Beyond silence: when and how to tell stories of rape

By: Corinne Knowles*

According to Eusebius Mackaiser, telling people that you are a rape survivor is a conversation stopper (Lecture at Rhodes University annual teach-in 26/7/2013). And he is partly right, because those are not the stories we want to hear – they shame us all, they disrupt the script. Any story you or I have to tell about rape is only legitimised by the meanings we and others have already established, a language and norms that are already there before it happened, loaded with other rape stories over time. I may/can only be recognised as a rape survivor under the conditions established by these perpetuating norms. For the rest of the time, my rape survivor status must be invisible if I wish to survive at other things and in other spaces too.

Judith Butler explains that the language and norms that prescribe how we may tell and live our stories are part of ‘established conventions’ and should be ‘expanded to become more inclusive and more responsive to the full range of cultural populations’ (Butler 2004: 224). The conventions that regulate “our telling” in the current “rape culture” make us uncomfortable to hear survivors’ stories, and so we limit ourselves to only telling the stories when we are in a “safe” place, or keep quiet altogether. The key to the kind of expansion, where more of us are recognised as having a story that deserves to be spoken and understood, lies not in understanding power, but in reconfiguring vulnerability.

When we experience loss – loss of something we were (for example, loss of a person who was not raped, abused, and/or silenced) and who we could have become if we had not lost – we respond in one of two ways: melancholy, or mourning and grief.  Butler critiques and adapts ideas (about gender, which I adapt and apply more broadly) presented in Freud’s theory of melancholy (Butler in Salih with Butler 2004: 251-2; Lloyd 2007: 82-86). Melancholy is seen as the internalisation of the lost as a constitutive part of who I become. I lose someone, or part of myself, and the horror of what I have lost is more than I can contemplate. Freud explains that melancholy emerges differently from mourning – melancholy is a refusal to accept loss, so that the lost is incorporated into a fixed and idealised notion of who was, and who we were or could have become without losing. This lost ideal forms my survivor subject-hood, but whichever subject is formed as a result of this response to loss will always incorporate and even be constituted by the notion of the lost. So when we have a melancholic response to rape, we become, even if only to ourselves, forever that person that was raped. The rape, an unmentionable part of our subject-hood, casts its shadow, even while its effects are being denied and disciplined by institutions and ourselves. We never “heal” collectively or individually, because the bodily and psychic effects of our rapes are absorbed into a discourse that leaves us blank and silent, while our subject-hood as a survivor performs, compulsively, a melancholic rhetoric.  If we see the conditions of violence (including rape) as a fear of vulnerability, power could be interpreted as a melancholic notion of vulnerability, in that vulnerability is not actually recognised and protected, but instead is internalised and the fear of it informs how we express power. In this configuration of power, to be named as “vulnerable” serves to increase vulnerability.

 The other response to loss is mourning. Mourning, and grief, is the becoming and the turning away from what is lost in order to become someone else, without the guiding framework of whom and what is lost. It enforces vulnerability, because it is uncertain – I don’t know who I am or can be without what or whom I have lost, so I abandon myself to finding my way in an unpredictable, uncertain future.  Butler suggests that ‘perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance’ (Butler 2004b: 21). So, if we respond to rape in a mourning way, we acknowledge that we have indeed lost – and acknowledge too that we are not sure how to move forward, and not sure who we are without that person we were before we were raped, and the person we could have become. And we let it go – bit by bit or all at once, appropriately or embarrassingly, in order to become whoever else we are. And when we respond to someone’s rape story from a mourning perspective, we acknowledge the loss of persons who have lost, because a collective “we” has lost something precious too.

Importantly, Butler makes a significant link between a subject, and a collective or community. If I respond to the loss of a relationship and the self I could have been, with mourning and grief instead of melancholy, I could use this grief to understand a collective agency. ‘To grieve’ she claims, ‘and to make grief itself into a resource for politics, is not to be resigned to inaction, but it may be understood as the slow process by which we develop a point of identification with suffering itself’ (Butler 2004b: 30). This point of identification with suffering is a way to move beyond the confines of my own suffering, in order to identify too with other sufferers. She further asks: ‘if I am struggling for autonomy, do I not need to be struggling for something else as well, a conception of myself as invariably in community…in ways that are not fully in my control or clearly predictable’ (2004b: 27).

 In this journey of mourning, grief and uncertainty, the subject is then framed by the acknowledgement of loss in the self and in all others, so that recognising, suffering, and grieving loss becomes a point of identification with others, and the journey forward is with a new respect for the vulnerability of all subjects as a starting point. If we broaden our scope of subject possibility to include, always, the notion of the vulnerable “other”, then the power and agency which constitutes and is constituted by the subject formations within a normative setting becomes the power to transform, precisely because it focuses not on melancholic power, but on recognising mutual vulnerability in shared spaces. ‘Then’, Butler claims, ‘we might critically evaluate and oppose the conditions under which certain human lives are more vulnerable than others…from where might a principle emerge by which we vow to protect others from the kind of violence we have suffered’ (Butler 2004b:30).

I have told my rape story at times that might be considered inappropriate. For instance, it came up in my class discussion (of the other speakers at the teach-in on rape) the day before Eusebius’ presentation. When I asked some of my students, after Eusebius’ talk, if my story had made them uncomfortable, they said no, because we had already had the conversation when I wore my survivor t-shirt at the 2013 Rhodes University Silent Protest. My telling was not to gain power, but to offer my vulnerability, in order to open up the conversation with my students and not to close it down. Feeling uncomfortable is perhaps the first step to sharing vulnerability. From there, new conversations can be navigated, carefully and uncertainly. As Butler explains, ‘to ask for recognition, or to offer it, is precisely not to ask for recognition for what one already is. It is to solicit a becoming, to investigate a transformation, to petition the future always in relation to the other’ (Butler 2004b: 44).

*Corinne Knowles is a lecturer at Rhodes University and a gender activist.


Butler, J.  (2004b) Precarious Lives. London: Verso.

Butler, J. in Salih, S. with Butler, J. (eds)(2004) The Judith Butler Reader. USA: Blackwell.

Butler, J. (2004) Undoing Gender. New York and London: Routledge.

Lloyd, M. (2007) Judith Butler. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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One Response to Beyond silence: when and how to tell stories of rape

  1. Your article is thought provoking, I think that Vavi became complacent in his sexual behaviour within the workplace and that he handed his opponents a stick to beat him with. I have been involved with trade unions and politics in South Africa and in my experience women are many times being used to further the agenda`s of factions.

    One would expect that women in the trade union movement and politics would be more aware of their role in advancing the struggle of women, that is unfortunately not always the case.

    I had an experience within the trade union movement where my female comrades threatened me with getting my then abusive husband to deal with me if I don’t tow the line. They were well aware of the abuse that I was experiencing at the hands of a so called comrade at the time.
    I also found that women who speak out against being treated as sex objects by their male comrades are side-lined and not given a platform; this is an age old practice that still thrives today.

    In my opinion, our women are sometimes their own worst enemies.

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