November 17, 2013. The day I became a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault. I will never forget that night—the cold November air in State College, Pennsylvania; the dozens of missed phone calls from my friends and family members; the overwhelming feeling of helplessness as I sat at my kitchen table and gave my statement to the police. The day that I added “victim” to the long list of words I used to describe myself aside from law student, daughter, sister, and friend.
I was a first year law student that year. I graduated months earlier Summa Cum Laude with an English major, two minors, and a hefty scholarship to law school. I came from a well-known family; my father, a doctor in a small town. There was no spot on my record, or reputation.
He was a senior in college that year. He majored in Engineering, and had a job offer right after graduation. He came from a respected family; his mother a revered businesswoman. We were a match made in heaven—or so I desperately wanted to believe in him.
As it turns out, there were spots on his reputation, and incidents of prior abuse that were unknown to me, because of the simple fact that I graduated from the area’s prep school, and he from public school. I had no way of hearing about his reputation being brought up in such a different area.
The days and weeks after that night remain to be a bit of a blur, as if I stood on the outside of my body and watched myself go through the seemingly endless motions of interviews with police officers, detectives, counselors, and university officials. But one feeling has, and will, always remain clear: the heavy burden of blame that I carried around with me, and how adamantly I felt that there was no one on the planet who would ever understand how it felt to be the girl who found herself in a situation that “people like you shouldn’t have found yourself in.”
The victim-blaming came first in non-obvious forms. I was asked to give information about myself, and “first year law student” became noted in my file. The reactions ranged from “Wow,” to “Don’t you study this in school?” to “I bet you never thought you would find yourself here.” Each time, each phrase, striked my already fractured self-image and confusion about how my abuse affected me as a human being.
These moments occurred more frequently, and more severely, when I re-emerged back into law school, being around people who had less exposure and sensitivity towards victims of gender-based violence. I will never forget exiting my Civil Procedure class, the first class I returned to, and a male student looking at me and saying, “Hey Morgan, I heard about what happened. Sorry to hear that. Here’s a joke for you: What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing! She already learned her lesson,” and his billowing laugh as I felt the strength I had mustered to come to class that day shatter.
It occurred, and continues to occur, from people who I haven’t explained the dynamic of gender-based violence to—those who remain uneducated, uncompassionate, and those who most easily point the finger. It is these people who desperately need the understanding that we should empathize with our fellow human who experiences pain, even if it is a pain we have not personally known.
The truth is, I had no idea how prevalent, harmful, and degrading victim-blaming is until I experienced it for myself. The fact that I needed this experience to understand the phenomenon reflects on a larger scale the societal distance between victims and non-victims. In the days, weeks, months, and now nearly two years since the night I was attacked, I have experienced countless incidences of victim-blaming. It is true that with each experience my shell hardens more, but the principle remains the same: we live in a society that if we don’t understand pain, we critique it.
The cliché goes that you need to “walk a mile in my shoes,” and it was through my experience as a victim that I truly understood how victims of gender-based violence struggle with that simple cliché. As a society, we don’t want to believe that some people who commit domestic violence and sexual assault crimes are well-respected members of society; they are our mentors, celebrities, coaches, family members, friends, and people we view as “good.” Because of this, we are more likely to point blame toward the victim—because they must have done something to bring out a side or action from these people. We believe that people are good, and are generally incapable of harboring such animalistic tendencies; we believe this so much that we blame the victim instead.
And for the all-important question: Why? Because it is easier for us to believe that a lie comes from a victim’s mouth, than the truth that abuse occurred. And that is where our society’s first issue with gender-based violence begins. It took me becoming a victim to recognize this, and it is our role as activists, advocates, feminists and humans to also recognize this and stop this cycle.
Guest contribution by Anonymous