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by Susan J. Brison
Princeton University Press, 2001
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D. on Feb 18th 2003


Philosopher console thy self may well be the dictum that underpins this profoundly painful, honest and searching book by Susan Brison, an academic philosopher who was brutally raped and assaulted and left for dead. Yes, she did not die and remade both herself and her self in the years that followed.

How does someone whose entire life and meaning is constructed around constructing meaning deal with such questions when they are so real and personal? Do the truths in which she cognitively believed stand fast? Do they stand a reality check? Can she, as a philosopher, really show that the proof of the pudding is in eating?

The book opens on 4th July 1990 and closes exactly ten years later. That this is Independence Day in America is not altogether without symbolic value because the book is entwined around the notion of freedom, especially that of the self. On that bright, sunny day in day in 1990 Susan Brison was walking along a country road in France when she was attacked from behind, raped, beaten, strangled, hit with a rock, dragged into a ravine and left for dead. The attack was unprovoked and sudden. There was no warning, no premonition, no sense to it. It left her critically injured and psychologically shocked. In her book, which recounts in painful detail the attack and the events that followed, Brison charts her own reactions and those around her in a way that conveys the sense and contrast of heightened sensitivity and detachment in which she lived. Sometimes the wounds left by the attack are as raw as burnt flesh, sometimes they are remote as a dream. In this, she reinforces a very important lesson for anyone concerned with the remaking of selves after trauma; there is no linear or in-step recovery, but when the experience is integrated into a new, irrevocably changed self, it may be possible to begin to speak of healing.

She recognizes that she, as a philosopher, knew, or at least thought she knew, something of the human condition, but the humility of seeing that the personal experience is not only different but can open other ways of knowing gives her a peculiar and contradictory gratitude. No one would wish such an attack on anyone. It was savage, brutal and almost killed her. Yet, without it she would not have been able to understand the meaning that may be gained from such critical moments. She lays out for consideration that it may be possible to go beyond survival. Certainly, she struggled to restore aspects of her normal, pre-attack life. Going out alone, walking in unlit car parks, trusting relationships, confessing intimacy all presented challenges. However, she slowly comes to realize a depth of meaning that would not have been possible otherwise.

However, although it is an intensely personal story, Brison also considers the politics of sexual attack. She knows that as a white, middle class, educated, articulate professional woman whose attack was so unprovoked and whose attacker was caught and convicted she has a certain credibility that protects her from the cock-teaser, dressing-in-short-skirts-so-she-must-have-been-asking-for-it slurs that affected some of the young, black or drug-addicted prostitutes who sat with her and told similar stories in her support group. This is distressing to her as it seems to minimize ot trivialize the trauma. On the other hand, and the confusion and dichotomy of feelings and arguments is an ever-present theme in the book, without such stories we, as a society will look at ourselves clearly. She rejects the human nature argument of rape, and also that it is a private matter, because this can lead to some moral prevarication. Rape is not to be seen as something as rather unfortunate, but really not such a big deal. It tells us something of ourselves; it shows us what we may be capable of and what we can be willing to condone.

Brison has a very sobering story to tell and, in the final chapters, she considers what the act of telling entails. She knows that it is not always therapeutic for the teller, and sometimes traumatic for the reader, but she does also know that it bearing witness she is living the purpose of history. She is aware that a deluge of trauma stories may in some paradoxical way make each less important or less meaningful, but she writes that it “is only by remembering and narrating the past – telling our stories and listening to others’ – that we can participate in an ongoing, active construction of a narrative of liberation”. If we don’t have a voice, we don’t have a history and if we don’t have a history we don’t know who we are. Brison’s book helps us to know who we are.


© 2003 Mark Welch


Dr Mark Welch is currently a Senior Lecturer and Postgraduate Coordinator in The School of Nursing at the University of Canberra, Australia. His PhD investigated the representation of madness in popular film, and his other research interests include the mental health of refugees and victims of torture, and the history of psychiatric epistemology.


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