Writing Trauma and Rape: WisCon 35 Panels

I started going to WisCon some 18 years ago, primarily looking for advice as an aspiring writer. The writing workshops there have been great for me to work on the craft and meet some fascinating, kind, and very helpful people. Sometimes the critiques have been good, sometimes devastating (those aren’t mutually exclusive categories), and while sometimes I’ve thought the comments may have missed the mark, the process has always led to an improvement in how I practice the craft of writing.
The novel I’m working on contains scenes of physical violence, including sexual violence, and I wanted to be sure I got those scenes “right,” that I dealt with both issues realistically and appropriately. Too often simply considered “action” scenes, I knew that getting characters knocked about comes at a cost, and one that I needed to take into account in my plotting. Two panels at WisCon 35 jumped out at me as “must attend” panels: One Thousand Ways to Die and Return of the Rape Panel.  On the first panel were medical professionals and writers (and writers who were medical professionals) on the second panel were rape counselors and writers (we did not learn if anyone had been sexually assaulted because really, not germane or our business. The panel members took great care in laying ground rules to keep the discussion respectful of anyone’s experiences). Both panels ended up with similar discussions and conclusions, which isn’t surprising since rape is physical assault/trauma, and trauma often has emotional and psychological ramifications no matter what the source of the trauma.
What I learned is that most writers don’t handle trauma and/or rape very well. Movies and trauma-of-the-week police procedurals are particularly bad and this callous approach to assault has wider ramifications for how we, as a culture, respond to and treat survivors of rape and physical trauma. We think that people who get shot, beat up, knocked out, and raped (both violently and insidiously), should be back up kicking ass and taking names before the end of the hour, or at least by the next episode or chapter. In the case of rape, there does seem to be a second option to totally fine almost immediately, and that’s broken irrevocably.
Great options, there. Not fitting with any real-world humans that I know.
Speaking of which, the moderator for the One Thousand Ways to Die panel did posit three different possibilities for speculative fiction, and these three approaches would inform how the character heals. I leave it to the reader to decide how much these three realities might affect the sexual assault survivor.
  1. Real world with real humans. Our world as we know it to be populated by us and people just like us. AKA reality.
  2. Real world with aliens or altered humans. Paranormal stories or urban fantasies. Buffy and the vamps she fights don’t hurt or heal in the same way we normal humans do. Wolverine, Spock, or The Doctor each have their own rules for what hurts them, to what extent, and how long it takes to heal.
  3. Fantasy worlds with fantasy characters. Thomas Covenant may heal through Earth Magic, Paksenarrion may have Gird reach down and remove all traces of her otherwise-mortal wounds, and other worlds will have still other rules.
In my opinion, the success of worlds two and three is going to rely heavily on the author being consistent in how the rules work in that world and in how they differ from what we know. We concentrated on the first category and strove to make sure we knew what actually happens in a trauma.
The most telling instance for me came when the panel talked about someone being knocked out. The doctor on the panel said: “If you’re knocked out for an hour, you’re out for a week.” For one thing, consciousness is not like a light switch, it isn’t a binary system. There are degrees of consciousness and even if you posit some sort of drug, anything that gets you that deep is also going to come with a chance that your hero will forget to breathe. Coming to won’t be a picnic either: dizziness, blurred vision, memory loss, and worse will all happen to your hero for a long time after being knocked unconscious. No one in our world or one like it is going to come to in the villain’s lair after being knocked out by the goons, spring up, and fight the army of bad guys. Doesn’t happen, doesn’t work like that. Healing takes time. Blasts that send people flying through the air mean that the explosion is close enough to cook one side of a person (as well as embedding glass and other debris in the skin). Healing takes time.
And healing may never get the injured person back to 100%. Two things: the physical trauma may very well destroy tissue and the healing process may develop scar tissue. That hand may never be the same, there may always be a ringing in the ears or a susceptibility to headaches, the burns may never fade. For writers this means, be careful in how you beat up your characters because if you want to get it right, those traumas will always be with your character from then on out.
Second thing is the mental trauma. Both sets of panelists were quick to point out the reality of PTSD for survivors of trauma, including sexual assault. That’s a lot for a person to experience and those experiences may take a long time to heal and, just like with the physical injuries that may have happened at the same time, may never fully bring the person back to the way they were before the experience. There is a “new normal” that has to be accounted for.
This is not to say that someone is irrevocably broken by an experience such as sexual assault, certainly not as portrayed in most of the popular media. Rape is too often used too casually as a plot device intended to portray vulnerability or the callousness of humankind. There are lasting effects to rape, and those effects will vary in intensity and duration from person to person, as in any healing process.
As writers, we need to beware of the extremes and avoid all good or all bad. Very little writing can be successful with undifferentiated minions in the black hat roles or Mary Sues in all the hero roles. In the same way, violence against characters that result in severe trauma, both mental and physical, are neither going to disappear without a trace or always and forever “destroy” someone or their ability to function. (If the writer decides to portray trauma so severe that it ends in death, then that’s a different story, isn’t it?)
The good writer is going to give nuance to their characters faced with trauma so that even the most severely assaulted survivors will have individual responses to their traumas. If the writer wants to get it “right” then it’s best to avoid the simplistic, and dare I say lazy, approach to writing about trauma, including sexual traumas. If the plot point becomes physical or mental injuries to your characters, then it’s going to mean that there are repercussions that will go on for the rest of the story, the chapter, the novel, even the series. It’s more realistic.
I’m trying to do that in my novel, and I’ll wait to see if I’ve done it “right” or not. I’ve struggled with the need to keep the story going and deal with the physical changes I’ve made to my character. Even more, I’m paying attention so that the changes to my characters stemming from their physical and/or sexual traumas don’t come up only when required by the plot, but truly integrate the change into the characters’ responses: that leg always hurts now when she reaches for the peanut butter on the top shelf, or he moves the peanut butter because of the pain or she now flinches anytime she pass that one place where she went that one time. It made writing my novel a bit more challenging, but I’m pleased with the result. I think the story is better because of it.

Update: Amanda has a post on how people have different reactions to harassment. It’s good to remember that there is no one, true, way a person is going to react to trauma of any degree.

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