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“Hurry up and heal”: Pain, productivity, and the inadequacy of ‘victim vs. survivor’

Afterward, my friend said to me, “Stop calling yourself a victim. You’re a survivor.”

The compulsory transformation from “victim” to “survivor” dominates violence care-work in the United States. To be a victim is to be fresh, still smarting, an open wound. Weak, disempowered, passive. To be a survivor is to be strong, (pro)active, healthy, and productive. To have progressed.

The point of transition from victim to survivor is variously delineated as the moment at which someone first discloses to someone else that they suffered violence, meets with a therapist, reports to the authorities, or even takes their story to the press or engages in policy work.

The feminist thinker Emi Koyama writes that, in elevating those who “move forward,” the victim/survivor dichotomy implicitly condemns those who do not, reaffirming ideas about what makes a good versus bad survivor and legitimizing certain forms of survivorship over others. To be a (strong) survivor is to carry that weight — figuratively, literally. To be a (weak) victim is to crumble, “stay” silent, engage in self-harm.

Compulsory survivorship depoliticizes our understanding of violence and its effects. It places the burden of healing on the individual, while comfortably erasing the systems and structures that make surviving hard, harder for some than for others. You are your own salvation. You are your own barrier to progress.

* * *

My school hired a lawyer to clean up its act. She was invited to speak to the entire campus community to educate us about rape culture. Instead, she said: “Rape is the death of the victim’s spirit.”

I’m not dead.

“Victimhood” comes with its own baggage. In the popular imagination, to be a victim is to have lost but worse: it is to have let yourself lose.

Only certain people get to be victims. We only recognize the violence of certain acts. We only mourn the violation of certain bodies.

* * *

“Just get over it.”

Others decide how we express our pain: too little and they catastrophize (“he damaged you”), too much and they demand we move on.

The victim-survivor transformation is supposed to be linear, and uni-directional. You’re a victim until one day, you “speak up,” you report, you go to therapy, and poof! you blossom into a survivor. You “put it all behind you.” There’s no turning back.

The cult of compulsory survivorship ignores the cyclic nature of healing. The good days. The bad days. Healing is nonlinear, messy, disruptive, and unpredictable. Trauma is, as DarkMatter writes, generational and historical. We carry trauma in our bones.

I don’t believe the afterward of violence ever really ends. We get better until we don’t.

* * *

“We’ll get you fixed up and back to college in no time.”

Before that, I’d never known I was broken.

Who benefits from believing in the “fixable”? Who benefits from insisting that trauma and its effects have ended, from tying up pain with a pretty little bow?

This country is invested in the idea that we will return to “normal.” That there is an impending date at which we will be as we were, when the “after” will look like the “before,” when everybody can finally have some peace and quiet. Perhaps for some that day will come. Perhaps it won’t.

We want to believe violence’s impacts are finite. We want to believe that healing is constant and progressive. Perhaps deep down we know this is not true. We cling to it for our own comfort. We insist victims perform resiliency for our own peace of mind.

The relentless imperative to “hurry up and heal” is an appeal to smooth over your rough edges and Move On. Get back to being a productive member of society. We hear it everywhere from our homes to our college campuses to the streets of our burning citiesI urge you to set aside your pain and engage in productive steps forward. Performing our survivorship benefits the privileged (who can remain comfortable in their ignorance) and the powerful (who are invested in managing the anger of the marginalized). As Koyama writes, the compulsory transformation from victim (unproductive) to survivor (productive) serves a capitalist state.

Our history books paint the U.S. occupation of this country as over and done, a concluded (if tragic) chapter from a colonial past. If the trauma is over, then we can move on and forget. If the trauma is done, we can in good conscience stop carrying that weight.

I don’t know what to call myself these days. Victim/survivor feels inadequate. I want new language. I want new structures and systems and institutions that support instability, and anger.

* * *

“Right now you might think of him every second of every day but someday, you will think of him less.”

I do–

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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