“The Truth Is Embarrassing”: Olivia Benson and the Timeline of Trauma

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This post brought to you by Heath, a reader.

On a Saturday afternoon last summer I went to a theatre performance with a male friend of mine. After the show, we wandered to a bar down the street, where I proceeded to drink more than a few cocktails. My friend, who does not drink himself, had to explain to me what happened after I had paid the bill. When I awoke the next morning, I didn’t remember how we got home, didn’t remember hailing, directing, or paying the cab driver, didn’t remember saying goodbye to him or walking into my house. I assumed it was a black out, and although my companion assured me I “seemed fine,” the hole in my memory concerned me enough to bring it to my rape counselor, a woman at a local hospital I had been seeing for just over a year.

“I understand your concern,” she told me. “But you are ignoring an important part of the narrative. You felt safe enough to go out. You felt safe enough to be vulnerable around this man. In my mind, this is a victory.”

Harm reduction and careful reassurances are the general tone of most rape counseling sessions I attend. I usually walk in to that office assuming I am failing and floundering, that the people in my life deem me helpless, and she assures me I am making progress where I see none. My sessions at the hospital are a place where “trauma has no timeline”—the expectations to be “better” radically shifted from the world outside. I am told that the tiniest of steps I am taking to be free of the hold of my attacker, even afternoon cocktails in public, are actually monumental for someone who suffers the hyper-vigilance and fear that can follow in the years after sexual assault.

In the recent episode of Law and Order: SVU “Psycho/Therapist,” detective Olivia Benson is seen getting the same brand of reassurance from her therapist. Currently in recovery after being kidnapped and tortured by William Lewis, a sadistic serial rapist now on trial for the crime, Benson is preparing herself for court. In classic Dick Wolf style, Lewis is representing himself, meaning the victim must literally face her attacker on the stand. She is doing so haunted by the knowledge that at the end of her ordeal, after four days of being threatened with rape, bound, gagged, burned, beaten, drugged, and forced to drink into compliance, she was able to get free, subsequently restrain him, and beat him to near death with a metal bed post. That scene, occurring in the first episode of the 15th season, is the stuff of rape victim fantasy.

When you start any form of therapy, you’re often informed that everything you say is confidential—barring a threat to harm yourself or someone else. My rape counselor told me in our first session that although that was true, she understood the validity of the fantasy to harm your attacker as part of healing, that the thought did not equal intent. She told me stories of women who talked about castrating their rapists, of him dying in a fire, of him being hit by a bus, of him being beaten with a baseball bat. In the context of rape therapy, these terrifying desires are gratefully normalized as part of the process. In that episode of SVU, Benson plays out a revenge fantasy for survivors in all its brutal, conflicted, gasping glory.

“So when I beat a handcuffed man nearly to death, I was just projecting my anger? And that makes it okay to lie about it? Under oath?” she asks her therapist.

“I hear you, Olivia. Here’s a question for you. Could you live with yourself knowing that you helped Lewis to go free?”

NUP_159325_0257  SVU Law & Order svu pyscho therapist pable schreiber mariska hargitayThe following scene where Benson faces Lewis on the stand is every rape victim’s worst nightmare, and in many ways SVU’s ultimate opus on rape culture. What occurs during his interrogation of her and her behaviour is the exact reason we don’t report, the reason we don’t tell our friends and family what has happened to us. He asks her if she’s married or if she has children. He speaks of her poor relationship to intimacy. He accuses her of having her worldview narrowed to victims and rapists as a result of her job. He cites her social isolation, her long-term submersion and sexual assaults, that her colleagues were worried about her, and that she was told to take time off. He dismisses the possibility of her claim that she froze when he entered her apartment. He states repeatedly that there was no penetration, suggesting it is proof that there was no crime. He claims she has rape fantasies. When the scene reaches its climax, he foams at the mouth, aggressively accusing Benson of being a liar, of inviting him into her home, of wanting it, of seducing him, of begging for it, saying she acted seductively and now she is retaliating out of professional and personal regret.

“The truth is embarrassing,” he says. “That you an experienced, lonely SVU detective, consumed by her work, became sexually obsessed with a man you believed to be a rapist.”

In rape recovery you quickly learn that no one will ever provide you with justice. Even if you decide to pursue it legally, there is no result that will act as a salve on the violation you’ve felt, that will repair how the incident has upended your life. Proving someone’s guilt will not give you back the years of your life destroyed by that endless fear and mistrust, how you were forced to reconstruct your life in order to survive what others do with ease. It will not alleviate the doubt you have, that the world has given you with its constant questioning of the validity of rape claims. When Benson lies under oath it is an acknowledgment of the fact Lewis, a man who sexually tortured an elderly woman in her apartment for over eighteen hours, will never face the kind of suffering he’s inflicted.

So she lies. After being repeatedly battered and humiliated on the stand, accused of being sexually interested in this sadistic rapist, she lies.

“You had broken free of your restraints. And I did what I had to do to subdue you,” she says.

***

Last fall I spent two hours with a psychiatrist I was referred to by my rape counselor. I sat on a small grey couch across from him where he was at his desk, watching him diligently take notes even before I started speaking. I learned later that he was writing a detailed description of my appearance, noting that I was “casually yet appropriately dressed,” and for reasons I’ll never understand, observing that my nails were painted and well maintained. Apparently it is details like these that reassured him I was neither suicidal nor homicidal.

The doctor seemed nervous speaking with me, barely making eye contact during our time together. Most of his questions were innocuous—whether or not I’m married (yes) or have children (no), and what I do for a living. He asked me about my parents, my upbringing, whether or not it was “normal” which I assured him it was. Thankfully, the doctor didn’t ask me any specifics about the sexual assaults I’ve endured, just for a general overview of dates to fit on his timeline of my life. He wanted to know if every incident was with an acquaintance, which it was, and what sort of mental illness issues I dealt with after each one.  As if speaking about someone else, I detailed in cold terms the severe generalized anxiety disorder I developed in my twenties, and the symptoms that had carried into my thirties.

Once his timeline was complete he queried my symptoms, a process that brought me both comfort and terrified me, and I watched as a textbook diagnosis of PTSD began to take shape through my answers. The dreams, insomnia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, hypochondria, panic attacks all detailed as he worked down the checklist in front of him.

“Do you see your rapist even when he’s not there?”

Everywhere. Every day.

***

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