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A modern tragedy

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Remember when people asked about victims of domestic assault what appeared to be, on the surface, a reasonable question -- "Why didn't she just leave?" More and more people now recognize how fatuous the question is. Not only might there be financial dependency in some cases, or children to consider: There are also complex human dynamics involved. "Maybe it was my fault." "He apologized." "I still love the guy, I don't want him in jail." "He was drunk." "Maybe I just imagined it."

Cognitive dissonance is part of the human condition.

Trying to make sense of it all. Refusing to believe what is unfolding. Reluctant to admit that the past with him has been an illusion. Attempting to avoid the question, "How could I have been so stupid, so mesmerized, so swept away?"

The list goes on, and on, and on.

And yet there are those who would feign surprise that victims of a sexual assault tried to comprehend what had happened, contacted the abuser afterwards, still had feelings for him, couldn’t believe he was really that sort of person.

Those who like to see things in black-and-white nod knowingly. Maybe she's misunderstanding what really took place, days, months, years ago. Maybe she was complicit at the time, but now sees the whole thing through a different lens. Maybe she's just making it up.

A defence lawyer plays on those fashionable doubts. People don't like to recognize human complexity, ambivalence, incomprehension -- except, perhaps, in themselves. They construct simple stories about other people. There are a lot of stories like that about women. They're a species of urban folklore. We've all heard them, and maybe told them, too.

"She said she’d wanted sex with him. Sexual assault? Come on."

"She slept with him, in fact she still does. Now she dredges this up."

"She's a prostitute. How could she be raped?"

"She didn’t come forward until now. Just jumping on the bandwagon."

"She went to that party and got drunk. She was asking for it."

We make excuses, we explain things away. We provide moral alibis. The process of justice is reversed, in the public mind and in a courtroom, each shaped by patriarchy. The victim is put on trial, her self-doubts and uncertainties held to be proof of deceit or error, her life and her experience reduced to salacious media soundbites.

So once again we find ourselves engaged by an ever-appealing narrative. Essential elements of a Greek tragedy are present. The tragic male hero, with hubris aplenty, fallen from his former glory. Sudden reversals (peripetea) to enthrall the audience. A chorus of media pundits and commenters to tell us what we're seeing.

In a culture of misogyny, women cannot be the protagonists. For the media, the story is about a man on trial. He is the centre of the drama. His victims are bit players, trying to drag him down. The chorus sings of their flaws, not of his.

Expect, then, no anagnorisis on his part -- no sudden recognition, no critical self-discovery. This is real life, however dramatized. We're spectators of a tragedy, without a doubt, whose dénouement is fast approaching. But it's a tragedy, I suspect, that will have no catharsis.

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