My wings are tightened by the rings on my feet gifted by the societal trident who tames my dangling spirit.
Eagerness surfed in me as I sat at the desk waiting to begin one of my final electives for my undergraduate Psychology course, Child Protection. We began to review case studies and how we all play a part in the protection of the most vulnerable individuals of our society. The lecturer began to play an educational visual on identifying sexual abuse. The dimly lit classroom collectively took in facts and myths.
“More than 20% of children are sexually abused before the age of eight.”
“Many child victims may never disclose their abuse.”
“Fewer than 10% of victims are abused by strangers.”
“People who abuse children look and act just like everyone else.”
The room suddenly became a sauna oven that was squeezing my heart. A tickle was caught in my throat and I pondered over why my cheeks were on fire.
Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers.
The attentive waves of the Nhu Tien Beach in Nha Trang, Vietnam, turned down the sound of sea-gulls plucking at the remnants of a secluded gathering twenty tourists like us left behind. The sand enveloped the two of us as we sat soaking the solitude. The quiet and serene aroma tempted me to unravel the loud voices in my head. I opened up to his companionship about the secrets that were hidden within me unbeknown. His tentative arm reached out to my snappy shoulders.
I am not going to let anyone feel sorry for me, I thought, as I squirmed his hand off me.
My legs could not move. His protective eyes seemed to understand what I could not explain.
He was a friend. Charismatic, hard-working and funny. The brain categorises experiences according to what we are taught. I had been primed by my uncle and cousin to accept the cognitive dissonance of those who love you can still violate you and your body.
I continued travelling with my friend during our last week in Vietnam not because I was stuck with him but because I tried to make up for the trauma by regaining a sense of control over the night that left me powerless.
A male stranger violently penetrating a resisting woman is the stereotypical narrative so when my experience did not fit in that container, it was harder for me to recognise it as sexual assault. A couple of months after we exited each other’s lives, rumours bubbled about how crazy I was. I had not realised crazy was synonymous for assigning responsibility. The story I had told him in trust had been used against me to paint me as a psychotic product of childhood abuse.
A passage in Jennifer Freyd’s article on betrayal trauma theory talked about when an abuser is confronted, if the accusation is true, the accused person is abusive, with their denial being more indignant, self-righteous and manipulative. The offender rapidly creates an impression that the abuser is the wronged one while the victim is the offender.
Perhaps I was ripped of my sovereignty by a stranger after all. Hidden under a box of red flags.
The lecturer in the classroom was an echo from a distant era calling me to come back. I had dived deep within my consciousness and met a girl who had been hiding in a sunken shipwreck. Her hushed voice became louder and louder as she showed me similar case studies of my own life pushing me to see what I could not look in the eye for years.
If a victim of sexual assault does not fight back, they must have thought the assault was not that
bad or they wanted it.
A tsunami could engulf me. It is stronger, faster and more unforeseeable than anything I could have known. I escaped from a tsunami hours before my family and I departed Srilanka in the year of 2004. While halfway across the shores, when the breaking news started to gush out, I understood the gravity of how powerless humans were. No one could have prepared. We were innocent guests dining at the Brown Beach Hotel admiring the ocean not realising a dormant force was waiting within.
On the day of the assault, we were touring the beautiful city of Hoi Ann, Vietnam. The wind caressed my cheeks and the beams of the sun massaged against the back of my neck as we rode bicycles across the greenery of the rice fields. The vast land of dirt and farming immersed with the smell of manure entered the roots of my being as I bathed in the freedom of the absence of structure. I had never experienced that kind of serenity.
We arrived at a shallow pond and were instructed to change into traditional Vietnamese long maroon shirts, pointy cone-shaped hats and leather boots. I felt uneasy essentially killing the poor fishes just to trade them in for a couple of beers but went with it anyway. We used a wooden basket to trap them to catch with our hands before shoving it in a plastic bag. Every time I grabbed a fish it flopped out of my hand, biting me. I eventually stopped trying and watched the others. I could not help but admire the fish for summoning all its energy and persevering in the face of adversity. Unlike me.
That night, I eagerly watched Thanga Magan with him, a Tamil film with one of my favourite actors, Dhanush. My eyes were heavy with all the red wine we had consumed and body exhausted. Usually I would stay up all night when it came to watching movies but that night I must have passed out.
The next thing I remembered was hours of frozenness as his hands crashed all over my limp body. I was shocked. I said stop. My legs could not move. I was prey to a torpedo ray that wrapped itself around my body, shocking me, so it was simple to engulf me. My world waved in and out of consciousness. The confusion was blaring like a torch that was glued to my sockets. I could not get up. I did not know what to do or what I was feeling. Nothing had prepared me for this.
The phone alarm at dawn was the shell shock that ripped me to awareness.
That morning, we were leaving for the next city. Puzzled, I tried to blanket the events of the night and shove it into my luggage with all my other belongings. While packing in the hostel, I looked at myself in the stuffy mirror and noticed how tired and hollow my eyes were.
Where is my eyeliner. What the fuck where did I put it?! How come I fucking lose everything? How am I so careless all the time?
I thought it would be easier to worry about how irresponsible I was in relation to losing an object than to the fact that I should have gone to bed in my own room or why my own body let me down by freezing.
Many months later I had googled and learnt about why I responded the way I did. Tonic immobility refers to a temporary and involuntary paralysis stemming from intense fear. In school I had learnt about the fight or flight response where we either run away or fight when in danger. I had not learnt that when neither of these responses are possible, immobility programs in us are activated.
This is what happened in the film Jurassic Park when the young girl is seen eagerly eating everything on the desert table until she freezes and realises her brother and her are being hunted by dinosaurs. Would we assume the young girl wanted to be eaten by a dinosaur because she did not fight back? This is what happened to me as I lay there drifting between consciousness unable to process what was happening. To some degree it may be considered okay to ask “why did you not fight back,” but it is not okay to assume to answer is “it was not that bad” or “they wanted it.”
Working on an assignment in the classroom, we reflect on a case study by Elizabeth Loftus on why children often forget sexual abuse. One of the main reasons relate to the need for humans to block pain. They found child abuse is likely to produce a social conflict for the child where betrayal by someone they trust leads them to ignore the betrayal. This leads to profound disruption in awareness and autobiographical memory making it difficult for them later in life to accurately assess the trustworthiness of people in intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships.
Reading those sentences that explained difficult and complex constructs I had never understood felt both liberating and overwhelming. A light switched on in my mind but to a chamber of skeletons of the past.
If the victim did x, y or z they were asking for it.
Back at home in Melbourne, the door slightly ajar, I heard my sister talk to Amma (Tamil for mother) about the last few months and how much I had plummeted.
Amma strolled and placed herself at the end of my bed, oceans apart despite the physical proximity.
She mindlessly asks in Tamil, “Do you miss him? Is that why you’ve been sad since coming back from travelling?”
“Ma, but he . . . while I was sleeping. How could you not . . . It has nothing to do with . . . You don’t understand?!” I reply in anger.
Staring at the wall blankly she advises,“You shouldn’t have gone overseas with him. I don’t know what to say . . . Do you . . . he didn’t love you . . . thought he did?
“Amma, are you not hearing me??!! Why are you talking and acting like this is some breakup?! I shout back.
Allowing myself to be vulnerable with Amma felt like talking through Google translator that had all the sentences muddled. My bedroom was suffocating me as I tried to explain myself as if I were teaching her mathematical equations that she could not grasp at no matter how many angles I came from. I was drained from wrestling with the frustration I had for her not being able to give me the support I had needed that she would so freely give when empathising with fictional characters in films. My story had been remoulded into an unfortunate love story to her ears. She could never see the colour grey through her black and white lens.
I did not blame her. Our Tamil culture lives a lifestyle off “What would others think?” ultimately focusing on productivity and achievement so when it comes to issues of assault, it must be “handled privately.” These negative attitudes lead to a detrimental belief system that exacerbates identifying our own experience as we become dismissive and end up self-stigmatising ourselves with feelings of shame. The Tamil community adopts a “sweep it under the rug” approach towards trauma. For example, for Tamil actresses that come forward about sexual harassment, the chorus narrative sings “she’s an actress, she asked for it with that profession.” A community that places blame on victims would inevitably allow offenders to rationalise their actions and victims feel it is somewhat in their control for what happens to them. The lack of support from this culture and community summarises many of the internalized myths I had carried with me like a heavy sack of bones to a graveyard that buries basic human rights.
If I had wanted it because of any of my actions that did not follow the perfect victim narrative, I would have instead enthusiastically just asked for it. Just like I ask for two sugars in my cappuccino.
It had been two years since I finished my child protection class. Reflecting back, it felt like a premonition for what was to come the following years. After the assault there were many months of triggers, flashbacks and apathy. Any movie, any interaction and anything around me could set me off a downwards spiral.
Showering. Music. Arguments. Red wine. People. Buses. Men. Hugs. Alarms. Loud noises. Affection. I was stuck in a nightmare where there was an endless loop of doors that circled back to the same spot.
I noted a number of different reactions to when I finally shared my story. Most were supportive and some to my surprise were uncomfortable and confused not because of what happened but because I had the audacity to say it did. Juggling with an apology that had no sense of remorse and only focused on my reactions than their actions made me scrutinise and zoom in on what I could have done differently. Over time, I had read many other stories and experiences and became perplexed as to how the voices of victims were drowned by monochrome voices of offenders, society and those that continue to serve rape culture.
I watched a Hindi film called Bulbbul. The story was about a woman who was married as a child to a much older man who then later in her 20s was raped by her husband’s developmentally challenged twin. The film opened with a shot of a young girl’s legs cheerfully dangling from a tree branch and what followed was the exploration of women being prisoners in a patriarchal society. I had finally realised what my biggest fear was. It was feeling trapped and not knowing if I would ever be able to walk free. I realised I had been living in a reality that capitalised off my silence. My immobility. My trapped soul.
At first, I carried the pain with me like an invisible limb attached to my body. Later, it became a small mole on the back of my shoulders. There was finally a path I could see where this wasn’t the story of my life but just a story. I refused to be a caged bird.
I could not control my wings being tightened but I can learn to fight the trident and fly far away to the freedom skies.
Abira Kannan, a Tamil Australian, creates writing and content that discusses and examines controversial issues that serve to spark changes. Some of the issues she writes about are the rights of asylum seekers, sexual assault, oppression of Tamil Eelam and mental health. Writing has been a way for Abira to express her identity as it not only allows for the expression of emotions but the processing of them too. She is a Psychology and Creative Writing graduate from Deakin University. Abira can be found on Instagram @writingbyabira.