The following are extracts from Clementine Ford‘s recent article “What Cleveland tells us about the cycle of abuse,” on the kidnapping and imprisonment of three women and a child in Cleveland, Ohio.
There’s no doubt that the facts of the case are horrific, both those known and those yet to be revealed to the authorities required to know them. (Despite our general fascination with salacious details, even those we find emotionally difficult to bear, this is not our story; the women involved are at last able to shield themselves from invasion, and that includes protecting themselves if they so choose from the world knowing to what depths the humiliation was that they suffered.)
What happened in Cleveland is horrifying, yes. It’s incomprehensible. To imagine the reality of those 10 years would cause too much distress, so we hover around its dark edges, not quite daring to look beyond the borders with anything other than quick glimpses in case our eyes lock on something we can’t unsee. But we should resist the temptation to consider it different somehow to the violence expressed on a daily basis in homes on similar suburban streets occupied by similarly “normal” people, domestic matters in which we imagine we have no obligation to get involved.
What I am questioning in this piece is Ford’s use of the words “our” and “we.” For whom does she speak? Who is the “we” on behalf of whom, and to whom Ford enunciates? When Ford writes “our,” with what audience does she imagine she is engaging?
As a woman who survived childhood sexual and physical abuse on a scale that I still, and always will find “emotionally difficult” to bear, I do not feel included in Ford’s “we” and “ours.”
For example. I do not share our “general fascination with salacious details.” Such details would plunge me into places I do not wish to go, because I have lived many of them. Having lived them, I am immediately framed as “not our,” and “not we” in Ford’s narrative, whose point of view, it seems to me, is entirely that of a “we” and “ours” who have not endured monstrous events.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this perspective. Not everybody has to suffer torment. But there is something terribly wrong when it is presented as the perspective, excluding those of us who have a very different experience of life, while simultaneously making us the centre of the discussion. This inevitably creates a binary of us and them. It positions women like me outside of the centre, as represented by mainstream writing and reporting.
Women such as myself are absent in this piece of writing that is also absolutely about us. Without us, this text would not exist, yet our voices are silenced by Ford’s appropriation of our lived experience , an appropriation in which there is no place for our presence. We can be talked about. We cannot speak.
We are made the object of Ford’s, and her readers’ gaze, no matter how sympathetic and empathic that gaze may be. We are positioned outside the social order, as represented by Ford’s use of “we” and “ours.” Women such as myself cannot possibly envisage ourselves as belonging in, and to this “we” and “ours.” It is against this “we” and “ours” that women such as myself must struggle to find a place for ourselves in a culture that through no fault of our own, casts us as outside its linguistic parameters of belonging.
There is a barrier between those who’ve known violence and those who haven’t. Because of this barrier, we are forever outsiders. Our secrets set us apart. Dark knowledge taints us. We’re sullied, dirtied, spoiled by our knowledge and we struggle to rid ourselves of this legacy. We are not the “we” and “ours” who fear seeing what we can’t unsee. We have seen the unseeable. We have lived the unlivable. We are the aporia, we are that which cannot be contained within the structures and logics of texts such as Ford’s. We are, by our experiences, made other, and we are further othered by hegemonic writings that exclude us, except as objects of the sympathetic gaze.
Feminist thinker and writer Hélène Cixous suggests that we should not think of women such as myself as “victims,” but rather as “subjects of suffering.” …human beings, she continues, try to live through the worst sufferings. To make humanity of them. To distil them, to understand their lesson. We do this, those of us who can. Many of us can’t. Many of us die. Many of us live lives of unimaginable difficulty. Most of us never have a voice. We must put up with hearing about ourselves and our experiences from others, who shudder at the horror we’ve endured. This serves only to further marginalise us. This makes us spectacle.
What happened in Cleveland is not “incomprehensible” to me, as it is to the “we” Ford addresses. It is all too comprehensible.
Unlike the “we” Ford addresses, there is no temptation for me to consider what happened in Cleveland as “different” from what happened for years in my outwardly “normal” home on an ordinary street, except in some of the specifics.
The call for the “community” to take action to prevent such ruptures as the Cleveland events, or indeed my own sufferings, seems extraordinarily naive to me. How are we to depend on a “community” whose prominent feminist spokespeople see us as other, however empathetically, and exclude us from their discourse?
To imagine the reality of those 10 years would cause too much distress, so we hover around its dark edges, not quite daring to look beyond the borders with anything other than quick glimpses in case our eyes lock on something we can’t unsee.
These are the words of the privileged, who can choose to avoid the distress, who can hover, salaciously, around the dark edges, lacking the courage to cross the borders and walk with those of us who’ve had no choice in the matter, and who can never fully return from that dark country to the land of “we” and “ours.”
Those of us “subjects of suffering” who have survived enough to speak have much to offer, weighted with the authority given to us by our lived experience. We could tell you, for example, that there is a universe of difference between sexual harassment, and the violence we have endured. You may not care to hear that, but we can tell you that is so.
Given the horrific statistics for violence and sexual violence against women in this country, there must be many of our number among Ford’s readers. Yet writing such as this excludes us all. There must be many others who, like me, read this piece and think, I am not of this ‘we.” I am not of this “ours.” This is not written for and to a woman with a life such as mine has been. It is written about women like me, but it is not written with me. It does not walk with me. It does not take my hand. It does not acknowledge me as an equal. It is writing that distances itself from me, and me from it.
If we are to intervene in the cycles of violence that bring abject horror to the lives of so many of us, we are first going to need a new discourse with which to do it. That discourse will not create a barrier between those of us who have suffered and those of us who have not. There will be no excluding “we” and “ours.” We do not need sympathy. We do not need to be isolated in our suffering. We need those who will walk beside us, equals in our shared humanity, no matter how varied our experiences.
If feminism cannot do this for women, it is a failed project.
This is how I feel when you talk about me.