Don’t Call Me Resilient
Things That You Can Do In Lieu of Calling A Trauma Victim Brave
At the risk of sounding like an ungrateful bitch, don’t ever call me “brave” for a) having had a life-threatening trauma forced upon me and b) talking honestly and angrily about it.
I’ve had my fill of the compliment.
“Brave” isn’t the compliment that many people think it is. Worse yet, I have a suspicion that some assholes who use the word to describe victims know that.
My brain can tell the difference between a compliment and an insult and I typically feel insulted when people, passive-aggressive cisgender men in particular, call me “brave” for having experienced trauma and for addressing that history in public. The choice to use the word “brave” feels slimy, minimizing, and condescending and I’m going to explain the logic behind my reaction to the word.
Not everyone forced to experience trauma is granted the privilege of surviving it. In 1996, over the course of several months, a 19-year-old Chicano named Tommy Jesse Martinez stalked five women in Santa Maria, California. Martinez intended to kidnap, sexually assault, and kill his victims and he chose five unrelated women and girls as targets. I became his first victim and only four of us lived to tell what Martinez took from us. Sophia Castro Torres, a Mexican migrant, was murdered by him.
I’ve spoken publicly about the manner in which Martinez victimized me and some audience members who’ve heard me speak about the attack have called me “brave.” Under these circumstances, the word elicits a visceral response: queasiness. I think of the five of us victimized by Martinez as a traumatized cohort and Torres was terrorized to death. Physical evidence indicates that she ran from Martinez and fought. Nonetheless, he used his body and various weapons to overpower her and take her life.
If audiences call me “brave,” then what is Torres? If audiences call victims that were spared “brave” and omit the dead from the list of the praiseworthy, what is being implied about those who lost the most? Are they…cowards?
The implication that they are, indeed, cowards is inescapable, and the suggestion is also woven into questions many trauma victims encounter when we report assault, sexual assault in particular, to law enforcement:
“Did you fight back?”
“Why didn’t you fight back?”
Attackers have victimized countless women on this planet and if we memorialized this violent history by marking every strip of earth where such traumas have been perpetrated, much of the space we occupy would be covered with plaques, markers, and monuments. In some places, there would be so many monuments that movement would be entirely inhibited. Many homes, bedrooms in particular, would become monuments to violent trauma. All victims of sexual assault deserve to have their experiences dignified with validation, not just those who earn it through “bravery.” Using “bravery” as a metric for praise is degrading. It abuses the memory of the dead.
Using the word “brave” exalts certain traumatized people as heroic and casts others as failures. Such distinctions create a hierarchy, a pecking order amongst the traumatized, splitting us between victims versus survivors. The creation of such hierarchies incentivizes us to put on a “brave face,” and as long as displays of survivor “strength” continue to attract undue admiration, those who exhibit suffering will be ignored, and worse, yet, vilified.
Ultimately, “brave” survivors are preferable to suffering victims because the “brave” survivor puts the public’s conscience at ease. She’s so brave, resilient and strong! She doesn’t need continued help and support! Her behavior suggests that the problem isn’t with rape culture but with an individual’s response to trauma. In this light, the “brave” survivor is an Alger-esque figure who bootstraps her way to “recovery.” Through her personal “bravery,” she gives no indication that systemic causes of rape must be eradicated, and the adulation of the “brave” survivor encourages continued austerity measures as they relate to public health. The “brave” survivor is a capitalist boon and the exaltation of the “brave” is especially insidious among women of color, in particular as its applied to Black women. The trope reinforces the racist belief that Black women feel pain less acutely than white women, that Black women have an innate toughness.
Lastly, to tell a trauma victim that she is “brave” minimizes her experience. It’s akin to pinning a flimsy gold star to her chest and telling her, “Bravo, little lady! You made it through a rape! Good job!” I was, and continue to be, Martinez’s victim as opposed to his survivor. When I say this, I don’t mean that every second of my day is consumed by rape trauma. What I mean is that there was before he entered my consciousness and there is after he entered my consciousness.
What he did to me, and what he took from me, altered me in ways that cannot be changed. He traumatized me. While an audience might hear me speaking passionately against rape, what the audience doesn’t see is that I had diarrhea for months after Martinez placed his face where it didn’t belong. What the audience can’t see is that for weeks, I jumped every time I saw a young man who resembled him. What the audience can’t see is that when I walk down the street by myself, I look over my shoulder to check who is behind me and if it is a man, I will step aside and let him pass. What you erase by insisting on my “strength” is that on occasion, I still feel the sensation of Martinez forcing his way between my legs.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the few mental illnesses one person may sadistically provoke in a chosen victim. This is why I prefer the word victim to survivor.
Instead of calling trauma victims brave and believing that makes you heroic, I would prefer for people to become trauma-informed activists and organizers. I would prefer for people to work to support victims by defunding the police and moving financial resources to rape prevention as opposed to carceral solutions. I don’t want admiration for my “resilience.” I want your anger and I want your rage. Rape is preventable and I want you pissed about rape culture. I want you committed to ending it. That would actually be “brave.”
Photo: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from Instagram Live. “Wednesday was an extremely traumatizing event. And it was not an exaggeration to say that many members of the House were nearly assassinated,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.