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SafeHouse Center SPEAKS OUT
Giving a voice to our survivors and advocates.

Why didn’t she?

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

By Susan Young, survivor

Photo by Joyce Dias from Pexels

Why did she wait so long to come forward with her story of domestic violence or sexual assault? Why didn’t she say something sooner? No survivor, advocate, or mental health professional has ever asked such questions. Why? Because we know why. We understand the complex reasons that influence how and when survivors can speak of their traumas. The intricate web of physical, practical, and psychological factors all have one element in common. Survival. 

Psychologists, neurobiologists, advocates, and victims have written hundreds of articles about why survivors don’t—or can’t—come forward immediately. Google it. Really. The topic has been covered from every conceivable angle— our victim-blaming culture to the neurobiology of trauma, our biased judicial system to the ways that PTSD and Complex PTSD manifest in our lives. And yet the questions persist. 

Let’s set aside the scientific facts about trauma’s effects on the mind and body. Let’s set aside legal, financial, and safety factors and focus on the power and implications of three words. Why did you or Why didn’t you. In any context, this is a challenge—an invitation to justify behaviors and decisions. In the context of disclosing abuse, it implies failure on the part of the victim—a botched opportunity for a timely believable claim. 

At times, people blurt out this question with good intention but little forethought. Any vague attempt at support is negated by suggesting they would have handled the situation differently— specifically, better. To victims, this vague misguided attempt at empathy feels like judgment. The truth is that any speculation about one’s response to unexperienced trauma is just that — pure speculation. Other times, specific implications are intentional. The power lies in the unspoken words. 

If this really happened, why didn’t you say something sooner?

If it was as bad as you say, why did you wait to come forward?

With one question, a non-witness challenges the survivor’s integrity, credibility, and motivations. We see this played out every day in the news. In cases of sexual—What were you wearing? How many drinks did you have? Just this April, the courts suspended a New Jersey Judge for asking a victim of sexual assault if she’d tried to close her legs during the attack. In cases of domestic violence,—Why didn’t you leave? 

All survivors grapple with feelings of shame and guilt. By sharing our stories, we knowingly expose ourselves to potential scrutiny, disbelief, criticism, and blame, which is terrifying. To speak up, to seek help, is an admission of vulnerability, and in our experience—validated by headlines around the world—vulnerability equals pain. 

Instinctively, brilliantly, we protect ourselves from additional pain. We remain silent. Domestic violence and sexual assault have long been a shushed topic, a norm that our misogynistic patriarchal society works to perpetuate. The #metoo movement is changing this. Rising voices are empowering women around the globe to come forward with their stories. Social media has provided a platform for all survivors—in or out of an abusive relationship—to speak, share, listen, learn, inspire, and find support in a global community of shared experience. Women (and men) are coming forward in record numbers, many from long past but unresolved traumas. We are breaking the silence. 

It took me 24 years to discuss the seven-year emotionally/physically abusive relationship I experienced as a young adult. Only when I could no longer deny the trajectory of my life towards death, did I find the strength to get out. I moved to another state for a fresh start and put it all behind me. I was fine, I told myself, but time and distance can hold trauma at bay for only so long before symptoms like anxiety, depression, panic, repeated patterns, and addictions take over and demand attention. When I found myself, two-plus decades later, on a steadfast course into alcohol-fueled self-destruction, I sought answers first in the safe personal space of books. Reading memoirs like Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (Sarah Hepola) and Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (Karen Zailckas), buckled my knees with resonance. I wasn’t alone. 

My experience in the mid- 80s was pre-internet, pre-social media, and pre #metoo movement. I had no idea what had happened to me. In 2015, one tentative google search “emotional abuse?” changed everything. A vast new vocabulary of terms and psychological tactics allowed me to revisit my history with a crystallizing filter. For the first time, I understood I hadn’t merely dated a jerk; I’d experienced significant long-term trauma and realized that to process my pain and heal properly, I needed help. Four years into therapy (and sobriety), and I’m still hard at work. 

There are millions of women like me. Women who want— need to end their silence. Acknowledge pain. Share stories. Find community. Inspire. Educate. Whether you experienced trauma forty years ago, last week, yesterday, or are suffering at this moment, celebrate survival. 

As Reema Zaman says in her new critically acclaimed memoir, “To speak is a revolution. It is time” (I Am Yours, 2019).

It takes incredible strength to speak up. You’ll know when the time is right for you.


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