Flash, bang, Me Too trauma, what a picture.

In the first car accident, a car turned wrongly and too fast into a box junction I was crossing and hit my Fiesta, crumpling the front passenger side. I heard a big bang, instinctively braked, then saw the other driver, a tall man, on the road ahead of me hitting his car bonnet over and over with his fist like Basil Fawlty in that scene where he hits his car with a branch. I was outwardly calm, but I couldn’t tell  people who came over what had happened, though two witnesses told me, and luckily were able to tell the Police. My then-boyfriend was upset that I didn’t ring him, just a garage who came and got the car, then dropped me off at home.  Trauma had frozen my memory and my reactions. I am convinced it wasn’t just the accident, but the way the other driver had lost his reason (Even if that was because of his own trauma). I was brought up by a man who might possibly have reacted to a similar incident by hitting his car. In the face of such scary anger I had never won and didn’t imagine I would now.  Bits of my brain stopped in an old pattern. It took me ages to fill in the insurance claim form because I kept imagining that man punching his car and me having to confront him in court- but in the end I wrote it, and the written-off car was reimbursed in full.

In the second car accident, my Stepmum was blinded by the sunlight and went into another car just after we had exited a roundabout. Another flash and bang. I herded her and me and my husband (all of us uninjured) out of the car and onto the pavement, checked the other car passengers were okay, rang the Police and the breakdown services and comforted my StepMum. The coping bits of my brain sparked into action. Emotions on hold, as in the first accident, but I wasn’t helpless, I was helpful. Powerful, even.

Two similar situations, two very different reactions from me. As psychiatrist and trauma-specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk (Interview) says- trauma is something produced in a social context; “If you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on and you get stuck on the situation…”. Trauma interferes with the brain’s ability to tell a story about something, with the ability to re-member it. It is re-lived (by your body) rather than consciously remembered, because it has never been integrated into your story of your self in the first place. I couldn’t ever tell a useful (or any) story about what happened in the first car accident, I think because in the temporary shock of the shunt, seeing an irrational, aggressive man reminded me of growing up with one and the many traumas that led to. My brain elastic-banded back to the past and the parts that organised memories and planned things shut down.

This is not a post about car accidents. It is primarily meant to be a post about #Metoo and its aftermath. Many, many women, and men, will have had visceral, bodily stuff stirred up because of what they have read, written, thought about and talked about since the deluge of stories about sexual abuse and harassment. The media is mostly carrying coherent narratives. Things like “Women have told their stories, now powerful men are falling”. But in reality, there are so many fragments flying around like cars hitting each other. Some of these are being assembled into other narratives. News moves fast, faster than memories though they can feel as present, as urgent as news.

The blog post I wrote about my experience with an abusive poet has resulted in some other stories being revealed. I had written about Philomela speaking and being stopped from speaking. I want to characterise some of the exchanges since then as stuttering. Other women have got in touch, handing me more pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps making a picture is a better analogy. Or at least, it is quicker, than attempting to tell a story, though that is happening too. Sometimes emails have flown back and forth quickly.  Sometimes there have been gaps, delays. This work can be overwhelming. Revelations, news bulletins; it turns out, to my shock, that the poet had similarly abused power in other relationships in the poetry community. He had been convicted of domestic violence against his partner. Lots of people hold and held bits of a full picture, a full story, but so many things have prevented us putting it together. In this instance, the trauma of others  is helpful to an abuser. This contagion (also, often of their own trauma) stops social memories and stories forming. There has been a crash, a bang, but the fragments are still flying apart from each other. It is helpful when witnesses who are not likely to be freezing, flighting or fighting trauma share what they know, tell and re-tell narratives.

We can only ask what is next, or what is to be done about it, when we know what has happened. Another reason there are so relatively few rape convictions. My reaction to traumatic events has had a lifetime of being established as “Freeze and forget” or “Freeze, act, immediately move on”. It is much easier to write about cars than about how those patterns were set down. What should happen now? I don’t know what can or should be done about a past that sometimes feels so present and sometimes feels so buried. I know only that it must not happen to other women in future. I hear fragments from other people (speaking about him, or to him) which suggest that building up the narratives is going to help that.

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Why Corrie’s Rape Verdict Was The Wrong One

My column from today’s Newcastle’s Journal 10/2/12

So, Frank Foster walked free from court after raping Carla Connor in Coronation Street. I’m not one of those people who doesn’t realise that soap characters are fictional. I wouldn’t go up to Barbara Windsor and ask her to pull me a pint, or expect a nice chat about railways with Roy Cropper- but I had hoped that in this instance Corrie would help create a new reality, rather than just reflect it. Only 6% of reported rape cases result in a conviction. The odds are heavily, heavily stacked against rape victims. The vast majority of incidents, like the one in Coronation Street, involve a rapist and victim who know each other. When I did my Edinburgh show, I received an email from Rape Crisis Scotland. It was about their hard hitting “No always means No” campaign. “As a strong woman performing in the public eye…” it began, seeming to make the assumption that performing poems during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival makes you strong rather than overly-optimistic about audiences for rhyming. It then asked me to send a quote to endorse the campaign. I looked at the myths they were wanting to explode and raise awareness of. Things like “A woman raped after consuming alcohol is to blame for not considering her own level of security”, “A woman raped by a man she is in a relationship with has automatically given consent for sex”, “A woman raped after consenting to any level of sexual activity is to blame for giving “mixed signals” “. They hit me like a sledgehammer. Many people I knew believed those myths. At some level I believed them. A man who once said to me “What did you expect, coming to my hotel room late at night when I was drunk?” believed them. I think what happened to me happens a lot. I was involved with the man in a way that the Facebook status “It’s complicated” was invented for. We hadn’t slept together. I hoped one day, when the time was right, we would. I hoped there’d be hearts and flowers and violins and an Angelic chorus. In the meantime there were discussions about poetry and misery late into the night. That was all good for the black polo neck jumper-clad part of me that thrived on that kind of thing. It was what I expected this particular night when I went to his hotel room. He asked me to take off my clothes. I said I would if we could hold hands across the bridge the next day in the city where we were gigging. He agreed. I did. Naively believing he meant it. Next thing, he was on top of me. I said “No”. Next thing he was inside me. I didn’t scream, protest or shout. “You wanted this anyway” I told myself. Just not here and now, like this. But it didn’t conform to my image of rape. There was no stranger in a dark alleyway, no shouting, no threats to kill. My mind didn’t say the word “Rape” until I read that rape myths website several years later. Even though I later confronted him about how I hadn’t wanted to sleep with him then and he had responded with “What did you expect, coming to a drunk man’s hotel room late at night?”- the word still didn’t make it past the censors in my head. My body knew though. It knew it had been entered without permission and made me hold back from him, scared in his presence, even when my mind was telling me I liked him because he could talk about Dr Who and T.S Eliot in the same breath. It also carried an anger that would harden into a knot in my stomach or erupt like a geyser when people made jokes about rape. I didn’t listen to my body very much then though, even though it’s signals turned out to be rarely wrong. Now, as I read the email from Rape Crisis, I was feeling the anger again. It was an anger at myself for not being the “Strong woman” they were calling me and having betrayed myself by letting this happen. This is the shame that many rapists will count on so that their victims will never tell. The shame that contributes to there only being a 6% conviction rate and countless unreported cases. “The Rapist” makes it sound as though he was some inhuman monster with evil intent. Instead of a man who had grown up with the same rape myths and boundary issues as me, but strength on his side and a rather less romantic notion of what could be done in a hotel room late at night in a strange city. Now I’m feeling the anger again as Coronation Street seems to have reinforced all this. They’ve congratulated themselves on raising the issues and on increasing calls to a rape hotline, but how many women are going to see the anguish that Carla Connor suffered as her personal life was raked up in court and the injustice of her attacker going free, and think that looks like something they’re willing put themselves through? Frank Foster will suffer soap justice because he’s going to end up being murdered, but that won’t happen to most women’s attackers. At the same time, in the likely absence of legal protection, I wish I had been aware of those rape myths earlier so that I could properly protect myself. I never did send that quote endorsing Rape Crisis Scotland’s campaign because I felt like too much of a fraud at having being called a “Strong Woman” when, as far as I can see, I’d been a naive drip. At last that ball of anger in my stomach has unfurled enough to propel me to write this down for the first time though. And I’ll send it to them.