An Open Letter to Stephen Fry

(and anyone else who thinks abuse victims need to ‘grow up’)

Stephen Fry, I neither want nor care about any part of your sympathy.

Nor that of your horde. I’ve lived just fine for most of my adult life not giving any part of a rat’s anatomy what you think. What I do care about, however, is the way you constantly target vulnerable people and attack them.

We can set aside the extreme hypocrisy of your wanting sympathy for your depression– a real illness that certainly does deserve compassion– yet completely dismissing the effects of trauma on a developing mind. You resent people telling you to ‘cheer up’, then go ’round telling people dealing with the aftermath of abuse to just ‘grow up’. It’s clear that you don’t comprehend that juxtaposition, as it has been pointed out to you many times by now. I don’t need you to comprehend it. I will just ask you, as have many others, to stop.

It doesn’t matter to me what you believe, or how much of a hypocrite you are. What matters to me is that there are people out there hurting who mistake you for an important voice in this world. There are people out there struggling with what’s happened to them, and you make a habit of reinforcing the idea that the damage done to them isn’t worth the scant attention anyone pays to it. You claim to be a mental health advocate, you act as though you have some grasp or understanding of the needs of the vulnerable, and then target them with the idea that they don’t count. There are people who look up to you who are crushed by this kind of ignorance, and you disregard the hurt you deal them.

Full disclosure: I am a survivor of several kinds of abuse, none of which I intend to offer as credentials for speaking on the matter. You may dismiss my opinion as easily as I dismiss yours, I do not intend to trot out my damage as a qualification. If anything, I offer the fact that I have been speaking to, sharing experiences with, and offering understanding to dozens of abuse victims along the course of my life. If you would do the same with even one or two, I doubt you would speak so lightly of what they’ve been through, and defend their abusers. I suspect you have only been listening to your own attempt to normalize what happened to you, which is another reason I don’t believe the experience itself is any qualification. I didn’t see the wrong in a lot of what was done to me until I started thinking about how I felt when it was done to someone else. Empathy is a great teacher.

Let’s address that ignorance, for those who are as uninformed

Anyone can get full context at this link, and I’m not going to bother trying to put this in context for you. Your comments revolve around a mistaken belief that it is abuse victims trying to get the world to put trigger warnings on everything. Instead of targetting the histrionic culture that raises avoidance to an art form, aka tumblr, you decided to target abuse victims.

“We’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place – you get some of my sympathy – but your self pity gets none of my sympathy.”

— Stephen Fry

This is how much of the zeitgeist seems to perceive child abuse. Something that happened to somebody once that they just can’t get over. Something they can’t let go of and feel sorry for themselves about. “Oh boo hoo, daddy was mean to you.” I’ve seen some people I really look up to disappoint me deeply by putting forward this idea.

“your uncle touched you in that nasty place”
Myth: Child abuse is a one-off event.
In all of the time I have been talking to other survivors, dealing with my own experience, and encountering these situations in life, I have never ever heard of a case of one-off child abuse. I’ve encountered a few people who think only one or two acts they suffered were valid. Further examination into the situation always reveals a pattern of smaller abuses culminating in whatever severe events a person is willing to treat as valid. The rest, they tend to accept as being ‘not that bad’, though they may be able to recognize it as abusive treatment when it happens to others. In my experience abused children develop a blind spot for what happens to them– which either comes out as aggressive normalization similar to what you’re putting forth, or as an intensely painful double standard by which they deserve what’s happened and no one else does.

The fantasy that a parent has one weak moment and does something wrong completely discounts the entire dynamic of abuse. In my experience, and that of those around me, it is an abandonment of parental roles and responsibilities. Once crossed, that line stops mattering, and the behavior generally doesn’t stop unless there’s an age preference involved. That doesn’t happen by accident. That isn’t a slip of the temper. Relating child abuse to just spanking a child too hard or touching them in a place that’s a little wrong is like relating domestic battery to slapping someone in a moment of anger, or drug abuse to accidentally doubling a dose of one of your prescriptions. It’s a deliberately false equivalency, and it’s calculated to minimize the reality. It’s meant to get people drawing parallels to things they might themselves do, and make them feel defensive towards those who make outcries.

“your self pity gets none of my sympathy”
Myth: Child abuse survivors are self-pitying children who refuse to get over it.
Children are hard-wired to blame themselves. This is a pattern which emerges in situations ranging from extremely difficult situations like abuse and divorce, to everyday situations like a pet’s death or a misfortune in the family. In fact, the very children who are most vulnerable to your kind of talk, the ones who develop PTSD, have been more likely to blame themselves in studies. In confusing situations, children place this blame on themselves so they may try hard to do better, and believe the hurting will stop. This creates a painful drive that may never leave them, no matter how hard they try to ‘grow up’.

In order to survive, a child trapped with their abuser must find a way to normalize what happened. If that’s what you’re doing, that’s very sad… but you should examine your compulsion to inflict that distorted reality on others. No matter how often it blows up in your face, you can’t stop, can you? Does that remind you of any other behavior, Mr. Fry?

“We’re all very sorry your uncle touched you in that nasty place”
Myth: Child abuse survivors get universal sympathy and can’t get enough of it.
The truth is, most child abuse survivors are far more likely to face the kind of contempt you’re slinging. It’s akin to the way everyone assumes a homeless person gets handouts, until he starves to death. From police, to social workers, to courts, to family, to strangers, there are always authority figures around us at every step either turning a blind eye or telling us that what we went through “isn’t that bad”. Whatever they need to say to themselves to feel better about leaving us with our abusers, we hear that and internalize it.

I’m not going to link it here, because it’s too vile for me to link to, but the comment section on just about any video testimonial, news article, or other form of public outcry will tell you the bulk of what abuse victims really face. And trust me, the vile voices are always loudest when you’re carrying that kind of pain.

It is incredibly difficult for a child to speak up about abuse in the first place. Doing so means facing all kinds of threats from our abusers, but no threat is nearly so effective as the simple feeling we will be betraying our families. The ignorant ask us, “If your family’s so bad, why should that matter?” I would ask, “If the only people in the world who are supposed to love you no matter what are hurting the living hell out of you, what do you think the rest of the world that doesn’t give a damn is going to do?” The truth is simpler, though. The truth is that even though they hurt us, we try hard to love our abusers. People like you take that naive, broken love and twist the knife it leaves in our hearts. You should be ashamed of that, sir.

“Self pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity. Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself. The irony is we’ll feel sorry for you, if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just grow up.”

— Stephen Fry

“we’ll feel sorry for you, if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just grow up.”
Myth: Child abuse survivors feel better if they just shut up about it and move on.
Silence is a killer. I am being literal. I have seen friends succumb to depression faster and faster past the moment they decided to try to just ‘grow up’ and move on. The idea that anyone feels sorry for them once they clam up is ludicrous. What people do, as quickly as they can, is forget that abuse even happens. Even people who know where my scars come from, what the ligature marks represent, sometimes say the most unbelievably awful things in front of me about abuse victims. People are comfortable talking about abuse as an abstract concept, in my experience, but they are uncomfortable being confronted by the reality as something that actually happens.

“Just grow up” is something we hear from our abusers. “It was so long ago, aren’t you over it by now?” is too. Isn’t it funny how people feel perfectly comfortable being angry about things they never experienced– things that happened thousands of miles away or hundreds of years ago– yet feel the need to shout down someone for not being over a twisted childhood because a few years have passed?

I’ll trot out one example, something very minor, because it helps to illustrate what I mean. A full grown adult in New Hampshire is allowed to be traumatized over 9/11, and rightly so, but I should be over the fact that the man I trusted most in the world stitched up my leg because he got so pissed off at me for reading a book without him that he drove his keys through my knee? Really? That makes sense to you? Adult watching a building collapse on TV and feeling like nothing is safe anymore. Nine years old and getting stitches for reading, confused and heartbroken and bleeding because a safe space suddenly wasn’t safe at all, but I should just grow up about it? Despite the fact that this was supposed to be the one man in the world I should have expected to protect me, yet he felt comfortable dragging me up stairs by the throat? The grown man is allowed to request an armored personnel carrier to protect the pumpkin festival, but I’m not allowed to feel about that treatment? It’s too ugly to feel sorry for that child, because it was me?

And honestly? These are some of the least painful examples I can think of. They’re easier to talk about than the things that scarred me in ways no one can stitch.

“no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself.”
Myth: Talking about your child abuse makes you an unpleasant, unlikable, unlovable damaged person.
The truth here is a little more complex than I can really speak on with any authority. It’s just as much fantasy to pretend that every survivor of child abuse deals with it well as to pretend every survivor makes a huge drama out of it and never tries to heal. The reality is a spectrum. Sometimes you have to wade through a lot of negativity, a lot of pain and anger you’ve never let yourself feel, in order to find your way to healing. Didn’t you learn that when you were dealing with mental illness and substance abuse, sir?

What I will say, though, is that I care about several people who did finally allow themselves to feel some kind of emotion about what happened to them. Who did finally learn to treat themselves as though their pain matters. Who did finally learn to feel as though they didn’t actually deserve being beaten, molested, emotionally driven into a dark place, used as a surrogate spouse, used as an ashtray, used as a designated adult in a house full of alcoholics, basically used up until they felt like there was nothing left. I don’t consider this to be self-pity, but from the various ways you speak about it, Mr. Fry, clearly you do.

Of course we both know those people are not the ones trying to get the world censored. I personally doubt that most of the people being aggressive about their ‘triggers’ have real triggers at all– because triggers tend to create avoidance, not a thirst for confrontation. I don’t conflate intolerance of others’ freedom with traumatic experiences, but in your comments you clearly have.

“No one’s going to like you,”  and its corollary, “No one will ever love you,” are possibly the biggest pressures we face growing up. It’s a lot of why we try to hide the awful things being done to us. We feel as though there must be something wrong with us, that anyone would do such things to us– and there are vulnerable people out there who will believe what you’re saying, when you tell them that feeling sorry for themselves about it makes them unlikable. That’s untrue. If they are good people, if they are trying hard to be kind and ethical and tolerant, I will like them just fine. I’ll feel sorry for them, but more importantly, I will feel compassion for them. I’m sorry you can’t manage to do that, too.

“Self pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity.”
Myth: Self-pity is the worst emotion humanity’s got.
Do you really find self pity to be uglier than your compulsive need to minimize people who have suffered sexual abuse, Mr. Fry? Do you really find it uglier than the emotion which drives a person to climb into his daughter’s bed and lay his excited body against her back so he can rub up there? Do you really feel it is uglier than the one which drives a woman to treat her son like a replacement for the husband she rejected, a lover that she made and can therefore control? Do you really feel self-pity is uglier than the emotion behind telling a child they will be left alone in the world, or given to foster homes to be prostituted or even killed, if they so much as let their bruises show? Do you feel like it’s uglier than the emotion that causes people to take their tempers out on their children and then tell the children it’s for their own good? Do you really feel like self-pity is uglier than the comment section of any news article about Dylan Farrow? Do you feel like it is uglier than the emotion that drove my CPS caseworker to stand over my hospital bed and tell me I should go back to the person who put me there in order to prove it wasn’t my fault?

Do you feel self-pity is uglier than the emotion that drives you to tell people who have suffered these things to just grow up or no one will ever like them?

Do you really?

I don’t.