Do I see abuse everywhere?

Contains mild spoilers for The East

Last night, I went to see The East with the BF. The blurb we read online said it was about an operative from a private intelligence firm infiltrating an anarchist ecoterrorist collective, so I was expecting a Jason Bourne-esque spy thriller. There was certainly plenty of that, but there were also weird, sometimes uncomfortable sexual overtones that I wasn’t expecting. Most of it wasn’t explicit, although there was one sex scene and one attempted rape scene.

All of the terrorist attacks the cell carries out are personal to a member of the cell. There is a scene in which Ellen Page’s character confronts her father, who runs a coal power company, at a company benefit. He makes several comments about her being “a woman now, a grown-up” and tells her she’s beautiful. She makes it clear that she hates him with every ounce of her being. She’s confronting him about intentionally polluting the water in the town, causing cancer and deaths of people who can’t afford to move away from the town. She never mentions any other grievances, and she doesn’t seem like she knew or was close to the person who died. To me, her rage at him seems more concrete and specific, personal to him more than his actions.

After the movie, when BF and I were discussing the movie, I made a passing comment about Ellen Page’s character having been sexually abused by her father.

BF gave me a bewildered look. “Where did you get THAT from?”

I tried to explain to him: his comments about her womanhood seemed like veiled references to her sexuality, and her rage seemed too personal to be just about pollution–there are plenty of other worse polluters she could’ve targeted. But he still couldn’t see how I would extrapolate “just from that” that he’d sexually abused her.

To me, it seemed crystal clear. It was like reading “Hills Like White Elephants”: no one ever says the word “abortion,” but it’s obvious the characters are discussing it.

But it made me question myself: am I just seeing abuse everywhere because I can’t come to terms with my own trauma? Is this just one more way it’s poisoning my mind?

I guess it’s possible that the BF wasn’t seeing it because the signs of incest are often subtle, and someone who’s never experienced it easily might miss those signs.

Still, I can’t help feeling flawed and broken, possibly bordering on delusional. Am I seeing abuse where it doesn’t exist because I don’t want to feel alone in my experience. I’m not alone, of course, but incest is by nature isolative. Even if the abusers never threatens more abuse if you tell, you know instinctively to stay silent. No one would believe you, you know. I mean, he’s a police officer. They’d believe him.

Your silence leaves you completely alone, but what you most desperately want–need–is for someone to know and to save you. No one does. You start to believe you deserve to be hurt–what other choice do you have?–and that means it’s your fault no one has rescued you. That learned belief leaves you most alone, much more than the abuse itself. You stop hoping not to be alone–hope is forbidden to you because you deserve all of this.


I feel broken. Irreparable.

“And at the center of the self,
grief I thought I couldn’t survive.”
–Louise Gluck, from “Aubade”

But that at least implies that the grief was survivable, I think, I hope.



Filed under poetry, psych

4 responses to “Do I see abuse everywhere?

  1. It’s common for some men to miss these kind of unspoken suggestions in a story, but it’s also common for us to project our own issues onto things around us. I’m most interested to see the movie now to see if I get the same impression, technically my sexual abuse wasn’t incest as the man was my stepfather, but I believe I’m relatively good at ‘reading between the lines’ well, unless it’s BBC, i struggle with Ripper street for some reason lol

    I hope you find the will to fight what happened to you, I’ve only recently started talking about the different types of abuse i suffered growing up and it’s immensely empowering, it’s also immensely scary and hard. All the very best on your journey

    • My automatic assumption is usually that I must be projecting or making it up. I feel like I’m inherently broken and therefore must be wrong. In a weird way, it’s actually progress for me to be able to entertain the idea that the BF might be missing it.

      FYI, a lot of trauma experts do consider sexual abuse by step-parents to be incest. The theory is that it’s the relationship dynamic–they’re in a parental role–more important than the biological relationship. Biology isn’t what does the psychological damage to an abused child; it’s the emotional and relational betrayal. Abuse-betrayal by someone within the family unit affects the child differently than abuse-betrayal by someone outside the family because the child expects and needs family members to love and protect her much more than non-family members. Genetic similarity isn’t the important factor. It’s not any less damaging because he was your stepfather.

      It is really hard when you first start to acknowledge the trauma out loud to other people. For me, though, it’s been necessary and (eventually) useful. Here’s a something someone offered me that’s been something I could hang onto: “Be brave, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

  2. Yeah when we did case studies for my bachelor of psychology the general consensus was a stepfather inherently does the same damage as a blood related father, for me it was slightly different in that my mother didn’t tell me about him till just before they were married and then within a month we were living together. I likened him more to the relationship I had with my uncle because he didn’t really try to parent me he was just really nice and fun. Then a few months into the marriage things grew colder then the abuse started and lasted about 18 months till my mother abruptly left and moved us directly into her new boyfriends student share house. So for me he was never really a parent as I knew one to be, he never really filled that role. My second stepfather was around much longer and didn’t sexually abuse me but physically/ mentally/ emotionally/ he is the one I called dad for a time, and for me his abuse has left a bigger scar on my soul than the sexual abuse, although I had almost completely repressed those memories up until a few weeks ago when I wrote a poem about it and it all flooded back to me.

    It’s entirely possible there is the suggestion of abuse with the character in the movie, I know when you feel broken its a default setting to assume its something wrong with us but it’s possible, I’m truly most curious to see it now. I’ll have to tell you if I got the same impression. I wish others who have seen it would comment 🙂

  3. I think that in a lot of stories, wither they are real-life or fictional, there are themes of trauma and abuse that people who don’t have those backgrounds don’t see, and often don’t *want* to see because they don’t want to be open to the fact that, as many people have said- it’s not incest that’s the taboo- it’s talking about it. (I’m over-generalizing- what I actually mean is that it’s the dark, nasty underbelly of human society that’s really always there, that’s not taboo at all- but voicing it is.)

    I’ve come to realize that I just *see* so much more then other people, which is isolating in it’s own way- not that what I see isn’t there, but that most people chose to be blind to it. (And to some extent it is a choice- I know non-survivors who are able to see these things- it’s a choice of facing the world with eyes open or shut.)

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