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A quarterly international literary journal

The Myth of the Perfect Victim

/ Second Place, 2024 Plentitudes Prize in Nonfiction /     

He’d start fights with me on the rare occasions I tried to leave the house for an hour or two to write in a coffee shop nearby. Our kids were three and under one. I sought time to write once a month at most, wanting a brief reprieve from the smothered feeling at home that I had no name for at the time. In the coffee shop, I could breathe. The sounds of grinding beans and steaming milk were soothing. I was writing poetry then, pouring myself into imagined realities that seemed out of reach. But I rarely made it to the coffee shop. He’d lob accusations at me—my selfishness, my abandonment of my children, my failure to deal with the dishes in the sink. I usually relented, sinking into the couch, holding the baby. Crying and seething with anger at him, and at myself for relenting. Then, I’d collapse into myself, wondering how I might fix it. This is the story I told myself: I was too much. I had to try harder to be good, to be worthy, to be loved.


* * *


I cannot remember a time I didn’t know the story of La Llorona. At sleepovers, friends’ parents would terrorize us with stories of what she’d do if we played by the acequia after dark. We acted out the scenes on the playground, chasing each other and shrieking. The story belongs to the northern New Mexican culture I was raised in, a culture that shares themes and messages with other old tales: Good women must not want or transgress or err. Women who don’t conform become monsters.


* * *


Once upon a time, a poor, beautiful woman married a rich nobleman. The villagers had many opinions about this. Some felt glad for the couple and celebrated them. Some said she was luckier than she knew—despite the fact that the man had a temper. His wealth had elevated her in some people’s eyes and though they wouldn’t admit it, they were jealous. Others wondered how it had happened. Was she a witch? Had she cast a spell on him? Over time, the rumors among the villagers died down and the couple had children. After the second child was born, the man began leaving the house more frequently and staying out longer. One day, he disappeared. The woman bore his absence silently. Eventually, she began dating again, but the relationships never lasted. Villagers wondered privately what she had done to lose her husband to begin with. She wondered, too. One day, she vanished. Some say she drowned herself and her children in the river. The villagers told their own children to stay away from the banks.


* * *


I was ten years old when Fried Green Tomatoes was released as a movie but I didn’t see it until several years later. By then I had already seen a man attacking a woman. I heard the screaming first, and ran to the window. I felt my body go hot and rigid as I watched him hit her with a baseball bat across her pregnant belly. They were in their front yard across the street. I had never seen domestic violence. I didn’t know it had a name. Later, Fried Green Tomatoes named it for me. The details were precise: Ruth’s pansy colored eye from where her husband had hit her, his scar and bulging muscles and menacing face. The way, when Ruth left, he did not hide his violence from the three rescuers. Instead, he slammed Idgie against a wall and pushed Ruth down the stairs. And in case these details didn’t make his abuse clear enough, he turned up later dressed in full Ku Klux Klan attire, wielding a flaming torch.


The story as it was told in the movie was inarguable and the messages were simple: Abusers are monsters you can immediately identify. Abuse is physical and constant and the worst kind of violence. Abusers will reveal who they are to everyone—and most importantly, everyone will see this and acknowledge it. This will allow victims to flee with relative safety. Upon gaining freedom, victims will experience immediate strength and serenity as they live out the rest of their lives. These qualities and strengths will establish them as perfect victims, whose credibility is not questioned.

Their friendships will blossom. That Idgie is a trousers-wearing, gambling woman with no desire to settle down with a man, makes Ruth’s status all the more clear. Unlike Idgie, Ruth fits the standards that the world expects of women.


I carried these lessons with me for well over a decade, and even now I struggle to remove their barbed hooks from my flesh. When violence happened to me, it did not look like Ruth’s abuser or the abuser I saw across the street. I was not a perfect victim, either. Perfect victims inspire compassion and clarity. The lines had been sharply defined.


Anyone who has spoken out about violence, sexual assault, or harassment knows that these myths are untrue. Still, the myth of the perfect victim persists. To be credible, victims must have no motivation other than truth. The truth must be obvious, and more importantly, convenient. Above all, perfect victims must be likeable. Ruth is sweet smiles and blackberry pie. She is beloved by everyone. She is white, and supposedly straight. And to ensure that her perfect victim status is memorialized forever, she dies of cancer following her abuser’s murder. Death ensures that a story will be told one hundred different ways—none of them honest. 


On the rare occasions when a woman meets the socially accepted criteria of perfect victimhood, nothing socially unacceptable can ever happen to her again. Under no circumstances should a victim find herself in any situation where she could be re-victimized. Being a victim a second time heralds more doubt than the first. The question, why did she stay mutates into she’s a lost cause or she should’ve known better or she must have done something. From a societal standpoint, you can only be a perfect victim once—if ever.


What is not named in Fried Green Tomatoes, and what I could not identify as a child, was the romantic relationship between Ruth and Idgie. It’s there but the blurring of details doesn’t appear to be an accident. Fried Green Tomatoes came out in 1991 as the AIDS crisis was still in full swing. Homophobia was pervasive and deadly. The producers of Fried Green Tomatoes insisted that Ruth and Idgie were just friends—despite the actresses’ public disagreement with this choice. When the prosecutor in the movie asks the courtroom, “Why would a respectable Christian woman go anywhere with this Idgie Threadgood?”, Ruth declares her love for Idgie. That Ruth was pregnant when she left her husband makes it even more of a mystery to the prosecutor and the majority of people packed into the courtroom. It is right and good that a woman should remain with her abusive husband while raising their child. But a gay relationship is condemning. A gay relationship would have revoked Ruth’s perfect victimhood. As much as I cling to this movie because of even its muted queer representation, the story fails to accurately show the legacy of trauma, how and why healing happens, and who is worthy of it.


* * *

Once upon a time, a plain woman with modest means met a wealthy, charming man. They hid their relationship because they knew the villagers would judge them. Eventually, the woman became pregnant and it was no longer possible to hide their relationship. They hastily married to avoid further gossip but it was too late. The woman cried and shouted at the injustice of being attacked. Her husband withdrew into stony silence. After their second child was born, the man left for days at a time. Villagers delighted in telling her about the various women he’d been with. She grew jealous. She told the villagers that he’d hit her, that he’d raped her. They told her it was her fault. They told her how charming he was and how handsome. They asked her why she was only saying something now. In a rage she grabbed her two children and threw them into the rushing river. Then, horrified at what she had done, she threw herself into the river, too. Though it is ill-advised, if you stand on the riverbank you can still hear her wailing for her children. 


* * *


When I first met my abuser he told me his previous girlfriend had “turned lesbian.” He told me she abused him. She’d thrown a phone at him, he said. She’d yelled. She’d had an abortion without his consent. And when he began to fling bitch and whore in my face, and when he held me down, I had no name for what was happening. Abuse, I thought, was a baseball bat across the stomach or being thrown against the wall.


After he smacked me across the face he said he’d never do it again. This turned out to be a technicality that allowed for other forms of violence, both physical and verbal. I pressed my nails into his skin when he held me down. I yelled back. I lied to him. I hid his phone and keys sometimes—desperate attempts at some kind of power. When we went to gatherings together, I glowered or withdrew. He smiled and charmed. His mother advised me on how to be a better wife. Lay out his clothes the night before, she said. Make sure you are smiling when he comes home. I hated her for it, but then I tried. I failed. I wondered what was wrong with me.


Victims who are clearly flawed, who are unlikeable, too loud, or have vices or enemies, struggle to gain empathy from others. Sometimes the imperfect victim is angry, has motives, or pushes people away. I do not meet societal criteria for being a perfect victim. I am a lesbian, for one. I’m also hard headed, prone to argument, and write freely about personal topics that make people uncomfortable. But I refuse to contain the stories of my abuse. This laundry I air has been sullied by all of us.


It took me years to name fully name what had happened to me and even now I’m still grappling with the ways trauma has morphed into shame. The way, in trauma, I have self-sabotaged, or perpetuated harm on others. These realities have made it hard for me to identify the truth at times. And like many people who have experienced different forms and shades of abuse or assault, it can feel impossible to confront persistent whispers in my head that say it wasn’t assault because I didn’t say “no” and it wasn’t that bad.  The myths about what constitutes “real” violence and who counts as a victim causes us to silence ourselves, to doubt our own truths and experiences.


To makes things more complicated, “victim” is a charged word. Venture into the comment section of any story of hardship, violent or not, and you’ll encounter countless comments about “the victim mentality.” The message is meant to reinforce the same stories I believed in my marriage: I brought this upon myself. I alone can fix this. I am unworthy of compassion or support.


For years I felt too much shame to tell the truth. I understood the ways I would be questioned. The ways I would be disbelieved. The ways I did not fit the mold of who is considered believable.


Domestic violence and femicide are a global crisis with no remembered beginning and no perceivable end. I hesitate to make such a sweeping statement, wanting to qualify it with a country or region, but in truth, I know of no place where violence against women has been taken seriously and eradicated. And I know of no place where the trauma that reverberates from this violence against women has been addressed. Representations in films and books often only reinforce stereotypes of abusers and victims and portray one-dimensional dynamics between them.


Recently, as I watched the TV series, Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name, I felt a sudden rush of recognition and relief. In each episode, Marianne, a young woman who has suffered continuous abuse from her violent brother, reacted to those around her from a place of trauma. Her responses to other people mirror a true-to-life depiction of how violence can seep through the fabric of a life even when the harm has been removed. In one scene, Marianne is far from home and sends a text to on-again, off-again lover, Connell. She writes, “Sometimes, someone will make eye contact with me–like a bus conductor or a person looking for change and I’ll feel shocked that anyone can actually see me.”


It’s been seventeen years since my abusive marriage ended, but I still feel invisible and mostly prefer it. I’m close to six feet with wide hips, and long legs. I take up space physically in the world. But often, when people wave to me, I turn my head, suddenly worried that I’m standing between two people who need to speak to one another but have found me bumbling between them. This might elicit empathy, given that trauma and past abuse are at the root of feeling worthless and invisible. But the trauma that causes a woman to want to be invisible also puts up a barrier in new relationships, and so the effects of abuse continue. In intimate relationships, invisibility is not absence; it’s a muffled need for acceptance and connection. But connection is difficult and fraught with a person who does not think she’s worth being seen. Invisibility becomes a grenade. Or a sudden implosion.


In Normal People, Marianne apologizes to Connell constantly. The words, “I’m sorry” cloak her in invisibility though she is trying desperately to be seen. When her brother breaks her nose, she calls Connell but apologizes when he shows up. I recognize this instinct and the kinds of thoughts that follow. Perhaps she is asking too much, or making things a bigger deal than they really are. Or maybe she simply isn’t worth helping. Maybe the perceived inconvenience it causes Connell is of greater value than her own safety.


Women, in particular, have been conditioned to seek forgiveness, apologies tumbling from our lips without thought. And for people who have survived abuse, apologizing becomes a form of magical thinking: maybe I can be forgiven. Maybe I could be worthy. Saying “I’m sorry” over and over has been my attempt to scale the walls in the black pit of unworthiness. The only problem is that this mostly requires someone else to lower a ladder down. Inevitably, I fall back in. Eventually, the ladder stops being offered. The words lose their meaning and become their own indictment. If I am always apologizing, the things I am responsible for balloon and multiply. “I’m sorry” is a bludgeon with an echo that reverberates infinitely. 


Tell any story with persistence and people will begin to believe it.


Trauma is at the root of all of this. Enveloped in my trauma, I’m implicated. I am the woman and the villagers. I am the stories I tell myself. I tell the stories I want to break free of and the ones that still constrain me. It’s hard to avoid heartbreak when the story has been dammed.


To be a perfect victim, your trauma must never be showing. This means you must either never come forward, or, if you can contain your trauma, you must come forward reluctantly, motivated primarily by your concern for other victims. I can anticipate the pushback already; there are no such purity tests! And indeed, the internet is riddled with arguments against purity tests: We can’t afford a purity test. They shouldn’t be subjected to purity tests. Or, written with condescension, they won’t pass your purity test.

Being against purity tests is, theoretically, something we might all agree on. Put anyone under a microscope and all their flaws and hypocrisies would crystalize. However, as human history has shown, purity tests are standard for woman, and particularly women who speak up about domestic violence or sexual assault. Tara Reade, Amber Heard, Angelina Jolie—these are just a few women in the national spotlight who continue to fail the purity test: Her timing is questionable. Her allegiances are suspect. Her words and actions have been contradictory. Also, have you seen the way she looks? 


* * *


Once upon a time, a poor single mother lived in a village with her young children. Her parents had died many years prior, and she knew no one who could help her care for her children. At night, she sometimes left the children sleeping in her bed and went out to the bars to dance. She danced with men, and women, too, and sometimes went home with them. Then she’d hurry home before dawn to feed and bathe her children and begin her work for the day. The villagers gossiped about who the children’s father was. They said it was no wonder he’d left her because she was negligent, and a whore.


One night, she went out dancing but her children were gone when she returned home. She looked for them everywhere and found them, drowned, in the river. She threw herself into the river, too, and the villagers said she got what she deserved. Now, she wanders the banks forever, crying, “Ay, mis hijos!” Sometimes, the villagers report, she steals other people’s children and drowns them, too.


* * *


The hardest thing for me to admit about the after-effects of domestic violence portrayed in Normal People is that I hear my own voice in Marianne’s mouth when she says “I will do anything for you” and “you can do anything to me.” It’s challenging to admit this. In the early episodes I accepted Marianne’s statements as romantic. Although her relationship with Connell is troubled and complicated, these declarations signaled to me that this was true love. But in later episodes, as Marianne apologizes over and over, seeking reassurance, and retreating into invisibility, I began hear her words with a different resonance. I had offered these phrases to my abuser and in nearly every relationship I’ve been in since. With horror, I recognized that words I had thought meant “I love you,” actually meant “I will make myself small for you.” I was willing to be whatever my romantic partner wanted me to be. I wanted to offer support and love, yes, but I offered all of myself up for reshaping. In each relationship, I believed, unconsciously, that the previous version of myself would have to be dismantled and reassembled if I were to be loved in return. 


I have always been a good student, but until now, I hadn’t been aware that I was conducting this kind of research. I created mental files of information about needs that I could meet and ways that I should or shouldn’t take up space. The files, had they been on paper, would have filled a large room—floor-to-ceiling grey metal cabinets crammed together. No space for my body, no way to close the door.


Telling my story is terrifying. And for some people who speak up, it can be deadly. Christine Blasey Ford, who is widely believed and beloved, received so many death threats she is still in hiding. Chanel Miller received death threats and rape threats, too. Still, Blasey Ford and Miller are the closest we have come in recent history, to being public examples of what might be considered “perfect victims.” Still, their credibility has not been enough. Still, detractors say that they were both drinking when they were each assaulted casts a shadow on their credibility. Blasey Ford and Miller have had their motives and memories dismissed and ridiculed. But some women, like Anita Hill, flunk the purity test from the get-go. The confluence of racism and misogyny is a particularly potent poison. Which Black woman—now or historically—has ever been believed? Which undocumented immigrant, paid pennies to pick our strawberries or scrub our office floors, has ever even had the audacity to speak up about the horrific violence she’s experienced? Who can speak up—and who is believed after speaking—exists on a spectrum directly aligned with how a society determines what you are (or aren’t) worth.


Credibility cannot be based on a one-size-fits-all understanding of trauma or the way memories work. Credibility cannot be based on how likeable someone is, the color of their skin, their sexuality, or what the motive might be. Telling the truth and having a motive aren’t mutually exclusive. Every woman who raises her voice, knowing the risks, has a motive.


Tell a particular set of lies about women (or any other group) for centuries and it becomes the status quo. Research shows that these lies and mythologies become so familiar they are more comfortable than the truth. Our brains are wired to look for short cuts. Other women say he’s OK? Well then, she must be lying.


As Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey reveal in their book, “She Said,” about their investigative reporting of Harvey Weinstein, attorney Lisa Bloom advised Weinstein to reveal his victim’s weaknesses early. Publish a few big articles about her lies she suggested. Or her mental instability and contradictions. Discrediting her will be cake.  In a memo, from Bloom to Weinstein: You should be the hero of the story, not the villain. This is very doable.


Weinstein’s eventual conviction does not disprove this as a winning strategy. It only proves that upending a centuries-old story is only possible when victims swarm from the woodwork like ghosts. One voice is not considered to be enough. Look at Scheherazade. Saving her own life was a monumental task, but freedom was not her reward. Instead, she traded death for marriage to a monarch who had killed one thousand women before her. The story of Scheherazade taking down the monarch does not exist. Call women emotional, hysterical, unstable, and irrational for centuries and you’ll find that unpeeling the lies from history causes history to come off in chunks, too. Your hands will never be large enough to hold the facade as it crumbles.


Although my abuser had told me vehemently that feminism was bullshit, I was taking a feminist literature class at the time. In this class, I read the account Adrienne Rich tells of the woman in the 1950s who beheaded her children on her front lawn. The story prompted nightmares, but I understood the anguish. I too was trapped, but I had no name for what was happening. That the woman chose to behead her children rather than leave reveals how blind she was to her own possible survival. The story of survival simply didn’t exist. In my own marriage, I’d become a ghost of myself. I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. One strong undercurrent could have pulled me under.


Before I could vanish, my abuser met another woman and left. A year later, I grew into an awareness of my attraction to women. But these desires waged battle with my abuser’s voice which thundered from an intercom inside my head.  It took a year to stop seeing myself through his eyes, though the whispers of his voice tangled with my thoughts and I would not recognize the consequences for a long time. On the phone, with a lawyer, I asked, could he take my kids away if I come out? My friends had told me horror stories of losing custody for this reason. I’m prepared to remain in the closet until my kids are 18, I said. I will drown myself to save my kids. When I began dating women I’d share details of my dates with my friends at the bar. Maybe you just haven’t been with the right man! A man, not invited to the conversation but injecting himself anyway would leer. Or a man with a puffy red face: You don’t like dick now? I’ll come watch you with another woman. And several years ago, sipping cocktails with a friend and discussing a mutual acquaintance: He’s afraid of you. He thinks you hate him because he’s a man. I was strong enough by then to respond with a laugh. Speaking out about violence against women had apparently turned me into a man-hating lesbian.


I don’t have to tell you what year it is or how long women, and especially those who dare to live and speak the truth, have been boxed in or have had their tongues ripped out. I wish I didn’t have to tell you that a survivor can tell the truth and still be someone you don’t want to be around. A survivor can tell the truth and also have motives that are not selfless. I am not sweet or charming. The strength I’ve accumulated has come slowly and has sometimes come at a high cost to my relationships—particularly romantic relationships. I’m still waiting for the peace and equanimity. 


The ending of Normal People offers a possibility for healing. Marianne chooses not to follow Connell to New York. She is thriving and recognizes this as a new and beautiful thing. She loves Connell, but she finally sees she does not have to make herself small. She can be her own person and live her own life. I love this ending as much as I doubt it. How can two 21-year-olds learn such a deep lesson when I’m so much older and still worrying the barbed templates embedded in my skin? I think of my relationship, many years ago, with the woman I thought I would marry, and the way my apologies turned to stones in my pockets, became stories I couldn’t dislodge. I think of Ruth, in Fried Green Tomatoes, dying of cancer after her abuser is murdered. What if dislodging old stories leaves me hemorrhaging on the floor?  Ruth never gets a full life with Idgie, she never gets to be angry or wrong. I want to see that story. I want to live it.


People say there are only a handful of stories in the world. But as my namesake writes, each version offers a different slant of light. I’d like to imagine that when we are all able to truly absorb the lessons of a particular story, the story will emerge again somewhere downstream, transformed.


* * *


Once upon a time, a queer woman made her home in a village. The villagers were unsettled by the woman’s peculiar habit of telling the truth because it was often painful and inconvenient. Not everyone liked her, but they respected her. She had many women lovers over the years. Eventually, she gathered her past lovers to form a procession to the river. There, she drew two children from the eddies. She named her children for the flowers that grew on the banks. Each villager played a part in the children’s lives as they grew.


Later, when strangers visited the village, they often jeered at the woman because she was loud and because her queerness was something they could not understand. The villagers told them of the ways her perspective and knowledge had contributed to the community. “If you aren’t careful,” they warned, “you will find yourself in the river.”


The visitors who didn’t heed the warning and ridiculed the woman found themselves swept downstream in strong, cold currents, bumping past slick river stones. The currents murmured and cried in a tumultuous chorus before depositing them on a rocky beach miles from the village where they emerged dry, and with much confusion. The currents, and the woman’s voice, moved through them as they walked back to the village, with a new, sheepish understanding that everyone deserves love and community.


* * *


Sometimes, telling the story I want to believe feels like the only way to create it.


* * *


I am writing a book now that is, in part, about my experience with domestic violence. It took time to recognize and name it: domestic violence. I couldn’t see it until after the divorce. In the six years I was with him, I told myself stories about what was happening. In these stories, I was both protagonist and antagonist. I was belittled and demeaned and simultaneously responsible for my own wounding. I had to fix it. I had to do better and be better so he wouldn’t be angry, call me names, or pin me to the floor. Like La Llorona and Scheherazade, I could see only one path to freedom, a limited agency I could gain within the parameters of the abuse. Inside it, I was unable to imagine breaking free entirely. I think back to my failed attempts to write in a coffee shop. The tiny taste of freedom that rare hour offered compared with the freedom I feel now as a queer woman wielding language with greater precision. When my book is out in the world I have no doubt I will hear the same names and accusations from some readers that I heard from him: bitch, whore, liar. Who are you to say these things? No one will ever believe you. You are a failure. You will never be loved. And have you seen what you look like? 


In some versions, La Llorona doesn’t start off as a single mother. In those versions, she is the one who remains faithful to her husband and he is the one who leaves her for another woman. For a paragraph or two, he is the antagonist and she is the perfect victim. This changes, of course, when she drowns her children. Everything that happened to her before that moment no longer matters. Or, the past is recast as evidence, the signs of her previous insanity assembled to explain her actions. La Llorona is a warning about what not to do and what not to become. On the surface, the warnings always seemed sensible to me. But now I see not a woman who failed, but a village that failed a woman.


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