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It is very important that victims feel that they are believed.”
This advice, this call to action — to listen and to believe what I hear, rings in my head, years after I first heard it. It felt right then and yet it also felt wrong then. How can we really believe people when we can’t know, for sure, that they are telling the truth? I want to tease this out here, today, with you.
Victims often speak of not being believed when they take up the courage to speak to someone. Bullying in the workplace, for instance. The response may be: ‘Sure you’re only making that up. You don’t want to work or you don’t like your boss.’ Physical and mental abuse by your life partner might get a similar response: ‘Sure, can’t you just walk away or shut them up if you are really being treated like that.”
Sexual abuse victims of Jimmy Saville in the UK and of many priests in Ireland were not believed, at first. Their isolated claims surely could not be true. Denial by ‘the system’. Impossible.
These allegations challenged society and our ideas and challenged people to act. But those who were told did not know how to act in response to these claims. And if they did know how to act, like reporting to the police, they did not, in many cases, believe the victim and therefore follow up with appropriate action.
To be the victim of abuse, of any type, is bad enough but not to be believed is experienced as further, if not worse, abuse.
But I speculate; is it that victims don’t want, so much to be believed, as to be taken seriously? For action to be taken? To have some ally in finding the way out of this unwelcome intrusion?
In fighting abuse, people often go through the legal system thinking, sometimes naively, that they will get justice. They do not fully expect that court will be an emotionally dangerous place. Not only may they not be believed, but they will likely be attacked again and have their story undermined and discredited, and all this in public.
This is the hardest part. And if the case is not proven, then the obvious insinuation, by the process of justice, is that the victim is wrong, making it up or lying. This hurts.
‘To be the victim of abuse, of any type, is bad enough but not to be believed is experienced as further, if not worse, abuse’
And sometimes this is undoubtedly true, that sometimes ‘victims’ do lie and do deny and do make up things about abuse. Louis Walsh of X-Factor fame felt the huge sting of being falsely accused of abuse in a nightclub, until the cameras demonstrated a different truth. He, as alleged perpetrator, now becomes victim, in truth.
So what am I to do when I am told of abuse and when I can’t know whether it happened or whether it didn’t happen?
After thinking about this, with you as my witness, my advice to myself is to not rush headlong to judgment when a person makes a claim of abuse, while at the same time ‘believing’ the patient or the friend. To do what GPs have always had a tradition of doing. That is, listening, in a non-judgmental way, while our internal prejudices are barking away in our heads, clamouring for a hearing. Even better, as GPs, we are good at delaying a response to these claims while allowing for a space, in tranquillity, to consider things in a balanced fashion. Our finest tradition is to deal with uncertainty. So we listen and we ‘believe’, while living with the contradiction that we do not know the truth and that the victim may be right or they may even be wrong and all the grey areas in between.
I now believe this: that what victims want is not so much to be believed, as not to be disbelieved. They want to be heard and to be directed towards a reasonable and safe place where instant condemnation and negative judgment are alien. Where a pathway to a solution can be found. Often, victims want solutions, safety and learning by the system, rather than rash judgement and emotional reflexes.
Because until we know the actual truth, if we ever get to know the truth, about the alleged abuse, both the victims and the alleged perpetrators, as well as the rest of us, are all innocent and all in risky territory.
In order to enjoy tales of pirates in movies, books and comics, we have to suspend disbelief. When we are offered fresh tales of abuse, we must suspend our rash rush to make judgments. Considered judgment is for another time and maybe for someone else. We can offer support without believing or more importantly, without disbelieving.