Rape, Healing, and the Author of Our Stories

In November 2007, Empire Remixed held a salon discussion focused on Naomi Klein’s then recently-released book, The Shock Doctrine. Two papers were presented that night, one by Brian Walsh, and the other by Ericka Stephens-Rennie.

In her paper, Plots, Pressures and Penetration: Neo-Conservative Economics and the Injustice of Rape, Ericka takes as her starting point the biblical story in which King David’s son Amnon rapes his sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-20).

The paper invokes this horrific story to narrate the brutality of Friedmanite economics put into play, shocking economies and whole countries into submission. Economies, countries, and people who, in their state of shock, struggle to coherently articulate their own story in the face of significant cultural, economic and personal headwinds.

And that metaphor is powerful. But what happens when the story of abuse is not about a country, but an individual who has been subjected to sexual abuse? And what happens when a woman risks it all to go to court and face the accused? Ericka writes:

What happened to Tamar? We know that Amnon was her half-brother, and that he lusts after her to the point of distraction, though not enough to want to marry her. Amnon distances his own relationship to Tamar by calling her only “Absolom’s sister.”

[We know that Amnon is frustrated by the fact of Tamar’s virginity because it means that he cannot have an affair with her.]

We know that Amnon plans to make Tamar vulnerable by isolating her from any form of protection (servants, other male relatives, etc.); he then plans to ask her to come to bed with him and, if she refuses, to violently force her.

We know that Amnon executes his plan perfectly. He pressures Tamar, she refuses, even expressing fear and desperation. She reminds him that what he is doing is morally and legally wrong. When Amnon doesn’t give in, Tamar suggests that, as the King’s favoured son and heir to the throne, he could ask to marry her.

Amnon again declines and then uses his physical strength to rape her.

We know that after his lustful, sexual desire for Tamar is fulfilled, Amnon immediately hates her even more than he “loved” her in the beginning. Tamar pleads with Amnon not to send her away because to do so would be even greater shame than raping her was. Instead he sends her away, saying (as in the original Hebrew), “Get this out of here!” and bolts the door afterwards.

As the story concludes, we know that Tamar tears her robes, and puts ashes on her head – she is a woman in mourning.

This story ends by telling us that Tamar is a desolate woman. But what happened to Tamar? Did she die a desolate woman in her brother’s house? Did she cry? Did she always feel like her dignity had been stolen from her? Was she able to talk about it? Did she have any friends to talk to? Did anyone listen to her? Did she find healing? Was she respected in her community? Did she ever marry? Did she live for very long?

The story of Tamar is a story of the violation of the weak by the powerful.


Most victims of extraordinary brutality such as sexualized violence have a problem verbalizing – narrating – the story of how it happened.

They literally cannot say what they have seen, or put into words what they have felt. Picking through the shards of their former life, survivors can no longer put the pieces into relation with each other to tell a coherent and compelling narrative about how things disintegrated.

Therapists suggest that only time can truly heal these emotional wounds. The traumatized memory needs time to sort out what happened; it needs time to collect, compare and construct a coherent narrative. A key part of the process is feeling that the world is a safer place in which to tell complete stories. Often, it takes some time for narratives to come out. And when first told, the narratives are often repetitious, stereotyped and emotionless.

The first framework we use to respond to any stimulus is the least critical, and the least reflective.

Given the time to critically consider stimuli we tend to evaluate them according to other frameworks – a framework of feminism, or antidiscrimination, a framework of justice, or of truth. It is only with time that a victim of sexual harassment or rape will be able to critically reflect on the experience…able to consider such things as power dynamics, or injustice.

Time heals stories. What was broken and disorganized can become coherent and whole. What was repetitious and panicked becomes calm and persistent.

What was dull and emotionless, becomes pain-filled and compelling.

But these stories emerge from silence, or grow from incomplete story fragments articulated in the panic that comes immediately after brutality. And unfortunately, that makes them suspect – both in a court of law, in the media, and in the public.


Then, when stories finally begin to emerge, they are discredited. “If this really happened, why did you stay silent for so long? Why is there more detail each time you tell the story?”


The media asks these questions. And we, the equally suspicious public, ask these questions. And the questions are asked in the context of a culture that is partial to the facts, the specifics. Emotion, reflection, and critical assessment are not welcome. Leave the analysis to the experts. You see, no matter what the answers to the questions are, there are assumptions:

Lies. False witness.
Opportunist. Fraudster. Fake.
Radical. Extremist. Activist.
Politically biased. Prejudiced. Partial.

And like that, the stories are silenced again.

Stories. Then silence.

This is a story of stories silenced by the powerful. This is a story of stories that are suspect when they finally reemerge. This is a story of how a constructed reality impacts how we perceive the truth.

Let me tell you a story that most of the lawyers for domestic violence charges faces. Fifty percent of women will experience domestic violence in their lives. One in every three women will be a victim of sexualized violence. And yet…and yet woman battering and rape are still portrayed as unusual experiences – they are portrayed as an exception to the rule of non-violence in relationship.

The battered or raped woman stands out against this rule as an abnormality, or an exception.

Our brains generally try to explain exceptions through a model of deviance, thus the battered or raped woman is soon morphed from a victim to a (willing) deviant participant.

If violence is ‘not supposed to happen’ or is ‘not supposed to happen to me,’ then it’s hard to narrate the violence credibly.

The woman must first explain to herself why this particular ‘I’ was singled out for the violence that was not supposed to happen and why this particular ‘him’ did this. To tell such a story, a woman must actively narrate into powerful cultural headwinds, forces of opposition that appear natural.

And yet, we know that her story is natural.


Here is a story: A woman was sexually assaulted by a male co-worker for years. She tried to limit her contact with him, but on some things it was impossible. She just wished it would stop. She didn’t want to quit her job, or lose her job…she just wanted the space and the peace to do her job. For years she kept silent, or told only a few close friends. More years pass. Then she heard that the man was running for office. And she speaks out. Suddenly, there’s controversy.

“Why didn’t she speak up before this?”
“Did it really happen?”
“She’s such an opportunist!”
She’s mean.

In court lawyers question her, ask her to tell the story again. And again. They compare it with what’s on record, and point out inconsistencies. “You said previously he touched your breast eight times, but today you said it was six. Was it six or eight?” She questions herself, unsure she’s telling the right story.

The lawyers are surgeons. Snipping and cutting her statements from their contexts, comparing them with one another and discarding the inconsistencies as inaccurate lies. Each cut takes away credibility. Each cut de-narrativizes, makes the story less of what it was. Of what it is.

But we can get lost here in all the false correctness of specificity. In all the detail. We have a fetish with detail.


So, what did happen to Tamar? We’ll never know. But what is happening…is rebuilding, re-emergence. Not rebirth. Not remaking. Yes – they were violated. Yes – they were shocked. Yes – they were even silent.

But then there were whispers.

And the whispers became louder, and louder, and louder…And they told stories. Stories of what happened before…stories of how it happened…stories of why it will never happen again.

Ericka Stephens-Rennie

2 Responses to “Rape, Healing, and the Author of Our Stories”

  1. Elizabeth

    Thank you
    Thank you
    Thank you

    As someone who has experienced violence and been through the courts, it is refreshing to hear someone speaking the truth of what it is like without sugar coating it.

  2. Jacqueline

    Thanks for sharing our story, the story of so many sisters, who remain silent by the reality of revictimization by the legal system. We need to work harder to create intentional and safe spaces in all our communities so women can feel free to break their silence and share their stories of rape and sexual violation. Thanks for sharing our story.


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