When I was fifteen years old, I was violently raped by a grown man with a knife in an abandoned toilet in a Sydney fast-food restaurant. I thought I would die that night.
But I didn’t die. I smashed a bottle over a toilet bowl to startle my attacker and I unlatched the door of the stall and I ran away. I ran and I ran and I ran. All I can remember is running. Down several flights of stairs, outside the restaurant, away, and away, and away.
I ran the shower hot and stood underneath it for a period of time that wore on endlessly. I was bleeding onto the floor of the shower and watching the blood drain away, hoping I could erase the memory of the rape with it. But it doesn’t work like that.
After ten years of silence, I decided to write about my rape. I wrote a piece for the ABC and for the Lifted Brow, which turned into a book deal, which turned into two books. It turned into two books because the first one was only about my rape, but it made me realise something much bigger about violence and shame.
I sat down each day trying to excavate my life, trying to pinpoint all the different ways this act of violence had impacted me. But there was a problem: the book had to be about the rape and its aftermath, it had to have boundaries. It had to be confined to that.
But the more I read and thought, the more I realised the rape was the tip of the iceberg. It was merely the most accessible – the most obvious – violation in a long story of intrusions, physical and emotional and psychological and familial and interpersonal, that make up one life in the body of a woman.
So here’s what I want next from #MeToo. I want to move on from the men we call monsters and start talking about the greyer space. The smaller acts of shame transmission. The ones we cannot pinpoint because they do not have a beginning or an end: a jury’s verdict, a healed bruise. They are just moments. They come and they go, and we think they don’t hurt us, but they do.
I want to move on from the men we call monsters because I am tired of talking about them. I want to talk about us.
I want to talk about the moments after the shame transmission, the whole life that is lived afterwards, and how all the other shame transmissions cumulate until we become a false version of ourselves, a hidden self.
I want to connect the emotionally abusive boyfriend that we make excuses for to the boy who came before him who was too pushy at the party and to the Tuesday morning wolf-whistler who came after. I want us to understand that carrying other people’s shame affects a whole life.
I want us to keep watching the woman after the bad thing happens, after the secret has been locked away. I want us to see how it keeps affecting her even though she wishes it wouldn’t. I want to connect the rape to the illness to the aggressive Hinge date to the screaming argument with a man you thought you were safe with.
Because once we do that, once we focus on the lives we live afterwards, we will be able to understand one very important thing that we are currently missing. It is not just the monsters who hurt us.
Once you look at the lives afterwards, you see that something can be only half-nasty, can be an accident, can be nothing more sinister that a man projecting what he has learned back out into the world, can be thoughtless. And it can still be ruinous. Those two things can be true at the same time.
In Healing the Shame that Binds You, psychologist John Bradshaw says that when our lives get overtaken by chronic shame, we create a ‘false self’ to present to the world, one that we think is worthy.
Every story in my new book, My Body Keeps Your Secrets, is about how we learned the value of the false self, how we unlearned it, and the price we paid trying to attain it.
As the false self is formed, Bradshaw says, the authentic self goes into hiding. The false self is a masterpiece. Because the false self is an act of overcompensation for a part of us we believe to be damaged, he says, it is always more-than-human or less-than-human. ‘It is crucial to see that the false self may be as polar opposite as a super-achieving perfectionist or an addict in an alley.’
I’ve always thought I had to prove something in order to make my suffering valid. Had to prove that the man in the toilets knew he had raped me, prove that he had planned it. That my gymnastics mentor knew I was too young for what we were doing. But I don’t have to prove any of those things. None of us do. We just have to accept the damage that has been done to us by structural shame, the cumulative impact of every shame transmission, and allow ourselves space to let go of the false self, to take some time to rest. Then we can take it apart, piece by piece, once we inhabit our own lives, our real selves, again.
We now all know about Harvey Weinstein. We have imprisoned him both as a man and as a symbol. Sexual assault is now punishable in the world we live in. That is an incalculable victory. I am so indebted to the women who made that happen.
But here’s what I want to do next. I want to tackle the harms that are harder to pin down. Our movement has campaigned on, and won on, the idea of personal accountability. I want to challenge it to do the same for systemic accountability. For all the days we wake up hating ourselves and do not know why. For the times when there is not a convenient figurehead to throw our spears at.
We are more reluctant to do this work because it is harder to find someone to blame. Everyone is responsible, so no one is. But I want this to be the next mountain we climb.
Just like our bodies and our minds, our illnesses and our emotions, oppression is not a personal act. It is a work of structural violence. Everybody is responsible. Everybody who perpetuates shame – and that is all of us – must now work to tame it. We must do that because then everybody who lives in shame will be able to ask: which parts of myself have I buried in order to survive? Who would I be if I were not a false self?
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist, essayist, writer, and legal researcher. Her new book, My Body Keeps Your Secrets, is out now.