“I believe in the saying, ‘If we have to live through it, you should have to hear it,” Evan Rachel Wood told Congress on Tuesday.
Last Tuesday, Westworld actress Evan Rachel Wood took a flight to Washington D.C. Being a longtime fan of hers, I was happy to pass the Capitol on my morning walk to work and think, She’s inside! I was even more thrilled to think of what she was doing there.
On a panel of three other witnesses, Wood delivered a testimony to Congress in order to advance the adoption of the Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights Act in all 50 states. The act was originally a product of Congress under the Obama administration, and organizations like Rise and RAINN are pushing for its legislation to be implemented at the state level. Wood documented her D.C. journey on Instagram and Twitter, sharing videos of herself working off pre-testimony jitters and apologizing to fans for quickly skirting by them in the airport, too emotionally exhausted to stop for autographs and selfies.
I listened to Wood, in a simple grey sweater and pendant necklace, share her story of “waking up to the man that claimed to love me raping what he believed was my unconscious body.” I nodded at the familiar tactics of threats and gaslighting, our shared experience of abuse that “started slow but escalated over time.” A sliver of me will forever resent that victims of sexual assault and abuse have to bare our most intensely private memories in order to be believed—if we are to be believed at all. It is outrageously unfair, not to mention traumatizing, that Evan Rachel Wood has to verbalize her deepest pain and anguish so that we are not chalked up as simply misremembering, as seeking attention or money, or as vindictive liars.
But that is the way our world currently works. When we stay silent, nothing happens, and we are asked why we waited so long. When we speak up, we enter an endless series of personal, professional, and legal hoops to jump through, fighting in the vain hope that some form of justice will be served. In a way, our testimonies are acts of desperation. This happened to me, they say, or as Evan Rachel Wood described, “I was not fine. I am not fine.”
In the movie Spotlight, which recounts the Boston Globe’s investigation into Catholic priest sex abuse cases, Rachel McAdams’ character encourages one victim to be as specific as possible in his testimony. She tells him that the word “molestation” isn’t enough, that “people need to know what happened.” The principle behind this scene is that words have power, and in a world where apologists like Brock Turner’s father chalk rape up to “20 minutes of action,” we need the most concrete, detailed, potentially uncomfortable words possible. If the #MeToo movement is built on testimonies, then these testimonies need to include the long-term psychological impacts of sexual violence along with the violence itself.
Evan Rachel Wood has demonstrated that while the details of sexual assault and abuse (the violation of her body as she slept, the horrific binding of her hands) are important, the other crucial piece is how these experiences linger for a lifetime. “It’s the trauma that continues after the act itself that is overwhelming.” she said. In her testimony, she explained that it took her years to “be diagnosed with long-term PTSD…which I had been living with all that time without knowledge of my condition.”
The first time I told anyone my own emotional and sexual abuse story, I was 24 years old and sitting on the floor of my bathroom with a friend as she dyed my hair. As the dye set, I kneaded my fingers into a towel and told her, in excruciating detail, what had been going on in secret. Years later, after my abuser claimed to have sought help for his behavior, I rattled off the same list of long-term impacts. Nightmares, panic attacks, unwanted and intrusive thoughts, intense self-loathing. Occasional bouts of fear and dread, my body and mind’s response to anticipating the next drunken tirade. This happened to me. I carry this with me. For a brief moment, he seemed to understand. But that understanding soon hardened into defensiveness, and from someone technical to a fault, who had once called psychology a “pseudoscience,” that was the outcome I expected. But my friend who listened to me on that cold tile floor six years ago? She understood. She stands by me now as she did then, and that was how my healing began.
“I believe in the saying, ‘If we have to live through it, you should have to hear it,” Evan Rachel Wood told Congress on Tuesday. We have so much to dismantle: the protection of abusers in positions of power, the stereotype of the lying woman looking for a payout, the priorities of institutions to preserve image and branding over the safety of their employees and students. From the bottom of my heart, I thank Evan Rachel Wood for her work in this area. If she can live through it, and live to talk about it, the least we can do is listen.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.