Secondary traumatic stress is the experience of being triggered by another person’s firsthand account of abuse. It is not something ugly you are doing to others, not a lack of sympathy. It’s what happens when it’s all too much to take in, particularly as a trauma survivor.
When celebrities are accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, there’s a timeline that always plays out. Sometime between today and next week, I expect many of my friends will be dealing with secondary trauma.
First, there’s the allegation, full of naked truths and ugly details. The knowledge that another man has fallen, is unworthy of his fame and adoration. That part doesn’t trigger me. It saddens me.
Then there’s the memories. Even if I’m calm, I’m introspective. I remember times I’ve been abused for my gender, beginning in early girlhood and going on until my current celibate hermitage.
Then comes the wave of other stories from friends, tales of degradation and abuse. Those are hard, and I’m torn between a desire to offer comfort and shield myself from details. I try to do both, badly.
Hard as all that is, I can cope with it. I can medicate and distract myself and spend part of my day focused on life affirming things. I can get through it.
If that’s all there was to a celebrity abuse scandal, I could deal. But it isn’t. There’s a far uglier and more damaging stage we can’t seem to escape.
The doubts start, the self-appointed agents of the court who crop up to offer what they imagine is reasonable doubt. “We weren’t there” they’ll say with faux wisdom, as if we victims didn’t realize most abuse occurs behind closed doors.
The doubts turn to excuses, reasons the victim is at fault, why truly they’re to blame for “making” an abuser mistreat them. Sympathy is absent and resentment runs high. How dare that victim tell us the truth when we didn’t want to hear it!
This is called retraumatizing the victim, and we know doubts in the presence of honesty cause it. Victim blaming does it even more.
The secondary trauma and retrauma of your disbelief does more to harm victims than you can imagine. Woody Allen didn’t abuse me, he abused another girl. But all the people who hurt her by doubting her hurt me too.
When you refuse to believe a celebrity you like is capable of abuse, I know you won’t do the right thing if one of your friends is an abuser too. You’ve marked yourself as unsafe, and there are hundreds of thousands just like you.
This is why partner violence, family abuse, and sexual assault run rampant, because when faced with the knowledge someone you admire behaved abhorrently, most of you attack the victim for bursting your bubble.