“I was the first to testify in this case, and worried of the attention that could come of that, I asked for complete anonymity. I’m addressing you publicly today as a final step and statement to myself that I have nothing to be ashamed of. ... Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world. ... I have been coming for you for a long time. I’ve told counselors your name in hopes they would report you. I’ve told your name to Child Protective Services twice. I gave a testament to get your medical license revoked. You were first arrested on my charges. And now as the only nonmedical victim to come forward, I testify to let the world know you are a repulsive liar.” [emphasis added]
These words matter, beyond the thrilling precision of the attack, and the aplomb with which it is carried out. There is, yes, something of Monte Cristo in this, something so intrinsically satisfying about a revenge seemingly so complete. Particularly when you know, not just what Nassar admits to doing, but what the long-term consequences were for whole families. Separations, suicides, decades of pain. But there is more going on.
Stephens rightly says, she can go public because she has nothing to be ashamed of. The unspoken theme, though, is guilt. The whole scenario of the 'day in court' revolves around who is going to be guilty, and who is going to walk away innocent. And guilt is an absolutely characteristic emotion of those who have been through abuse. You can live your life as a project of either proving your innocence, or proving your guilt.
Most people who have been abused don’t get a day in court, facing the abuser. Yet, if the guilt of the abused is a common affliction, then the day in court scenario must be a terribly vivid and animating fantasy for those burdened with it. Imagine testifying, and demonstrating, that the poison left in your soul by this hideous experience belongs not to you, but to the man in the dock. Imagine being able to say: "this is your your misery, and I've been waiting to give it back to you." It's tremendously powerful.
I'm not claiming to have faith in the redemptive power of this scenario. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can simply give the poison back. I don’t believe that, as one of the survivors put it, you grow stronger and become unbreakable. By itself, even the right verdict, putting the guilt where it belongs, doesn't necessarily deal with this uncanny way in which guilt infiltrates and haunts those who have been abused. Above all, I am cautious about investing too much in the dramatic moments of confrontation and catharsis which the media alight upon.
Still, justice matters. The scenes and the words are important. And, even if it is not explicitly phrased as such, I would suggest that they do stage a collective repudiation of guilt. And because the guilt of the oppressed, of the exploited, of the abused, is the dirty ideological secret of capitalism, and patriarchy, I am tempted to claim its repudiation is an essential step in any emancipatory struggle.
The point about guilt, which distinguishes it from shame, is its link to powerlessness. We feel guilty, I have argued elsewhere, not because we think we're to blame, but precisely because we don't feel we have any power over what happens to us.
The anxiety of guilt is very often the anxiety of expected punishment, as though someone else were in control. Klein pointed out that when it is clear that the sense of danger is not related to a real external threat, then the danger comes from within. The danger might come from a drive that has been thwarted, a wish that has been repressed, and which can only reappear as something threatening and monstrous. Something, perhaps, punitive. Something to feel guilty toward.
This is one of the things Lacan was getting at when he said that one can only really be guilty of ceding ground relative to one's desire. One might, for example, maintain the fiction of tactful silences in order to avoid repercussions. One might try to put the old ghosts to bed, and get on with life, to avoid painful working through. But whatever the reasons why one cedes that ground, it tends to return as guilt: a harassment from within.
Speaking out in court, those whom Nassar victimised could have said any number of things. Like Stephens, they often chose to stress that they were no longer victims. That they had, after a lot of isolated struggles and losses, been able to collectively take control of their situation. That people may be isolated, vulnerable, easy to take advantage of for a while, but they don't always stay that way. And that is how change happens.