I have been involved in supporting survivors for most of my adult life, it took me a long time to recognize that I was dating someone abusive. The constant berating wore me down the most. I began to mistrust my own feelings. My sense of reality warped until I was completely disoriented. I told myself I stayed because I loved her (and at the time I certainly did).
Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. Arsenal Pulp Press. 2016. 288 pages.
But the more time passed, the more leaving became a kind of epistemological impossibility. Without her, how would I know what was wrong with me and what was right, who I could or should become, what I even wanted? The stiffening of her shoulders, the sharpening of her voice, and the caustic prick of her tongue were the gravitational poles that had come to structure my inner life. I didn’t know why she stayed, but I was very grateful that she did.
If I could map out my psyche and find the place where my self-hatred met my sense of utter dislocation, shame is what would be lodged there. I reluctantly revisited this shame upon reading Sarah Schulman’s 2016 book, Conflict Is Not Abuse. For Schulman, our cultural addiction to claiming abuse extends from interpersonal relationships to state violence. However, in failing to account for the subtleties that gird interpersonal interactions, Conflict Is Not Abuse pathologizes the shame endured by survivors, while evoking the logic of shame that traps people in abusive dynamics in the first place.
In Conflict Is Not Abuse, Schulman identifies a growing social phenomenon whereby people overstate the harm they are enduring by calling “abuse” what really constitutes “normative conflict.” Abuse is “power over,” explains Schulman, while conflict is “power struggle.” Communities blindly support people when they make allegations of abuse, Schulman argues, and those falsely accused end up being shunned, criminalized, or otherwise harmed.
According to Schulman, people overstate harm to abdicate their responsibility in a situation—to strip the complexities of an interaction to a simple victim/abuser binary. “I recite these few words: ‘I was abused’ or ‘she was abusive’ or ‘it was an abusive relationship’ and it is immediately understood that I am right, and I am violated.” People should be relieved that nobody secured “power over” them—that instead, they participated in and contributed to the conflict at hand. But because abuse means recasting oneself as a kind of “ethical virgin,” laments Schulman, “sadly the relief is in confirming that one has been ‘victimized.’”
Schulman has much to say about how shame shapes the experiences of trauma survivors. For Schulman, shame is what causes survivors to perceive something as abuse even when it’s not; as a result, survivors end up inflicting harm on people in their lives who don’t deserve it. Schulman cites a key example in which a survivor of childhood abuse is triggered by something innocuous—a lover touches her a certain way and she feels violated. The survivor then recruits her friends to shun the lover, rather than acknowledge her ambivalent sexual desire (that she perhaps did want to have sex) and that the person who caused her harm exists in her past. Survivors with unresolved trauma are so unstable and “destroyed,” alleges Schulman, that they are unable to hear how the accused perpetrator experienced the event or admit whether the culpability for what happened was shared. Their communities simply accept the accuser’s word that the event constituted “abuse.” In Schulman’s view, the unquestioned acceptance of the accuser’s word enables a kind of perpetrator witch hunt, whereby an individual is cast as a villain without any evaluation of the facts at hand.
Schulman’s arguments about shame, abuse, and conflict are meant to apply to everything from interpersonal relationships to interactions between citizens and the state to state actions on the global stage. For example, when white gays and lesbians demand the greater policing of their neighborhoods out of fear of homophobic violence, black LGBT and other queer people of color are put in further danger. The Israeli government murders thousands of civilians during the 2014 war on Gaza on the dubious, exaggerated grounds of a threat posed by Palestinian “terrorism.” During a panel on trigger warnings, speakers with histories of trauma are unable to engage in meaningful conversation, and those who express opposition to trigger warnings are publicly condemned. For Schulman, all of these instances exemplify how a traumatized party can overreact to conflict, inaccurately perceive that they are in danger (being “abused”), and unjustly punish the wrongly perceived perpetrator.
As a feminist and an abolitionist, I emphatically agree that it is important to trouble the notion of “victims” as all-knowing subjects and to resist the reductive logic of the victim/perpetrator binary. However, seizing your life back from a controlling party—whether a person, a cop, or a colonial state—first requires you to name the power imbalance at play. Such power is not imaginary, even and especially when it is invisible. To say, “I was abused” means to reject the perpetrator’s framing of what has occurred, to render visible what has so often been obscured from the public view.
Shame, meanwhile, is how we come to disbelieve our own instinctual sense that someone has gained power over us. It is a public feeling intimately connected to structural and systemic manifestations of oppression—the very forces that enable power differentials to emerge in the first place. In failing to interrogate how abuse is experienced and expressed, Schulman instead invokes and displaces shame onto her readers.
I felt shame when I read the book—shame that I was exaggerating my experiences, shame that I wanted to play the victim, shame that it was easier for me to claim abuse than to acknowledge I’d simply been hurt. I know what it means to feel like someone has gained “power over” you, but to read Conflict Is Not Abuse was to have that avowed self-knowledge slip through my fingers. Even as I write this review I wonder, “Was I…?” How many readers feel the same?
The book’s problems begin with its method. In order to differentiate power from abuse, Schulman proposes an interrogative approach, borrowed from social worker and anti-violence advocate Catherine Hodes. We should ask the accuser and accused a series of questions:
What was happening when the behavior occurred?
What happened before?
What was the outcome?
What was the context?
Her approach—just ask them some questions!—is heedless and remiss. It risks putting survivors in danger by insisting that friends and family, who (unlike Hodes) likely have no training in dealing with domestic violence, can and should determine the “truth” of a potentially abusive relationship. Survivors often cannot articulate the nature of what they are experiencing. As Schulman herself recognizes, the defining characteristic of an abusive relationship is “power over,” and abusers wield power by manipulating their victims’ sense of reality and self-worth.
What’s more, as Schulman also notes, people who perpetrate harm can be manipulative, charming, and extremely convincing—a completely different person in public than they are behind doors. When it comes to determining whether a situation is “abusive” or not, we cannot simply pose questions to both parties and presume that some kind of “truth” will emerge, particularly if we have emotional ties to the alleged perpetrator.
Schulman seems to be concerned about shame only inasmuch as it causes an “overreaction” to conflict in traumatized minds. But for me, shame is integral to understanding why people become traumatized in the first place—namely, why they stay in abusive relationships or situations. Having worked on an LGBT domestic violence help line for several years, I know the soft-spoken and tentative tone in which people first begin wondering if they’re experiencing abuse. When we interrogate survivors in the method Schulman suggests, and especially when we tell them they’re simply overreacting or victimizing themselves, we risk causing them to doubt the small seed of suspicion they carry that there is something fundamentally amiss in their relationship.
This abuse detection method is dangerous. It is also indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of interpersonal violence, and casts doubt over Schulman’s attempts to scale her arguments to the level of social phenomena. Individual instances of violence—whether physical beatings, cruel words, or sexual assault—are not “overreactions” to conflict, as Schulman seems to suggest. In the book, Schulman discusses the example of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who in 2014 was caught on camera knocking his girlfriend unconscious, then dragging her body out of the elevator by her feet. “Rice experienced normative, regular conflict that exists in every relationship, family and household in the world as so overwhelmingly unbearable that he hit his [now] wife,” Schulman tells the reader. In her view, Rice just needs to learn to talk it out.
As both my personal and professional experiences have taught me, though, specific instances of violence are signs of what lies beneath. They are the most overt and articulable expressions of how two people relate to each other. Power is exerted in a multitude of ways, some of which may seem insignificant to the outside world, and may not even be consciously registered by the abuser. For someone in a relationship with abusive dynamics, even a certain look from the perpetrator—the narrowing of her gaze across a room—can instill fear and anxiety in the person enduring harm.
Narrative accounts of “power over” can aid in understanding how subtle actions contribute to lived abuse. In her chilling memoir The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison describes her experience of having a sexual relationship with her father, which started when she was reunited with him at the age of 20. With the words and voice of an adult, Harrison demonstrates how a family member or friend can gain control over one’s psyche—that what’s called “grooming” is about not merely age or maturity but the power relationship between two people. Harrison describes the first time her father sticks his tongue down her throat as “a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain… The point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralyzed.” Her father takes advantage of her emotional vulnerability to cross a boundary and from that moment she feels herself losing control. As the book progresses, the “affair” begins to destroy Harrison’s life, yet she feels utterly powerless to stop it.
The Kiss illustrates how Schulman’s evaluation of conflict versus abuse might be leveraged in dangerous ways, namely to blame someone for the decisions they made while in an abusive situation, or to invalidate claims that abuse occurred at all. In suggesting that people claim a victim status in order to present themselves as “ethical virgins,” or to abdicate responsibility for their behavior, Schulman misunderstands how one makes day-to-day decisions within the context of coercion. After all, it’s not that Harrison is without agency, or isn’t acting in ways that enable the “affair” to continue. Yet, she makes these decisions from a distinctly disempowered position. Her father exploits her completely understandable desire for love and approval to get what he wants—control.
“I was abused” connotes the suffering and shame endured when one person gains enough power to detach you from your daily life, your mind, your very body. In her eponymous comic book series, superstrong superhero Jessica Jones falls under the control of the supervillain Purple Man, whose powers allow him to control the minds of other people. In order to humiliate Jones, he compels her to beg him to fuck her. She does so until she cries.
Jones tells her friend and fellow superhero Luke Cage that she knows she was forced to do and say those things by the Purple Man. But, she tells Cage, that doesn’t change the fact that she did and said them. “In your head—it doesn’t feel any different than when you think it yourself, you see?” she explains. “In my mind I can’t tell the difference between what he made me do or say and what I do or say on my own.”
In the comic strip, as she narrates her experiences to Cage, her eyes are downcast and her hair falls across her face. Shame is an essential facet of how the Purple Man tortures Jones—although her mind is literally under his control, she still experiences the world through her own voice. She is compelled to hate herself for the reasons given by the Purple Man, and simultaneously paralyzed by her inability to differentiate her mind from his.
The relief in naming something “abuse” is not in claiming “victimization,” as Schulman suggests. Rather, calling something “abuse” enables survivors to express the devastation wrought by being alienated from their own minds or bodies. It means recognizing the tactics that the “abuser” used to exert control over you, and also understanding why you stayed. In that sense, saying, “I was abused” is a revolutionary act: it is only when a survivor names the power that has been taken away from her that she can begin to take it back.
And it’s a revolutionary act we desperately need. On a macro level, shame serves to protect dominant classes by silencing survivors or casting them into self blame. We live in a country that routinely shames and blames survivors for what they endure—in how they are silenced by friends and family; in the ways their stories are discounted by the police, judges and juries; in the fact that even an accused serial sexual assaulter can be elected to the highest echelons of public office. Yet Schulman seems to express almost total disinterest in understanding these linkages or interrogating the broader relationship between shame, abuse, and the structural inequalities that govern our society.
Despite the substantial flaws in Schulman’s book, there is an important and constructive underlying concern that drives her text: Just as “victims” are not all-knowing subjects, nor are “perpetrators” known, fixed, singular quantities. Those of us who work in the field of domestic violence are taught to conceive abuse as a cycle—that it’s the moments not only of violence, but of softness and reconciliation as well that keep a victim trapped. I remember there were times when my girlfriend would be gentle and I’d want to recoil. There was so little space between the version of her I loved and the version of her I feared that I no longer knew which was genuine. Later, I thought about the ways I’d been manipulated, and wondered if she consciously or subconsciously exploited my deepest vulnerabilities. It’s a rewriting of history, in a sense—and one that encourages us to develop hardened, fixed conceptions of the person we knew.
In asking us to retreat from our instincts regarding abuse, Schulman avoids the more crucial question of how communities deal with it without dehumanizing the one who committed harm. I was raised and taught to be vindictive and to see “criminals” (or those that commit harm) as the sum of their worst deeds. My emotional landscape is bound not only by past experiences but by coming into adulthood under a carceral state. How can we interrogate the origins of our desires when we claim what we need from our “abusers?” When we conduct interventions or accountability processes in our communities, how do we honor the harm endured by the survivor without mimicking the punishment paradigm of the state?
Work that interrogates the complex relationships between feminism, abolitionism, and interpersonal violence is ongoing, advanced by anti-violence projects led by women of color like Incite!, #SurvivedandPunished, the 2011 comp zine “The Revolution Starts at Home,” and important scholarly work by Angela Davis, Beth Ritchie, Kali Gross, and Mariame Kaba (aka @prisonculture). Feminista Jones’s campaign #YouOKsis works to raise awareness about the street harassment endured by black women, in part because mainstream campaigns against street harassment have tended to center white women. For Jones, the aim is to avoid cultural narratives that encourage the incarceration of black men, and instead make visible what is so often minimized or excluded from public conversation: black women’s vulnerability and need for protection.
“What happens when we’re walking down the street is that people will harass us and see us as being both women and also black, and they understand that nobody gives a shit about us,” said Jones in a 2014 interview. “We are the women who they can take these things out on. They can sexually harass us, they can rape us, and who’s going to believe the word of a black woman?” To be believed is fundamentally a question of relative power. How can we entrust communities to safely differentiate between “conflict” and “abuse” when our worldviews are so intertwined with structures of oppression?
Instead of asking why individuals wrongly claim abuse, perhaps we should turn inward to examine how our own thoughts and behaviors compel survivors into silence. While I appreciate the intent of the book, I fear that Conflict Is Not Abuse does more to shame those who have suffered harm than to encourage open conversations about how to build stronger, healthier, and more accountable communities.