January 19, 2009

Defined by Blood

(Content note: descriptions of domestic violence)

To learn the value of physical integrity...


A child you're clutching to yourself. He'd been pushed aside, and hit his head on something which left a nasty gash in his forehead. Blood gushes out of the wound as it always does from head injuries. He's screaming, crying either in pain or in fear — you're not sure which. It's probably a bit of both. You thank God that you're wearing a black shirt. Black satin. Cool. Smooth. It doesn't absorb any appreciable amount of blood but it does camouflage it, making it possible for you not to become every bit as hysterical as the child, ensuring that the child himself does not become even more frightened than he already is. Never mind that the white marble floor is turning red. Or that the child will be marked for life because of, you believe, your failure to provide protection.


Insensate. Unfeeling. You're lying down on your bed, so shell-shocked that you barely know which way is up. You somehow manage to get yourself away from the bed, out of the room. He says he's sorry over and over again; repeats the word so many times that you lose count of the number of times he apologises. You're not sure if his regret means anything to you though. He's asked you if you'd like to sleep and you must have said that you would. You don't remember getting off the chair you'd sunk into but you do remember him guiding you towards your bedroom. His hand on the small of your back, so gentle that you could barely feel it. And then without knowing how, you find yourself lying down on your bed yet again. You know he's said something but, to you, the words are incoherent. Possibly realising that nothing he says means anything to you, he says no more. He covers you with something and then he leaves you, bleeding and broken, in bed. You don't know what he's covered you with and you don't care; you're grateful for anything which allows you to feel as though you've gone into hiding. You do not yet know that it'll be months before you are able to lie down on a bed without having nightmares of him.


Clumps of hair lie on the floor. You hear yourself scream. The doorbell finally rings but it's been a long time since that's made any difference to him. There's blood on the sheets. You can feel it sliding down your body. There's a rag being pushed down your throat; the neighbours do make a difference after all. You cannot scream. Neither can you beg. You pray. He shouts, wondering how someone he loves can do this. You only wonder what he's talking about convinced that he's lost his mind, and then realise that it's you who's becoming insane as you tell yourself that he cares, not knowing why. You see the anguish on his face, through bruised eyelids, so swollen that you can barely see at all. Your arms are tied, you cannot protect yourself. You have not thought of fighting; you are so tired that you give up: you no longer ask God to make him stop. You only ask Him to let you die. That's all he's made you want for so long now.


The Girl in Hyacinth Blue. There were those who called her 'Morning Shine'. She sat by a window with sunlight gently sweeping over her. Her serenity as the world passed by her seemed overwhelming. Can anyone ever do that in real life? Blood seeping on to the floor; thicker than water, it does not spread out only to merge again and form grotesque but interesting patterns as it spills over. Distorted reflections make their appearance in water like that. Hoping to be able to decipher a meaning which, in your heart, you know doesn't even exist in the strange aberrations strewn on the dark black granite around you, you stare at them for what seems like an aeon and thank God for them. You do not want to see reality: it is too bleak. Hallucinations and lies are your respite from pain. Anything seems easier than the truth, and almost everything is. The patterns look like modern art if you stretch your imagination far enough except for the fact that you're certain that they've been randomly created by a lunatic. You can almost hear his raucous laughs echoing in the background. They don't stop and you begin to realize that it isn't your imagination playing tricks at all. You have to go back and face them: after all, they personify what your life has become. 'The Girl in Hyacinth Blue' never was anything more than a story. There still is blood mixed with water on the bathroom floor as you begin to make your way towards the door.


Wounds festering, your body wracked with illness, you find that you're burning up with fever. There's no one around. God knows, you could have used someone's presence if only to get you a glass of water but there's no one there for you. As the fever continues to wreck your body, every last ounce of energy is drained out of it. There's nothing which matters to you: all you do is lie down, allow the fever to run its course and seemingly destroy your body while within you, your body purges itself as it does more often than you'd like it to. Blood drains out, first into cotton inside you which absorbs it, and when it can hold no more, out of your body, on to your limbs, into the mattress. Its smell stale, you can no longer ignore it but you are too tired to move. The blood becomes an extension of you. In its flow, you feel your fatigue and helplessness reflected. It becomes impossible for you to differentiate between your essence and your body. You can no longer dissociate from what happens to you by telling yourself that it's happening only to your body and not, in fact, to you. You are your body, you discover. It's something you'd rather not have known — dissociation, as you know, helps you to survive pain, especially when it's pain he's caused you.


Excruciating pain followed by even more pain and having blood flow out of your body. Not something he's caused, for once, and not the usual trickle you're accustomed to but a seemingly unstoppable flow which nothing you can think of causes to ebb and which he chooses to be oblivious to. You are not within that 'monthly crisis of destruction' but you can feel 'the purging, tearing, draining of your own structure', as Nadine Gordimer put it. 'You are your womb although you were never before as aware — physically — that you had one.' The sight of so much blood is terrifying and mystifying all at once. As it continues to pour out of your body, you are dimly aware of losing a part of yourself. Cold sets in as your body attempts to compensate for all the fluid you've lost. You begin to lose track of what's happening around you. You see what surrounds you but you notice nothing. Everything is blurry, unreal. All that is real to you is your body, shivering violently, beset by fatigue. You know you'll never again allow yourself to forget how important your body is. You do not exist independently of it no matter what you'd like to believe.

And no one who jeopardises your safety can exist in your life.

(The 'he' in this piece does not refer to any one person, and this is not an accurate description of actual events.)

January 01, 2009

Terminology: Victim v Survivor

The Curvature has a post up which questions why 'victim' is a dirty word, why survivor isn't. It made more sense to me than anything I've read in a long time. (Do read it.)

What is it about popular culture which makes it an offence to feel hurt? Why the hell does anyone have the right to tell another not to dwell on something that went wrong? Why is it necessary to pretend to be strong even when you're falling apart? To tell someone not to live in the past and to pull themselves together when they may clearly be unable to do so is to tell them that they are inadequate. To say that they should not 'play the victim' is effectively to say that they should take responsibility for something they may have had no control over. To tell them to simply forget the past is to ask that they reject what is in all probability an inalienable part of their experience, of themselves. Everyone uses their experiences as a benchmark by which they assess new events in their lives. Why should those who've been victimised not be allowed to do so?

Addendum (2013):

Over the years, I've become more and more uncomfortable with the insistence on the use of the word survivor. I think it's very closely linked to the expectation that those who have been victimised conform to set of socially-acceptable responses to trauma (which don't inconvenience others too much); 'getting over things', 'moving on', 'not becoming bitter'. While those are (almost unarguably) all good things, they're not necessarily things which a person who has been abused is able to do (particularly not according to socially-acceptable timetables). And not acting the part of a survivor (according to societal mandates whether or not a person who has been abused actually feels the way a survivor is expected to) is all too often held against them.

Apart from that, I also wonder at what point a person goes from being a victim to a survivor. Clearly, someone who's died is not a survivor. Is anyone who's lived automatically a survivor? To what extent does that negate from their also having been victims? Who decides when a person has been victimised has 'done enough' or 'recovered enough' to be called a survivor?

I recognise that many people who have been abused prefer the use of the term survivor, and respect that. I do understand why that is preferable to many people. It isn't what I prefer when speaking of abuse though, and it's not a term I generally use.

Written in the context of heated discussions after a rape in Mumbai was reported by the press: