On Agency

I was asked today about what my writing says about where women obtain their agency. I struggled with how to answer the question, because I know what I would like my writing to say, and it’s always my deepest fear that I don’t say it appropriately. Simply put, I believe that rape (and rape culture) destroy the survivor’s agency. But it’s really a lot more complicated than that, because it’s not just the act of rape itself. It’s a litany of factors.

Perhaps to answer the question, I should first define agency. I don’t mean agency as in a physical place or organization. I’m referring to agency in a sociological sense, as the capacity a person has to act of their own accord and make their own choices, freely. A person’s agency is limited by the influences, or structures, in their lives, like gender, race, religion, culture, class, etc. I firmly believe that agency is learned, that these structures and our experiences alter our ability to make choices. I believe that people alter these choices. I also believe that we, personally, alter these choices.

Which brings us to my writing.

My writing has evolved this year, yet again. My first voyage into trauma literature was a collection of rather abstract essays. Then I started graduate school, and decided I wanted to learn to be specific about my experiences, and tell a very specific story—and only that story. I wore that story as a patch to hold myself together, and crafting it was the thing that was going to make me whole. But then I started to write and got several chapters into the work—and attended several frustrating revision meetings—before I realized that I was going about the project the wrong way. My story is not one story. My story is a construction of many different stories, of many different pieces and times and structures. I was ready to give up my book and find a new project to work on, as I became more and more convinced that I couldn’t get my message right. That I had no business communicating with other survivors. I asked for a sign to tell me what to do, or, at the very least, to show me I was doing the right thing.

I found my sign in a book. Lacy M. Johnson wrote an incredibly powerful memoir entitled The Other Side. It opens as she flees the basement of The Man She Used to Live With, breaking out of a soundproof room where he had intended to kill her, and then follows a winding and not always chronological road to tell all of the pieces of Lacy’s story. The choices that she made, and the ones that were made for her. I devoured her book, and a handful of interviews she did afterwards as she was nominated for awards. I came across this:

“I discovered that I really, strongly objected to all of the rhetoric about how writing about trauma could, in effect, make a person “whole” again. It took years to articulate why this sentiment bothered me, but eventually I realized that it reinforces what I consider to be a flawed notion that after some kind of trauma … a person is somehow ‘broken.’”

I realized that I was, in fact, writing to make myself whole, when in truth, I was never broken. I let my trauma define who I was, when I needed to be the one to carve out my place in the world in the after. I looked to others to tell me what to do, to give me agency, when I needed to be the one to make that agency for myself. I let people take my choices away, because I didn’t feel like I deserved to make them on my own. I didn’t want to take my own agency, but claiming it was the solution to everything.

How the heck do we do that? Take our own agency? Whaaaaaaaaaaat?

We so often look to others to tell us how to exist. We listen to the world when it tells us we are weak. Lost. Ugly. Not good enough. We listen to the world when it tells us we are wrong, broken. But the truth is that we heal at our own pace. We are okay when we are okay. We are never broken. We are simply changed.

The original question was what my writing says about the way that women obtain agency. The answer is that the narrator of my book, the me of the past, has no agency. And she should. What took her agency? Religion. Sex. Rape. Years of never being good enough. A broken tape of thoughts on a repeat cycle that never ends. It absolutely absurd the way people tried to make my choices for me—the person (people) who hurt me, the justice system, the people who knew and assumed that I was less than because of my experience. I was desperate for someone, anyone, to tell me what to do. I stopped trusting myself to make my own decisions; I’m not sure I ever trusted myself. In my writing, in the telling of my lack of agency, I want to show how absurd it was. I think a lot of women let their agency be directed externally, or entirely taken away, when they should be telling themselves how awesome they are while doing their own thing. The social structures we have created are horribly unfair. So many times, we are chasing a mold that we can never fit into. We are all different; we should all make the choices that are right for us. And if I can show that to one reader, if I can wake just one person up, then my writing is successful. I had no power, both because it was taken and because of my own choice, and if my story helps one reader to see in themselves that all that have to do is claim their agency as their own, then that’s my writing for the win.

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One thought on “On Agency

  1. thenicktr says:

    Yes. What I was getting at is a tiny part of this. That perhaps the you of the past didn’t believe you had agency–and as Young Goodman Brown tells us, those who believe something to be true, know that it is. Perception is believing is perception. So you must find a different angle, and relook. Always revision. Re-see. And be strong knowing that because you re-see, you are. You have survived.

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