I've been waiting for this since I was a child
First published: Cantebury Christ Church University
By Neil Butler. Date: January 30th, 2018.
In 2000 I made a short documentary about being in state care as a child. The response from the Australian government was to threaten me with legal action. I was scared because they’d nearly killed me in care. So I stopped talking about it. Fifteen years later, in 2015, I gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Over five years the Commission held 8,013 private sessions with survivors, and heard evidence from another 1,200 witnesses in 400 public hearings. I learnt that there were thousands of others who shared my distress. I learnt that what had been done to us was criminal, that we were powerless, and that child rape destroys children. I realised all this, and I was furious, because in 22 years of therapy these things had never been recognised.
The first time I told a doctor about the sexual abuse she said that I was delusional and would need to take medication for the rest of my life. She told my youth worker to take me to the local mental hospital. Luckily, the worker was a feminist. She believed me and said no (but not in front of the doctor). I learnt I wasn’t safe accessing medical or mental health care. However, I still needed support. The trauma counselling I found was still imbued with blame. When I was distressed and despairing I was told I should learn to tolerate emotions better. When I was angry I was told that being angry is like holding a hot coal and it will only burn me. Every impact I experienced was described as maladaptive. I was told that it’s not what happened to me that’s the problem, it’s that I‘m coping with it wrong. When I asked why I was coping with it wrong, they said it was probably genetic. I was left believing I was innately defective.
The Power Threat Meaning Framework was launched on 12th January: a new framework for understanding human distress outside of the clinical lens of ‘diagnosis’. It offers me something different. It suggests that in fact the way I coped was adaptive and normal, that it fits with common ‘patterns of embodied, meaning-based threat responses to the negative operation of power.’ The Framework may have the same capacity as the Commission to witness and validate harm, because it connects harm to distress and it does not judge our survival as maladaptive. The most significant thing for me is that it accepts the existence and impact of systemic violence. Slavoj Zizek names systemic violence as ‘the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth running of our economic and political systems.’ I would include the mass sexual abuse of women and children in families and institutions as one of those catastrophic consequences. Addressing these consequences involves challenging authority.