By Smriti Bhoker
*Trigger warning - mentions of abuse, rape, sexual assault*
Amber Heard’s public trial has been a known setback to the #MeToo movement. It is no surprise to acknowledge the cultural outcome of having too many women shun too many men from the public eye for about 5 years. We could endlessly discuss how these men who were proven assaulters and rapists didn’t face the similar backlash as Amber Heard did, we could discuss how unscathed these men are after their so-called public exile; and we could have the age-old debate and discussion on how power and gender will always be tied to each other. We can sit here and wonder whether the MeToo movement really did anything much in the first place except isolate women in the industry.
However, I recently dated a man who was found out to be a fraud and a rapist as well. In fact, I’ve come to realise most men I have dated or been friends with have made at least two women uncomfortable more than once in their lives, I’m quite distressed to know that a lot of my female friends have the same thing to say about their exes and their friends. Don’t worry, you can keep reading. This isn’t a call-out post, I’m frankly exhausted with the lists and the names and the Twitter threads and the constant he said, she said debacle that most women have to go through when they take the powerful step of speaking out. No, we will be approaching something darker.
What I want to know is what happens to love when we love an abuser. Not the love of a toxic partner, not the love for a vicious cycle of abuse, I’m talking about loving a man that later found out to be a sexual assaulter.
In one of her first interviews after the trial, Amber Heard talked about how much she loved her ex-husband, Johnny, a sentiment many didn’t understand. A man who abused her then sued her for telling her side of the story without ever naming him. Not to mention the reckless media smear campaign that mercilessly ridiculed her while simultaneously making a hero out of Johnny. #AmberHeardIsALiar was trending pretty much throughout the entire trial and weeks after the verdict had been reached, there was a TikTok trend mocking her testimony of the abuse she received, and people analysing her reactions every step of the way. She cried too much and is clearly faking it. She didn’t cry at all, what a stone-cold bitch.
It seemed that the criteria for the “right” type of victim kept changing, and she was deemed the “wrong” type.
Where Does Love Go When You Love an Abuser?
In the latest season of Mae Martin’s groundbreaking series Feel Good, Mae is grappling with the thought of confronting her abuser whilst fighting PTSD and addiction. Without giving away too much, there is a brief chance given to her in the middle of the series where she can publicly shame a different, more famous abuser. A chance that she consciously denies, predicting will ruin her career. A missed opportunity that she is blamed for by the people she loves and, at some level, the audience as well. Most survivors, especially post-MeToo, have been burdened by the responsibility of sharing their own abuse. The shared camaraderie that gives women a voice also pigeonholes them into either being a survivor that speaks up to save other women or a shunned victim that is too weak to tell their own story.
This is not necessarily just the problem of the movement, this is the problem of how even in the safest of spaces we box women, especially if they have been through an ordeal. Is she a hero or a damsel? Is she going to take her life back, or is she going to run away from the responsibility? She can either be a warrior taking her agency back from her abuser or a defeated coward risking other women’s lives by staying silent. The latter is, of course, not trending on social media; it is said in closed rooms that it is a decision and a public statement that is made for the silent victims. Victims who don’t want to out their abuser do not deserve any less empathy and solidarity than the ones who do.
The price of speaking up is a big price to pay, and maybe some victims just want to move on.
That's a decision no one should be demonised for. I can’t help but reflect on a bad habit I have where if my relationship gets toxic, I don’t let anyone know. I’m fully aware of how unsafe that makes me in that situation, but even when I was physically abused by my ex, I didn’t want to share it with people who cared about me, and after spending some time in therapy, I reckon it has to do with how people, even with their best intentions, see victims as individuals to be saved or pitied. I didn’t want to be saved because it would’ve meant leaving the person I then loved, and when a victim shares that with a group of friends, their decision to go back to the abusive ex is seen as something pathetic and, more often than not, it's an alienating experience. I have been guilty of cutting off friends who were dating horrible men, so it was so surprising to see that my friends took a step back on account of his behaviour with me in front of them. Isolation is quite scary, even when your friends seem to have a loving relationship.
This is the main theme that Mae touches in her writing. How survivors have the burden of "acting right" towards their abusers and how acting on it is seen through the lens of society instead of an individual. Society doesn’t have to deal with the constant threat of legal and physical harm that may come from the abuser in retaliation. Society is barely there when it is happening to survivors, let alone be present when survivors are done speaking out. There is no right or wrong way to deal with your abuse and every single entertainment piece about does its victims a great disservice when they're told that if they don't speak, they’re somehow less of a survivor.
The most interesting thing about the show, however, remains the dilemma you have regarding your love for your abuser. Mae's last few words to her abuser are "I love you." In my case, I didn't even call the violence by its own name till I was out of it, and now knowing that neither I was the only one nor the one who had it worse makes it very difficult to think of what once was as love. The notion of still feeling something for your abuser does feel disgusting, and more often than not, survivors feel quite guilty about it too. Every year at least a couple of our male friends get called out on social media for their predatory behaviour, and naturally, it's difficult to trust and love and so forth, but people often talk about the leftovers of love when someone dies. It's called grief. When it's the love that got away, we call it yearning, pining, longing and whatnot. What happens to our love when we love an abuser? The experience is so horrible it doesn't even have a name.
I have been pondering over it for a while, and I promise you I will not tell you to love yourself. News flash I do not think that victims are self-hating folks. I quite like myself and yet. I genuinely believe that the love for your abuser stays within us. I don't think we can unlove people, even if the people that we have loved have been absolute monsters. And sadly, the love doesn't go anywhere either. Our best bet, however, is to do what Mae did; accept that we can't unlove, move forward without them, and throw up a bit along the way. I have been sitting on this question since 2020, and I truly believe that that's the sanest thing to do.
The cost of speaking up and the cost of letting go might not be the same, but the good news is that as unfortunate as the Amber Heard trial was, it proved to many that even though the current socio-political culture gives survivors of abuse a platform, it does a poor job of giving them a narrative that belongs to them. There has to be agency given back to the victims rather than throwing them to a sadistic and self-righteous army of consumers who just want survivors to play out a scripted fantasy. Like Mae Martin, I reckon that we have to do better than just letting an angry online/office space to speak for the victims and let empathy be the driving force instead of anger that is clearly pushing them as a cause. Quite frankly it’s a forceful and unkind cause that no well-meaning society should rally behind.
About the author
Smriti is a published Urdu poet, works as a screenwriter while working on a research proposal for her PhD. They have a knack for learning new languages because they’re quick study and have their fingers into a lot of pies, academically; which lets them learn and excel at a lot of things and keeps them on their professional toes. Making modesty the only thing they genuinely struggle with. Find them on Instagram @smritibhoker