“He was like an octopus. His hands were everywhere.”
“He was pushing me against the wall, and forcing his tongue down my throat.”
“He did touch my vagina through my underwear, absolutely." These are all quotes from women who have alleged that President-elect Donald Trump sexually assaulted them. As a public, we’ve come to expect survivors of trauma to share details like these. But how much detail is really necessary? If you’re a woman who has decided it is time to break the silence — about sexual assault or any other trauma — what do you tell others about what happened to you? This question is at the heart of my new film, After Fire, a documentary about women military veterans that premieres today, Veterans Day. It follows three vets, strong and accomplished women living in the military outpost of San Antonio, TX, over the course of about eight months. Two of them were sexually assaulted while in the military, while the third suffers from a combat injury that interferes with her ability to function in everyday life. To differing degrees, all have been keeping their traumas a secret from parents, spouses, children, colleagues, everyone. By the end of the film, each is faced with an opportunity to break her silence and tell her story.
For survivors of trauma, the traumatic event is only the beginning of the story — and its details are not universal.
Why is it important to do this? Because, as I have come to believe while making this film, the most basic desire of trauma survivors is simple: We want to be acknowledged. When the three women file disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs, what they’re seeking isn’t money. They want to be heard and believed, an acknowledgment that “what happened to you was terrible and your pain is justified.” Trauma has a way of robbing us of our power and disconnecting us from others. Acknowledgment of our trauma is a way to reconnect with ourselves, loved ones, and the community. That’s why telling our stories can be a first step toward healing. But how much to tell? “What do I disclose and what could affect me later if I do disclose it?” a 10-year Army veteran named Roberta asks as she reluctantly prepares for a speech and considers sharing the story of her sexual assault for the first time. “I want to be transparent, but I don’t want to trigger anyone in the audience. I don’t think everybody needs to know everything.”
Perhaps everybody doesn’t need to know everything, but details are the fabric of stories and there are arguments to be made for sharing them. Without details, we risk talking in featureless generalities that are less likely to lead to the acknowledgment we seek. Specifics may help listeners empathize more deeply with our pain and connect in ways we don’t even anticipate. And perhaps there is power in calling something what it is. Perhaps sharing details makes it easier to stop dwelling on them. Ultimately, though, the decision to share details is an individual one. While my subjects had the opportunity to share details in front of my camera, they were in control of how to present their traumas. As they struggled to determine what to share, when, and with whom, I simply followed their process. So while the film makes clear that two of the women are survivors of sexual assault, it does not recount exactly “what happened” to each woman. Nor does it disclose the exact nature of the third woman’s combat injury. Viewers of After Fire may feel they want to know this information, partially because the media has primed us to expect to hear sordid details. But there is a difference between what we want to know and what we need to know, and I believe these details are not important to the message of the film. For survivors of trauma, the traumatic event is only the beginning of the story — and its details are not universal. Not everyone has been raped or lost a comrade in battle or a loved one to suicide. But everyone has struggled and everyone longs for victories, large and small. Roberta seems to understand this as she finally takes the stage to give her speech. “Everyone in this room, we all have our stories. We are all on our own journey, “ she tells the audience. “A victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, depression — [that] does not define who I am.” Indeed, it is the struggles and victories that come after trauma that truly define us. The details of these experiences are the fabric of After Fire’s narrative, and they may well be the best starting point for other survivors seeking to tell their own stories.