The Perfect Victim: A Resignation Letter
In the literature on sexual violence, there is the notion of the “perfect victim.” The perfect victim is a person whose victimhood is definitively and absolutely recognized, one whose story we would never question and someone whom we wouldn’t hesitate to give our fullest sympathy, care, and attention. The perfect victim is white and virginal. She wasn’t drinking, wearing revealing clothing, attending a party, or engaging in any other behaviors we have deemed inappropriate for women to enjoy before her assault. She is fragile, thin, and small, and does absolutely nothing to give anyone the idea that she might even enjoy sex to the slightest or have any sexual desires whatsoever. She is the embodiment of restraint, control, purity. It is her body and mind that we deem intact, unbroken - and so we are morally outraged at the idea of anyone violating the sanctity of it.
There is a perfect victim of psychiatry, too. Like the perfect victim of sexual violence, she is a white young woman whose bodymind was “unbroken” and “intact” before her involvement with psychiatry. She was not wild, rebellious, or crazy; rather, she was struggling with a minor case of anxiety or depression, or she said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and somehow, by some cruel trick of the universe, this sweet, polite, hardworking young woman ended up being involuntarily committed or put on drugs. The drugs made her crazy: they broke her kind, polite, hardworking, unbroken bodymind. They made her disabled, mad - they took the real her, the non-disabled her, and trapped her in a disabled and mad bodymind, a horrific fate. But nevertheless, despite this cruel plot twist, this perfect young victim managed to work her way off the drugs and get free from the mental health system. Thanks to her strength, perseverance, and resilience, she is now recovered from the effects of the drugs. She has realized that she does not need to rely on unnatural substances to make her feel better; instead, she has all the tools she needs inside herself to cope with life’s ups and downs without medication. Like the perfect victim of sexual violence, she embodies the ideas of hard work, restraint, and self-discipline. Although we are reluctant to believe that psychiatry could ever be harmful to anyone, we believe her story, and we are morally outraged on her behalf.
Confession: I used to be a perfect victim.
Well, I used to present myself as a perfect victim. It was a narrative that was handed to me and I drank it up and spat it out. I very quickly learned how to tell my story in a way that would get me listened to and believed. I was a young, kind, hardworking Ivy League student who just got a little stressed out and said the wrong thing to the wrong person - “I wish I could get hit by a bus or something” to an ER doctor - and I got locked up and drugged. I was never really crazy, I was never really mad, but being locked up and being drugged made me go crazy. Once I got out of the psych ward and off the drugs I was okay. In fact, I was more than okay: I was successfully employed, I was engaged, and I was happy and healthy. The psychiatrists had told me that I was crazy, that I would never be able to be successful or happy without psychiatric drugs, and I had proved them wrong. I had proven that I could be happy and successful just through my hard work and perseverance.
In the first story I ever published about my experiences with the mental health system, I wrote, “[The mental health system] sent me into a lifelong spiral through a revolving door of doctors who would hear about my struggles, prescribe me drugs that made my problems worse, then give me more drugs to try to solve the problems that the drugs had caused in the first place. As my problems got worse, my doctors increased medication dosages. When overdosing on Xanax sent me to a psychiatric hospital, they increased my dose of Xanax. At no point did anyone consider that maybe the drugs were causing my problems, not solving them. Yet, once I finally got off those medications, my life immediately started to turn back in a positive direction.”
This was the story I told in public hearings and advocacy groups. This was the story I told in op-eds and in comments on social media posts. This was the story I told to political candidates to convince them that forced treatment is bad. This was the story I told in interviews and it was the story that got me hired at a few different organizations in the critical psychiatry and consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement. This was the story that I would tell others in order to show that people didn’t need medication or psychiatry to recover - they had agency and could help themselves.
And, (I am deeply ashamed to say) this was the story that I instructed others to tell. During a meeting for an anti-forced treatment group I led in Los Angeles, I told group members, “You won’t ever win a death penalty argument by saying Hitler or Stalin doesn’t deserve the death penalty. You’ll win a death penalty argument by talking about all the innocent people who have been subjected to the death penalty.” Similarly, I argued, our group needed to focus on the way involuntary commitment could happen to anyone and everyone, not just those of us who were truly mad but also those of us who had just said the wrong thing at the wrong time. “Everyone loves a good false commitment story,” I said.
The story of the perfect victim is, above all, useful. It is a brief, powerful anecdote that demonstrates the stark contrast between the innocence of the victim and the violence of the perpetrator(s). It is convincing and persuasive. It sparks outrage, anger, sympathy, and action all at once. And I was happy to be useful. I was happy to be used.
But life happened, and after about a year of involvement with the critical psychiatry/psychiatric survivors movement, I could no longer be a perfect victim. My fiancé joined a self-help cult and became abusive, using the fact that I believed I wasn’t really mentally ill to say that there was nothing I couldn’t do, that there was no limitation I couldn’t transcend or overcome. The self-help cult taught him to use the language of empowerment and recovery to not allow me to make any “excuses” for setting boundaries or acknowledging my limitations. “I can’t” became a phrase that I was not allowed to use. “If you really don’t need medication, then you shouldn’t be able to use your depression as an excuse not to exercise or eat healthy,” he would say. “If you’re not mentally ill then you shouldn’t need to fidget or stim, and you shouldn’t be so introverted. You can and will be more extroverted. You can overcome your weaknesses.” And, most overtly coercive, “It doesn’t matter if sex is painful, that’s all in your head. You can and will transcend the pain.”
All at once, my whole worldview was shattered. The person who I had trusted most in the world - the one person I felt I could truly be myself around - had turned into someone completely different, someone who wanted to fix me and change me just like my psychiatrists had. And on top of that, I began to notice all the ways that the ideology of the critical psychiatry and psychiatric survivors movement aligned with this new ideology that was being used against me. Gradually, I became more and more enraged at the way both ideologies strongly emphasized self-reliance, overcoming limitations, and individual responsibility for distress/disability. An intense, unshakeable sense of disillusionment set in - the movement that I thought cared about human rights and stopping coercion actually often came from a place of pathologizing the use of psychiatric drugs due to its valorization of independence and self-reliance, and view of drugs as a “quick fix” or weakness.
Suddenly, I was incredibly depressed and borderline psychotic. No longer was I the hardworking, intelligent woman who wanted to help people break free from psychiatry; I was cynical, pessimistic, and weary. I was no longer “recovered” and living a happy, healthy life. I started sleeping in till 3 or 4pm, drinking 4 or 5 Diet Cokes to get through the day, not showering or bathing, and doing the bare minimum amount of work to keep both my jobs instead of going above and beyond like I once had. I cried constantly and began cutting and scratching myself almost regularly. And even worse, I didn’t try to recover from any of that. I didn’t seek out any services or work to eat healthier or exercise; I just let myself sit around, lazy, hopeless, depressed, pessimistic, and emotionally uncontrollable.
In short, I did the worst thing a victim can really do: I didn’t attempt to transcend my victimhood or the effects of my victimization, but instead I clung to my identity as a victim, as disabled. I began to allow myself to say “I can’t” as many times as I wanted; I relished in it, I indulged. I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t. In fact I was proud of it. Whereas before I had occasionally spoken of Mad Pride without fully understanding it, saying things like, “My madness helps me work harder and perform better,” now Mad Pride became a central value in my life. I was now proud to be maladjusted to such an intense level of abuse and coercion, and I thought I should be accepted and valued even as a lazy, emotional, depressed, pessimistic, emotionally uncontrollable mess.
I hadn’t just become a less-than-perfect victim. I became a bad victim. I became one of the worst victims ever. It was so, incredibly freeing. I am proud to say that I have remained one of the worst ever victims - lazy, emotional, depressed, tremendously pessimistic, and highly emotionally unstable - for the past year and a half. (Although I have cut down on the soda drinking to reduce the likelihood of cavities!)
This past weekend, a filmmaker who is making a documentary about the psychiatric survivors movement came to my apartment to document my life. At first I was absolutely thrilled - I was so grateful to have the chance to tell my story on film and help get out the message that everyone should be accepted for who they are, no matter what their mental health “symptoms” or how unproductive or emotional they are.
As the filming progressed, though, I became increasingly disappointed. In one of our first filming sessions, the documentarian asked me to state my name and that I am a survivor of involuntary commitment. When I told her that I preferred the word “victim,” she said that she needed me to say the word “survivor” since that’s what most people were familiar with. “Fair enough,” I thought. Although I was mildly annoyed, I understood that “survivor” is the preferred term by the majority of people and identified myself as such.
Later on, she asked me to tell the story of my first involuntary commitment for the camera. I proceeded to tell the story that felt truest to me - not the one that I had used in op-eds and job interviews, not the one that I had rehearsed over and over, not the one that showed me in the best light, but the one that most accurately represents what actually happened. Not “I said the wrong thing to the wrong person” but, “My parents told me they were embarrassed of me because I had chosen to pursue a less-than-prestigious career after college, and I felt awful. I felt beyond ashamed and like a complete failure and I wanted to die very badly. So I told the ER doctor, ‘I wish I could get hit by a bus or something.’”
“I need you to say that more succinctly,” she replied. “Can you just say that you were stressed out in school and their response to that was to lock you up?”
It became clear to me over the course of the weekend that she wanted a very specific, particular narrative. She wanted me to talk about how traumatic the involuntary commitment was, but how it had motivated me to become an activist and work toward change. She wanted a rise-above-the-trauma narrative, a story of overcoming and recovery. While she pestered me with nonstop questions over the course of the weekend about my views on psychiatric drugs, asking me for statements about the terrible, disabling effects of medication, she had absolutely no interest in hearing about the pressure I had experienced to recover in other ways.
What I eventually realized is that the filmmaker wanted the story of a perfect victim. She wanted me to be a perfect victim. Because the story of the perfect victim is a useful one.
But the story of the perfect victim is only useful to a privileged few. The reality is that the vast majority of victims are very far from fitting the ideal of the perfect victim, and focusing on the story of the perfect victim perpetuates the idea that one needs to conform to a set of societally valued ideals and norms in order to be recognized as deserving of justice or care. Focusing on the story of the perfect victim when discussing a particular form of violence and injustice allows the audience to say, “Oh, yes. That form of violence is very, very wrong when it happens to this specific type of person,” implicitly believing that the form of violence is okay or more justifiable if it happens to someone who does not quite meet that criteria.
The thing about the perfect victim narrative is that you cannot be a perfect victim or take on that identity without throwing others under the bus. In emphasizing that nothing was wrong with me before my involvement with the mental health system, I implied that the injustices of the mental health system are somehow more morally correct when they happen to people who do meet societal definitions of “having something wrong with them.” In focusing on the “positive direction” that my life took after coming off psychiatric drugs, I implied that the rationale for not forcing people to take psychiatric drugs is that it can hinder their recovery or positive development, rather than that force itself is a violent act that is not ever justified.
And so, I write this to formally resign from the role of the perfect victim. No longer will I allow my story to be used to show how bad force is when applied to certain types of people, or to what extent psychiatric drugs can hinder us from living productive and successful lives, or how it is possible to recover and be well without medication. I am not recovered, I am not well, I am not a survivor, and I have not “overcome” my madness, disability, or trauma. I remain, proudly, a noncompliant victim.