goodbye to the "good survivor"

I was invited to speak this past weekend at an event raising awareness and increasing resources (for sexual assault awareness month.) I reflected quite a while as to what I wanted to say, because there are so many things that often get said about surviving that are not at all true for me, or at least are no longer true for me. And I wanted to speak what is true. This is the speech I wrote and gave, and I wanted to share some of it with you here, as this space continues to support my own transgressive writing and art, making my truth telling possible.

. . . . 

I am a victim myself of long term sexual abuse and assault. I am, in some moments and contexts a survivor of these things, though I still question the use of that language. I was sexually assaulted by multiple people in my childhood and early adult life, and in multiple contexts. All of it was terrifying, painful, unwanted, and confusing. And it also happened, and is a part of me. It was, it is, my life. 

I also know myself as that of organizer, advocate, sexuality and intimate justice educator, consent educator, and artist. I have over fifteen years of professional experience now, supporting survivors in different ways.

I used to believe those had to remain incredibly separate, that my personal lived experience of harm should not intersect and occupy the same space as my professional life. 

And I no longer choose to live that way. I claim all of me.
I refuse the categories not of my own making that require I either bleed out my pain for the consumption of others and be a story of achievement and overcoming sold as inspiration that only serves to quiet the discomfort of a culture,
or that I be one who helps others and keeps all lived knowing locked away, appearing healed by standards outside myself so as to ensure my validity as one capable of meeting another in their own need.

The narrative I now hold is one in which I am fully human.

Resilience is not overcoming or rising above.
Resilience is discovering what it is to stay with ourselves and in this, to stay human.

Though I no longer ask myself to be an inspiration or example to others and no longer demand of myself that I display the expected markers or milestones of one who “made it,” it is also true that I have never felt more congruent between inside and outside. I am a human who is impacted and who has chosen to be here and to stay and continues to surprise myself. This is what healing means to me.

It took me awhile to understand this.

While most folx wouldn’t argue with the assertion that sexual assault is a form of violence which harms and as such is a thing which should not be happening, and here we would be in agreement, what is also true is that culturally we still hold onto expectations of what happens afterwards, creating narratives that deny our humanity. And I believe questioning and agitating the limitations of these existing frameworks is part of what allows for true healing to occur.

Sometimes naming a thing for what it is, makes space for the possibility of a different way emerging. So I thought I’d speak briefly and name the one such narrative that we create and perpetuate.

It is the story of the Good Survivor.
I know it well, because I used to be one.  I used to do the performance of one.

In this narrative, the good survivor is one who had something horrible happened to them that they then overcame and rose above, exhibiting the individual heroics of mastery, and healing on the way toward inspiring others.

Aspects of the good survivor story include:

  • A linear model of healing/recovery where one moves from point a to point b to point c, all with the aim of mastery of trauma, to no longer be affected in the same way by what occurred, and able to function successfully within the systems which are themselves responsible for the creation of harm and which have remained unchanged. There are boxes to check off, and these can look different depending on one’s orientation. They can include surrendering to a higher power, coming to a place of forgiveness, learning to see the positive or claim everything happens for a reason, loving their own body, free from fear and anything which limits them. If you can’t check the boxes off then you are not yet healed.

  • In this, the good survivor is a narrative of pathology as a quest for wellness where the impact of trauma, violence, and harm is pathologized and named as sickness. It is not the violence itself, but the impact of violence, which is considered in need of fixing and curing, creating a skewed world where simply being human is a sin of some kind. It is a narrative of disease as a thing you caught when assaulted, which exists within the oppression of normativity being held as the standard of a healed person, a well person.

  • The good survivor narrative exists only within the binary in every sense of word. There is no complexity or contradictions, but rather good people and bad people, victims and perpetrators, illness and wellness, broken and healed. The binary cannot hold space for all one does in order to survive that which they did not ultimately choose but still must live with and within. You were innocent and someone violated and your work is now to return to your original goodness, so as to remain unscathed. This good bad binary is intimately connected to purity culture, which demands compliance in order to keep power differentials unchallenged and intact.
  • Ultimately the good survivor is one who finally “made it.” Whatever difficulty or obstacle they faced in having experienced profound violence against their body, sexuality, personhood, they made it through and are now “over it” and no longer a victim. They made it because, again individually, they did the work and attended the right workshops and felt all the feelings and took back their power. It can look like the gospel of love and light or the savior of radicalized activism, but in all cases the goal remains to no longer be impacted by the violence and to live one’s life as inspiration of what is possible. And so we learn to go underground.
  • The good survivor exists for the comfort of others. By this I mean, the story of the good survivor allows the culture to believe somehow it will all be okay because the individual makes it through and prevails, (denying inequality of resources available) perhaps even stronger than before as they rose from the ashes, and because of this, because it will be okay, we do not then personally and collectively have to confront the culture that created the violence, condones the violence, and in some instances even requires the violence to continue.

    If the individual can tell us a story of how they are no longer impacted by what happened to them, then we can all continue denying structural harm. So it doesn’t really have to do with the survivor, with their knowing or lived experience or needs. It has to do with the comfort of keeping things exactly as they are and saying either that these things don’t really happen (not in our own homes, communities, safe spaces) or if they do happen they are the exception not the norm and the individual has overcome it by proving that they can be as normative as everyone else, wearing the badges of wellness and recovered and healed.)

    I once had an entire gathering of the markers of healing, which really meant normativity. I had done all the right things and in many ways learned how to function with insystems that silenced me. I had work that was in service of others. I had a marriage. A child. A nuclear family. I could write and speak eloquently of my trauma while still showing everyone I had what I was supposed to want. I did all of it. All the things required of me to prove that I was one of the ones who made it. And it never worked. I wasn’t allowed to be my full human self. And the trauma is not a thing I will ever actually get over. So of course, it all caught up to me.
    My humanity required I reject the good survivor story and begin to love myself in my real lived experience. 

In the presence of the good survivor story, which I have come to wholly reject, I continue to ask the question, in myself and in the places and communities I serve:

Who gets to decide?
And I mean this. As a real question. Not theoretical. Not as an abstract, a concept to consider from a distance. But as a real and living question, asked again and again and again.
Who gets to decide?
Who gets to decide what pathology is?
Who gets to decide what healed is, what well is, what recovered is?
Who gets to decide what harm is, what wholeness is?
Who gets to be the gatekeeper of belonging, naming those who have done the work and those who are left behind because their ways of being human were confronting to the narratives that keep us safe?

And if we reject these narratives of the “good survivor,” then what does it mean to be human?

I know this to be true for me.

I am not sick. The systems and culture are. 


I AM impacted.

Being impacted is not pathology. It is part of the definition of being human. And I may give a great deal of my life to tending to myself, loving myself and giving myself that which I need, but I will not give an ounce or moment of my life to proving to others my ability to pass as unaffected.
All these things happened. I cannot cut them out of me because they are me. 

So this, my story, is not a story of overcoming.
It is not a story of being good.
This is a story of being human. Which is the only thing possible really.

Sexual assault was not an event that happened and then was gone. It actually changed who I am as a person. It is now a part of me. As is what I did to survive. As is all the ways I found of knowing and naming myself for myself in the presence of great harm. As is the ways I came to believe myself and others, to refuse to gaslight myself, to allow myself to love what I love and want what I want without qualifying or justifying, proving my status of recovered and complete. As is being angry and going numb and telling my story and staying quiet. As is befriending my own body and also not always liking what it feels like to live inside my body. As is falling in love. As is knowing what that impact looks like and feels like in my own body and staying with myself all the same. All of this is mine, is part of being human. This is what it means to have all of me, and it is this understanding and naming and living here with all of me that is the very thing this culture fears and wants to avoid or remove: 

Nothing About Us Without Us is For Us. 

This is the healing that I’m here for.
This is living that I’m here for.