Why can’t we be as furious as we feel?

25 November 2021

There is a moment in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale where June, the central character, asks a group of women who have experienced physical and sexual violence under the patriarchal regime in Gilead: “Why does healing have to be the only goal? Why can’t we be as furious as we feel? Do we have that right?” 

The Handmaid's Tale

June (played by Elisabeth Moss) in Channel 4's The Handmaid's Tale

On this international day for the elimination of violence against women I believe this question has never been more vital. Can violence against women ever be eradicated if women are silenced and even blamed for the violence they have experienced at the hands of men?

Working in a Specialist Trauma Service at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, the vast majority of women we see have been subjected to violence in the context of an attachment relationship, i.e. their intimate partner or a close family member. This presents the female survivor with a profound psychological dilemma: the violence is terrifying, but how do you respond when it is coming from someone you love and need? For example, if we consider a girl who is sexually abused by her father over a period of several years, we see she is in a position of helplessness and disempowerment, often groomed into a belief that this secret violence is her shame to bear. Escaping is not an option, practically or emotionally, and so denial and dissociation may be the only way to cope with this horrific reality.

Psychologist Jennifer Freyd describes this as ‘betrayal trauma’. To survive, the child dissociates from the reality of the abuse, ignoring the betrayal and pain of what is happening in order to remain connected to the person who provides for them and has authority over them. This dissociation from the abuse also prevents the natural survival responses of withdrawal and confrontation (which would most likely risk an escalation of the abuse anyway). Similar mechanisms may occur with a woman who is experiencing domestic violence. She may dissociate from the abuse whilst it is happening, and forget details of the event or even the entire event.

Dissociation is often described as the defence mechanism that allows for an escape where there is no escape. It often occurs at moments of extreme terror when the bodily responses of fight or flight are not possible, and the freeze response then occurs. The woman detaches herself from the experience and compartmentalises it within her mind to keep the abuse away from her conscious awareness, where the pain would be unmanageable. In the short term this enables the woman to survive, but in the long term it leads to many problems. Unprocessed trauma is played out in the body in the form of physical symptoms: as Bessel van der Kolk famously observed, ‘the body keeps the score’.

For women to heal from the violence they’ve suffered, they must be allowed to move the trauma from their bodies and into to their minds. This is part of the therapeutic healing, to give words to the unthinkable and to share this with another. What June suggests is that therapy and healing are not enough. Violence against women and girls is part of an oppressive patriarchal system that needs to be challenged.

Psychoanalyst Beverley Stoute describes ‘Black Rage’ as a form of righteous, indignant rage that is an appropriate response to racial oppression. It allows the survivor to preserve dignity and self-worth and can reduce the impact of the trauma.

On this day, perhaps it is time for ‘Women’s Rage’. Violence against women and girls will not end until society feels this rage and addresses the systemic and pervasive misogyny that perpetuates the violence. Denial and disavowal of the stark reality of child sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual violence and indeed all forms of gender-based violence must be challenged.

We have seen glimpses of this in the setting up of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and their Truth Project, in the powerful protests following the death of Sarah Everard, and in the growing acknowledgement of men’s violence towards women within society. There remains much to be done. Women’s rage needs to be felt by all members of society to challenge the oppression, to offer services that are truly trauma-informed and empowering, and to change society so that an international day for the elimination of violence towards women and girls is no longer necessary.

Dr Jo Stubley is a Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy and Head of the Adult Trauma Service at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust 

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