On Monday evening, to an audience of as many as 150,000, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., detailed her experience during the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The 31-year-old congresswoman described hiding in a bathroom, convinced she was going to die, and then sheltering-in-place with Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., for hours. Amid the confusion, she searched for a pair of running shoes in case she had to run for her life. The trauma of that day was intensified by another factor, Ocasio-Cortez revealed — she is a sexual assault survivor.
“I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” she said Monday during the nearly 90-minute live video. “And I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”
The response was polarized, with many applauding Ocasio-Cortez’s bravery, while others predictably attempted to minimize her ordeal.
“This is a masterclass in emotional manipulation,” Michael Tracey, a so-called roving journalist, tweeted. “A genuine political/rhetorical skill. Gotta hand it to her.” Tracey went on to accuse Ocasio-Cortez of “using ‘trauma’ as a cudgel to demand political compliance.”
Austin Peterson, another political commentator, tweeted, “Jussie Smollett’s story was more believable than AOC’s.” Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson mocked Ocasio-Cortez on air.
That a woman, especially a woman of color, would be accused of using her assault as some kind of Machiavellian chess move is hardly surprising. The #MeToo movement was met with similar backlash. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, was ridiculed by the president of the United States at the time. Olympic medalist Jamie Dantzscher — one of over 260 women to accuse the former doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team of sexual assault — told USA Today she was called an “attention-seeking whore” when she reported the abuse. Whether it’s being called a liar or an attention seeker, women know this is the likely price they will pay for coming forward. Studies have shown that victims consider the “stigma they’re likely to face” before reporting.
That a woman, especially a woman of color, would be accused of using her assault as some kind of Machiavellian chess move is hardly surprising.
In other words, it’s totally normal for Ocasio-Cortez to talk about how a past assault influenced her behavior last month. Calling her manipulative both delegitimizes her own trauma and makes it harder for others to talk about theirs, a key step in the healing process for millions of men and women.
“It’s hard enough for people to tell their stories and not feel like it’s their fault,” Dr. Karen B. Rosenbaum, a board certified general and forensic psychiatrist and a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells me. “One thing about trauma is that people feel like it’s their fault that it happened to them. So then, when you have other people confirming their worst fears, it’s going to keep them silent, possibly, or keep them from getting treatment and realizing that it’s something that is treatable and not an inherent character flaw.” Attacks on Ocasio-Cortez will only perpetuate this problem, she said.
Which is why Ocasio-Cortez’s video ended up touching on several important points. Mainly, that one traumatic event doesn’t cancel out another. Studies have shown that “early stressors may beget later stressors,” meaning a past trauma can affect how a person handles and recovers from a more recent traumatic experience. “When you have a past or repeated trauma, like sexual assault or childhood abuse that happens multiple times, you’re a lot more vulnerable to the effects of a future trauma,” Rosenbaum explains. “So even though there were 200 or more people at the Capitol building that day that were all affected, it might hit somebody harder who had trauma in their past, because they’re more vulnerable to the effects.”
But it’s the specific notion that harkening back to one traumatic event somehow negates the legitimacy of another that is particularly disturbing and detrimental, especially as the country — as a whole — endures multiple traumatic situations simultaneously. In the past year, people have been forced to shoulder the ramifications of an unparalleled public health crisis, a slew of viral videos documenting the killing of unarmed Black people, historic job losses and economic instability, and a contentious presidential election that was bookended by a violent coup attempt, broadcasted in real time. From an increase in depression and anxiety, to a rise in substance abuse issues, disordered eating habits, insomnia, fatigue and burnout, the mental, emotional and physical ramifications of existing under the banner of multiple traumatic events has taken a toll on the country as a whole, and Black and brown women in particular.
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In other words, none of us are immune to the impact of multiple traumatic events, whether they occur simultaneously or over time. In fact, we are all enduring the physical, mental and emotional impact of the current moment. Which is perhaps, Rosenbaum says, why reactions like Tracey’s exist and persist. Some people do not want to admit that they themselves could suffer personal, life-changing trauma.
“People are afraid that they won’t have any agency,” she explains. “That something like that could happen to them. So they want to victim-blame. It wouldn’t happen to me, what happened to this person, because she is weak or manipulative or something. When somebody like her [Ocasio-Cortez] speaks out like this, people don’t want to see themselves in her story.”
This attitude puts people like Ocasio-Cortez in an impossible situation. For her to be taken seriously, she has to fit into a specific box.
Of course, a lack of empathy also plays a role, Rosenbaum admits. “It’s just not a narrative that serves them, so they don’t want to buy into it,” she says.
This attitude puts people like Ocasio-Cortez in an impossible situation. For her to be taken seriously, she has to fit into a specific box. You’re either broken by your trauma, or you’re faking it for political gain.
“The collective lack of psychological sophistication in general contributes to the stigmatization of anyone who deviates from a conventional paradigm of societal prescriptions of success and traditional norms,” the Rev. Sheri Heller, a practicing psychotherapist, tells me. “Silencing trauma survivors promulgates scorn and disempowerment. Coming out of a place of shameful concealment is critical to healing from complex trauma.”
Which is why Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to share that she is not only a survivor of an attempted coup, but of a past sexual assault, is so important. But it's a decision that came at personal cost, as is so often the case when survivors come forward to share their stories. And until this country comes to a better understanding of trauma, grief, healing and the ramifications of gender- and race-based violence, trauma victims will be forced into the role of public educator, even as their “lessons” open them up to even more harm.
Ocasio-Cortez’s story proves once again that trauma affects everyone differently, and trying to pretend there is one “right way” to deal with it is just another way to delegitimize the experiences of trauma survivors we don’t like.