle fait référence ­victimisation, syndrome post-traumatique, survivant (c'est-à-dire toute victime de traumatisme: viol, Shoah, racisme, homophobie)­ sont représentatifs de courants de pensée ­le relativisme culturel, une vision victimisée du féminisme­ aussi répandus dans les universités américaines qu'irritants pour le lecteur français. En revanche, Susan Brison touche juste quand elle décrit la manière dont l'agression a explosé ses certitudes sur le monde et sa place dans le monde («Je regretterai toujours ce que j'ai été»), quand elle réévalue l'importance de la connaissance («Il a été difficile pour moi, en tant que philosophe, d'apprendre la leçon, celle qui veut que le savoir n'est pas toujours désirable, que la vérité n'est pas toujours libératrice»), ou quand elle réfléchit sur le statut du récit. Pendant les deux ans où elle a attendu le procès de son agresseur, son esprit a été totalement tendu vers la préservation de la version «vraie» de l'agression. Au moment même du verdict, elle ressent qu'elle peut «enfin baisser la garde(..) laisser au moins un peu de l'horreur derrière (..)Maintenant, je pourrais, en un sens, oublier ce qui m'était arrivé», ajoutant : «Peut-être y a-t-il un impératif psychologique, analogue à l'impératif juridique, pour préserver le récit de son histoire jusqu'à ce qu'elle soit entendue. Après que l'histoire a été entendue et reconnue, on peut la laisser partir ou la décongeler.»

Pourquoi ce livre ?

Quand j'ai écrit le premier chapitre, que je l'ai imprimé et que je l'ai lu, pour la première fois ce qui m'était arrivé m'a paru réel. Je me suis dit : «C'est terrible, c'est arrivé à quelqu'un et ce quelqu'un c'est moi.» Ensuite, en tant que philosophe, j'ai commencé à repenser mes certitudes de base. J'ai été formée à l'école de la philosophie anglo-américaine qui se veut scientifique, universelle, objective. Son objet est d'atteindre une vérité intemporelle, elle dédaigne l'expérience individuelle, les récits personnels ne sont pas pris au sérieux. Mon objectif était de faire que les philosophes prêtent plus d'attention aux récits individuels de traumatismes.

Vous travaillez sur la pornographie.

Je m'intéresse depuis longtemps à la théorie du «free speech», la liberté d'expression, de parole. Aux Etats-Unis, il y a eu en 1985 un procès à l'issue duquel un tribunal a déclaré anticonstitutionnelle une résolution «antipornographie». Une décision qui fait jurisprudence encore aujourd'hui. Le jugement reconnaissait que la pornographie était responsable d'un certain nombre d'agressions contre les femmes, mais que cela montrait simplement le pouvoir de la pornographie comme parole. Il ajoutait qu'en tant que telle, la liberté de parole devait être protégée par le 1er amendement de la Constitution américaine. Le jugement reconnaissait qu'il y avait un conflit entre le 1er amendement et le 14e amendement qui garantit le droit de chacun à une protection égale, mais il affirmait que le 1er amendement avait priorité sur le 14e.

Il y a aux Etats-Unis un fondamentalisme de la liberté de parole. Celle-ci est défendue même lorsqu'elle est raciste, homophobe ou sexiste. Les juges et les théoriciens du droit ne voient pas la nécessité de donner des justifications. Ils pensent qu'il y a dans la liberté d'expression quelque chose de sacré qui fait qu'elle ne peut être attaquée. En tant que philosophe, je voulais comprendre pourquoi le 1er amendement aurait cette priorité. En fait, son existence est due à des raisons historiques contingentes. Et mon opinion est qu'il n'a rien de si particulier qui fasse qu'on doive le protéger lorsqu'il cause des préjudices graves que, dans d'autres circonstances, nous essaierions d'empêcher.




Progresso e prevaricazione

27 febbraio 2002

"La conoscenza non è sempre desiderabile, la verità non sempre affranca", scrive con l'eco dello strazio Susan Brison, molti anni dopo quella luminosa mattina d'estate del 1990 nella campagna francese intorno a Grenoble in cui fu brutalmente violentata. L'esperienza dello stupro ha scardinato in lei, docente di filosofia all'Università di Princeton, ogni certezza. Ha demolito gli strumenti con cui la coscienza guarda e comunica al mondo, primo fra tutti il linguaggio.

Brison perde ogni rudimento del francese - che ben conosceva - e persino nella sua lingua madre non riesce più per mesi ad articolare in modo "intelleggibile": il discorso si spezza, fa frantumi d'ogni ragionamento coerente. A distanza di anni, questa donna formula ora con profonda lucidità, una vera e propria anamnesi del trauma subìto: il confronto è la sfida con un'esperienza inenarrabile quale è sempre la violenza quando rende la vittima un sopravvissuto per il resto della vita.

Da quel momento cambiano il senso dello stare al mondo e il rapporto con il tempo, che sia passato o futuro, mentre il presente diventa ingombrante, scomodo. Susan Brison ha appena pubblicato negli Stati Uniti un libro su questa esperienza: Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self (Princeton University Press), che sta raccogliendo recensioni lusinghiere e attoniti pareri di lettura. E' un libro forte e meditato al tempo stesso, in cui l'intensità del racconto risalta più che mai, pensando alla distanza di anni che separa l'autrice da quella terribile esperienza.

La violenza sessuale è distruttiva non solo nel corpo ma anche nell'anima e nella mente: disfa ogni valore, ogni riferimento logico. Susan Brison è delusa dalle filosofia, che è il suo ambito di vita e mestiere. Non le è stata di alcun aiuto, dice, nel dare un senso all'esperienza, nel fornire una qualche consolazione al dolore, al trauma.

"Esiste certamente una tradizione consolatoria nella filosofia," spiega Luisa Muraro, docente di questa disciplina presso l'Università di Verona, fondatrice nel 1975 della celebre Libreria delle Donne di Milano ma soprattutto di Diotima, il gruppo di studio e ricerca che fa capo all'ateneo scaligero e sin dal 1984 ha elaborato il "pensiero della differenza" e una scuola filosofica delle donne. Diotima è la sapiente sacerdotessa che nel Simposio spiega a Socrate che cosa è l'amore.

"Ma è una consolazione per la perdita, per lo più di fronte alla morte. Pensiamo a Seneca, ad esempio," prosegue Muraro. "C'è invece una incapacità connaturata della filosofia di consolare chi ha patito violenza. La filosofia è strutturalmente una disciplina di prevaricazione, dove la continuità storica si fonda sull'impulso a competere, a sopraffare chi è venuto prima. La violenza, per quanto simbolica, è un meccanismo fatto proprio dalla filosofia" Per Bacone la filosofia della scienza è inevitabile violenza alla natura, e inconsciamente ogni pensatore "uccide" il proprio padre per potere esistere e raccontare il mondo. La storia del pensiero ha una genealogia tutta maschile, più o meno prepotentemente guidata dal motto "mors tua, vita mea", in cui la violenza (beninteso intellettuale, e non materiale) è l'unico registro dell'affermazione.

In altre parole, il progresso esige l'"uccisione" metaforica di chi è venuto prima e ha dato il proprio contributo: ogni novità non è altro che rottura con il passato. L'approccio femminile alla filosofia è, all'opposto, guidato dall'amore e dalla condivisione con chi ci ha preceduto, dal desiderio di farsi nutrire dal pensiero altrui. Si guardino Simone Weil e gli studi intorno a lei. Ma è un approccio nuovo, in un campo in cui le donne, spiega Muraro, si muovono con molta circospezione, guardando sconfortate al silenzio intorno alla parola "stupro" e provando, come Susan Brison nel suo libro, a rimediare.

Queste considerazioni hanno suscitato come c'era da attendersi vibrate reazioni di uomini e filosofi, in difesa degli uni e di una disciplina che non è più maschilista di altre, certamente. Ma è pur vero che l'equilibrio fra innovazione e conservazione, fra rispetto del passato e coscienza di cambiare il presente, è davvero delicato. E forse non del tutto estraneo alla questione dei "generi" e a come uomini e donne guardano al mondo e al proprio posto nel mondo, a come concepiscono la conoscenza e lo stare insieme agli altri.

Chissà che cosa ne pensano lettrici e navigatrici, lettori e navigatori, di questo conflitto che è incontro, guardando forse, anche se molto di lontano, quell'irraggiungibile terra promessa che è l'armonia...