Trauma and Testimony: Deconstructing Sexual Violence Narratives in Contemporary Memoir
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According to Marlene Kadar, life writing has developed from a genre to a critical practice, and as a result, “we are able to reconsider the possible functions of life writing now” (11). My paper explores how rape survivors use different forms of life writing to challenge assumptions about sexual violence. Rape myths that constitute rape culture tend to displace the blame for the assault away from the rapist and onto the survivor, using blaming tactics involving “inappropriate” dress, substance use, the survivors’ relationship to the perpetrator, and the very definition of rape. These pervasive beliefs about the culpability and guilt about women who are raped are largely responsible for the lack of respect survivors experience in the court system. As literary and film scholars, we should ask: to what extent do our narrative practices influence rape culture? Conventional narrative techniques restrict survivor’s testimony; however, life writing about trauma resists these oppressive structures, provides a creative outlet for survivors to identify and refute dominant ideologies about violence which have, in the past, prevented them from understanding or identifying with their assault, and allow the survivor to reclaim a sense of political agency within this precarious situation (Gilmore 1994; Henke; Hesford; Morrison). I will consider textual memoir and film such as: Sil Lai Abrams’s Black Lotus: A Women’s Search for Racial Identity, Aspen Matis’s Girl in the Wood, Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object, and Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground. Briefly, I will address how the survivor’s body influences personal testimony. This will speak to the recent criticism that scholars tend to ignore, that is to say, how the body factors into life writing and affects the types of narratives people can tell (Smith & Watson 51). Then, I will engage with both literary and clinical theories of trauma to explore how personal narratives of sexual violence resist the myths that have been used to subjugate survivors. Leigh Gilmore states that personal testimony has a “structural entanglement with the law” (Trauma and Testimony 7); historically, the law has exploited memory gaps caused by trauma (Freyd 1998), the way survivors react to trauma (Herman 2003; Lonsway 2009; Lisak; Schwab), nonlinear recollections of trauma (Herman 1997), and cultural rape myths (Hesford; Heberle; Gilmore 2001), in order to discredit survivors’ testimony. Wendy Hesford insists that “strategies of appropriation can subvert dominant rape scripts even if they establish complicity with them” (19). I will analyze the way survivors re-appropriate elements of trauma and rape culture into their narratives, as a form of resistance against the long standing practice of silencing and discrediting survivors’ testimony, and as a means of reasserting their political agency.