Fear of the single story: Backlash to Mac McClelland’s PTSD piece

Mac McClelland’s recent essay on her battle with PTSD and how violent sex helped her heal was one of the bravest pieces of writing I’ve read in a while. And I’ve gotta agree with Jill that much of the backlash of criticism she’s received “illustrates pretty well why too many women who experience trauma don’t speak out.”

At Jezebel, 36 women journalists who’ve worked in Haiti wrote an open letter to GOOD arguing that “the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.” At Slate, Marjorie Valbrun claimed McClelland made Haiti “all about her” in a piece she described as: “Offensive.” “Shockingly-narcissistic.” “Intellectually dishonest.”

Never mind that this piece was, in fact, about her. It was a personal essay–in which McClelland’s experience in Haiti was a breaking point after a series of traumatic reporting stints. As she said in an interview at Ms., “This was not my Haiti coverage; this was about me.” Is there really not a space for journalists to speak about their own experiences, challenges, and fears sometimes without being called “selfish”?

To me, most of the criticism McClelland has faced seems rooted in fear. Fear that one woman telling her truth about Haiti will perpetuate stereotypes about a country that, as Ansel Hertz notes, is so often irresponsibility portrayed in the American media. Fear that one woman journalist talking about her fears will be used against all female journalists in a world that still thinks the profession is too dangerous for them. Fear that one woman admitting a desire for violent sex will give ammunition to anti-feminists who’d like to believe that all women really want to be raped. And on and on and on.

It’s not that these fears aren’t somewhat understandable. In a wonderful response at the Rumpus, Roxane Gay notes that there is a real danger in “the single story.” But the answer is not to “silence the many, complex stories rising out of Haiti.” She writes:

We could all point and say, “That’s not my experience,” and “That’s not my Haiti.” Those narratives would probably all be true but those narratives shouldn’t be pitted against each other. They should work in concert to present a more accurate view of one part of the world.

I’d say that’s pretty good advice in general. I hope McClelland’s piece encourages other women to speak honestly about their experiences–with trauma, with sexual violence, with desires that make other people uncomfortable. And hopefully some day they’ll stop getting the message that “they will be judged, harshly, for telling their truths.”

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation