It is interesting to see the ways that different people experience the reality of abuse. We often see people who have learned to meet abuse with abuse. These individuals are very aggressive, quick-tempered, easily frustrated and have little or no trust of anyone. It is important to point out that these are coping skills. It’s not as though there is something wrong with these individuals – they have, in fact, learned how to fight, stick up for themselves, and not be pulled under by the abuse. Unfortunately, these individuals don’t always do well in domestic violence shelters, where they come into contact with other survivors whose experience is different from theirs, and where they must live in a community in which there are rules. These individuals feel frustrated by a system that seems to constantly oppress them, and by having to accommodate the needs of others in the living community. It can remind them of their abuse or their abuser, and the impulse is to lash out. And yet, when they do lash out they are told that their behavior isn’t acceptable, and sometimes they receive punishment or have privileges taken away. This, of course, can add to the rage of a survivor who has been taught to fight, and who often feels bad about himself/herself and is now is being singled out as being a “troublemaker.”
I personally like working with these individuals because they are good people who are struggling to make a way for themselves in a world that has not been kind to them. But they haven’t given up the will to live and to fight for what they want for themselves. The trick is to figure out ways to ally oneself with these survivors and encourage them to continue to fight for themselves in ways that will not alienate all those around them. And yet, the anger and frustration are real and should not be muffled. Being abused is anger-inducing and, in fact, those who lose that anger or never even identify it are more worrisome to me in some ways than those who lash out. It’s almost as if they are resigned to the abuse and agree to serve as an active participant in a model where they somehow “deserve” it.
This other group, the silent survivors, have at some point lost their voice, lost their ability to fight, lost their sense of self. There doesn’t appear to be a lot to work with in these people. But I believe that the job of domestic violence programs is to enable these individuals to find their voice. Along with finding their voice, these individuals need to rediscover and define their identity.
Recently, we had two women in our program who fit into this silent survivor category. During groups and even informal discussions in the shelter, they remain silent and never have anything they want to contribute. They attend meetings with their advocate and with our therapist, but they are quiet and even fearful of the process at times. The other residents, who tend to have stronger personalities, overwhelm them in a way, effectively leaving no room for them to even begin opening up or contributing.
At our house meeting last week, I brought up issues about the television and the kitchen that I knew affected these two residents, and yet they chose to sit in silence. And even when I asked if they had something to share, they both said “no.” I found myself becoming more and more frustrated with these two, although I knew that isn’t helpful, either.
As I was reflecting on this over the weekend, I recalled my college women’s studies courses and the work of Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice) and Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia). The two residents are both immigrants to the U.S., have young children, and struggle with English. The reasons for their limited voice are many, and I question whether Gilligan’s or Pipher’s approaches are applicable. I know that these women have a voice – that is not the concern. The question is, how have sexism, racism and xenophobia exacerbated their situations and contributed to their silencing themselves. And what is our role in encouraging these survivors to find their voice and to use it for themselves, for their children, and in all of their relationships.
I do believe that it is a part of our job as domestic violence advocates to also partner with survivors to help them find their voice. This is a challenging task because it feels so abstract in many ways and, obviously, must be tailored to the individual. And yet, partnering with survivors to help them find their voices and define their identities could be the most revolutionary thing we do.