Anyone who has been a victim of repeated harassment or abuse will tell you that the burden of emotional labor is enormous, and that it’s amplified by the pressure to keep quiet.
“Stories save your life. And stories are your life. We are our stories; stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison.” – Rebecca Solnit
“Over the years, I’ve attempted to write this, quite literally, 17 times. Until I got one piece of advice from a friend: Write from your heart. You’ll know it’s right when it’s right. So, here I go.” – Chloe Dykstra
I recently read Chloe Dkystra’s account of emotional and sexual abuse by an unnamed older man widely speculated to be Chris Hardwick. I don’t have any particular investment in Chris Hardwick, but I have an investment in victims of abuse freely telling their stories. What struck me about Chloe’s story specifically was her conclusion, and how correctly she had anticipated the public response.
You know, perhaps this post could be construed as me going low when I should be going high, but I’d like to think Michelle Obama would support me in this…Because I’m not alone. This kind of relationship is so common, and so easy to slip into. Normalizing behavior happens incredibly quickly, and one can lose track of what is acceptable treatment.
A quick search of Chris Hardwick’s name on Twitter brings up an array of sadly predictable comments, calling Chloe a “jaded” and “bitter ex” expressing “unsubstantiated claims.” One woman posted that Hardwick “radiates innocence” and accused Chloe of misandry; another called him a “beautiful soul.” Several cheered for Hardwick’s recent return to television as a guest on America’s Got Talent with the hashtag #IStandWithChrisHardwick.
Peak internalized misogyny: a hashtag circulated by women to defend an accused abuser because he’s pretty. I digress.
When a woman shares her #MeToo story, and when her accuser is powerful and popular, she’s met with knee-jerk hostility. “Some friends,” Chloe admits, “will just naturally gravitate toward the person who wields more power.” The best among them will demand “hard evidence” and a larger abusive pattern from other exes. The worst will chalk her up to being jaded and bitter, and taking what we call the low road.
I want to talk about how the timeless advice idea of taking the high road and not the low road relates to abusive relationships. We learn early in life that it is more admirable to, metaphorically, rise above an antagonistic person or incident rather than sinking down to their level. Sticks and stones, we say. Don’t engage the bully; ignore them. Even if they continue picking on us, we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we were the bigger person.
But power dynamics aren’t always so simple. Michelle Obama was lauded for her call at the 2016 DNC: “When they go low, we go high.” It’s a lovely thought, but not always realistic in today’s cutthroat political arena. The rules of civility are different for the party of “grab her by the pussy” and “womp womp” than they are for the party of gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous and his f-bomb slip or Maxine Waters and her advice to publicly denounce members of Trump’s Cabinet. The more you pride yourself on going high, the more you’re ridiculed when you play the game right back.
When it comes to moral matters like domestic abuse, what if you think you’re being the bigger person, taking the high road, but you’re actually being silenced? “Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand,” Rebecca Solnit writes. “Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished.” Those who have a vested interested in maintaining existing jobs, reputations, and opportunities to continue abusive behavior with others count on the silence of their victims. Victims who speak up, particularly women, are so casually called “crazy” or “jaded” or “sinking low” because these are all quick ways to shut them up. When “taking the high road” means keeping quiet, silence is twisted into a moral obligation.
#MeToo stories are so immediately criticized because, for everyone but the victim, they generate something out of nothing. The choice to tell these stories is best represented by graphic artist Audrey Hirsch as standing between one button that says “Enable” (stay silent) and another that says “Expose” (tell a story). “It’s an action that necessitates a reaction,” Hirsch says. “There’s no neutral act.” Each story, then, relays information that previously was the sole burden of the victim. It invites discomfort and anger precisely because it distributes the victim’s emotional labor among a larger audience. Now every one of us with this new information must choose to condemn, condone, or ignore.
Anyone who has been a victim of repeated harassment or abuse will tell you that the burden of emotional labor is enormous, and that it’s amplified by the pressure to keep quiet. It took me several years to publicly write my own story and even after so much time had passed, and after probably a dozen read-throughs before the piece was published, I was still trembling over sending it to my editor. I kept my abuser anonymous. I went to great lengths not to include certain details that would reveal his identity. I was in awe of how many decisions I had to make to protect this person, when I was actually protecting myself from mutual friends and acquaintances who might figure out his identity despite my best efforts. Out of fear that they would dismiss my story as spiteful and jaded. As the “low road.”
One afternoon back in 2012, during the worst of things, I caught sight of my abuser’s mother at a picnic. I stuck my hand in my pocket and ran my thumb over and over my phone, knowing what horrible messages from him were inside. I fantasized about walking across the field and letting her read the words of her perfect son. But my fantasy remained just that, and I turned my back to her and hung out with my friends. “You’re taking the high road,” one of them assured me. Was that the trade? Silence for feelings of peace, or at least moral superiority? I didn’t feel peaceful or particularly better about myself. The anger, sadness, and self-loathing had nowhere to go but inward. Like Chloe Dykstra, when I wrote my story, I was “done protecting him at the expense of my mental health.”
I encourage anyone confronted with a story like Chloe’s to stop before passing immediate judgement, and remember this from Rebecca Solnit: Words bring us together, and silence separates us. Being unable to tell your story is a living death. Stories offer alternatives from the way things supposedly have to be. Together, they bring about change. If this makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why it is that you are uncomfortable with change.
Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.