In our book, A Womb of Her Own, (Routledge, 2017) Kristin Davisson discusses her findings in regard to women who have witnessed the rape of a close friend or family member. The witness may experience feelings of guilt and responsibility as well as shock at the occurrence because the victim was perceived as being a “strong woman.”
Davisson writes as follows:
Feelings of responsibility and helplessness. Feelings of helplessness were referenced almost universally in the sample. Helplessness is noted in the literature as a central facet of trauma, relating to a felt loss of control, powerlessness, fear of annihilation or surrender (as cited in Herman, 1992). For women who did not respond to their helplessness with feelings of anger, it was common for them to reference personal feelings of responsibility for their friend’s assault. Approximately 50% of the sample noted some variation of feeling accountable for their friend’s assault. These women were less likely to reference conscious experiences of anger, and seemed to place blame on themselves. Three women reflected on this below:
I remember feeling like I could have done something, that I could have prevented it, that I should have known.
I wasn’t there. So I felt guilt for… I always feel like I’m always sort of a protector of people, so that fact that I didn’t go that night…there are thoughts of, “oh, If I’d have gone, I usually don’t drink, I could have kept my eye on her.” But I realize that’s a false sense of control really.
I felt like I should have been there for her- or doing something, but the whole time, I had no idea it was happening. I should have known. I feel like it was my fault.
Though only one woman connected her feelings of personal responsibility to a “false sense of control,” one wonders if feeling a sense of personal accountability might be a defense against intolerable experiences of helplessness. Not uncommonly, women described “keeping an eye on” the primary victims following the assault or increasing care-taking behaviors toward other women in their life. To this effect, one participant in her 40’s remarked:
I felt almost as if I was her mother and wasn’t there to help her. I have always been there for her…. I have a 10-year-old little cousin who is developing now. And the thought of her- I tell her everyday, “Don’t let nobody look at you. If you feel, you know, the way somebody’s looking at you and you don’t feel comfortable, scream, holler, fight.” I check on her all the time. Everyday.
In her case, a conviction to help another young woman avoid or protect herself from sexual violence consciously follows feeling in some way “not there” for the primary victim. This may suggest that increased hypervigilance and care-taking, while adaptive responses to feelings of helplessness brought on by the traumatic incident, are indicative of a “false” sense of control.
Strength of the Victim
Among the 13 women sampled, 8 (or 61%) talked about the strength of the female victim. Most commonly, this was voiced in conjunction with feelings of shock, surprise, or personal vulnerability. Often, participants remarked they “never expected” this could happen to a woman like their friend. Several participants reflected on this below:
She was always such a very goal-directed, strong, smart person- very athletic, always had lots of friends. I guess people always say this with violence, but I just didn’t see it happening to her. You know, she wasn’t the vulnerable type.
She is one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. Just hearing that could happen to her- a strong independent woman…was so impactful.
She is so strong on her own; I was left feeling more despair about it.
These responses reflect an interesting idea: the concept that personal strength, drive or autonomy may serve a protective quality for women (or enhance a self or other perception of safety) and that, when it comes to sexual assault, there is a specific reaction to this “quality” of a woman being overtaken. This begs the question, did participants feel the “strength” of their female friends was lost or “stolen” by virtue of their victimization?
Is strength overtaken by assault? In response to this very issue, 2 participants offered contrasting remarks. One woman, when discussing her friend’s rape inside a relationship commented, “She is still that strong girl…maybe wounded but strong.” Another participant said of her close friend who survived a gang rape, “She’s a very strong person and she projects herself very well and it made me very angry that someone would take that away from her.” The first participant notes the presence of her friend’s co-occurring strength and vulnerability; here we see the idea that a woman can be wounded and strong simultaneously. In the second participant’s remark, we see the discernment of loss, the idea that a woman’s strength can be “taken” from her. This loss of “strength” may occur literally through the act of sexual assault and/or symbolically through its scope and impact.
n our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Kristin Davisson describes the emotional responses of women who were witnesses to rape.
Women reported a range of emotional responses when asked to recall their initial reaction to their friend’s disclosure of sexual assault. Every woman interviewed (100%) reported initial reactions of shock, often (though not exclusively) tied to feelings of helplessness, anger, fear or guilt. One participant reported physical symptoms of nausea, vomiting and lack of appetite, lasting for several days. For many women, emotions tended to be clustered together, leading to feelings of confusion or conflict. One woman shared, “I was shocked. Pissed at him, but also at her. Angry that she hadn’t told me, angry that she let him to do that to her. Then I went from feeling angry to feeling guilty.” Like this participant, most women interviewed described experiencing a sequence of emotions. By far, the most common sequence was shockangerguilt, with approximately 60% of women reporting this succession of emotion. Most women reported that strong initial reactions subsided after several weeks, or sometimes months. A small number of women indicated that strong reactions of shock, anger, fear and/or helplessness remained present in their lives for years following the incident. The impact of these feelings was most strongly related to shifts in worldview, which will be discussed in a subsequent subsection.
Anger and guilt. Of the 10 women who reported feeling anger, 40% endorsed anger toward both the victim and the perpetrator. Most of the women in this category directed their most intense anger towards the perpetrator and described anger or frustration towards the victim for reasons of not sharing their assault sooner, not reporting the incident to law enforcement, or for “not fighting back.” Generally, anger in response to “not fighting back” or “staying in the situation” existed in the context of a victim-perpetrator long-term relationship. Reacting to this, one participant shared:
She always had healthy relationships in the past, so I just didn’t see it happening and then I just couldn’t understand, like “Why do you think this is acceptable? Are you in the twilight zone?” You know, it was like a feeling of helplessness, frustration, anger… and then you feel guilty because you’re mad at them. Then you tell yourself, “come-on, don’t punish the victim.”
Like this participant, most women who expressed anger towards the victim reported subsequent experiences of guilt. For many women, harboring anger towards the victim created cognitive dissonance and feelings of conflict or confusion. Some women noted their awareness of the frequency of sexual violence; two participants referenced the idea that there exist “myths” around rape. Correspondingly, their feelings of anger toward the victim appeared to feel “off limits” to them. In their case, guilt may be a result of “turning anger against the self,” a mechanism of defense whereby feelings of aggression are redirected towards oneself due to some aspect of unacceptability (White & Gilliland, 1975).
Of the remaining 6 participants who endorsed feelings of anger, half reported anger directed exclusively toward the perpetrator, and half spoke of anger directed toward the victim. Generally, anger towards the perpetrator also included some reference to “anger at the world” or “anger on behalf of all women.” Unlike anger towards the perpetrator himself (all perpetrators were reported to be men in this study), anger directed towards “the world” seemed not to be transient and was clearly connected to conscious feelings of helplessness, often leaving a lasting impact on women’s lives. Perhaps the most direct example of this (and most extreme) is evident in the following participant’s remark.
Three women got raped by where I live, from September to March, in the same block. And I think about that all the time. Like when I think of incidents like that, or if I’m walking home alone at night, I just feel really angry that I would have to… that patriarchy has placed a curfew on me for being a woman, and if I break that curfew, I suffer consequences of rape. And how I want to kill people. I want to kill a man. I get so angry, that I could kill a man if he approached me. Like instead of feeling afraid, I just feel angry.
I asked this woman if she had ever acted on these feelings, or felt close to acting on them. She responded, “No, I think in those situations, I feel completely helpless. Like I don’t have the strength to stand, let alone….” Notably, her friend’s experience of sexual violence occurred 4 years prior to the interview, ruling out initial shock as cause for her intensity. What appeared to be furious anger, rage even, was transformed (or gave way) to profound helplessness for this participant and was associated with multiple elevations on the Inventory of Altered Self-Capacities (IASC). Similarly, other women reported heightened awareness of sexual violence and described changes in their feelings of personal safety and/or worldview.
Interestingly, anger alone (when not tied to helplessness) seemed to act as a protective factor in the conscious distress of the interviewee. That is, by her report, if a woman felt anger that separated her from the victim (i.e., “it’s her fault for putting herself in that position; how could she do that?”) she was more likely to report less conscious distress. (Notably, this did not always coincide with symptoms as measured by the IASC and TSI.) Reactions characterizing “blaming the victim” are addressed in more detail in a subsequent section.
In our book, A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Kristin Davisson describes the qualitative responses of women who were witnesses to rape. She writes as follows:
To open the qualitative interview, women were asked to recall how they became aware of their friend’s experiences of sexual violence, followed by an inquiry of their feelings/reactions to this disclosure. This allowed for participants to “re-tell” the story of sexual violence as they first experienced it. It was not uncommon for participants to experience strong emotions as they recounted the details of the trauma stories themselves. One woman tearfully shared:
It’s very sad…He told her he had a gun…turns out he didn’t, but she didn’t know that. He tells her to take him to her car or he’ll shoot. She said she tried to decide if she should scream but she didn’t, which she ended up regretting, although who’s to say he wouldn’t have hurt her. So, he takes her to her car. There is no one around. He forces her into the backseat and rapes her. (crying) She said she was actually relieved that he raped her and left. He didn’t drive her anywhere; he didn’t kill her…. And she said she didn’t really fight; she felt resigned to her fate. She said he wasn’t too rough with her physically, but that he kept calling her dirty names and asking her did she like it. She said she cried the whole time and begged him not to hurt her.
In describing her own emotional reaction to this she stated:
Well I felt completely helpless. So sad for her, for the fate she endured on behalf of all women I guess. And angry. Damn angry…I thought about it constantly. I dreamt about it the week after. Even talking about it now, again I feel paralyzed.
Another woman recalled a “hysterical” phone call from her friend in which she disclosed the ongoing physical, emotional and sexual violence occurring in her relationship:
She told me that he choked her until she blacked out; that she had marks all over her neck; that he was screaming at her and threw her into the wall; that he would call her really horrible sexually based names and that if she didn’t want to have sex with him, he would make her feel bad about it and coerce her into doing it. Really bad stuff… the first time she called me, it was this huge pouring out of everything that had been going on for quite some time… I felt very powerless in that situation and scared for her.
In all but a few cases, participants recounted similar details of the traumatic encounter, giving me a sense of just how close they were to the incident of sexual violence. Distance in time from the event (ranging from 6 months to 5 years) did not appear to be a factor in the few cases wherein participants did not relate such details; rather there was an apparent correlation to closeness with the victim.
In A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Kristen Davisson writes as follows:
Given women’s increased risk for development of secondary trauma, consideration of the prevalence of sexual violence becomes significant in understanding the extent of this exposure. The World Health Organization (2005) found that next to telling no one, friends and neighbors are the most common confidants following an incident of sexual violence.
Sexual violence against women remains a critical social issue, as the frequency of sexual coercion, intimate violence, sexual assault and rape impacts vast numbers of women each year. Of equal concern are the mental health correlates that accompany the direct and indirect effects of such widespread gender violence. With examples resonating throughout history, gender inequality has perpetuated sexual violence against women for centuries. As a widespread global concern, definitions of the acts of sexual violence differ. The National Institute of Justice defines sexual violence as “as constellation of crimes including variations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape” (2007, np). Characterization of sexual violence by the World Health Organization (2005) includes positive indication of any of the following three criteria: physical force to have sexual intercourse against a person’s will, sexual intercourse due to fear of harm, or the force of sexual acts that are experienced as humiliating and/or degrading. Crimes of sexual assault encompass actual or threatened physical force, genital mutilation, and the use of weapons, intimidation or coercion that may or may not result in rape (National Institute of Justice, 2007). Legal definitions of rape within the United States differ by state, generally referencing nonconsensual oral, anal or vaginal penetration by body parts or objects and including rape by coercion, intimidation, threats of violence and sexual intercourse with individuals unable to consent (National Institute of Justice, 2007).
As statistics indicate, the likelihood of female contact with a victim of sexual violence is extensive. As confidants bear witness to the direct suffering of the primary victim, they observe firsthand the direct effects of sexual violence including but not limited to experiences of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic states, dissociation, suicidality, somatization, sexual difficulties, personality disorders, lower overall health, increased risk of substance abuse, sleep disorders, nightmares and symptoms of posttraumatic stress (Briere & Jordon, 2004; Herman, 1992; Johnson, et al., 2003; Murray, 1993; Pico-Alfonso et al., 2006; DeMaris & Kaukinen, 2005; Krakow et al., 2001). Looked at together, the overwhelming statistics suggest that vast numbers of women worldwide know another woman who has suffered the direct consequences of sexual victimization. Given the empirical support for the impact of secondary exposure to trauma in addition to the research detailing women’s empathic attunement to one another, one could reasonably presume that women “witnessing” the sexual victimization of others with whom they are close (and thus empathically attuned) would be at increased risk for development of secondary traumatic states.
Kristin Davisson writes in a compelling way about the traumatic effects of witnessing rape or sharing those experiences with a loved one or friend. (A Womb of Her Own. Routledge 2017) Davisson writes as follows:
In 2010, I completed my doctoral clinical research project/dissertation on the concept of secondary sexual trauma of women. This project spanned three years and like many thesis subjects, was one close to my heart and lived experience. As a granddaughter, daughter and friend to women who have suffered the staggering consequences of sexual violence, I was interested in exploring the impact of being so close to another woman’s experience of sexual trauma. Considering the prevalence of assault against women worldwide, vast numbers of female “witnesses” may be suffering from symptoms of secondary trauma. Given this risk, what are the implications for the mental health of these female “witnesses” locally, nationally and internationally? This was the question I sought out to address.
The concept of secondary trauma accounts for the negative effects of secondary trauma exposure among those in contact with primary victims and is increasingly documented in the psychological literature (Figley, 2995; Herman, 1992; McCann & Pearlman, 1990; Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995; Stamm, 1999). In response to the emphasis of secondary traumatic states in the mental health field, Kadambi and Ennis (2004) identifed a central error in the assumption that secondary trauma is an experience that has been so “warmly embraced by the mental health community that the publication of remediation and self-care strategies has preceded the performance of empirical research investigating the occurrence and etiology of the phenomenon” (p. 7). In this way, although considerable research has expanded the concept of secondary trauma to include indirect exposure to events of global terror including war, political torture, environmental disasters and the events of 9/11, the emphasis on mental health and health care workers has excluded investigation of secondary trauma in the general population.
Female Risk for Secondary Trauma
As my research focused on investigation of this phenomenon with respect to women in the general population who encountered secondary exposure to sexual violence, literature regarding the increased risk of women to develop secondary traumatic states is relevant.
Several empirical studies have demonstrated that female caregivers experience increased risk for developing secondary trauma symptoms when working with victims of sexual assault (Pearlman & MacIan, 1995; Schauben & Fraizer, 1995; Wasco & Campbell, 2002). In their study assessing the effect on female counselors working with sexual violence survivors, Schauben and Fraizer (1995) found that working with victims of sexual violence was associated with disrupted beliefs, symptoms of posttraumatic stress, and an increase in self-reported vicarious trauma. Moreover, these results were not associated with a female counselor’s own history of victimization, suggesting that a past experience of victimization is not required for development of secondary trauma.
Research suggests that women display empathy at a higher rate than men, increasing the likelihood of exposure to trauma via empathic attunement. Empathy is described by Gold and Rogers as “accurately perceiving the internal frame of reference of another,” requiring primary consideration of another’s thoughts and feelings rather than preoccupation with the self (1995, p. 75). Further, Pearlman and Saakvitne (1995) specify that long-term empathic attunement increases risk of secondary trauma, as empathy increases openness to feel what another is feeling. Gender socialization and cultural stereotypes support the notion that women are more empathic than men (Klein & Hodges, 2001; Surrey, 1991). An empirical study by Toussiant and Webb (2005) supported the commonly held belief that women behave and view themselves as more empathic than men do. In addition, Shihui, Yan and Lihua (2008) investigated gender differences in the electrophysiological brain effects of empathy in response to painful experiences of others. They found that women showed greater long-term responses than did men, comprised of subjective experiences of others’ pain and changes in view of self.
In our book A womb of Her Own Susan Kavaler-Adler writes as follows:
Sherry learned a great deal by becoming conscious of her susceptibility to seduction, and to seduction by such a demon lover man. The Demon Lover male was able to take mental control over her by directing and defining her, and then violating her in rape. She mourns her loss in her writing and in her therapy. She has much better relationships with men after that. She definitely believes she had a new sense of choice. She decides to leave a relationship with a man who seems to truly love her, and who wants to marry her, because this man is in a country where she could never live, although she enjoyed the adventure of being there. He was in a medical residency in his country, and could not come and live with her in New York. She makes a clear choice to leave him, despite that he is a man capable of loving her, and one who has been emotionally available in a way her former boyfriends had not been. Sherry is able to end this relationship directly, without feeling like a victim or a victimizer, even though the man feels hurt. Later she finds a man who she feel comfortable living with in New York, while she continues to find her voice as a writer. She says that she thinks of being a therapist earlier because she has felt psychotherapy has saved her life, as well as having been a powerful experience. However, she realizes that just because she benefitted from therapy doesn’t mean she really wants to be a therapist. In wanting to define herself, and in wanting never to be the victim of a man’s definition of her again, Sherry finds that she can discover her own voice in writing. Subsequently, she begins to pursue a degree in creative writing in college studies. She also begins to write for a literary magazine
The combination in Sherry of an inadequate mother, forced to submit to the abuse of her narcissistic husband and his sadism, and a rapacious father, who beats his wife and is indifferent to all her emotional needs (particularly her need to be loved), sets Sherry up for attraction to a malignant abuser. The early pre-oedipal internalization of the father’s sadism and the mother’s masochism (in relation to the father) can be seen as a malignant form of Melanie Klein’s combined mother-father object that dominates the psyche of those arrested in the paranoid-schizoid position. As such a woman, Sherry is attracted to an external man who resonates with her magnetic, hyper-masculinized internal demon fantasy object (see Reich, 1940). She projects this tantalizing figure outward onto a malicious man, and thus finds him both charismatic and erotically arousing. She also projects onto him the power of her own sexual and aggressive instincts. Inflamed by the lust of oedipal desire, plus the adolescent and adult sexual desires that were naturally triggered in a sexually explicit heterosexual situation.
It would be “blaming the victim” to assume that the female who is raped is guilty of choosing her rapist, just because she has been sexually attracted and aroused by him. She does not consciously choose a man who might rape her, even if there is a demon lover figure within her internal psyche that makes a certain man, with such tendencies, appealing to her. In fact, Sherry’s arousal was unconsciously directed by her frustrated childhood yearnings and by the demonic and inadequate parental objects attached to those yearnings. Thus, we see how psychic fantasy plays a vital role in the pre-oedipally arrested person’s attraction to an object of lust.
Sherry is a victim. She expects to be seduced into surrender by an erotically arousing sensual male, which is a common oedipal fantasy for women of all ages. Unfortunately, she is unconsciously compelled by her internal parents (as they existed in her psyche as dynamic visceral objects or as symbolic representations), with unconscious psychic fantasy elaborations, to choose a man who would viciously and violently deny her right to surrender. Oedipal-stage yearnings for surrender, which take place when the ego self has achieved subjectivity, self-observation, self-agency, self-reflection, and interiority, cannot not be sustained in the face of an unconsciously chosen demon-lover rapist.
In Melanie Klein’s (1940) terms, psychic motivations to surrender collapses downward on a developmental continuum to pathological pre-oedipal modes of sadomasochism, so that submission is compelled rather than surrender being chosen. Also, in keeping with Ronald Fairbairn’s (1943, 1952) description of “bad” (demonic) objects, Sherry’s internalization of her parents’ sadomasochistic enactments set her up for an erotically arousing attraction to the seductive man, who then morphed into her rapist.
Sherry’s attraction to this man repeats Sherry’s attraction a sadistic father. Due to her yet not mourned pathological father as an internal object, Sherry has been vulnerable to a woman’s cravings and yearnings for the demon-lover male father figure. This is the demon-lover complex that compelled Sherry to direct the displacement of an oedipal dynamic toward a malicious man. Sherry’s oedipal longings have not been played out with her father in childhood, due to her father’s unavailability. Therefore, Sherry serves as a case in point in studying the nature of the demon-lover complex. She acts out her complex with an alluring and exotic foreign man who appears to have momentarily served the psychic function of a father or father-mother displacement.
The shocking trauma of date rape illustrates the seductive and malignant nature of the father, who was compulsively internalized by the rape victim in her childhood. The malignant father internalization had been superimposed on an internalization of an inadequate (borderline) mother. This is also the father with whom Sherry yearned to sexually connect, when she establishes a fairly solid connection with her female analyst as a transference mother. This study describes the reparation with the female analyst that also allows for some reparation with the actual mother and then, in turn, allows the rape victim to mourn the absence of sufficiently good mother and father objects in her childhood. Sherry is able to heal her trauma, and to resolve her psychic identification with a borderline masochistic mother, through developmentally progressive mourning process, which included creative work in a psychotherapeutic writing group.
In the process of mourning her grief, the patient develops a fascination with the writings of Marquis de Sade. This fascination allows her to re-own the aggression that she had unconsciously invested in her internal sadistic father object of her childhood (not just a symbolic introject), which she has also acted out temporarily in a sadomasochistic relationship with her sister. Consequently, the patient’s aggression can mature in a neutralized conscious fashion into a stronger and more separated and individuated self, a self that could express her voice in the world, as a writer, and as a human being in interpersonal relationships.
In our book A womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Susan Kavaler-Adler writes as follows:
Sherry has to face the demonic visage of her father in the men she had felt seduced by, but in order to do so, she needs to rediscover some favorable views of him. Facing his dark side, as well as her own, helps Sherry gather and preserve some precious positive father images as if they are rare flowers she need to dry, press, and preserve in a scrapbook. Before all this psychotherapeutic work, Sherry’s experience of date rape with a foreign man came as an inevitable drama from the split-off dark side of her father that she carried within. She is hypnotically drawn forward in the path of the great seducer. This is not a fun seduction! This is serious! No wonder that it leads Sherry to read and speak of the writings of Marquis de Sade in my therapeutic writing group. In fact, Sherry becomes an extremely articulate female voice on the demonic lover (and on the demon-lover complex) as she does this. One man in the group then becomes the “demon” onto whom she projects her inner male demon, as she tells her whole story to the group, date rape and all.
The group members are awed by Sherry’s description of her date rape, and even more awed by her detailed descriptions of Marquis de Sade and his cleverest female victim, who de Sade murdered. When Harry, the man in the writing group, returns to Sherry’s own demon-lover, speaking of her male assailant as a guy who “fucked you and left you,” Sherry freezes. It is not until her next individual therapy session that I learn how devastated Sherry had been by the male writing group member’s words. Sherry tells me that she has not been able to stop those words from pulsating repeatedly in her mind – “fucked me and left me,” she says. Sherry feels so vulnerable, exposed, and humiliated by her own shame when she heard these words, especially hearing them from a man! In fact, her subjective emotional experience is of feeling raped all over again. I encourage Sherry to share her reaction in the group, and to speak directly to Harry, whose words had provoked her into feeling so abused and assaulted.
Sherry struggles very hard before she responded to me. Her shame make her want to hide away again. I urge her not to. I say that shame grows when the incident that ignites it is kept secret, kept hidden in the darkness. She is reminded of the dark bathroom where she had stumbled, broken-hearted and lost– to find her clothing after the rape she had endured. She knows she had to come out of the darkness into the light to cure herself. She knows she had to reveal her secret in order to find her voice. Consequently, she reluctantly agrees to confront Harry with her reaction to his words. She reluctantly agrees to share her re-provoked trauma with the group members, and to tell them what she had told me, that she was raped by a man’s words as she had been raped by a man’s body.
At the next writing group session, everyone is there. Everyone listens intently when Sherry spoke of Harry’s words. She is able to look right at Harry when she reminds him “You said, ‘He fucked you and left you,’” and went on: “I can’t stop hearing those words biting into me, over and over, searing pain and haunting obsession into my mind.” Harry is surprised, but not shocked. He is quite willing to apologize for his insensitivity to Sherry’s feelings, and adds that it is careless and thoughtless of him to speak so casually of something Sherry was still in the middle of feeling and suffering from. The group is relieved by Harry’s response and by their collective capacity to tolerate and contain a trauma that had taken place in their midst. I know, however, that Sherry was not just reacting to Harry’s words. I know she is projecting onto Harry the relationship with a male demon-lover figure that she still carries within her.
In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Susan Kavaler-Adler writes as follows:Soon after Sherry’s mother returns to Europe, the mother and daughter experience a moment of mutual caring. This happens over the telephone, and now some four years into Sherry’s therapy. Her mother is warm and receptive to Sherry’s call for the first time – still under influence of their New York connection. This allows for a conversation in which they both begin to appreciate and understand each other’s separate identities and differences. Sherry’s mother speaks of attending church daily as a refuge within her cold and emotionally isolating existence. Sherry says, “I guess going to church is for you something like my going to therapy.”
Sherry’s mother has never been able to understand what going to psychotherapy means. Yet for this one brief moment, Sherry and her mother did not judge one another. In fact, as Sherry and her mother come to appreciate each other’s separate identities and differences, Sherry’s mother accepts that Sherry had something in her life analogous to her seeking peace of mind through her visits and prayers in the Catholic Church. Likewise, Sherry relinquishes, at least temporarily, her defensive contempt, as well as her hostile views of her mother’s inadequacy as a woman. She actually opens up to her mother’s words, and also to the vision of her mother entering the church, kneeling in prayer, and finding solace.
After Sherry and her mother touch each other in New York, Sherry tries to soften the situation between her mother and father: “Mom, if dad wants to kick up his heels once in a while, let him. It’s OK. We all need to have fun.” Her mother does not respond, but she does not shut out Sherry’s words, voice or presence, as she had in the past. When Sherry as a child had cried out in pain and needed her mommy, the emotionally absent mother tried to placate her daughter with detached words, instead of comforting her with either the physical or emotional holding Sherry always longed for. “Go to bed,” her mother would say, adding “It will be better in the morning.” It was never better in the morning, not for her, and not for her mother! However, following her mother’s emotional surrender to her internal self in New York, Sherry finds her mother to be listening over the phone, actually listening to her, for the first time. To get there, Sherry had switched roles with her mother, comforting the mother who had not been able to comfort her.
After Sherry’s mother returns home, her father continues to disappear for days at a time from the household, pursuing an affair with a 20-year-old, and then, he returns unannounced to the family house to demand a cup of tea. All that Sherry’s mother has to hold over him was her deed to their home. She has re-entered a world dominated by a demonic husband who abandoned and abused her, so Sherry’s attempt to normalize her father’s behavior as merely “kicking up his heels” is bound to fail. Her mother is again swallowed up by her husband’s hostility and her own rage, which turn her cold when she defends against them. With the impact of this, Sherry’s mother once again fails to be present when Sherry calls her from New York. Eventually Sherry feels like giving up. She has tried. She has opened her heart to her mother, and has had her moment of communion. Hopefully, this moment in New York remains with her…
As she opens up the affective avenues to sustained connection by opening her pain, grief, and rage in therapy, Sherry begins to see that she and her sister are always repeating the sadomasochism of their parents’ marriage. In fact, when they try to live together, Sherry’s sister drags Sherry across the floor and tries to beat her up, mimicking the behavior of her father towards her mother. Seeing this in her sister allows Sherry to observe her own aggression during the course of her fifth year of once-a-week psychoanalytic psychotherapy. She is able to re-own the part of herself she had always tended to project onto men. Owning her own aggression, Sherry is able to confront her sister and to love her again, when they return to separate apartments. Apparently, Sherry now carries a good-enough feeling of love from her brief period of communion with her mother, and from her connection with me, to repair her relationship with her sister. She is now developmentally ready to move more seriously towards men.
Through object relations psychoanalytic psychotherapy, Sherry re-finds her mother after a lifetime of feeling shut out, misunderstood, and emotionally abandoned. When Sherry surrenders to a critical regression in her treatment, a powerful moment of connection with her mother became possible.
The psychic turning point comes in a late evening session several years into Sherry’s once a week therapy. The session begins like many others. Sherry seems tortured in the silence, unable to speak, unable to begin. Something is building up inside of her, and her facial expression showed her unspoken rage at me for not rescuing her from what was within her.
Her body shows tremors of tension that cry out to me, reminding us both of the traumatized child within her that threatened to break into consciousness. The tremor speaks to us of the internal child, a child crying for attention in an emotional vacuum, with her mother withdrawn from her. Yet none of this is in Sherry’s conscious awareness at the time. The child-self dissociated in her body has been trapped by a mind that is forced to carry the critical memories but cannot speak. I am only consciously aware of the tension in the room with Sherry. I am waiting, wondering if Sherry would find her way to words. I was wondering if she would find her way to feelings, wondering if it would be helpful for me to speak.
Suddenly Sherry darts out into the hall. I find myself leaving my office and going after her. I had developed an inner bond with her that compelled me, urged me, to do it. I stood by the banister while Sherry stood agonized and torn apart on the top of the stairs, leaning on the wall. I watched while Sherry fought with herself, frantic with the pain and tension of indecision. She seemed to be seeking release, but was also terrified of losing control. Turning a lifetime of rage inwards, against herself, Sherry began to bang against the unyielding cement wall, as all her life she had banged her fists against the emotional wall put up by an unyielding mother. As Sherry seems about to bang her head against the wall as well, the head full of mental instruments of torture, derived from her unprocessed memories, – she suddenly turns swiftly away instead. In a second, she pivots away from self-attack and enters into self-surrender. She bends over like a swan, yielding to her pain, and surrenders to the child within her who had needed to cry for decades.
When the parent is incapable of tolerating regret, and therefore of communicating a validation of early traumatic events in the family, the analyst naturally becomes primary source for the patient’s validation. The analyst must also help the patient salvage her sense of reality in the face of the parent’s denial of the traumatic events that have so impacted on the child’s psyche and view of the world. The analyst needs to help the patient see the parent’s incapacity to offer validation by helping her understand the psychic capacities needed to face the regret. This can help the patient to differentiate and separate from the parent, rather than to remain stuck in endless rage and retaliation, or in unavailing efforts to extract the yearned for validation – like Sisyphus endlessly pushing his boulder up the hill, only to have it fall again.
Sherry’s surrender was complete for the first time. On the edge of the stairs, about to run away, she stops abruptly, looks at me, and begins to vent a tidal wave of grief and yearning. She lets go and begins to sob and sob. I watch her body convulse in cathartic release. I gently suggested that she come back into my office. Having chosen to let go of her opposition, Sherry followed me. She also wailed out loud, in a testimony to her need to purge herself.
Eventually I said the words that matched her feeling, as I experienced it through our emotional connection: “Mommy, hold me. Please hold me, mommy.” I spoke for the child within Sherry. There was no effort. I knew she was inwardly responding. She does not have to speak to me. She continues to sob out her inner oceans of tears from deep down, filled with sadness and longing, so different from earlier tears. I bring her the tissues box, and hand her some tissues. We are deeply in communion, and I am struck by how effortless it all is now. The aggression that had been causing so much resistance has temporarily left us.
After a vicious and sadistic rape we learn that healing can take place in the context of a caring and competent therapist. Dr. Kavaler-Adler then describes a cultural and familial background that can render a woman susceptible to date rape. In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) she writes as follows:
Sherry continues to pursue her goal of becoming a writer, which to Sherry is the avenue to defining herself for herself; by giving vivid emotive voice to her experience in symbolic words. But even when words are supposedly the message, as in the writing group, other things can be going on in the tone and nuance, attitude, and arrogance of interpreting the other, when a group member or an analyst is intending to analyze and relate. The gross physical rape becomes a subtle verbal rape. The verbal behavior impacts through symbolic words, and the voice and the body are behind the words.
Then Sherry begins to read the pornographic ravings of the Marquis De Sade. She tells the writing group that she is fascinated by De Sade’s intense pleasure in slowly torturing the female, sometimes until she succumbs to death. De Sade, the ultimate demon-lover, possesses through omnipotent control. A woman who tries to talk him out of his sadistic and murderous intention and who maintains her spirit half-way through the torture ultimately must give up all self-agency. De Sade is merely aroused to heights of perverse pleasure by the fighting spirit in this woman, and in the end, it is the woman’s pain that most arouses him; and his arousal culminates in his own ability to totally crush the woman. Sherry reads and speaks to the group of how De Sade crushes the liveliest of female opponents, and the most psychologically minded.
What Makes the Woman Vulnerable to the Man’s Definition and Rape?
How Does the Woman Become Developmentally Capable of Her Choice?
Now we fight for reproductive freedom for women as pro-“choice” advocates. However, as psychoanalysts we need to ask what makes women capable of having choice about the kind of men that they get attached to, as well as about whether they choose to follow a pregnancy through to delivery. The question of the kind of men they get attached to bring up the question of whether the men they choose are really their choices or men they are attracted to due to transference projections. If they are attractions due to transference, and if there has been failed mothering, compounded by the internalization of malignant father figures, women will lack the self-agency for choice, and they will be vulnerable to being defined and raped. At the very least, they will be attracted to men who will not support them in their wishes to make their own independent and autonomous choices. Let’s look at the developmental predispositions that interfered with Sherry being a woman of “choice” at the time she trusted a man to be a lover, who turned into being a rapist.
Sherry’s father defines her mother; and her mother could never totally leave, despite hatred, lack of love, cruel physical and emotional beatings, and continuous betrayals. Sherry, on the other hand, would never have consciously complied with a domineering man. Yet, inadvertently she ends up in a rape scene, in the same position as her demeaned, used and exploited, and humiliated mother. She is attracted to the same psychopathic form of narcissistic man as her mother had been. For these women, the unconscious childhood trauma promotes vulnerability to the kind of male who uses all kinds of physical and mental weaponry to define the woman’s choice out of existence.
As we see, Sherry manifests the demon-lover complex, a form of developmental arrest, which represents a preoedipal separation-individuation stage trauma (called the “transitional phase” by D. W. Winnicott, 1971), compounded by the unavailability and/or malignancy of the oedipal stage father figure. For Sherry, the problems of preoedipal failures in mothering emerged in the psychoanalytic transference, and they were largely repaired. However, Sherry remained vulnerable to the impact of the father’s absence as a father, while he maintained his malignant presence as an abusive and abandoning husband to Sherry’s mother. This vulnerability has manifested in Sherry’s tantalization and seduction by the sadistic male rapist. Just like the rapist, Sherry’s father had repeatedly betrayed the woman he was in a committed relationship with. He, like Sherry’s rapist, had masqueraded as an attractive man in his womanizing with young women, using erotic seduction to mask his malignant character.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.