Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Fiona Snyckers's Lacuna
"My therapist is a woman. Naturally. You wouldn’t consult a man after being raped."
I have a therapist. Of course, I do. Every middle-class white woman who gets raped has a therapist. It’s only if you are poor and black that you don’t need a therapist after being raped. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get on with it.
Your feelings aren’t as tender as those of a middle-class white woman. Your scars don’t run as deep. Your trauma isn’t as real. You’re a coper. A survivor. Your skin is thicker. You shrug these things off faster.
They say that going to therapy straight after a traumatic event is next to useless. The trauma is too raw for that kind of counselling to be of any help.
So I did it right. Shortly after the rape, I went for crisis counselling – the first-aid of the counselling world. It gets you through the immediate aftermath of the event.
Then, after more than a year, I started going to proper longterm therapy. I committed myself to putting in the ‘work’ I needed to recover.
That’s shrink-speak. When you go to therapy, you are doing ‘work’. My therapist is a woman. Naturally. You wouldn’t consult a man after being raped. Her name is Lydia Bascombe, and she thinks I shouldn’t be so flippant about needing her.
‘Why do you feel the need to compare yourself to other rape survivors?’ she asks.
‘It’s a natural impulse, isn’t it? When you’ve been through something life-changing, you want to know how other people who have been through the same thing are coping.’
‘But you disparage yourself constantly. It’s as if you believe you have no right to therapy just because not everyone can afford it.’
‘Do I, though?
‘Why do you feel that you don’t?’
Shrinks always answer questions with questions. I am not the first to make this observation.
‘It’s a luxury,’ I say. ‘An indulgence. You can dress it up as something else by calling it “work”, but it’s an opportunity to talk about yourself for an hour. To someone who is paid to care.’
‘There are other luxuries that not everyone can afford. Like a roof over one’s head and three meals a day. Do you feel unworthy of those too?’
‘Perhaps I do.’
Perhaps you find it easier to focus on other rape survivors than on yourself?
‘But you accept them. You don’t put on sackcloth and ashes and start living in a shack. You don’t choose to subsist on mealiemeal and tripe. You don’t flirt with nutritional deficiency and hypothermia.’
‘Aren’t you arguing with me now? You’re trying to persuade me to see things your way. Therapists aren’t meant to do that.’
She goes quiet. She is struggling with what looks like irritation. She is annoyed with my refusal to see the light – to get better.
‘Rational argument can be part of the therapeutic process.’ There is little conviction in her voice. She has overstepped the mark, and she knows it. I feel satisfaction at having rattled her. But now it is her turn to rattle me, and that won’t be nearly as pleasant. It is all part of the give-and-take of what she likes to call ‘the therapeutic process’.
‘Perhaps you find it easier to focus on other rape survivors than on yourself?’ The gentleness in her voice tells me she is moving in for the kill. She will make me cry today. She can sense my tears in the wind.
‘No, actually, it’s harder.’ Good. That came out steady as a rock. ‘Why is that? Surely your own pain is the hardest to contemplate?’
‘I can’t think about anyone else’s pain.’ Less steady now. ‘It’s too much. I can’t make sense of it.’ My voice is breaking on every second or third word. ‘Other women have been gangraped. Other women have been through what I went through, only worse.’
Other women have been through what I went through, only worse.
I’m sobbing uncontrollably now – gasping out words between sobs. L. Bascombe leans forward to hear better. ‘Some of them were stabbed and strangled as well. They had their bellies cut open and their guts spilled out and coated in dirt. The doctors had to wash that mess before piling it back in again.’ She nods to show she knows the case I am referring to. It was on the news a while ago. Astonishingly, the woman survived.
‘It happens all the time to black women up and down the country. To impoverished women all over the world.’ It comes out as impo-ho-ho-ho-vrisht. ‘None of them gets to see a shrink afterwards. When they’re patched up enough to walk, they’re sent home – often to the bastard who hurt them in the first place.’
‘And they have to get on with it – cooking, cleaning, looking after the kids, showing up for work. No fifty-minute hours for them. No sirree.’
Lydia Bascombe’s voice is soothing now that she is back in the driver’s seat. Her patience is infinite. ‘Your capacity for empathy in the midst of your own pain is laudable.’
But that's it. I'm not empathetic.
I laugh. It comes out as a sob. ‘But that’s it. I’m not empathetic. Every time I think about those other women, my brain tells me they’re not really like me. They don’t feel as deeply as I do. I’m more sensitive than they are. They’re tougher, shallower. I mean, how can they possibly feel things as acutely as my precious white self? They’re just living the life they’re used to. Their trauma can’t compare to mine.’
L. Bascombe’s eyes are shifty, darting from side to side. I have made her uncomfortable. She swallows – a dry, clicking sound audible to both of us.
‘How do you feel when it’s a white woman who has been attacked?’
‘The same. I find reasons why it wasn’t as bad for her. She is probably not as bright as I am. Not as sensitive. She’s more of a coper. She’ll get over it.’ I draw a breath that shakes so much it sounds like three separate breaths. ‘There can’t be that much pain in the world. It can’t all be equal to mine. I can’t stand it if it is.’
She lets out her own breath in a thin stream. Her world has righted itself. I’m not racist after all – just traumatised.
‘Total empathy is impossible to sustain. You must realise that. We cannot feel all the pain in the world all the time without going mad. It’s a natural defence mechanism to find reasons for believing that someone else’s pain is not as bad as ours. This is something we are trained as psychologists to recognise in ourselves.’
‘How do you cope?’ I wail. ‘You specialise in counselling victims of sexual violence. How do you listen to these stories day in and day out without going crazy?’
‘We’re talking about you and your pain. Why do you think you feel the need to deflect the focus onto me?’
And we’re back on familiar ground again. The classic shrink bait-and-switch.
- Extract provided by Pan Macmillan