Bearing Witness

Trauma requires a narrative; narrative requires a witness.

As a campus, we have heard testimonies from parents and friends of survivors. These are people who are not the survivors of sexual assault, but feel the effects of traumatic experiences as witnesses to trauma. Their suffering is often misrecognized and we fail to properly address it, conflating it instead with the experience of survivors or writing it off as over-involved or appropriative of survivor trauma.

These are people who have relayed stories to me of not being able to sleep, not being comfortable in public places, feeling unmanageable outrage and despair, are the stories of the friends of survivors. While this second group does not have the same experiences as survivors of sexual assault, they represent a second thread or type of relationship to trauma: the trauma of bearing witness.

Part of the reason that a traumatic event is so traumatic is because it cannot be witnessed while it is happening. When someone is assaulted, their autonomy is taken from them and they become separated from their body, alienated constitutively from the experience they are forced to undergo. Consider the fact that syntactically the subject of rape is always a grammatical object: ‘person A is raped.’ The subject of rape becomes an object that cannot be a witness to the act. This is true in other kinds of traumatic events as well.

Trauma, for many, is a crisis of truth, where the validity of perception and the promise of bodily autonomy are inherently threatened. In the context of sexual assault this crisis has multiple implications. There is the crisis of being betrayed by physical autonomy (“I didn’t want to”), the crisis of being betrayed by one’s own capacity to speak (“but I said no”), the crisis of finding oneself doubting one’s own experience (“could that have really happened?”), and finally the crisis of being doubted by others (he said, she said).

To speak a narrative of trauma to a witness is to pursue the promise that is simultaneously broken with its fulfillment. The promise of narrative is that in the act of telling, one will be able to solidify a historical truth. However, the fulfillment of this promise also exposes the impossibility of ever completing that truth. In his essay “Truth and Testimony,” Dori Laub writes:

[T]he act of bearing witness at the same time makes and breaks a promise: the promise of the testimony as a realization of the truth. On the one hand, the process of the testimony does in fact hold out the promise of truth as the return of a sane, normal, and connected world. On the other hand, because of its very commitment to truth, the testimony enforces at least a partial breach, failure and relinquishment of this promise.

Testimony always fails to completely capture the full truth, which exists outside of language. It does succeed in locating truth within language and therefore connecting the person who experienced trauma to the world, which functions within the shared order of language. Laub goes on:

It is this very commitment to truth, in a dialogic context and with an authentic listener, which allows for the reconciliation within the broken promise, and which makes the resumption of life, in spite of the failed promise, at all possible.

The witness is more than a passive observer of the trauma of the survivor; they are an essential element to the construction of a narrative and to the survivor’s capacity to narrate. In this way, the witness becomes involved in the survivor’s experience trauma.

You may know this witness-friend; this is the friend who cries all the time or who seems to take someone else’s trauma to heart in a way that even the survivor themself cannot. Sometimes this is the friend who becomes activated and takes personally the elimination of further suffering, through raising awareness about the problem and joining organizations to fight assault. This friend who bears witness can often be frustrating and confusing for the survivor and for other people close to the friend.

There are often very few resources for those who bear witness to the trauma of others and become incorporated into the collaborative effort of narrating the survivor’s experience. Social workers and other professionals have support networks just to handle the effect of bearing witness to the trauma of others, but most roommates, significant others, and lab partners don’t have that access. Their feelings often become seen as secondary or appropriative and are dismissed or confused with the reactions of a survivor who has yet to come forward.

This is true of even the most seemingly passive witnesses, like readers of published testimonies detached in time and space from the writer of the novel. Despite this great distance, it is the reader that animates through their reading the experience of the story. A testimony may looks like a single-voice simply telling into the ether, but the minute a reader clicks on the link it becomes a collaboration and a dialogue between writer and reader, narrator and witness.

Certainly, there are things that someone who comes forward for being assault or abused has to deal with that the one who bears witness does not – the experiences are different. That said, the difference is key to recognizing that the experience of the friend is not an appropriation of trauma, but an effect of traumatic narrative, an effect requisite to the existence of a narrative at all.

We talk about how wide the effects of trauma are, but we don’t generally focus on what that could mean. 1 in 4 women and many men on a residential college campus will be assaulted at some time in her life, but the reach of trauma is more inclusive than even that high statistic. Each person who experiences trauma repeats the event in some way (through words or through actions) and collaboratively creates that repetition by incorporating a spectator as a participating witness.

Strange as it may sound, witnesses need support in their own right. They bear the burden of traumatic events that is separate from the experience of the survivor.

The friend of a survivor does not have to deal with the legalese that survivors are forced to decipher, nor do they have to combat the self-doubt, questioning of their peers and slut-shaming that survivors encounter. The battles that the friends of survivors fight are unique. Many don’t realize that what they’re experiencing in the wake of a narrative of trauma is legitimate and deserving of attention. Many of those who bear witnesses and experience this secondary trauma find themselves without a place at the table in conversations about sexual assault despite their deeply personal relationship with the issue.

The story of the witness is not and should not be at the center of the conversation about sexual assault, but the friends of survivors comprise a secondary layer of people affected by trauma and should be incorporated into the conversation and our campus support systems as they are incorporated into narratives of trauma told to them.

This article is the third in a series written for a special topics course in the Amherst College English Department called “Trauma at Amherst.” You can find the first and second articles here and here.