In some sense, all of the history of religion and philosophy is a protracted exercise in victim-blaming. In literature, in poetry, in art and in science, we seek to answer what may very well be the fundamental question of the human condition: Why do bad things happen to good people? We seek explanation. For tragedy, for pain, for death, for confusion. We seek to make some sense of what seems otherwise to be senseless. And, in explaining and making sense, we think we can solve it. Prevent it from happening. Insulate ourselves. Shield us from harm.
Because of feminism, I have mostly given up that project. There isn’t a reason. There are reasons why people do terrible things, but there are no reasons why people have terrible things done to them. The entire enterprise is premised on notions I reject, such that there are such things as good people and bad people. I don’t believe in evil; I never have. People are mostly good, and they make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are more serious than others.
But I have yet to give up that project on my own life. Instead, I find myself wondering: Why am I the way I am? I can’t stop analyzing, searching, thinking, remembering, asking until I feel I have found an answer that seems sufficient. I came across this in a painful way several months ago when I was interviewing for a job I desperately wanted (and later got), when I prepared for the interview by first considering the first question one is asked in any public service job interview: “Why do you want to do this work?” For years, I had been giving answers that were pat, almost tautological: “Well, I’ve been interested in prisoners’ rights for several years now, and this is where I’ve focused the bulk of my career…” Okay, sure, but why? When I dug beneath the tautologies, I found something surprising there. Something I didn’t understand, and didn’t expect.
I don’t know.
The truth is, the thought of the government mistreating people who are locked up against their will, or holding people without cause, whether they’re alleged terrorists or common criminals or people with mental illness or mental retardation, fills me with a seething rage. I don’t know where that rage comes from. I’ve never been locked up, nor have any of the people I’m closest to. I don’t come from a community where incarceration and detention are the norm. But I feel moved to action by even the slightest injustice. I feel compelled to fight back against government authority, to hold it to the minimum exercise of governmental force allowed by the law, and no more — and, if the law itself is unjust, to fight against it. Sometimes, when I think about the compulsion I feel to do this work, it feels almost like something about me is not totally under my control.
Which is why I was taken aback and left in tears after reading Jessica Stern’s op-ed in the Washington Post a few days ago, where she reflects on her career as a counterterrorism expert:
I did not believe it. I knew about PTSD from working with soldiers, and I could not imagine that my own life experience would result in similar symptoms. I had long ago brushed the memory of my rape aside; I thought I had “moved on.” I wanted to contribute to society rather than remain stuck in the past, cringing in terror.
And yet, terror had become my central preoccupation. I felt compelled to understand the deeper motivations of those who hurt others. Instead of feeling terror, I studied it.
Ironically enough, reading an article about someone else’s fascination with terror caused me to feel a little terror of my own. What if this explained it all? What if my fascination with detention and corrections, and compulsion to fight for people who are locked up, was all a complicated outgrowth of my history of trauma? I was harassed almost every day as a teenager, groped, assaulted, and in my late teens and early twenties raped repeatedly by a boyfriend. I was surrounded by people who had done bad things to me. But instead of being repulsed by criminals, rapists, terrorists, I identify with them. Because, just like women are the sex class, to be the recipient, the dumping-ground for male aggression, men of color and especially mentally ill men of color are the dumping ground for white male authoritarian state-sanctioned violence.
I thought, maybe this is my healing. I can’t undo what was done to me. I can, however, stop the state from inflicting pain and injustice on people who are on the lowest rung of our bogus humanity-ladder, forgotten by everyone and championed by no one. Even those people, even them, they do not deserve wanton pain and suffering. Maybe by doing this, I establish my firmest principle: that there is no reason in tragedy, no blame appropriate to explain ill fate — that the entire enterprise of deciding how pain and suffering are meted out according to some invented and constantly-shifting scale of goodness, is wrong.
But no. Just, no. I am not a slave to trauma. I am grown. I have chosen this. Because sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for why people do the things they do, and giving even one of the people who hurt me the power to determine my life is too much already. I respect what Jessica Stern has to say about the healing that understanding her PTSD has brought her. But I can’t forget that feminism taught me that there isn’t always a reason. I don’t do this work because I am damaged and trying to avenge some other injustice. I do it because this is who I am: I identify with the underdog. I am motivated by challenge; the harder and more intractable a problem seems, the more I want to solve it. It may be comforting to think that there are reasons for the choices we make, but we also have to embrace that there is chaos.
I am not pre-determined. I have autonomy, and I chose this road. And I will choose to choose, and not be chosen.