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.”

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/cshap18/ Conor

    I think the piece was very, very powerful. Sometimes a 1st person account from a journalist is the best way to learn about a place. I’m a huge fan of Hunter Thompson (not making any comparison here) and the way he speaks of his own experiences through what he’s covering makes for a great read. I often prefer it over a simple news account.

  • http://feministing.com/members/featured/ featured

    I agree that the piece was clearly about Mac’s experience and Haiti was just a backdrop. I can only imagine how a male journalist would have been crucified if he wrote the same story. I don’t think the same “you go girl” attitude would be adopted by feminist critics if Brian Williams said that violent sex helped him cure his PTSD.

  • http://feministing.com/members/charityjoy/ Charity

    I have just recently read two books that made me think about McClelland’s piece and the response to it. Jessica Goodall’s _Shade it Black_ talks about the author’s own PTSD as well as her ex-boyfriend’s choice not to confront his PTSD. Elizabeth Pisani’s _The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS_ briefly discusses her Reuters reporter husband’s battle with PTSD.

    All three pieces reminded me that some people’s jobs require them to experience the most horrid aspects of the human condition. It is unrealistic to think that their constant exposure to such horrible events would leave them mentally unscarred. It would be even more horrifying if they weren’t emotionally affected.

  • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

    I think this narrative-anxiety is common when it comes to abortion stories, as well. Some months ago I read a piece by a patient advocate in an abortion clinic who pointed out that the pro-choice movement constantly sweeps all kinds of abortion stories under the rug, mainly the ones that aren’t politically expedient, such as stories of multiple abortions and failure to properly use contraception. Obviously, there’s a fear that the stories will reinforce stereotypes of frivolous, irresponsible women who should be forced to carry their pregnancies to term as punishment for their sexual indiscretions. In fact, the pro-choice movement only reinforces conservative talking points and a view of abortion as a “necessary evil” by maintaining silence around these stories.

    Anyway. I read McClelland’s piece kind of briefly, and one thing that struck me had to do with her partner: Does this “violent sex” somehow come naturally to him? I mean, it made me realize … I wouldn’t know how to “do” violent sex if someone asked me. My boyfriend and I do some occasional roughness, but there are certain boundaries where we get awkward, especially hitting and/or punching. Hitting a person (I think she mentions that he punches her in the face with her face covered by a pillow) feels bizarre and unnatural in my body. It’s something I would have to practice. And, of course, I’ve been largely sheltered from such violence for most of my life, so I can’t say that I wouldn’t feel differently in other circumstances. But I just wasn’t sure what to make of it. Nor was I sure I didn’t overlook something in my quick reading, like that he perhaps already had experience with BDSM.

  • http://feministing.com/members/felipesegundo/ felipesegundo

    Agreed. I wrote a shirty response to the really rather brutal and, dare I say it, morally bankrupt, Slate article.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tantrachick/ Joy Nelson

    I am so pleased to read this perspective. It is very much in line with my thinking on the topic. I myself write about sex, sexuality and sexual healing with a focus on female sexual healing.

    I have actually used something called ‘deep penetration sexual healing’ as part of my own recovery from sexual abuse, trauma and rape. I have read so many articles about Mac and her experience that they are now blurring together, but one point that stands out is that many popular blogs are referring to her experience as rape…but it was actually role playing through consensual sex with a violent – rape inspired theme.

    I think that this is a vitally important point. Consensual sex is NOT rape. It is frustrating to see so many negative responses to Mac’s bravery. I wrote a small blog post to support Mac’s open and honest article…I am pleased to see that your wonderful team shares my perception!

    I am very happy I found your wonderful and informative site! In Community, Joy