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

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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.

jpegThe fifteenth season of Law and Order: SVU, a show that I’ve watched most of my adult life, and even cite as part of my rape recovery, has gone beyond its comfortably predictable forty-two minutes of justice served. As the “Save Benson” saga played out, we saw her brutal revenge fantasy beating of Lewis, the development of her therapeutic relationship, and her subsequent lie under oath, forcing viewers to more closely examine the complexities of justice served when it comes to trauma.  We watch as Benson, already diagnosed with PTSD from a previous assault while undercover, struggles with her identity as a survivor, and how her victimhood comes to define who she is to the people she cares about.

In the early-season episode “Wonderland,” Benson chats with a young rape survivor in the park, confiding to her that she herself has been assaulted twice. “The hardest part is not beating myself up everyday for getting into that situation,” she says. As an act of reassurance, Benson tells the young woman that believing yourself at fault is a feeling not a fact, and that her therapist has taught her to change her daily routine, do things that make her happy, and that focusing on the good in life, the positive things, can shake negative emotions and patterns.

“And that works for you?” the young woman asks her.

“Some days. It’s a process. Little steps. They add up,” Benson replies, and we are left feeling unsure if she believes it herself.

When we were finished with our first session the psychiatrist printed off a “Sleep Hygiene” pamphlet for me to assist with my inability to rest. It was an absurd little document, telling me not to “take my worries to bed,” and to ensure that there are no lights or television on when it’s time for sleep. Such advice is useless to me as I have long had a hard time sleeping in the dark, and have a desperate need to watch crime shows, namely Law and Order, in any hope of dozing off. I ended up tossing the pamphlet in the garbage on my way out of the hospital.

I go back to see the doctor the following week for only a half an hour, making it two in total that we have spent together. It amazes me that you can spend such a short amount of time with a stranger and they can redirect your life so dramatically, labeling you with a disorder and dictating your course of action. In our final meeting he has a few clarifying questions, most of which seem inconsequential, and then coldly informs me I have rape-related post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD. I haven’t cried the entire time I have spent with him but as soon as the diagnosis leaves his mouth I do.

“Can I ask you why you’re crying?” he says, again uncomfortable, pushing a box of Kleenex in my direction.

“I thought it would make me feel better.”

“The diagnosis?”

“Yes, I thought it would explain everything. That I would find comfort in it. But I don’t.”

Before the final verdict against William Lewis is read aloud, the jury forewoman informs the judge that “many of us have serious reservations about the conduct of detective Benson that we’re unsure how to address.”  Lewis is then found guilty of assaulting and kidnapping a police officer, but not of attempted rape and murder. Regardless, Benson’s lie ensures that Lewis faces the maximum of 25 years to life. She asks her colleagues for a minute, retreating into a stairwell by herself where she cries—first out of relief, and then out of despair.

I know that cry. I have done that cry. It’s the cry you do when you know there is no victory for anyone.

Any rape survivor who has watched her rapist live out his life in relative bliss, while hers is a wreckage of fear and mistrust, will tell you that justice is a fiction we all consent to. While she struggles through the slow tedium of recovery others live in willful ignorance, believing that some sort of redemption is possible. The survivor lives a life redefined by the actions of another—every victory against him, every loss endured in his shadow. Like Alice Sebold writes in her memoir of sexual assault, Lucky, “I share my life with my rapist. He is husband to my fate”

20110814_206_10mariskahargitayOn the January 15th episode of Law and Order: SVU, Olivia Benson became captain. At the conclusion of the episode “Amaro’s One-Eighty,” Donald Cragan relays his retirement to the team, and announces Benson is ready to lead, a comment on her capabilities despite what she has endured.

“Take care of yourself,” he says to her privately. “You deserve it.” After he leaves her in the office that is now hers, the final shot of her expression suggests an acknowledgment of his advice, advice that harkens back to the ideas shared in a rape counselor’s office—that those who experience victimization can really only rely on the care they give themselves to endure. That is the only success, the only victory that can be garnered.

This season of SVU is a departure from its usual formulaic narrative because it acknowledges a difficult truth for a show quite literally founded on the validity of a “system of justice.” It acknowledges that the forty-two minutes to closure I relied on to get me through is actually just fictional comfort, an escapist lie. When your life is upended by sexualized violence there is no external justice possible—only a slow, groping, desperate attempt to stay alive. It is a process governed only by the timelines and the strength of the victim herself.

It is the little steps, adding up.

Stacey May Fowles is a novelist and essayist whose bylines include The Walrus, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, Elle Canada, The Toast, Deadspin, Rookie, and Hazlitt. Her latest novel, Infidelity, is currently out with ECW Press and was named an Amazon best book of the year.

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