I knew safety was the first step towards healing after trauma. But I had thought that simply meant pushing my assailants out of my life and locking the door behind them. Done.
I hadn’t understood that was only the beginning of the beginning. Safety is not achieved by the absence of the perpetrator. Safety is not a negative state but rather an additive one.
As Dr. Judith Herman writes in Trauma and Recovery, the first stage requires a safe environment as well as control over the body. Which meant, as well, control over my mind and its constant, frantic terror.
* * *
The first obstacle to that was men looking at my body.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk documents in his book The Body Keeps the Score that trauma survivors generally struggle with being looked at. Brain scans have revealed that when survivors become aware that strangers are looking at them, their brains activate the most primitive emotional centers rather than “any part of the brain involved in social engagement… In response to being looked at, [survivors] simply went into survival mode.”
For me, this was intensified due to the number of assaults I had experienced and the role of gender in each attack. Each assault had been preceded by the male gaze. And the male gaze can be terrifying because it is not simply a man looking—it is the whole of Western culture. What men look at and how they perceive what they see, often through the lenses of ego and desire, has defined painting, photography, theater, dance, literature, and cinema for centuries. It has shaped our history of imperialism and slavery, of law and science and economics.
Above all else, the male gaze objectifies. It renders a body into not a person but a territory. And territories can be conquered. They can be colonized.
A territory can become a property.
It can be put in one’s name.
Especially if anything about that body and the person who inhabits it challenges the man’s view of himself. For the male gaze, also, is self-referential. It cannot look at anything without seeing itself first. How does this body make me feel?
And while we like to tell ourselves that the male gaze is always directed towards beauty and sexuality, it isn’t. The male gaze had objectified and targeted me no matter what I wore or how I looked. Before one assault, I had worn my hair buzz cut. I was significantly underweight, bony and dressed in a T-shirt and boy’s shorts that covered my knees. Before another, I had dressed in a winter sweater and jeans. Before another still, my hair was down to my waist, and I was wearing a blouse worthy of a 40-year-old, an ankle-length skirt, pantyhose, and loafers.
Society had told me that surely, I had done something to invite the male gaze.
And I had. I had been born. As a female, my very existence was an invitation to the male gaze. And once you are looked at as a woman, you will be scrutinized and assessed, measured and studied like a lab specimen. And whatever the viewer feels, whether self-contempt or raging desire, the viewer believes the objectified body is the origin of that feeling. Thus, it is the body that must be snuffed out or answered.
Never the feeling itself within the viewer.
Before each assault, a man had looked at me, and that was all it took to render me a target. An object, instead of the subject of my own life.
The same night Nathan strangled me, he staggered over minutes after John punched him. I was desperately looking for my shoes on the lawn so that I would never have to return to the terrace. “Why did you do that?” He demanded as I backed away from him. His voice cracked. Tears wetted his face. “That wasn’t nice,” he said. “I thought you were a cool person.”
I could only stare. He had nearly suffocated me twice, yet I was the one who wasn’t nice. Because what? I was supposed to let him choke me until I passed out?
But my experience of his attack had never even crossed his mind. Before each assault, a man had looked at me and decided that I could be conquered or that I needed to be. Why me, I’ll never know. You’d have to ask them, and I doubt they could tell you, either.
* * *
“How do you still experience your body as your body, the dance as the dance, when confronted with the objectification of the male gaze? How do you wrestle with that? And can you win?”
It was a selfish question. Quite possibly, a cruel question to ask a professional dancer and choreographer. But I needed to know.
The choreographer, Amy O’Neal, had been my dance instructor for over a year. So this wasn’t the first time I’d stuck her with an unanswerable question. She grinned and pretended to stumble backwards like I had just bowled her over. “Wow,” she said. The audience laughed. “I’m going to have to think about that.”
I was in an art gallery after-hours for a Q&A. Amy is a Seattle choreographer with an emphasis on Street and Club Dance as well as contemporary. I had seen a couple of her performances by then and had been profoundly shaken by them. She rolled around on the ground. She popped and locked. She ran her hands over her own body. I knew many audience members would experience it as sexual. But it was something else, too.
It looked like empowerment. A physically strong woman demonstrating total control over her own body. And completely and publicly enjoying that body.
To me, seeing Amy onstage was the physical manifestation of what I wanted for myself.
And not the refuge of invisibility and silence. But the refuge of standing in public spaces, claiming my body for myself, and celebrating that. Loudly. Defiantly. Joyously.
* * *
I was in a warm sun-filled dance studio with exposed brick walls, sitting in a circle of dancers before Strictly Seattle, Velocity Dance Center’s annual event where dancers perform in pieces by local choreographers. This was a chance to work intensely with Amy and a dozen other dancers for three weeks. I hoped to learn some of her strength, her joy, her fearless approach to her own fears.
But it had been only three weeks since the last assault.
It was difficult to be touched. During one exercise, I shut my eyes and let another dancer take my hands and guide me around the studio. I did what I always do when I’m terrified. I smiled blankly and went stiff as a chair leg.
Sharp-eyed and perceptive, Amy noticed.
She said, “We’ve got to get you more comfortable.” And she locked her arms around me and lifted me off the floor and pulled me around the studio.
At first, I went limp. But my decision to fight off Nathan had changed my brain. I now knew I could choose how to respond to physical contact. I could practice distinguishing between danger and safety.
And just like that, I was in my body. I felt the sticky warmth of our skin touching. The oppressive heat of a brick dance studio in July. I squinted at the slant of sun through the window, gleaming gold over Cal Anderson Park. And then I growled. Somewhere deep in my throat, I growled, and I shoved her back, and Amy laughed.
I pushed her across the floor, throwing all my weight against her, and she told me yes, and I began laughing, too. “See?” She said. “You’re fine.”
I wasn’t yet. But I could tell I was going to be.
* * *
By the end of those three weeks, I had indeed found something.
Exposure therapy isn’t for everyone. But for me, it was a beginning. Velocity Dance Center that summer was one of the safest spaces I have ever found.
In our last week of rehearsals, one of the most experienced dancers, Leah, led us through an exercise that inched us closer and closer together until we all collided in slow-motion, a tangle of arms and legs and shoulders slick with sweat. As we swayed in a knot of bodies, some of us weaving through more tightly still, I laughed from the awkwardness. But also the joy.
I was still stiff and nervous. But my panic was gone.
* * *
I don’t know if in a racist, sexist, homophobic society, those who have experienced violence because of their identity can ever feel truly safe.
I had learned that no one was going to stop an assault. Even when the boys at Webb had seen Nathan’s assault and identified it for what it was, they still didn’t intervene. If a man strangled me, I was on my own.
It is hard to feel safe when assault is invisible to so many people, and not worth the trouble to the rest.
The best I can do, for now, is to establish pockets of safety. Those pockets are small and select because I have learned they have to be. And since chronic illness, they are fewer in number.
But they are there.
And for me, that is enough. Maybe my bar is too low. I rarely experienced safety as a child. As a woman surrounded by misogynist men, it became unattainable.
But knowing safety exists and being able to recognize it in my body made it possible for those first seeds of post-traumatic growth to sprout.