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Why Karyn Freedman decided to write about her rape

The philosophy prof shares how her rape influences her scholarly work on trauma and inspired an award-winning memoir.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | AUG 05 2015

Karyn L. Freedman is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph. In 2014, she published One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery (Freehand Books), a memoir that describes how, at 22, she was raped at knifepoint while backpacking in Paris in the summer of 1990. The book follows the long-term psychological and physical consequences of the rape, the intensive therapy that Dr. Freedman has undergone in the years since the crime, and documents the time she spent volunteering at a rape crisis centre in Botswana. Throughout, Dr. Freedman makes the case for addressing rape not just as a personal trauma experienced by some women but as a global crisis that leaves all women vulnerable to violence and betrays a deeply misogynist society. In February, One Hour in Paris won the prestigious B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Dr. Freedman spoke with University Affairs about what it was like to write of her rape, the personal and professional risks it involved, and how academic research and therapy helped prepare her for the task.

University Affairs: One Hour in Paris wasn’t the first time you wrote about your experience as a rape survivor. You started identifying yourself as a survivor in some of your academic writing on trauma published around 2006. Why did you choose to disclose in these academic venues?

Karyn Freedman: I decided to begin outing myself in general around that time and the process began by telling close friends as well as writing about it, publishing this material about it. What I had done was written a paper about the different kinds of consequences that trauma has on our beliefs about the world and in this paper I self-identified as a rape survivor. But I didn’t talk about my own experience. So I published this paper and I thought that I had outed myself and, of course, not even my colleagues had read it. I realized I wasn’t going to get far that way.

UA: Why did you want to examine what happened to you through a scholarly lens?
KF: I spent quite a good part of a decade just ignoring what had happened to me. When I finally started to work with a therapist I became really interested in the idea of psychological trauma and how it metabolizes in our bodies and what happens to our bodies and minds. As I did my research, I was able to see that these people who were writing about trauma hadn’t experienced trauma necessarily; these were people who were writing about our beliefs in the world, but doing so without the benefit of a personal experience that shatters some of those beliefs. I felt an impulse to write about it because there were gaps in the literature. I thought I had something to offer. It took about two or three years before I started to write about this. I’d sit down to write about it and I couldn’t escape flashbacks.

UA: Why did you shift from writing about rape from an academic approach to writing intimately about your rape and recovery?
KF: It was a transition that happened pretty organically. I was coming up to my first sabbatical and I started wondering what I would do with myself. Some people had been asking me if I would write a book during that time. I started to think about it and the shape of this book just materialized. By then I had reached a point in my own recovery where I was feeling relatively stable and I didn’t think it would be a difficult process for me from an emotional or psychological standpoint.

UA: Did you tell your colleagues that you were writing a book about your rape?
KF: My colleagues all knew that I was a rape survivor, but I kept the fact that I was writing the book to myself for a while. I thought, “Let’s just see if I can get this done. I’ll decide then if I want to try to publish the book and then I can tell my colleagues about it.” I probably kept it to myself not because I was apprehensive about the fact that it was about rape, but because it was a very non-traditional book from an academic standpoint.

UA: I have to admit, I’m surprised by that answer – that you were more concerned about how people would receive the book’s form and style rather than its personal content
KF: While philosophy can be creative and it can be interesting, writing philosophy is never really fun. It’s work. This book was fun. People are surprised to hear that because it’s such a hard subject matter, but from my perspective, I had already been in therapy for close to a decade and I wouldn’t have written this book if it were difficult. The writing for me was like trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. I was trying to write a good story. It was all very engaging intellectually and creatively.

UA: What has the feedback on the book been like from your colleagues, your students, and the community in Guelph?
KF: Their responses have been all very encouraging, very supportive. They think that I’ve done something worthwhile in publishing the book.

I was slightly apprehensive about what my students would think, especially the female students because I was sort of their age when I was raped. By what we know about rape, I wondered just how many students of mine have themselves experienced this. It can be hard for someone who has just gone through this experience to read a book like mine. But my students didn’t shy away from it. They weren’t afraid of it. They wanted to talk about it.

UA: How was the experience of creatively exposing and exploring your rape different from the experience of disclosing your rape to colleagues and loved ones?
KF: I think that the process is very different. Disclosing is telling people about what has happened to you. Keeping secrets just breeds shame and I think that talking about it publicly is a way of unburdening oneself, of saying, “This isn’t on me. I have nothing to be ashamed of.” I do think that can be essential for personal recovery so long as you feel you have a safe place in which you can do it.

That’s very different from then deciding to try and create something out of that experience that maybe other people can benefit from. A colleague of mine in the psychology department at the University of Guelph gave a TedX talk about his experience as a cutter, as someone who self-harms. You could see in the video that what he wanted to do was something similar to what I had done in my book, which is to share something that’s deeply personal and that many people have experienced and then draw some larger theoretical claims or insights out of the experience.

UA: What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s considering a creative outlet for their personal trauma?
KF: Telling a personal story can be so important. By focusing deeply inward we’re often able to reveal something that others can connect with. There is a risk, but if you feel you’re able to handle the vulnerability that comes with having your personal story read by strangers and by friends and by your colleagues, then I think it’s a risk worth taking. At least weekly I get emails or cards from these women who have read my book and saw themselves in it and want to tell me something about that experience.

UA: Is that another risk to putting your story out there: people may disclose their own traumatic stories, which could be burdensome to hear, or even triggering?
KF: I did realize that in putting this out there that people would come to me about their stories. When I would think about that before I published the book I would get a bit overwhelmed. But it’s much easier than I expected it to be. As soon as I begin to read their stories it touches a chord of empathy in me. I’ve been there.

UA: You’re a tenured professor (and were tenured when you published this book). Is whether or not you have tenure something an academic should keep in mind before putting their story out there?
KF: I think it would be naïve to suggest that you don’t have to think of the professional consequences at all. So if you’re going to publish something that is non-traditional and that is personal, that draws on your own history in the way that I did, and you’re not a tenured professor there probably is some risk. We know that universities are places of gender inequality in many respects, so if you’re a woman who’s untenured and you’re going to publish a story that draws on your experience of childbirth, or your history with abortion – experiences that are particularly gendered – there may be more of a risk. You have to look at your own profile as an academic and decide whether or not that would be too risky.

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