In A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Dr. Kristin Davisson describes the changes in identity following rape or witnessing rape. She quotes a participant in her study as follows:
Another participant stated:
“She’s a very strong person. She’s strong spoken and demands respect…it’s really troubling to me because I look up to her and how much she can demand respect and take control of a situation. And I feel like I can be that way too, but she is so much more so- like that’s something that defined her. That was her identity.”
Once more, the implication of loss is embedded in this person’s comment with specific reference to the last phrase, “that was her identity.” This same participant spoke of witnessing her friend struggle for several years following the assault, striving to “let go of” the incident and eventually, turning to substances to cope. Several women echoed similar experiences, emphasizing difficulty in “watching” their friends’ psychological turmoil following the assault(s). Perhaps the perception of strength and resolve of the primary victim is impacted by their contextual resiliency, and as we understand psychological trauma, their access to resources (both external and internal) to cope with their situation (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995.)
Admiration and idealization. An additional point of interest from the last quote is the introduction of admiration (referenced in the phrase, “I look up to her and how she can demand respect.”) Similarly, another participant stated, “She is that girl who wears the pants, takes control. She is not passive at all the way I can be. She is adventurous and bold, and really when we were close, I wanted to be her.”
Wanting to be someone may be analogous to the concept of idealization, derived from self-psychology. Through idealization, one is able to nourish the self by merging (in fantasy) with an object of strength, power, omnipotence, and wisdom (Kohut, 1977). In this way, idealization becomes a vehicle for self-worth- we “want to be” like those we respect. Both participants quoted above to acknowledge the quality they respect in her friend(s) to be their ability to “wear the pants,” “demand respect,” or “take control” of a situation. In this way, “strength” (for lack of a better term) seems to be a characteristic widely admired among women sampled. This alone may suggest that women tend to covet strength as a protective factor against violence.
This brings up a question of relevance, that is, what is the impact of an “idealized other” being victimized and further, if women “idealize” the primary victim, are they more likely to experience secondary trauma? Twenty-three percent of women sampled obtained clinical elevations on the IASC scale, “Idealization-Disillusionment.” This result, in conjunction with conscious impact reported by women sampled, seems to suggest that idealization of the victim can be an important factor in development of vicarious trauma. Over half the sample had a specific reaction to reconciling the “strength” and “victimhood” of an admired friend. To this effect, one participant stated:
“She is such a strong woman though…which is funny that is something that even stands out to me, like as if someone weak is the only person this would affect. But there is something so sad about seeing her strength overcome by pain. By pain that someone took advantage of her- of her ability to say yes. Now she will be haunted by it…so will I, I suppose.”
If we were to describe this in a masculine context, we might use the term “emasculate” to speak to the quality of strength or control being stricken away. Webster’s Dictionary defines “emasculate” as “to deprive of strength, vigor or spirit” or “to deprive of virility or procreative power” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010). Certainly, this definition seems to fit with women’s depictions of their reactions to “strength” of other women being overcome by sexual assault. Unfortunately, there is a not a term denoted to the female corollary of this experience.
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.