Cassandra lives: from politics to the court room, women are disbelieved

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London); Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy (Wikipedia)

In September, author Elizabeth Lesser published her book, Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. The premise of the book is that stories are central to the human experience, and, as Lesser argues, “Whether we know it or not, whether we have read them or not, whether we believe them or don’t, our daily lives take direction from stories that are hundreds, even thousands, of years old.” The myths of a culture reflect its power structures, “continue to mold cultures for generations,” and have us living out the same stories over and over again in our real lives — like the story of Cassandra.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a princess from the city of Troy. She had many suitors, and Zeus and Apollo were among them. While Apollo was trying to seduce Cassandra, he gave her a gift — not flowers or jewelry, but the kind only a god can give: the gift of prophecy. When Cassandra continued to reject Apollo’s sexual advances after this, he was enraged, and grabbed her, spat in her mouth, and put a curse on her. You will remain clairvoyant, Cassandra, the curse went, but now no one will listen to you. No one will believe your predictions.

As time goes by in the story, Cassandra foresees many things, including the sacking of Troy and the death of her brothers. The curse holds, and nobody believes her. Eventually, the experience of being met with doubt every time she speaks the truth drives Cassandra mad. At the end of the story, Cassandra’s city lies in ruins after the Trojan war, just as she had prophesied, and Cassandra is abducted by a Greek soldier, and raped.

In Cassandra Speaks, Lesser recalls being told the story by a professor, who, after reaching its bleak conclusion, added:

“Listen here, young lady. Women have been ignored, ridiculed, punished, even killed for their opinions, forever. But without the balancing power of her voice, the female voice, things in this world end in disaster. Cassandra’s tale is your tale, it is all of our tales…

We must change the way the story ends… Women know something that the world needs, now. Women know it in our bones. We’ve always known it.”

The last few years have seen the publication of many books by women that do exactly this: challenge the ending to Hesiod’s myth of Cassandra. They include Cyntoia Brown’s Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System and Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, both published in 2019; Rose McGowan’s Brave, published in 2018; and Janet Fraser’s Born Still, published in 2020.

Brown began writing Free Cyntoia before she was finally granted clemency and released from prison after serving 15 years inside, having been sentenced to life for murder and theft at age 16. In 2004, Brown was being prostituted by a man named Cutthroat, who sometimes sent her out with a gun for protection. One day, Brown was taken home by a 43-year-old man named Johnny Allen who intended to rape her and who had firearms in his house. When she saw him reaching for one, Brown made the split-second decision to kill or be killed. In court, prosecutors decided that Brown had shot Allen in his sleep in order to rob him.

Brown had been in prison for a long time before she could see what had happened to her — that Cutthroat was not her boyfriend, that she had been groomed and trafficked, and that it was a problem that the attorneys and judge who put her on trial “never questioned the fact that a 43-year-old man was picking up a teenager for sex… They never mentioned Cut’s age, or described our relationship as statutory rape, or even thought it was strange that a grown man gave a teenager a gun.”

The title of Miller’s book, Know My Name, references the fact that many people know Miller’s pseudonym, “Emily Doe.” In 2015, Buzzfeed published a victim statement that Miller wrote under that name, and presented in court in the lead up to the sentencing of Brock Turner. Tens of millions of people read the statement just before Turner was sentenced to a mere six months in jail.

Rose McGowan’s 2018 book, Brave, includes the testimony that helped bring down Hollywood sexual predator Harvey Weinstein in the same year that Christine Blasey Ford took American Judge Brett Kavanaugh to court* for raping her at a gathering in the 1980s. Lesser’s book also includes testimony from Aly Raisman, one of the women who spoke during the trial of Larry Nassar, who was sentenced for up to 175 years for raping and molesting hundreds of female gymnasts and athletes who saw him for medical care over the course of 30 years, some as young as six years old. Nassar was sentenced in 2017, the year that #MeToo went viral, a movement initiated by Tarana Burke.

Each of these books demonstrates something not only about rape and its aftermath, but the ways public institutions are more concerned with protecting rapists than with preventing rape or supporting victims. Feminists often use the acronym “DARVO” to describe the power and control tactics that abusive individuals use — it stands for deny, attack, reverse victim and offender. These books all demonstrate how these tactics are also common to institutions and to rape trials in particular. Fraser’s book affirms the point the authors of each of these books make: that these tactics are premised on sexism, misogyny, and the subordination of women. Fraser was subjected to an inquest after delivering her baby stillborn during a homebirth, and experienced the very same sort of institutional abuse that women experience during a rape trial.

This abuse is otherwise known as “gaslighting,” a term Lesser defines in Cassandra Speaks. Because DARVO tactics and gaslighting are so commonplace within perpetrator-victim dynamics, institutions like courts (Miller calls this “institutional betrayal”), and important cultural myths like the myth of Cassandra, we should not be surprised to discover that they appear in the political landscape also. In politics, transgenderism is where we find not just individual women, but the female sex, on trial and subjected to the same DARVO tactics women have learned to name and recognize in interpersonal and courtroom abuse.

DARVO tactics enable perpetrators to control a story or political narrative, without having to present a version of events that is more logical, moral, true, coherent, or compelling than the one they wish to refute. On the contrary, an abuser’s defensiveness generally involves lies, contradictions, aggression, and cruelty, but the purpose of his defence is to cultivate a perception of his own behaviour as “normal,” and therefore “reasonable,” whilst rendering his victim contemptible and beneath and beyond the reach of either justice or support. As his actions are normalized, the perpetrator is humanized. Meanwhile, the victim is symbolically dehumanized in ways that cause and exacerbate real suffering, isolation, and injustice.

When these tactics appear in the political landscape, the feminist author Mary Daly called it “patriarchal reversal,” a concept very similar to George Orwell’s “doublethink,” which describes the sort of political propaganda that supports dictatorship. Feminists in particular are familiar with these because women are subjected to DARVO tactics, reversals, and doublethink whether we resist sexual assault the moment it happens, report it afterward, or speak about it politically. As Andrea Dworkin wrote, “Each time a woman does renounce slave behaviour, she meets the full force and cruelty of her oppressor head on.”

The first thing women normally face when we “tell” is denial in its barefaced form. In Know My Name, Miller writes that when she first agreed to press charges against Turner, “I didn’t know that being a victim was synonymous with not being believed…” Fraser echoes these words when she writes, early in her book, “The pain of being called a liar again and again makes me very sensitive to cries that I am inventing what I’m writing.” Lesser quotes gymnast and Olympic medalist Jamie Dantzscher who, during Nassar’s trial, said:

“I was attacked on social media. People didn’t believe me, even people I thought were my friends. They called me a liar, a whore, and even accused me of making all of this up just to get attention.”

When there is too much evidence incriminating the perpetrator, a new tactic is required: the victim’s story needs to be minimized, rather than denied outright. As Anita Hill writes in her 2003 essay, “The Nature of the Beast: Sexual Harassment,” courts often respond to reports of harassment by “downplaying the seriousness of the behaviour,” and by “exaggerating the ease with which victims are expected to handle the behaviour.” Hill reported Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment in 1991, and had to go through the humiliation of relaying the kinds of pornography Thomas had described watching to her, and the things he said to Hill about her body and appearance, in court. In response, former senator Arlen Specter said, “You testified this morning that the most embarrassing question involved, and this is not too bad: ‘women’s large breasts.’ That’s a word we use all the time.”

The minimization that women face when we object to specific acts of male violence also happens to women who speak about male violence as a public and political issue. In a culture in which rape is commonplace, the consequences for redefining sex in law and policy are endless. Men will be able to access female-only public toilets, changing rooms, prisons, safehouses, organizations, and sports; women will lose the right to request female doctors or counsellors; and statistics on many issues where sex plays a major role — such as health, violence, self-harm, and suicide — will become unreliable. Yet advocates of transgenderism deny and downplay both the reality of biological sex and the consequences of pretending that it is changeable or does not exist, and like to claim that feminists are overly concerned with micromanaging people’s toileting habits and the contents of their underwear. We supposedly have little more than an irrational fixation on “boogeymen” that do not really exist.

One way that feminists’ concerns are frequently undermined is through a disproportionate scrutiny of the sources of their evidence. Unsurprisingly, advocates of transgenderism seem to only accept data and analysis from those publications and organizations that manipulate the facts in accordance with their own ideology. For instance, trans activists constantly claim that suicide rates are especially high among “trans” people. This claim cannot be substantiated in places where census information is still gathered on the basis of sex, and statistics generally show that male suicide rates are higher than female, with no reference to any “trans” demographic. In response, trans activists have to do three things: ignore all suicide statistics based on sex, pressure governments to politicize data collection in line with trans ideology, and dismiss feminists who argue that we need to think about why suicide rates might be higher among men with gender dysphoria and possible surgical genital mutilation. This sort of dismissal is usually done with the ironic claim that the sources feminists rely upon are politically biased and therefore invalid.

During rape trials, the same dynamic takes place. Because most rape happens in the home, there are not normally direct witnesses who can provide evidence. For a rape victim, memory is the primary source of evidence. In some circumstances, a rape kit can be assembled — this is a packet of forensic evidence taken from the victim and refrigerated for testing. This happened in Miller’s case. Miller awoke in hospital the day after Turner raped her behind a dumpster, with a head full of pine needles, and no knowledge of what had happened to her. Her whole body was searched, swabbed, plucked, brushed over, and photographed. Miller writes that, months later, she discovered her rape kit still hadn’t been tested in the crime lab:

“I figured it had something to do with results showing up slowly, some DNA sciencey who knows what. But I was told it was because of the backlog of kits. There were hundreds in line before me, some kits kept so long they grew mold, some thrown out, the lucky ones refrigerated. Immediately I fell ill.”

In a 2012 essay titled, “A Needed Revolution: Testing Rape Kits and US Justice,” Sarah Tofte writes that there are tens of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities across the United States.

So, a woman’s memory is scrutinized instead of the evidence. If a woman tried hard to get on with her life before finally deciding to report her abuser — as both Hill and Blasey Ford did — this provides a prime opportunity to discredit her memory. Hill reported Clarence Thomas almost 10 years after Thomas’ harassment, and Blasey Ford reported Kavanagh 37 years after he allegedly raped her. In court, their ability to accurately remember events that had been seared into their memory — that they most likely desperately wished they could forget — was constantly questioned.

Miller and Fraser were in a different situation, because for them, police were called to the scene before they themselves had a handle on what was going on. Both of these women remembered plenty for the record, but Miller had blacked out because of alcohol, and both women’s memories were affected by dissociation. This is a protective mechanism of the brain, and it happens typically when people are experiencing something that is more than they can bear emotionally. Therapist and author Mark Wolynn writes in his 2016 book, It Didn’t Start With You:

“During a traumatic incident, our thought processes can become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button has been pressed, causing us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our day-to-day lives.”

McGowan describes the experience of dissociation, and the triggering of memories stored in the body, in Brave. She recalls when she spoke up about a sexual assault that happened on a movie set early in her career, and the director denied it. Recalling that denial, she wrote:

“Don’t gaslight me, motherfucker. My vagina remembers. My body remembers… The body has memory that is even more accurate than the mind. Women know when they have been violated emotionally, physically, or verbally… Our bodies shake, they burn, they do all kinds of things when they remember. Our muscles remember. Even when we are drunk we know the difference between welcome and unwelcome — the body always feels it during and after.”

McGowan also described the dissociation she experienced in the moments after Weinstein raped her and released her from his hotel room. She writes:

“My whole body is shaking. I try to find my clothes. I’m in total shock, and moving somewhat mechanically. I’m still hovering up above, not quite in my body. And I’m trying to put my clothes on and make sense of what has just happened. It’s like a race you can’t keep up with. My life has been re-routed. I just got hijacked.”

Miller also describes the way that her own dissociation from her body amounted to a kind of hijacking, and that it represented Turner’s opportunity to “write the script” in court. Turner actually claimed that Miller had enjoyed being assaulted behind the dumpster, and that he had even sought her consent — that she had said, “uh huh.” At first, Miller found this preposterous and called her defence attorney in disbelief:

“But as she spoke, her reasoning hit me with horrifying clarity: his only way out is through you. It was like watching wolves being clipped off their leashes while someone whispered in your ear that meat has been sewn into your pockets. The only chance he had of being acquitted was to prove that to his knowledge, the sexual act had been consensual. He’d force moans in my mouth, assign lecherous behaviour, to shift the blame onto me.”

Shortly after Miller’s victim statement was released in 2015, Ruth Styles reported that Turner had sent photos of Miller to members of his swim team through a group chat app on his phone, during the attack. In Verily, Mary Rose Somaribba noted the evident connection between Turner’s actions and pornography. The connection between porn and rape was also clear in Nassar’s case, as he was found to be in possession of at least 37,000 child pornography videos and images.

Porn is a theme in all of these recently published books. When Brown was in prison, she spent time looking back to figure out how she had ended up behind bars. She wrote that, for years, she thought of the man who pimped her “as this bad dude who put all these ideas in my head — when the truth was, I was already groomed and ready long before I met him.” Pornography played a role in this grooming, as Brown explains:

“My education came from a 1970s porno I found when I was 10. After looking around to make sure no one was there, I popped it into the VCR and watched the screen, my eyes wide. ‘This is what Mommy’s trying to hide from me when she covers my eyes watching HBO!’ I thought. I felt like I was getting away with something, with no one around to force my hands over my eyes. It was my first exposure to sex, and as far as I knew it was perfectly normal… it was like the curtain was pulled back, like I got a glimpse at a secret.

Behind the bad acting and terrible message, each porno carried a message. At least to my young brain: sex with strangers was normal, they told me. I watched women walk into a room and immediately start having sex with whoever was there. ‘That must be how it happens,’ I thought. Had Mommy known what was going through my head, she would have been horrified. I pretty much didn’t connect any consequences to sex itself.”

In Brave, McGowan speaks to this same issue of sexual objectification from the perspective of a Hollywood actress, who had been, in her words, “turned into the ultimate fantasy fuck toy by the Hollwood machine.” She elaborates:

“Hollywood creates a fucked up mirror for you to look in. Now you are seeing yourself through your own eyes, but perhaps not your own mind. Hollywood affects your life in ways you may not even be aware of. In my past of being sold as a product, I have been part of massaging your brain… I was the cigarette the advertisers told you you needed… All of us in Hollywood… have had it drilled into us how best to be marketed to you. How best to be sold to you. How to implant what we want into your brain, into your thoughts, into your wallet… The men who thought they owned me, think that they own you.”

What these women demonstrate, as they describe their experiences of rape and grooming, is that dissociation itself is cultural. It is cultural because rape is institutionalized in prostitution and porn — industries that help turn men like Turner and Nassar into rapists. It is cultural because pornography is normalized through the sexual objectification McGowan challenges and which pervades Hollywood, advertising, and mainstream media. Prostitution, porn, and media objectification all fuel a climate of male sexual entitlement, rape, and violation; body hatred, dysphoria, and anorexia. Their normalization makes dissociation a cultural issue, not just an individual trauma response. In the words of Pornland author Gail Dines, “This culture has become a collective perpetrator. We have a perp-culture.”

This culturally pervasive state of dissociation allows for a political and public — rather than just an individual — “hijacking” of female reality, and that is what transgenderism amounts to. With transgenderism, the bodily dissociation that so many women experience — sometimes as a consequence of rape, and often more subtly as a way to cope in an objectifying culture — is politically leveraged. Just as perpetrators take advantage of dissociation to “rewrite the script” in court, men are using the collective dissociation that results from rape and porn culture to erase female biology from law and public advocacy.

This hijacking is assisted not only through denial, minimization, and taking advantage of memory loss and dissociation, but through attack — something Miller, McGowan, and Fraser all experienced. Miller received such disturbing letters that her and her neighbors’ houses were put on alert, and a detective from the Special Victims Unit advised Miller to install security cameras and a second back door lock at her home and have a flower bush cut back from the garden beneath her window because it could hide people. Fraser also received hate mail, and, at one point, writes that a notorious “North American blogger” published her full residential address online. “Obviously her concern for my daughter didn’t extend to the safety of my earthside children,” she adds. For a week, she and her children slept not in separate rooms, but together in the safest room of the house.

McGowan writes:

“I endured being hacked, stalked, spied on, had parts of this manuscript stolen. My life was infiltrated by Israeli spies and harassing lawyers, some of the most formidable on earth. These evil people have hounded me at every turn.”

The websites “banned by trans” and “TERF is a slur” document some of the abuse that feminists face when they name male violence as a public issue that must not be muddied through the legal redefinition of sex. The intention, as Hill writes, is that “women who ‘tell’… become emotionally wasted.”

The last aspect of DARVO is to reverse victim and offender. The perpetrator becomes the victim, as the naming, detailing, and recording of his actions affects his reputation. The victim is painted as the perpetrator: someone who has a destructive agenda, following an assault that she supposedly “wanted” in the first place.

Turner, Kavanagh, Nassar, and Weinstein all painted themselves as the underdog, despite their being perpetrators. Kavanagh was positively hysterical — claiming to be the victim of a “calculated and orchestrated political hit.” Turner’s father spoke up for him in court and contributed to the chorus of people expressing their concerns about Turner’s swimming career. He also argued that the sentencing of his son amounted to a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” When Lary Nassar wrote a letter to Judge Aquilina complaining about his own victimization, he actually included the line, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

As the perpetrator moves himself into the victim position, the victim becomes guilty. In Untouchable, a documentary about Weinstein, New York Observer reporter Rebecca Traister offers an example of what this looks like, saying:

“There was always a kind of list of people who had just gotten big roles, who got gossiped about. But the way the gossip was communicated was: she slept with Harvey to get that part. It was never communicated as, Oh yeah, you heard, he slept with her. It was always the woman as the person who had done the action. She blew Harvey. She fucked Harvey. She slept with Harvey. To get that part.”

For Brown, this meant that during the initial hearings, while attorneys “never questioned” the fact that Brown had been trafficked into prostitution at 16, Brown listened to herself being described as a “teenage prostitute” with murderous intent. She writes:

“By the time I’d been locked up a year, every inch of my character had been attacked from every imaginable direction, thanks to my many court dates. The weight of judgement and ostracizing had worn my self-esteem down to nothing.”

When Hill gave her statement in front of a panel of white men, then-senator and now-president elect, Joe Biden, was unapologetic about the sort of questioning that should follow. “It is appropriate to ask professor Hill anything any member wishes to ask her, to plumb the depths of her credibility,” he said.

In her book, Miller got to the bottom of how this reversal of victim and offender really works, by observing the difference between how the defence attorney questioned Turner versus herself. Turner was asked questions about things like whether “grinding” and drinking at parties was common and whether everybody did it. Considering these lines of questioning, Miller wrote:

“In each line, I found common, common, a part of, everybody, everybody. This pattern was not an accident. He was leading Brock back into the herd, where he could blend into the comfort of community. Compare this to when he had questioned me: You did a lot of partying. You’ve had blackouts before. It was you and you, the lens fixed so close I was stripped of surrounding. For Brock, his goal was to integrate, for me it was to isolate.”

Blame is placed on victims through the use of labels, stereotypes, and the  “rough sex” defence, which was used following the rape and murder of Grace Millane in New Zealand 2018. Both Miller and Brown experienced being slapped with the label “whore,” so that they could be blamed, as though they sought their own violation. In politics, this label has many equivalents: “sex worker” is one; “cis” is another. The term “sex worker” was invented by the sex trade lobby as a polite way to place a woman in the category of “whore,” blaming her for the way men treat her and for “choosing” her own violation. In transgender ideology, the idea of a “cis woman” fulfills the same function, because a “cis woman” is supposedly a born gender stereotype — in other words, a sex object. Women who reject the ideology of transgenderism are “TERFs” — the political equivalent of what Hill calls “women who tell.” So-called “TERFs” are held responsible for sullying the reputations of an entire demographic of men who claim to be women and who wish to invade women’s spaces on that pretense.

The slurs “whore,” “TERF,” and “cis” are all objectifying. They all turn women into stereotypes, a practice that is a precursor to violence as it renders people subhuman. The objectification inherent in transgenderism and its stereotyping of women is not only pornographic and fetishistic, it is also perverse and clinical. Increasingly, in the name of gender diversity, women are being talked about like we are medical specimens. In order to keep the language of biological femaleness ambiguous enough to include men, actual women must now be referred to in all sorts of reductive (and ridiculous) ways: “menstruators,” “ovulators,” “ovary bearers,” “incubators,” and “vagina bearers.”

Transgenderism shares this dehumanizing, pornographic, and clinical objectification with court rooms that also treat women like specimens. Miller describes how her body was photographed when she was found and while she was unconscious in the hospital, and how these pictures were then displayed on a four-foot tall screen in court, with no warning, in front of her family. Sifting through court transcripts, Miller also discovered descriptions of photographs she didn’t know about being projected on the same screen for Turner and his family, as well as reporters and whoever else was in the room, while Miller was not present, but in the building. Some of the images were described as: “Photograph of close-up buttocks with multiple abrasions,” “Photograph of ruler to show measurements of abrasions next to hospital gown,” “Photograph of female genitalia,” “Photograph of female genitalia with debris inside labia minora.”

Fraser had a similar experience. Like a lot of home-birthing women, she had a video of her home birth. To prepare for cross-examination, she had to watch it multiple times in her solicitor’s office. She explains that, “He had needed me to tell him what I was doing and I needed to see the video to do that because I had no memories of that time except some physical and emotional memories.” The video was also played in court. Fraser writes:

“I had to watch it and so did [the stillborn baby’s] father, my attending friend and all the journalists, court officers, supporters and any other random people who popped in that very full day. Imagine yourself naked, on a large screen, being shown to strangers against your will. Discomforting, isn’t it?

… Having police, witnesses (some who knew me and some who didn’t), court officials, attendees (some of whom were supportive and most who weren’t), lawyers and anyone else who felt like it, viewing my naked body over and over had a definite ring of voyeurism to it.”

Fraser adds, “the video of my birth was used to punish me, I have no doubt.”

The dehumanization of women in court serves to block us off both from the possibility of a just legal outcome, as well as from wider community support. As a woman stands before officials who seek to “plumb the depths of her credibility,” in Biden’s words, and attack “every inch of my character,” in Brown’s, there comes to be no way that people can continue to associate with the woman in question without being tarnished themselves. Fraser writes, “By the time the inquest came around, my community support had gone.”

Many women find the experience of losing support from other women particularly hurtful. In Fraser’s words, “Without a critique of women’s self-hatred, I think I would implode, or explode.” Anita Hill expressed the same need:

“Women who ‘tell’ are, sadly, not always supported by other women… In my kindest moments, I believe that this reaction represents attempts to distance ourselves from the pain of the harassment experience; the internal response is ‘This didn’t happen to me. This couldn’t happen to me. In order to believe that I am protected, I must believe that it didn’t happen to her.’ The external response becomes ‘What did you do to provoke that kind of behaviour?’”

In politics, this betrayal manifests itself most starkly in the form of women of influence who choose to promote transgenderism even if they are known for their “feminism,” and even as part of their “feminist” positions. The examples are endless, and include Elizabeth Lesser herself, whose book includes statements in support of transgenderism. McGowan originally stood up to a man who heckled her for supposedly being “transphobic” at a book launch, until outcry led her to back down and apologize. It is easier to name women of influence who dissent, like J.K. Rowling did in 2020 and Martina Navratilova in 2019, because it happens so rarely. These women go through their own Cassandra experience as a result of defending of the female sex.

Perpetrators, and men in general, who seek to redeem their reputations take great advantage of women’s complicity, because they are often more welcome in mainstream “feminism” than the Cassandras are. When they enter it, they can consolidate the normalization of their own position and the isolation of victims. When women are isolated, they are often forced to watch men gain the very kinds of support they are denied and truly need, and feel it like a twist of the knife. Traister was verbally abused by Weinstein at a public gathering, and describes seeing him at an event celebrating women of influence. In Untouchable, she recalls what she thought and felt, seeing him there:

“You’re here. What are you doing here? But then I was looking at him, with all these powerful women, feminist women — you’re putting your money toward protecting yourself, positioning yourself as a feminist. Positioning yourself as an ally to powerful women. This is all part of what your deal is and how you’ve managed to suppress all this. I just stopped thinking that my story, or the evidence from it, was ever going to be important to anybody because nobody was ever going to win against this guy.”

In Know My Name, Miller reports how Joe Biden, who had encouraged a panel of men to “plumb the depths” of Hill’s credibility, sent her a letter after her victim statement was released. “I see you,” he wrote. When Miller says, “What did it mean that the vice president of the United States of America had stopped every important thing he was doing, to write, ‘I see you,’”? Given that Biden is known for his habit of “inappropriate touching,” that is a good question.

Popular feminism is full of men strategically positioning themselves as “allies to women.” This is one of the reasons ex-partners of male autogynephiles, who sometimes refer to themselves as “trans widows,” discourage feminists from working with men like their exes, and from making concessions by calling them “she,” allowing them into women’s toilets, and so forth. It not only puts women at risk and undermines our ability to defend women’s rights to defend boundaries based on biology, but it alienates women who have suffered in relationships with these men.

There is a terrible irony in the way the gaslighting used against women by perpetrators, lawyers, judges, and ideologues alike serves to isolate women, but does so with such predictability and institutional power as to help construct the social reality all women have in common. If there is any genius in patriarchy, it is in its ability to sustain a paradox in which half the population experience alienation because of conditions we all share.

Each woman whose book I mentioned here experienced violation, trauma, silencing, and systemic injustice — like Cassandra. Each recognized that this treatment was rooted in misogyny and that women are female. Each also recognized that it would require a women’s movement — the breakdown of the isolation between women that Cassandra’s fate relies on — to effect real change for women’s safety, autonomy, and legal recognition. While in prison, Brown started a group called GLITTER: Grassroots Learning Initiative on Teen Trafficking, Exploitation, and Rape. McGowan began “Rose Army,” writing, “I truly believe that a win for one of us is a win for all of us.” Fraser has long been advocating for women’s rights in childbirth through her group, Joyous Birth. Miller caused a global outcry when her victim statement went viral on BuzzFeed, and was read by tens of millions of people. She writes:

“The judge knew I’d be unhappy with the sentencing, he just didn’t know 18 million people would be indignant, and that two hundred thousand people in the local county would vote for his outing.”

Transgenderism puts the female sex on trial in a way that replicates the misogyny, victim blaming, and institutional abuse of a rape trial, so that the women’s movement that each of these women has advocated for in word and action, is poisoned at the root. The most basic premise of feminism is that women are human, not whores, chattel, or any other male fantasy. So, even though it looks like feminism is growing around the world — Women’s Marches, pussy hats, the #MeToo movement — the concepts of “cis” and “TERF” prevent those branches from bearing much fruit and creating meaningful social change.

Rape alienates women in a fundamental way. It only takes two women standing together, knowing that they have three things in common — their humanity, their sex, and their oppression — to break that isolation. Making the recognition of women as female taboo prevents solidarity between even two women. It does this partly by cementing the harms of body dissociation and denial, so that women cannot even honestly assess their own thoughts and feelings.

Transgenderism, as a political and popular movement, is like a rape trial writ large. Transgender ideology and its widespread acceptance does to the female sex as a whole what a rape trial does to an individual woman. It gaslights women beyond all reason, and forces us to argue for things that we should never have to defend in the first place: our safety, our dignity, our privacy, our worth, our bodies, our existence — whilst being isolated and rendered fair game for violation, like Cassandra. A “TERF” is supposedly inherently evil and destructive, like Eve or Pandora, and therefore fair game for assault, ridicule, harassment, and alienation.

Having been through this rigmarole, reading Brown’s story, Miller’s, Fraser’s, and Raceman’s taught me something I did not know it would. I thought that if I read all these stories I would find something, some clue or answer about how — how to withstand becoming Cassandra, how to respond to DARVO tactics.

I did not find any guideline, or strategy, or rule of thumb, but something else. Each woman whose story I read was at some point convinced that she had to play the part of the perfect victim, and that if she did, she would gain the respect — and then the help — she so badly needed. Miller writes:

“Throughout the legal process, I felt like I was always trying to keep up, to not mess up, learn court jargon, pay attention, follow the rules. I wanted to fit in and prove I could do what was expected of me. It had never occurred to me that the system itself could be wrong, could be changed or improved. Victims could ask for more. We could be treated better.”

Trying to fulfill this role takes work, because the rules are not only impossible to meet, but contradictory, and the goalposts continuously move. After a merciless cross examination in which Miller’s answers are constantly interrupted and struck from the record, she writes:

“I lost it, throwing open my arms, pleading, I didn’t know where my sister was. I didn’t know where I was… I let go, emptying my lungs into the grape-sized microphone. Guttural sounds crawled out of my throat, long and loud. I didn’t collect myself, didn’t take my little sip of water, didn’t daintily dab at the tips of my eyes, didn’t say, I’m okay, just decided, you will wait for as long as it takes. This is it, everybody. Here it is, you did it.

Not a single person in the room knew what to do with this unhinged wailing. But I had finally come to the end of an answer without interruption. I felt manic, it was intoxicating, everyone forced to swallow my siren sounds. Calm, collected, centred, strong, bullshit, I abandoned all of it, had no intention of stopping, had lost the little voice that told me to reel it in, could only think release, release, release.”

Brown describes how, even though prison was often maddening, “in Nashville, the pressure to be a model inmate was relentless.” She describes having to force herself not to cry or become angry during hearings, but just commit to giving poker-faced “yes” or “no” answers during questioning. She says:

“I broke only once. I couldn’t help myself. The district attorney (the DA) wouldn’t stop going off about how I must have felt comfortable in the dude’s house if I ate food… and used his bathroom. Finally, I couldn’t hold back any longer. ‘I’m sorry, have you ever killed someone?’ I asked accusingly.

The DA’s eyes popped out of his head like he couldn’t believe I just gave him a free shot. ‘Why no Miss Brown,’ he said, a smug look on his face, ‘you’re the only one on trial for murder.’

‘Okay then. I think I know what I’m talking about.’”

During the sentencing of Larry Nassar, things were different, because the judge who sentenced Nassar is no ordinary judge. Miller writes about what it was like to see on television how Judge Rosemarie Aquilina treated the girls and women in her courtroom:

“I’d never questioned the short time limit I was given to read my statement, until Judge Aquilina made time for 169 statements. She made it clear each one was important. She invited restoration and compassion into a space I had only associated with torture… She said to the women, Leave your pain here and go out and do your magnificent things. I didn’t know instructions like this were possible. In court, the judge is the captain of the ship. My captain sunk us. She turned their ship, pointing them toward the horizon.”

In Cassandra Speaks, Lesser writes about how Judge Aquilina freed the women and girls in her courtroom from the spectre of the “perfect victim”:

“No longer alone in their truth telling, bolstered by strength in numbers, and treated with respectful listening, the young women spoke with so much legitimate fury that it felt to me as if generations of Cassandras were speaking through them, and being vindicated… some cried, some yelled, some almost whispered.”

What I realized through reading these accounts is that, not only is there no such thing as a perfect victim, and not only is this standard bollocks, but that everything these women did was right. As Lesser says, “some cried, some yelled, some almost whispered.” All are right.

The act and the institutionalization of rape means women are constantly being squeezed into boxes — “whore” and “sex worker” and “cis woman” and “TERF” — that simply do not fit us. All we really need to do to demonstrate that we do not deserve to be raped and that we are not murderous whores, conniving gold diggers, hysterical attention seekers, subhuman, or born to be violated, is to show that we are human. Except, being human is not something that needs to be shown. It just is. Crying when you are being silenced after being violated is human. Rage is human. Sarcasm is human. Being unable to speak because your mouth has gone bone dry from fear is human.

Miller writes in her book that, at first, “I wanted to fix everything, straighten it out one by one. Explain explain explain. But this defensiveness would carry over into my regular life.” Reflecting on the shift she underwent, Miller says:

“Kicking and screaming is not a sign you have lost your mind. It’s a sign you have stepped onto your own side. You are learning, finally, how to fight back. Rage had arrived to burn the timidness away.”

Women do not need to be perfect, or composed, or “calm, collected, centred, strong,” in order to show we do not fit in the tiny box labelled, “whore” or “TERF.” We just need to be human. It is those trying to discredit victims who must make the effort to prove themselves and their stories — who must do the work of fabricating scenarios and trying to make them convincing, constructing strawmen and then going to battle with them, and trying not to get trapped in a labyrinth of lies. There is nothing women need to prove about ourselves in the face of this effort. In Miller’s words, we only need to “step onto our own side.”

With regard to myths like those of Eve and Cassandra, Lesser writes:

“I had absorbed those stories as if they were about humankind, about men and women. But here’s the thing: stories created only by men are really stories about men. I wanted to explore what would have happened and what could happen now, when women are the storytellers too.”

May women continue to tell our own true and human stories, and may these stories find amplification until they have broken the curse of those cultural myths that otherwise hijack our lives.

*EDIT — December 27, 2020: The author states “Christine Blasey Ford took American Judge Brett Kavanaugh to court for raping her at a gathering in the 1980s.” This is inaccurate. In September 2018, Ford alleged that then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982. She testified about her allegations later that month during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.

Renée Gerlich is a writer and artist based in the Wellington region, New Zealand. You can find more of her work on her website, and watch her talk on transgenderism, neoliberalism, and rape culture on YouTube

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