There’s No One ‘Right’ Way to React to a Traumatic Experience—and That Matters for Sexual Assault Survivors

Photo: Getty Images / Tunatura
E. Jean Carroll's initial reaction to being sexually assaulted: laughter.

Last week, the famed advice columnist—who has written the "Ask E. Jean" column for Elle magazine since 1993—shared with New York Magazine an excerpt from her forthcoming book, What Do We Need Men For? In the book, Carroll alleges that Donald Trump raped her in the dressing room of a New York City department store in the mid-'90s, long before he became president. (The president has denied the accusation.)

The excerpt details an interaction during which Carroll says Trump lunged at her and pushed her against the wall while forcibly kissing her. "I am so shocked I shove him back and start laughing again," she writes. "He seizes both my arms and pushes me up against the wall a second time, and, as I become aware of how large he is, he holds me against the wall with his shoulder and jams his hand under my coat dress and pulls down my tights."

She continues: "I am astonished by what I’m about to write: I keep laughing."

"Laughter" and "trauma" are two things you likely don't expect to see paired so closely together. Because there is nothing (nothing, nothing) funny about assault. And yet for many victims, including Carroll, it's a completely normal reaction.

"It makes sense that, for some survivors, there might be a response of laughter. Or for others, it may be tears, and for other people it might be anger. For other people, it might be complete numbing, or pretending that everything's okay, that they're unaffected by it," says Janina Scarlet, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Therapy Quest. "We as human beings are very eclectic and different in our responses." In other words, there is no such thing as a "right way" to respond to trauma—because responses vary.

"I think until we start actually listening and believing the many different unique experiences of survivors, people and society at large are going to have a harder time believing folks whose narratives don't fit that one storyline." —Morgan D. Dewey, communications director, End Rape On Campus

Though laughter in the face of something horrific may seem counterintuitive, it can serve as a kind of stress response, says Dr. Scarlet. "It might be a nervous laughter; it might be a way for them to process the really overwhelming experience of terror," she says. "It might be because the trauma is so bad that they simply don't know how to respond to it in that given moment." 

Yet many people don't understand that nuance—which can affect how people react to survivors' stories. All it takes is one scan of Twitter over the last few days to see that the way Carroll talks about her alleged assault makes people uncomfortable. She comes across as empowered, unapologetic, and even a little bit humorous when telling her story—for example, when Trump denied the allegations against him because she is "not his type" her response was: "Thank God." The Internet's reaction? "Horrible victim," "She should of [sic] been a [sic] actress not a book author," and "She's nuts and it never happened."

But there is no such thing as a "perfect victim," despite the fact that a particular narrative (someone who looks a certain way, who fought off their attacker, who reported it immediately, and who had the "right" emotional response) tends to make a rape allegation easier for people digest. When people don't fit that narrative—when they laugh, like Carroll, or are women of color, like R. Kelly's alleged victims, or they initially defend their abuser before coming forward, like Michael Jackson's alleged victims—Morgan D. Dewey, the communications director for End Rape On Campus, says people have a harder time believing them.

That perception, as unfair and untrue as it is, matters—for law enforcement taking their allegations seriously, for a judge or jury finding their story credible, and in the case of public allegations against famous, powerful people, for ensuring potential consequences for the accused offenders. "I think until we start actually listening and believing the many different unique experiences of survivors, people and society at large are going to have a harder time believing folks whose narratives don't fit that one storyline," Dewey says. 

Since the "perfect victim" doesn't exist, the onus is on the rest of us to believe victim's stories—whether they laugh or cry while telling them.

Alanis Morisette's "four boundaries" are unapologetically reframing the way we think about assault. And if you’ve been through a trauma and don’t know how to talk to your new partner about it, read this

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