The Mighty Logo

7 Representations of Abuse That Made Me Feel Seen

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Everything that I talk about in this article was ultimately helpful to me but does cover some extremely triggering topics: Domestic abuseneglect, sexual abuse. The other warning is there are a lot of spoilers within this piece, so read no further if you want to draw your own conclusions about the helpful books, documentaries and films.

• What is PTSD?

The article talks about:

The Vow (2019) Produced by HBO

Allen v. Farrow (2021) Produced by HBO

The Tale (2018) Written and Directed by Jennifer Fox

Ian Wright: Home Truths (2021) by the BBC

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (2019) by Charlie

The Glass Castle by Jennette Wallis (2005)

Instrumental by James Rhodes (2014)

One of the most hurtful and stressful things about surviving abuse is the unbearable isolation you experience. I have been lucky and had a couple of different therapists over the time who have helped to understand my experiences, but one of the things that has really helped me has been getting validation from media, such as TV shows and books.

The most overused word in this article is honest. You may read this thinking: surely, she could have used a thesaurus? No. A key component of abuse is the secret and shame. Often, many abusers will use threats to keep the survivor quiet. As soon as the secret is told, it takes away a key component of the abuse. Shame and fear of being blamed also is an extremely strong barrier. My personal experience has been disappointing in terms of outcome from police investigation, but as soon as I was able to understand others’ abuse, it helped me to understand my own.

My fourth parent (I have a stepmother), lifelong friend and first love has been there for times when other people couldn’t be: television. Whether it is love, fun, heartbreak, validation, learning, reflection to the world around me — it’s always been there. Here are some of the things on TV that have helped validate some of the more indescribable experiences experienced by abuse survivors. I am aware all documentaries and films are created with a specific skew of the issue it touches on, but for me, each of these has helped validate my own experiences.

1. “The Vow

“The Vow” is a documentary series about the cult “NXIVM” and the abuse of their members. The documentary follows the defected followers and family members of those still in the cult, all with one goal in mind: to bring down this dangerous cult. What makes this cult so different is their target was successful, happy people, compared to the stereotypical outcasts most
people would have assumed. Within the cult, members experienced brainwashing , severe mental abuse and breaking what boundaries could be broken. Whether it was disintegrating people’s sense of self or blaming them for aspects of their personality, to forcing many young women to count calories, to having members of one of the Sects (DOS) branding and sexually trafficking young woman. The documentary takes an in-depth look at the history of the cult, the many members who have left and why and the abuse that took place in the cult.

Over the lifetime of the cult, many members left and fought this well-resourced company who looked to destroy the reputations and lives of these brave individuals. Even although many lives were destroyed, the brave survivors pulled together to bring down the cult. Fighting until the end.

The love and the tenacity of the individuals who had to leave and convince others to leave was extraordinary. The documentary specifically focuses on Bonnie Piesse (who is going to reprise her role as Beru Lars in the Disney Plus series “Obi-Wan Kenobi”).

During the time in the cult, Bonnie met Mark, who she then married. She started to sense there was something wrong within the cult — watching women being forced into counting calories, to noticing there were some very strange relationships developing. Alison Mack (most famous for being in “Smallville”) and Bonnie were in a singing group in the cult together. Through this, there started to be some conflict between the two. Others in the cult started to blame Bonnie for this entirely and at this point, she started to detach from the cult. She had an extremely difficult task to convince her husband of the corruption within the cult.

Mark, who had been the right-hand man of Keith Raniere (the enigmatic founder) caused a lot of questions within the group. Including someone who had been introduced to the cult by Mark, Sarah Carter. As someone who had been indoctrinated into one of the most secret and exclusive clubs within the cult, she was able to shed some more light on the rumors. Sarah bravely opened up about the branding, blackmail and human trafficking that had been happening.

The collaboration by members, families of the followers and journalists ended up producing a newspaper article which pushed the corruption of the cult in to the public eye. The catalyst of the #MeToo movement pushed law enforcement into action to arrest Raniere, Mack and others.

An aspect I really identified with was Bonnie Piesse, in the final episode when explaining why they were being filmed in a café to a member of the public. She has a moment of reflection where she says when she explains her story, she is treated as if they were unintelligent for ending up in the cult in the first place. Why would they join something that would ruin their lives? They thought it was an exciting new way of looking at the world and to develop them as people.

How many times have we been blamed for being abused in a passive aggressive manner? How could you have allowed for this to happen? Not, how could they have done that to you?

2. “Allen v. Farrow

I debated putting this down as there is a lot of controversy with this documentary, with a number of omissions. However, at the center is one person and one story: Dylan Farrow. It’s easy to forget with the celebrity status of the parents, the young wife of Allen and the long saga of legal battles that at the crux, is truth. The way Dylan spoke then and now about the abuse she endured hit in a really hard place because in that little girl and woman were some traits I had. Through the years of therapy, there has been a lot of talk about these indescribable emotions and hurt, but it’s heartbreaking to see in another. Dylan Farrow’s testaments and bravery in the face of a powerful force still continues to tell the same story again and again. She also mentions the idea she wasn’t able to talk about her own experiences and people talked around the allegations, but she was never given the opportunity to tell her own story.

Sexual abuse survivors must make a choice to fight the perpetrator by disclosing. For the large majority of us, we have an uphill battle against people’s preconceived ideas about a person, where people will be affronted for you fighting an archetype:

“How can you say that about your [insert here]?”

Not, “How could [insert here] do that to you?”

So, imagine having to fight an excruciating battle because of the celebrity status of your perpetrator. As members of the public, we demand celebrities owe us their lives, we have made them famous and deserve ownership to every aspect of them. We don’t. But, when a hero or someone you admire is accused of something terrible, we take it as a personal attack, as if your own character is being questioned. Woody Allen being a renowned director had people often rushing to his defense because of what his movies meant to each individual. But what was his own defense?

That he was merely victim of a smear campaign created from the heartbroken mind of Mia Farrow. As someone who is always acclaimed as creating incredible and progressive female characters, this seems a very simplistic explanation. The Yale New Haven Sexual Assault center’s ruling has also always been a constant defense despite there having been questions about the quality of the interview.

The defense against the video evidence of interviews conducted by Mia Farrow? Dylan was coached.

It is a plausible defense, but it’s not my experience. I would like to make it clear the person who gave birth to me belongs to a very small minority who tried to coach her kids to hurt their father. How did she do this? Fear. Now, I don’t know, maybe Mia Farrow is an evil genius and was able to make Dylan have that glazed overlook; she is an incredible actress. But that sense of dissociation is not something I particularly feel many esteemed actors are able to emulate, let alone perfect. And then being able to coach a 7-year-old on it seems unlikely.

One thing I do need to address is his relationship with another one of Mia Farrow’s adopted daughters: Soon-Yi. “Starting” (there is so much debate about when it happened, but if we give Allen his timeline) a relationship with a 21-year-old is not the same as sexually assaulting a 7-year-old. However, it was extremely strange. Even if Allen didn’t “father” Soon-Yi, in a sense he would have been around as a father figure to his adopted two children and his biological son. It is worth noting over many different articles and interviews, he makes it very clear he didn’t live with Farrow and he didn’t see himself as a father figure. In his own mind, this clears him from any guilt or wrongdoing. An ill-advised relationship at best in his own mind. Something that his movies are full of where the intent and intensity is always from the side of the younger woman, in a sense putting all the onus completely on them.

Allen’s complete unawareness is baffling. At one point, he claimed to be “the poster boy for the #MeToo movement.” No, you aren’t. Even without the allegations against you, the #MeToo Movement is not about you — it is about people who have survived abuse at the hands of others, speaking up, getting justice and, to an extent, reshaping the world of Hollywood. Not a celebration of people who haven’t abused their actresses (you do not deserve an award for not abusing others).

Dylan Farrow is brave. She has had to relive what happened to her, time and time again. Her character has been under scrutiny for over two decades. I went through three separate investigations against my perpetrators and, in truth, it almost killed me. The amount of people who have stood up for Allen or made noncommittal statements about the allegations despite their deep support of the #MeToo Movement is disappointing. The strength she has is unbelievable and I hope for a time where her character or intelligence is not under scrutiny.

3.” The Tale

“The Tale” by Jennifer Fox is written from her own experience of her mother finding an essay she wrote about her romance/ first boyfriend, but as she reexamines and explores this essay, her life slowly unravels. This film is an amazing examination about the importance of survival and the complexities of memory. The incredible narration of a subject matter, which was once intangible, validated me in a way I had never found before.

The cinematography illustrates an extreme atmosphere change, first of romance, and then to one of stark reality. The reconnection from adult to child is done so flawlessly from misremembering how and who she was at the time, to reframing the narrative through an adult’s eyes.

The relationship between herself and her mother is extremely important as it covers a lot of important conversations that happen when a survivor discloses to someone close to them, from their anger to, “Did you enjoy it?”

Struggling to grapple with the enormous implications of memory and the rapidness your whole life can unravel in was so brilliantly illustrated in this piece.

4. “Ian Wright: Home Truths

For all of you unfamiliar with Ian Wright, he was a futbol player on teams including: Arsenal, Crystal Palace, West Ham and England as a striker. I became familiar with him as a pundit for Match of the Day. I’m not a huge futbol fan, but Match of the Day is very much a British cultural foundation. Being in a divorced family, I was very much surrounded by females and to me, Ian Wright has always been the epitome of masculinity — and this is partially why this documentary is so important.

The documentary was sparked following his very honest episode of “Desert Island Discs” (a BBC Radio 4 show based on the premise that guests choose eight tracks, a book and a luxury to take with them to a desert island). So many people were touched by his honesty and his story that he followed up by doing this documentary.

The documentary focuses on domestic abuse. He talks about his own upbringing and about the abuse his mother, brother and himself got from his stepfather, but also in turn, the abuse he got from his mother as a victim passing that frustration and abuse onto her child. This documentary examines the individual aspects of this complex issue — talking to people who also survived domestic abuse as a child, social workers, charities who work with domestic abusers and adult domestic abuse survivors who pass the frustration down to their kids. However, he does explore some of the positive changes since he was a child, the hard work people have put in to stop the cycle and the positive effect a teacher had on him.

He was so honest and raw. There was a particular moment when he’s back in the room that he shared with his mother, stepfather and brother and he’s talking about his experience and he starts to cry as he remembers exactly how he felt as a child. While talking with other survivors, they talk about their experiences and he backtracks in the middle of this group invalidating his
own experience, which I think we all have done: “You had a worse time than me, I shouldn’t complain.” However, one of the people there very quickly contextualizes it for him so he stops invalidating himself.

Although the perception is now changing, historically, it was thought domestic abuse does not happen to men. And if a man did was abused, this was a sign of weakness on his side and somehow decreased his masculinity. Of course, this is not the case and it is again a passive aggressive way of blaming the victim: “There must be something wrong with you to have been
abused.” Having survivors talk about their experience helps to eradicate a stereotype of abuse victims and their perpetrators.

5. “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” 

This book by Charlie Mackesy is not like the rest. It is a book of life lessons with the most beautiful illustrations. I first came across Charlie Mackesy through my go-to social media: Pinterest. As I came across more and more of these incredible pictures, I realized the author was going to release a book. This piece of art is incredible, focusing on the struggles of the everyday. No matter what the problem, I have found this book as a companion and inspiration for mindfulness. One of the most commonly cited definitions of mindfulness is the awareness that arises through “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Charlie Mackesy’s words and illustrations have helped me overcome incredibly hard moments and have given me that tangible moment to understand some of the challenges I’m facing.

6. “The Glass Castle

“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls is named after the ambitious aspiration of her father, and is a uniquely honest telling of the tumultuous childhood and grappling with that identity in adulthood. The opening details a three-year-old Jeannette catching on fire and going to hospital and describing it as a luxurious destination. Jeannette details the lack of stability and the questionable actions of her parents, mental illness and the poverty the children endure, and the unfortunate truth of the parents squandering any money, property or job opportunity. They willingly put their children in danger and then made them feel terrible, chose to tell the children they were wrong to fight, their grandmother she sexually molested Wallis’ younger brother Brian. Throughout their early childhood, the problematic lifestyle they led is sold as an adventure.

They eventually find a “home” where the father decides will be the land the Glass Castle is built. The house lacks the essentials of water and electricity. As the children grow, they become more aware of who their parents actually are. Jeannette and her older sister hatch a plan to go to New York and decide to work for the better part of the year (doing part-time jobs) and then realize their father has stolen their hard-earned money. Eventually, Lori and Jeannette manage to make it to New York and convince both Brian and Maureen to join. Their parents quickly follow, and trouble follows them.

As an adult, Jeannette graduates from college and works for a newspaper. Even though her, Lori and Brian are successful (as a writer, illustrator and police officer), each are still not good enough for their parents, citing this isn’t how they raised them.

There are many tragedies in this book, but the one that to me is the most devastating is the youngest in the family, Maureen. Lori looked very much into bringing her to New York and looking after her. However, in her 20s, she moves back in with her parents. This ends disastrously as she ends up trying to stab her mother.

My sister told me to read this book, and told me this book had validated her in a way no one else ever had. Her choices in books and films are very rarely wrong. Although the book validated me in many areas, the one aspect I really identified with was about an experience that Walls and I both shared in university.

When the subject of  poor people are brought up, Jeannette expresses that “sometimes they need to take some responsibility of getting out of poverty” (as per her experience) and the lecturer tells her she couldn’t possibly understand the problems faced by the poor. Of course, the lecturer had no idea of her past. During my first year at university when someone discussed the fact they couldn’t afford to go and see theatre shows, a lecturer ranted back “we were all at university and therefore were middle-class.” I have been rarely so outraged in my life at being told who I was, especially because she was wrong.

There is a film version, but like Hollywood always does, they paint Rex (the father) as some sort of inspiration rather than the neglectful and irresponsible parent he was.

7. “Instrumental

James Rhodes, the author, is a world-class pianist with a beautiful passion for his craft, and not just for the pieces of music, but for the composers and stories behind them. When we think of world-class pianists, we think of child prodigies who are taken away to a prestigious music school and straight onto success. This is not the route to success James Rhodes had.

As a child, James Rhodes was raped constantly over a five-year period by a gym teacher and was forced into silence (like many abuse survivors) under the pretense if he told, something bad would happen. Eventually, he was moved to another school after a massive, yet gradual change from a happy, confident 5-year-old to a scared, frightened child. As all of you who have been through the abuse will know, the problems didn’t stop there.

One of the key aspects of this book is his blunt honesty. There are no mincing words, just the truth:

“Abuse. What a word. Rape is better. Abuse is when you tell a traffic warden to fuck off. It isn’t abuse when a forty-year-old man forces his cock inside a six-year-old boy’s ass. That doesn’t even come close to abuse. That is aggressive rape.”

He describes aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD (C-PTSD) I hadn’t been able to express to therapists because I was really concerned about specific traits I had which, at the root cause, I believed to be because I was morally bankrupt. Not because of the complex feeling I had. Only when I was able to accept these feelings I started to get better. I finally had the words to describe something that had been intangible to me:

The anger. The frustration. The hurt. The physical and emotional pain. The destruction.

Rhodes talks about the surgeries, about the drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and attempts. He was institutionalized twice: once in the UK and once in the US.

However, he did have one saving grace: classical music. At the age of 7, he came across a cassette of: JS Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. This started his love of music, and although this was the first piece he loved, it would not be his last. Throughout his life, music saved him in a way unimaginable, and in turn, he was able to possess this passion not just for the music itself, but the stories of the pieces and composers.

Personally, I think this book is one of the most important books of the 21st century, not just for the narrative of rape, but of where classical music is concerned in the 21st century and the way the book is structured. Rhodes wrote it alongside a soundtrack, which is available on Spotify. For five years since its release, I have had a copy close to hand to help and remind me when the abuse stops, it doesn’t all magically disappear.

There is another aspect to why this book is so important. An early draft was leaked and his ex-wife (in protection of their son) placed an injunction on the release of the book, citing it would be damaging to their son. Although edited in regards to the specific issues of why the injunction was placed, it eventually got taken to the Supreme Court where ultimately Cannongate (the publisher) and Rhodes were found in favor of. For me, this was a massive deal because ultimately when a survivor was being silenced, the Supreme Court ruled Rhodes’ experience was not damaging and should be shared.

Since the time of publishing the book, Rhodes moved to Madrid where he has campaigned for a reform of the laws relating to sexual abuse. He is not perfect — no one is — but the honesty about his entire experience has saved me too many times to count.

Through these books and documentaries, when I am unable to reach out to people or put words to my intangible emotions, I am able to explore some of the complications associated with abuse. Although it can look like nothing in the abuse narrative has changed, this is not true. The #MeToo revolution was the gateway to finally getting justice for many different abuses, both the former NXVIM members and Dylan Farrow were both able to happen because of the highlight of abuse within Hollywood.

Within the UK, again it can seem not much has changed; however, with people talking about the abuse they have endured, the narrative in the repressed UK is becoming more acceptable and easier to talk about. As soon as we are more open, the sense of isolation will not be so overwhelming for abuse survivors.

Lead image via Jeannette Walls, Ian Wright, James Rhodes and The Tale official Facebook pages

Originally published: May 26, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home