On Social Media, Activism, and Trauma

I’m active on social media–mostly Facebook (I know, I know. Twitter is where it’s at)–and I’m also fairly authentic on social media. When I started to get some recognition for my writing, I received friend requests from people who knew me as a writer but who knew nothing of me as a person. One friend advised me immediately to get a writer page, but I couldn’t imagine maintaining a writer page. I’ve never been someone who has a public vs private persona. So when, all of a sudden, I had a lot of strangers on my Facebook page, I wondered if I should start censoring myself, if I should work to be more “professional.” And ultimately, I decided to just keep doing what I had been doing–posting pictures of my food, Beyonce videos, Onion articles, tidbits about my life, and trauma.

Just like Beyonce videos and miso ramen, trauma is a daily part of my life.

Unlike my published essays, my writings on Facebook weren’t edited. They weren’t processed beforehand. They were completely in the moment. About a year ago, I had a bit of a public meltdown on Facebook. I still shared forty-some friends with Caleb on Facebook. Some of these friends had been his, and some of them had been mine. I had wanted to be mature. After all, Facebook isn’t real, right? Unfriending someone on Facebook isn’t like unfriending them in real life, right? So I bit my tongue for a long time.

In the meantime, Caleb continued to show up in my feed. He “liked” posts from people who were definitively my friends. Most of these friends immediately deleted him. They recognized what he was doing. He was inserting himself into my life in any way that he could. He was telling me, I can do whatever I want. It does not matter that I terrorized you, that I wounded you, that I harmed you in cruel and unmentionable ways. It does not matter because there will always be people who are willing to overlook my behavior and remain my friend, and I will never have to change.

That is what those Facebook “friends” enabled Caleb to say to himself. They enabled him to say to himself: I will never have to change. I will never have to change. I will never have to change. I will never have to change.

And over time, I was no longer able to bite my tongue. I started to speak out in my status updates, to reference the fact that Caleb and I shared mutual friends. I wasn’t subtle. Many people took the hint and unfriended him. Many people didn’t. A writer friend, a poet who lives in the city where Caleb and I met (so who has many mutual connections with both of us) posted her own update about supporting someone who is a known abuser. She basically asked if it was okay to remain Facebook friends with a known abuser when the victim has expressed a desire for people to sever that tie?

One of the people who had remained Facebook friends with both Caleb and me–a woman who had studied in Caleb’s MFA with him, but who had known me beforehand, so who had separate ties to both of us–wrote that she didn’t consider Facebook activism to be real activism, so she didn’t understand why she should have to unfriend an abuser or what that would accomplish. This woman had been divvying her attentions between us by “liking” my blog posts, but also “liking” Caleb’s profile picture. She was remaining neutral, but of course, there is no neutrality in abuse. Remaining neutral in situations of abuse means that you support the abuser, and I have nothing more to say about that.

Another woman who was in the same situation as the previous woman–who had known Caleb from his MFA, but had also known me from before that–had supported me immediately. She had unfriended Caleb, and when she found out about the abuse, she wrote to me and expressed her complete and total support for me. She commented on this same thread that she thought it was important to respect the wishes of the victim.

And that’s about the crux of it. Regardless of how you feel about activism, or social media, or “slacktivism” if that’s what you want to call it–if you support the victim, then you will respect her* wishes. You will recognize that it is not what you value that matters. It is what she values that matters. I think that Facebook activism is real. I value it. It makes a difference. I know that women who are speaking out about their traumas on Facebook are making a difference. We are real people typing real words that come out of our real hearts and brains (I stole this sentiment from poet Isobel O Hare who posted something to this effect on her own Facebook).

I know that when people have unfriended Caleb, it has brought me true solace. The seemingly small action of clicking “unfriend” has the power to help me feel that I am not so alone on this journey, that I am believed, and that I am respected as a person who should be able to move on in my life without extraneous reminders of my life’s worst suffering. That click also serves another purpose–it tells Caleb that what he did was wrong. Abusers don’t care about consequences unless they are legal or societal. Caleb cares a lot about his public persona. He is absolutely a person with a public vs private persona. Abusers don’t have empathy like normal people, so they need people to tell them: What you have done is wrong, and I can no longer be in contact with you because I support your victim.

Everyone knows that abusers don’t change. Everyone knows this, yet some of Caleb’s friends have written to me saying they think he will change. Why would they think this? He has done nothing to change. Nothing. He is no different than any other abuser. He is broken at his core.

So I finally said no more. I unfriended all of our mutual Facebook friends. Some of these friends were my friends who I knew didn’t support Caleb, but I figured that, if they couldn’t be bothered to respect my needs, then I no longer wanted to be friends with them either. I was ruthless with that “unfriend” button. I unfriended people I cared about. Before I hit that point, I had posted a series of status updates that were increasingly distressed. I also emailed a couple of people who I knew didn’t believe me and tried to ascertain why they didn’t believe me when the evidence was so overwhelming?

I didn’t get any answers, but this was a part of my recovery process. I will never understand why or how some people continue to support a known abuser. I have had to accept that it is not about me; it is about them. It is about their own relationships to gender and violence. Maybe it is about their own childhoods, or failed marriages, or enabling/abusive personalities, but it is not about me, and though I still grapple with accepting that knowledge, I am moving forward in the best ways in which I am able.

I knew that some people thought my behavior on Facebook indicated that I was not recovering from my trauma in the ways that I should have been. This was not the case. I was making wide strides in recovering from my trauma. My growth during that period was great. I was finally recognizing my own needs, asking for what I needed, and asserting myself when I wasn’t getting what I needed. As a trauma survivor, that kind of improvement was vast, but it made people uncomfortable.

It made them uncomfortable because the power of social media is that it allows us to see victims during the process of recovery. We see them in real time. We see them grappling. We see them wrestling with feelings of rage, inadequacy, or frustration. We see them behaving inconsistently. We see them lashing out. We see them retreating. We see all of it. We see all of the behaviors that accompany trauma, and though this may not be comfortable, it is a gift.

Watching a trauma survivor grapple with recovering from abuse is a gift. It gives us the power to understand trauma in ways that we couldn’t have otherwise. It gives us the power to understand how insidious trauma is and how it continues to affect the behavior of the victim for long after the actual abuse has occurred. It gives us the power to understand what the abuser has taken from the victim. It gives us the power to speak out in our own ways, to say I support victims, and I support you.

That discomfort we feel–when we see a victim reacting to their trauma–needs to be examined, not by the victim, but by us. Why are we so uncomfortable when we witness this victim’s response to trauma? Why are we so condemning of this victim’s response to their trauma? Why are we so judgmental of this victim’s response to their trauma? Why are we not responding from a place of love and empathy to their anger? Why are we not understanding that their anger is valid, and justified, and necessary?

The ongoing conversation about abuse that’s happening in social media needs to be reexamined from a place of radical empathy for victims. Perhaps, if we change ourselves (I’m guilty of judgment too) and our own responses to their distress, their distress will stop manifesting in such uncomfortable ways, and the conversation can move forward from a place of anger to a place of love.

I have been open about my struggles with recovering from abuse. I know this makes some people feel that I am trapped inside of my experience of trauma, but I am not. I am recovering.

I am back at my job in the wilderness. It is one of my favorite times of the year. It is a time for me to decompress and to reevaluate the previous year. This year, when I look back at the past one, I feel immensely grateful for all of the support I have received from friends and strangers alike. And the new friends I’ve made on Facebook? Their support matters too. That’s real.

I work with this lovely 76 year old woman. We worked together last summer, but not during the first summer after I left Caleb. She believes in telling people when she thinks something good about them. She believes in absolute positivity. I also work with a curmudgeonly old man who was there in the summer after I left Caleb. This man is the exact opposite of my sweet friend, but he has his own sweetness. Last year, when I was feeling sad one night, I told him, “Thank you for being nice to me.” He grew so embarrassed. He finally said, “You’re easy to be nice to.” He couldn’t even accept my gratitude, and that, in itself, was a sweetness.

The other day, the woman was telling me about something this man had said. She said, “He thinks so highly of you. He’s so proud of you. He said, ‘Kelly has come so far. You wouldn’t believe it. She’s a different person than she was that first summer.'”

This woman then said to me, “I never knew you when you were sad.”

I was startled to realize that she doesn’t think of me as sad. Then, I realized that I’m not sad. I experience moments–even periods–of sadness, but I am no longer defined by my darkness. I couldn’t have reached this place without the support of my friends, both far and near. I know how much their support has mattered in my life, so when I’m placed in that position, I will always say this: I support victims, and I support you.

*I am aware that not all victims are women, but statistics have shown that the vast majority are, so I’m choosing to use the female pronoun.