May 2021


How to lose her voice

By Kate Manne
Image of artwork by Sarah Goffman

Artwork by Sarah Goffman

On testimonial injustice and the ways women are silenced

“How can I tell this tale? Who to? … What did I do? I said NO – I said NO.” — Kate, circa February 1989

Kate – known to the public only by her first name – said she thereby lost her voice. She lost her life last year, by suicide, more than 30 years after writing these words in her diary. They allude, of course, to allegations about what she had endured as a schoolgirl that have lately rocked the nation.

Shortly before her death, Kate contacted the police and said she would not be pursuing her criminal complaint, which she had initiated in February 2020. A year later, a friend of hers sent an anonymous letter to the prime minister and two senators. It detailed Kate’s story, made it clear she never recanted, and enclosed Kate’s full account of what happened some 33 years ago, together with several of her subsequent diary entries over the next few years. I have seen both of these documents. They make for harrowing reading. Importantly, the anonymous friend noted that several other people could provide additional corroboration, some of which now appears to be near-contemporaneous. Moreover, they believe her (as do I, for the record).

But what happened or did not happen in 1988 is not my primary concern here. Nor is what should happen to the alleged perpetrator from this point onward. It’s what happens to an alleged victim who comes forward, even posthumously. Kate has been sneered at, smeared and patronised. Her words have been alternately ignored and used in evidence against her, in a kind of trial by media of the alleged crime’s victim. Indeed, judging by the reception of her story in the Australian press (the Murdoch press in particular), one might well draw the following grim lessons.

If you want to be believed, you must take care not to develop a mental illness (either incidentally, or, as is sometimes the case, partly as the result of post-traumatic symptoms).
“Is it possible that this mentally ill woman was acting under a delusion?” asked Andrew Bolt, rhetorically, on Sky News, in one of a series of attempts to discredit her. “Some people claiming to be victims do lie. Some are delusional,” he added. Bolt went on to dismiss Kate’s account as “a statement from a woman with severe mental problems, including a bipolar disorder that can cause hallucinations”. But according to a sexual assault counsellor whom Kate spoke with in 2013, she was “not delusional” (in addition to being “extremely articulate” and having volunteered the allegation of her own volition). And according to NSW psychiatrist Dr Karen Williams, who specialises in the treatment of PTSD and complex trauma, Kate’s history of mental illness has been used against her extensively in the media coverage of this case. “Instead of that being a sign that she was obviously suffering from some sort of traumatic response, it’s being interpreted as a sign that she’s mentally ill and therefore not able to provide a proper history,” Williams said. The recent decision by the alleged perpetrator to take mental-health leave and seek professional help following the publication of these allegations has not, to the best of my knowledge, been similarly used to impugn his reliability.

If you want to be believed, you must remember every detail of the attack perfectly, even decades later.
Much has been made of the fact that Kate got one small detail wrong: stating that she had been out to the Hard Rock Cafe earlier on the night of the alleged attack. But the Hard Rock Cafe only opened in Sydney the following year, in 1989, which several commentators have seized upon. This detail is immaterial, however; it’s quite likely that Kate confused the Hard Rock Cafe with the Oz Rock Cafe, in Kings Cross, Sydney, located some 3 kilometres from the women’s college where she was staying. More generally, it is standard for traumatic memories to be vivid but somewhat fragmentary, and to contain small gaps in the narrative. But, as Dr Williams has clarified, there is of course an enormous difference between somebody’s minor mistakes or lapses in recalling a traumatic event, versus their fabricating such an event in its entirety. While the former is common, the latter simply doesn’t happen, she attested: “That is not something that you would see in somebody who has been traumatised.”

If you want to be believed, you must understand the attack perfectly from the outset, and never in any way minimise or rationalise your attacker’s behaviour.
Kate wrote in her statement: “I have always remembered these things.” But, like many victims, she appears to have had a hard time admitting to herself what the events amounted to. She writes of telling herself “gingerly” that “things had gone a bit too far” in the immediate aftermath of the incident. She also writes of telling herself, for some years, that it was okay, because she and the alleged perpetrator would eventually get married. Earlier that evening, Kate alleges that he asked her to iron his shirt, because he didn’t know how to. “You’ll make someone a wonderful wife one day,” she recalls him saying as he watched her. He added he’d need a “smart, pretty wife” such as her to help his political career. Kate writes that she was flattered. It was only years later, after a dinner in 1994, that she says she felt the spell cast by these words finally break. The alleged perpetrator initially denied that this later dinner took place, but has subsequently waffled on this point. Curiously, his inconsistency and memory lapses have attracted very little attention or consternation from his supporters.

If you want to be believed, you must not cite or benefit from any source that is the least bit controversial.
Kate writes that it was only in 2019, after reading the 2015 book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, on the recommendation of her therapist, that she truly understood her attack. Again, she is clear as to her meaning here: “I have always remembered these things.” But she understood these memories better after reading van der Kolk’s important work, in which the author argues that trauma leaves its mark on the body, and that traumatic reactions can hence be triggered by somatic processes and visceral sensations, among other things. For example, someone who has been strangled might suffer from flashbacks or intense anxiety when they are wearing a tight necklace, or “choker”. These plausible and well-substantiated claims have nothing to do with van der Kolk’s somewhat controversial role in the “memory wars” decades earlier in the United States, where he testified, for example, that an alleged childhood victim of sexual assault might have “blanked out” the memory of being molested by a priest until later in his life, when other allegations against the priest surfaced. Whatever one thinks of these claims (which one section of his book is devoted to a nuanced discussion of), they have little to nothing to do with Kate, who testifies that she never forgot what happened. Indeed, she wrote about the alleged attack in her diaries on not one, not two, but three separate occasions in the subsequent four years. Despite those facts, David Hardaker published a scurrilous piece in Crikey suggesting that the allegations depended on the now discredited notion of “recovered memories”. No such thing is true. No such thing should have been printed.

If you want to be believed, you must take care not to have your story deviate from a “standard story” in any way, or to contain even superficially surprising elements.
Andrew Bolt tried to cast doubt on Kate’s testimony on the breathtakingly thin basis that she said that, after part of the attack had taken place, and she had vomited, the perpetrator took her into the bathroom and bathed her and shaved her legs. This did not ring true to Bolt. (“Does a 17-year-old boy really do that?” he asked, incredulously.) Bolt’s lack of imagination, however, does not show it didn’t happen. Bolt also writes of it seeming “too fantastical” that, according to Kate, during the next part of the attack, and to her subsequent shame, she had an orgasm. Although this rote physiological reaction to sexual assault remains taboo and hence seldom discussed, it is in fact not unusual, and it often compounds the trauma of the attack, in making the victim feel like their body has betrayed them. (And, to anticipate another possible gross misunderstanding, it does not mean that the rape was in any way enjoyable for the victim. Compare the uncontrollable, highly uncomfortable fits of laughter that may stem from being tickled “mercilessly” – that is, in a way that ignores, or indeed makes a mockery of, one’s boundaries. Though sexual assault is of course orders of magnitude more serious than tickling someone against their will, the analogy between laughing and climaxing despite oneself is nonetheless instructive.)

If you want to be believed, you must be so damaged by the attack as to never spend time with the alleged perpetrator again.
Kate writes that she spent the day with her assailant after the alleged assault, in addition to seeing him in 1994, for the aforementioned dinner. “Does this pass the smell test … having dinner with him and spending ‘several hours’ in his company?” Bolt wondered, cluelessly. It does: such behaviour is fairly common among rape victims, who may go to special efforts to maintain relationships with their attackers as part of their initial attempt to downplay the moral seriousness of what happened. And being in some kind of relationship with one’s attacker is not unusual either: the vast majority of rape victims (around 80 per cent) are assaulted by someone they know, rather than a stranger. The perpetrators of this crime are overwhelmingly male, and the victims disproportionately (though by no means exclusively) female.

If you want to be believed, you must be totally undamaged (i.e., not troubled or mentally ill in any way) and, indeed, perfect.
Janet Albrechtsen and Peter van Onselen were the first to publish three of Kate’s aforementioned diary entries, in The Australian, including the one I quoted part of in the opening of this essay. (Another reads in part: “Please do not take me.” Only a single word appears on each successive page in the journal.) Yet Albrechtsen and van Onselen conclude their article: “The question readers might now want to ask themselves is does Kate’s dossier raise doubts about what has been alleged …?” As Kate’s friend Jo Dyer has written, Albrechtsen and van Onselen have framed “the anguish she articulated so hauntingly as the very reason to disbelieve her story”. Her story has even attracted suspicion on the ludicrous basis of her somewhat idiosyncratic penmanship – she wrote some of her diary entries in spirals, for example, and made heavy use of a blue highlighter. Bolt declared of these entries: “They look irrational.” Bullet journallers are hereby on notice.

If you want to be believed, you must be believed specifically by your parents.
Much has been made in the media of the fact that Kate’s parents, from whom she was intermittently estranged, apparently worried (according to the anonymous letter circulated earlier this year) that she may have “confected or embellished the allegations due to her mental illness”. But Kate would hardly be the first victim whose parents have not supported her. This was made clear in the United States by the case of Larry Nassar, a man who sexually assaulted hundreds of girls by abusing his position as a gymnastics team doctor for well over two decades. As their testimony in court revealed, many of these girls tried to tell their parents what was happening. But they were often disbelieved – and one was even asked to apologise for impugning the doctor’s good name, his reputation. These parents need not have been monsters, either. Some of them were likely too upset by the possibility of abuse to face its reality, and found it easier to deem their daughters liars or confabulists. The damage they did in the process nonetheless shocks the conscience.

On this scheme, needless to say, we will not be believing many victims. And that is not an accident. The system “works according to design”, as the American writer Ijeoma Oluo has written (in a different, though related, context). Such pointed questions, selective doubts, myths, double standards and double binds effectively work to keep victims silent, and to protect powerful men from the consequences of their actions in cases where they are guilty.

What broader lessons can we draw from this deeply depressing episode? The way Kate has been treated by much of the media is a vivid example of “testimonial injustice”, a concept theorised by the English philosopher Miranda Fricker, and long illuminated by the work of Black feminists such as Patricia Hill Collins. A paradigm case of testimonial injustice occurs when a speaker is taken to be less credible than she ought to be, due to facets of her social identity that trigger pernicious stereotypes. In this instance, Kate has been treated both as a hysterical woman and as an unreliable witness to her own life, as a person who lived with mental illness. Moreover, the intersection of these prejudices for mentally ill women may be especially harmful. Rather than attracting sympathy and understanding, mentally ill women are often dismissed as “crazy”, even if (as here) a mental health expert testifies that, in making these allegations, she was not delusional.

But it’s not as if believing a credible victim’s word is a moral panacea. In some cases, people will believe her, but just not care enough about what she alleges happened. We saw this possibility play out in the United States with Dr Christine Blasey Ford, when she testified before a senate judicial committee in 2018 that then US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her some 36 years prior, when they were also both high-school students. Some people did not believe her, of course (remarkably, Andrew Bolt found the same number of reasons – nine – to doubt both Ford’s and Kate’s later testimony). But others believed Ford and went on to excuse Kavanaugh, partly on the grounds that it was so long ago, he was just a boy at the time, and so on. Others held, implausibly, that it was a case of mistaken identity: she was wrong about the person who had attacked her. For Ford, the incident – in which Kavanaugh allegedly corralled her in a bedroom with his friend Mark Judge, groped her, pinned her to the bed and ground his crotch against her, before she managed to escape them – had clearly remained vivid. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter” of the boys, said Ford, a professor of psychology. There is no statute of limitations when it comes to traumatic memories.

Another double bind is evident here: if the allegations fall short of rape, as in the case of Kavanaugh, then people are prone to minimise, to shrug, to conclude it doesn’t matter. If the allegations are of rape, then many will be sure the alleged perpetrator couldn’t possibly have done it. Either way, he ends up being exonerated not through evidence or reason but due to a vague, ill-founded faith in his “good guy” persona. 

In the cases of both Ford and Kate, prominent and powerful friends and allies rallied to the alleged perpetrators’ defence – not only by protesting their innocence, but by emphasising what these men had to lose, in terms of their position and reputation. There was a deep outrage on Kavanaugh’s behalf that he might lose his chance to become a Supreme Court justice. And there were endless expressions of sympathy from prominent Republicans – then president Donald Trump included – for what this man must be going through, due to the credible sexual assault allegations that Ford had levelled against him. (“I cannot imagine what you and your family have gone through … This is hell,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham fulminated to Kavanaugh during the hearings.) As a result of this support, Kavanaugh’s bright future remained untarnished: he was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a slim majority. Meanwhile, Ford was receiving so many death threats she had to move out of her home. Yet expressions of sympathy for her plight were noticeably absent among Kavanaugh’s supporters.

I call this himpathy: the sympathy often garnered by powerful and privileged men over that afforded to their (proven or alleged) female victims. We see it in the case at hand too, with numerous articles decrying the media investigation of Kate’s allegations as a “witch hunt”, a persecution. Chris Kenny waxed especially lyrical in The Australian about the “odious, confected and vicious” attacks to which the alleged perpetrator had been subjected. “The treatment … has not been merely trial by media but a deliberate, malicious and anti-democratic campaign by some journalists and their political comrades to destroy a politician,” he wrote. “This is a gross perversion of natural justice. It will change [his] life forever …” The fact that Kate lost her life barely rates a mention, except inasmuch as her history of suicide attempts is insinuated to cast doubt upon her reliability.

All of these mechanisms, by means of which putative victims are dismissed, impugned, ignored, erased and blamed, have a crucial shared function: they serve to preserve the power of the privileged men who have been credibly accused of crimes incompatible with their pre-eminent offices and exalted social status. Their own sense of entitlement to maintain that power is evidenced by the angry tears these men cried in the wake of the allegations. Meanwhile, many failed to weep for their alleged victims. As Jo Dyer movingly put it in her article in Guardian Australia:

Our friend Kate is dead, ultimately defeated by a life lived with mental tumult and pain. She was then thrown in the dock, found guilty of delusion by a wilfully ignorant, woefully unethical commentariat as, devoid of irony, they decried trials by media.

You might ask: what about the presumption of innocence for alleged perpetrators? This presumption is an important part of certain legal proceedings. If this were a criminal trial, and we were the jurors, we would owe it to the accused to make this presumption until the state had proved their case against them, beyond a reasonable doubt, which would then enable and require us to find the defendant “guilty”. However, what we are contemplating in cases like these are not criminal sanctions. And in non-criminal matters, different standards apply. One standard, known as “preponderance of the evidence”, which assesses whether some proposition is more likely than not to be true, is operative in civil legal cases.

And there is also the question of what, or whom, to believe. There is a widespread, silly myth that feminists like me hold that we should believe all alleged victims, no matter what, period. This is, of course, untrue: nobody should rule out the possibility that an alleged victim is not telling the truth, for a number of different reasons. (For one thing, there is a long and terrible history of white women weaponising racist forces by accusing non-white men of raping them, sometimes to conceal a consensual sexual relationship, or to protect a white assailant.) But it is fair, at least in my view, to respond to the ubiquity of testimonial injustice by believing an alleged victim’s word as an initial stance, or default position. In effect, in such “he said/she said” cases, this is to presume her innocent of being a liar or delusional until we have good evidence to the contrary. For this is not a court of law. And part of doing justice to the many victims who would otherwise remain silent in the future is to believe those who have already come forward with credible accusations. (“If this story does become public knowledge, I hope that it will encourage other women to come forward,” Kate had written.) This also makes rational sense: what does a victim gain by telling her story, when so many people are sure to be dismissive and derogatory? Many victims stand to lose everything – including, tragically, the will to keep on living.

There is a detail about Kate’s story of that night that I keep coming back to: the way she says she said “no” (“NO – I said NO”) and then was literally unable to speak. (“I thought that he would choke me to death,” Kate wrote.) The way she couldn’t find the words for more than three decades afterwards. The way the alleged perpetrator has marshalled some of the most powerful legal forces in Australia to sue those who broke Kate’s story for defamation of character – which of course has chilling effects on the subsequent conversation.

All of this brought to mind for me the notion of “testimonial smothering”, developed by the American philosopher Kristie Dotson. As Dotson persuasively argues, testimonial injustice (or “quieting”, for her similar notion) is not the only way in which people can be silenced. Sometimes, rather than coming forward to testify in the first place, a victim self-silences due to her anticipation that her word will not receive the proper uptake. She understands that what she has to say is too dangerous, too risky. Many people will not “get it”, others will lash out at her for daring to tell her story. And so, she eats her words, swallows them; chokes on them, even. 

Kate tried to come forward. Although she was worried about the effect on her mental health of testifying, and about subsequent suicidality, she was more worried about the possibility that she would die by suicide if she didn’t testify. Reading her account of what happened, one gets the impression of someone who tried so hard to tell her tale, notwithstanding all the obstacles. She fought through her sense of shame, pain, humiliation, and even her worries about ruining a man’s life, which she had confided to her counsellor in 2013. Six years later, she nonetheless gathered her strength, sought support from friends and therapists, and prepared a meticulous written statement. But in the end, it appears, it was too much to bear: the day before her death, in June 2020, she informed the police that she would not be going forward with the case. The next day, she hanged herself – leaving her statement unsigned and the allegations lingering.

Her friends have been trying to get us to hear Kate now, even posthumously. We owe it to her to listen. We cannot give her back her voice. But we can recognise that she had one, and that what she was trying to say is of the utmost moral importance.

Kate Manne

Kate Manne is an associate professor at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University.

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