UVA rape survivor Elisabeth Corey has something to say to Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone about reporting on trauma.
Dear Sabrina Rubin Erdely,
I was devastated by the Rolling Stone note yesterday regarding the UVA story. As a survivor of a rape at UVA, as well as a trauma survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking, I struggled to understand how you could be so careless. I wondered how someone could set back the anti-rape movement so much by approaching a traumatic rape story in this way. I wanted to vilify you as the sole reason that rape stories will never be trusted again. But then I realized I could not do that. I could not do that because you approached her horrific story the same way that everyone does.
You approached her story as a factual, evidence-based narrative as if she was explaining what she had for dinner the past three nights. You approached her as if this was an easy story for her to tell. You approached her as if she didn’t need to be supported and understood throughout the telling of her story.
Every time a rape story is told in the media, the commentary immediately goes to the evidence. What was the date? What was the perpetrator’s full name? How many witnesses were there? And when evidence is unavailable, the story is dismissed as a lie. Our legal system works this way. And many times, when a truth is hard to take, we dismiss that truth with this technique. We assume that if the story were true, it would be perfectly logical and consistent the first time it is told. We assume that anything else, especially difficult stories, must be false.
For those who have not experienced trauma, this approach makes sense. They have memories that work like a movie reel. The memories are remembered in time order with details and faces and the associated emotions. They are easy to relay to others. We tell them like a story. We may embellish a little to make them more fun and interesting at parties, but otherwise, it is a straight-forward process.
But traumatic memories don’t work like that. A traumatic memory is stored in the brain and body like a glass bottle is shattered on the floor. Everything goes in different directions. A part of the memory is stored in one part of the brain. Another part of the memory is stored in another part of the brain. The memories don’t store like a movie reel. They store like the memories we have when we were toddlers. This happens because the same part of our brain is in charge. We are in flight, fight or freeze when we are experiencing trauma.
The associated emotions are stored in the body causing some kind of inexplicable chronic pain. This is why many victims of crimes tell their stories without any emotion. The emotion is separate from the memory. This can make it even harder to believe the victim. We see this in the news all the time. The victim must be lying because they didn’t cry when they told their horrible story.
I get questions all the time when I tell my story. Who did that to you? What is their full name? Where are they today? What date did that happen? How old were you? Do you have any witnesses that can corroborate that story? These questions can be difficult for multiple reasons. 1) I can’t always tell you those details. I may remember what happened. I may remember who did it. I may have a face with no name or a name with no face. I may know the season because I remember what I was wearing, but have no idea my age or the year. I have a flash of a scene. I have an understanding of the event. But the details you desire are not available to me. 2) If you are asking me these questions, I immediately assume you don’t believe me either. And my response is to move away from my relationship with you because it is no longer safe.
So the next time you choose to write an article involving an individual with a traumatic story, please take the time to become trauma-informed. If the victim tells you they are no longer comfortable with telling their story, honor that. If the victim tells you the facts have shifted from the original story, honor that. This cannot be a story with a deadline. You cannot bully this victim in to telling you what they do not know or can’t speak. You cannot discredit them to save your own reputation. If you treat a victim in this way, you are just another predator and you have re-traumatized the victim. You become part of the problem, part of the traumatic story.
So, do your due diligence. You should not only be an expert writer with an accurate story, but you should understand the victim and how they recall their story. If you cannot take the time to do that, don’t write their story.
Elisabeth Corey, MSW
Note: The editors also recommend this video for more information on the neurobiology of sexual assault.