Unspeakable Terror

A brave victim charts her 20-year course of healing

On Wednesday, August 1, 1990, a 22-year-old Cana­dian student named Karyn Freedman arrived in Paris and made her way with her boyfriend, Stream, to an apartment on Boulevard Masséna. The apartment was rented by Stream’s elderly Bard College professor and mentor Édouard Roditi, who had invited the couple to stay for part of the summer to explore Paris. Stream left for dinner that evening with Roditi. But Robert Dinges, who was Roditi’s 30-year-old lover and also staying at the apartment, was making dinner for himself at home. He offered to make dinner for Karyn as well. Tired after her travels in Europe, she was glad to stay in and unwind. Robert had started to drink heavily during dinner and, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, Karyn decided to leave the apartment and wait for Stream in a local coffee shop. But it was too late. Robert was large and muscular, and blocked her way out. With a kitchen knife in his hand he grabbed her hair and in broken English told her to do what he said or he would kill her. Karyn writes that “it registered then that Robert was intending to rape me and kill me, and that there was nothing that I could do to stop him.” She describes how she was viciously and repeatedly raped and then how Robert ordered her to leave the apartment with him. Making use of a slight opportunity in the lobby she broke free and he ran away. The whole experience lasted “only” one hour, and yet it changed her life forever. This book describes the complexity of Karyn Freedman’s healing.

It is a short and forthright book, lit with insight and often with compassion, in which Freedman describes the 20 years of her journey toward recovery. For her at least, psychological trauma is permanent and she likened her recovery to a chronic illness, a disorder of remissions and exacerbations. She goes on to write that with enough time and effort survivors of rape have a chance of working on their traumatic memory to make it a place of transformation and emotional growth.

She takes us into her recurrent battle with the vivid unwanted memories of that hour, which include both physical and visual reliving and concomitant high arousal states. Centrally, her valiant attempt in the first decade after the rape to “just get on with things” did not liberate her. She realized that for her “in order to break free from the hold of the memory of a traumatic experience you have to first live in it.” What she had been doing instead to manage the deepening disconnect between her cognitive and bodily responses to traumatic triggers was to try and leave the ordeal behind her. Freedman notes with irony “it is possible to be a world-class philosopher without looking inward, and so, incidentally, I found myself in a discipline that suited me perfectly.” Notably, her empathy for other victims of sexual violence and humiliation and her preoccupation that rape occurs everywhere to millions of women paradoxically contributed to her years of avoiding a genuine examination of her own one hour.

There is much that this book illuminates. The author’s consideration of the issue of knowing and not knowing is interesting. She, like all of us, knows the world is dangerous, but it was not until she was raped that this knowledge “shattered her world view.” I once heard Freedman discuss her 2006 paper, “The Epistemological Significance of Psychic Trauma,” at a study group, a precursor to this book. She said that whereas every woman is aware of the danger of being raped, and that sexual violence is the chronic constant risk of being female in the world, this information is not accompanied by the essential emotional experience of the terror involved. It is not until a woman has been raped that this information becomes emotionally real and persistent. Because of her rape Freedman reports she can never take safety for granted as she had done prior to the experience. Once the delusion of safety is pierced, life is forever changed. “Over the course of a marriage, a childhood, a date, or one hour, survivors of sexual violence learn certain odious facts about the possibilities of human behaviour, and their world view is shattered.” Freedman continues “having suffered a traumatic experience, we might find ourselves forced, on pain of consistency, to give up some of our deeply held beliefs about human nature.”

Her deliberations now make sense of what a Rwandan woman once said to me, having survived the atrocities of the genocide. She had recovered from the worst of her post-­traumatic stress disorder and asked, “how do I live in a world where I know first-hand the butchery that people can perpetrate?” How indeed; but is this an existential or a psychological question? Recovering from the symptoms of PTSD is one thing, but it is quite another to face the implications of knowing first-hand about rape and atrocity. Having found the courage to turn to face the endless hijacking of her present experience by the unwanted and unsought intrusions of the rape memory, and the subsequent difficulties with trust and relationships, having faced and accepted what happened, the survivor’s symptoms may abate but the suffering may be far from over. Now she is faced with the problem that first-hand experience of trauma reveals a world not only at odds with her previous sense of safety or invulnerability, but with her core ethical and moral beliefs about people.

As noted, Freedman went on to become a professor of philosophy, and although her career choice privileged cognitive skills over emotional reflection, her body could not be quieted by her cognitive successes. Freedman poignantly describes how she at first continually, and now intermittently, feels all the wariness and fearful anticipation of impending disaster. She notes “the body keeps the score,” a term coined by Bessel van der Kolk. He and others suggest that for some, the body’s failure to settle down is because a traumatic experience is not taken in as a declarative memory, such as, for instance, the way one remembers a graduation. Rather, as a consequence of the terror involved in the experience, the neocortex is thrown “off line” and the traumatic event is taken in by the implicit memory, a system that registers knowledge such as how to ride a bike. Subsequent access to the traumatic memory is not available as an ordinary memory, but only as body sensations and actions. These somatic memories can be precipitated by sudden triggers in the environment that pertain to the attack, and that cannot be rationalized away or ignored. These “memories,” as when dealing with a frightened animal or child, need compassionate recognition, validation, acceptance and often desensitization to enable the individual’s body to register the present as the present, in contradistinction to the traumatic past.

Freedman describes throughout the book this personal and painful experience of incongruence between the cognitive knowledge that she is safe and her body’s insistence that she is in danger. And the theme provides a measure of both her need to heal and her eventual success at healing the incongruence by writing this book, by engaging with us, her community.

Freedman consciously writes her book “in the language of PTSD.” She tells us that this language helped her make sense of her symptoms, and helped heal her. She writes a prolonged account of the history of PTSD, and scattered through the book are passages of technical descriptions out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV and V of the symptoms and issues associated with PTSD. For instance, Freedman writes “one of the typical symptoms of PTSD is avoidance. It is not uncommon for someone who has lived through a traumatic experience to steer clear of anything (or anyone) that reminds her of the event. But the impact of extreme trauma and acute stress has contradictory effects on our behaviour around traumatic triggers.” This and similar passages feel more like a lesson than a reflective account of her own experience. Elsewhere she writes: “Science helps to explain why trauma is influential. PTSD is a consequence of what happens when our biological response to threat—fight-or-flight—gets interrupted and frozen in a state of readiness.” This particular idea is less known and accepted in mainstream trauma theory. Although Freedman is doubtless trying to pass on to the reader explanations that helped her make sense of her response to her rape, for me these explanatory passages break into the flow of her compelling and well-written story and the problems it presented her with. She also writes at times in the language of philosophy to explore relevant issues such as justice, and this seems to me much less discordant.

We know that the author found the language of PTSD helpful because she briefly alludes to the work of Derek Summerfield, who was principal psychiatrist with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in London, England, and who worked for years with refugees subjected to torture and institutional violence. Summerfield says the language of trauma makes healing less easy for survivors. Summerfield suggests if we “medicalize” rape and other atrocities by using the words associated with the DSM-IV and DSM-V as the only language that describes, validates its impact and provides healing, we are expecting too much of medicine. He suggests that experiences of rape, combat, abuse and atrocity are ubiquitous in the history of humans, as is the capacity for healing and transformation. But now, instead of using words such as suffering, anguish, torment, even grief, these concepts have been collapsed into the medical word “trauma.” This use of medical language identifies people caught up in violence as patients, so medical treatment can be expected to provide a cure. And therefore we turn away from the paths to healing that people have traditionally found outside of medicine. Summerfield says it is in the institutions of our culture—our mosques, synagogues, churches, cricket clubs, parent-teacher evenings, community gardens, pubs—where meaning is made, and is accessible and renewed—and that therapy, which he suggests pathologizes the individual, is a poor second to all of these.

There is sufficient evidence in the West that the talking cure stands up as both potent and helpful. However, for those with unresolved traumatic experiences, therapy benefits from being supplemented with somatic therapies from yoga to sensorimotor psychotherapy—and still that may not be enough to heal the individual. Congruent with Summerfield’s ideas, the injury of rape is experienced in all the ways it means to be human, so perhaps the healing of the individual must ultimately go beyond her own mind and body and spill into the community where it originated. Rape and atrocity arise from what we as communities allow or fail to prevent. Secrecy can inadvertently make the sufferer complicit with what the community does not know or does not want to know. We the community must be confronted with what is happening so that sexual violence is understood not as an individual predicament but as a crisis that implicates and affects all of us. Although Freedman has not kept her rape a secret, she describes the second thoughts she had toward the completion of the manuscript of One Hour in Paris. She wears her courage lightly, saying it became imperative that she make her life congruent by telling—she felt she could no longer lead a successful professional life and hide the fact of the rape that caused and was causing her such hardship in her personal life. She felt the need to push toward a consistency of self—the outside matching the inside, the past known and shaping the present. It must take considerable courage to acknowledge a rape so publicly. Freedman demonstrates a generosity to other women, to other people, in her willingness to face both her own personal experience and the psychic risks of public disclosure.

Whether it is a memoir, a confession, a diary of recovery, a work of social activism, a manual to point others toward healing (she mentions other rape survivors and writes “I wrote this book for you”) or all of these, Freedman’s is a story of hope and the complex road to acceptance and recovery.