On February 28, Evan Rachel Wood testified in front of Congress about her experiences with domestic violence, gaslighting, multiple rapes, torture, and PTSD. Wood spoke out in order to get the Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights Act implemented in all 50 states.
Below, read her powerful unedited testimony, printed here in full.
My name is Evan Rachel Wood and I am an artist. But I am also a domestic violence and sexual assault survivor and the single mother of a young boy.
When I was 5 years old I started working in film and every day since then I have worked to reach the very privileged place I am aware I occupy. I am aware that I appear to be what a large part of society would deem as “beautiful” and that I have a skin color that drastically increases my chance for success. But this is also what makes my story all the more disturbing, because I would be considered "one of the lucky ones."
I struggle to write this because I am not sure what words are appropriate when discussing this issue. As I type this I am worried about being very careful not to become too graphic and cross a line into what most people would consider inappropriate, simply for telling my story exactly how it happened from my experience, without sugar coating. I am also fearful of saying anything that may unintentionally spark arousal in people and in writing this, suddenly realize that is a part of the problem. If you can’t hear the whole truth you will never know true empathy and I believe in the saying, “If we have to live through it, you should have to hear it."
We as women must always alter how we say things, to be heard, because we are mostly seen in a just a few ways: pure, or un-pure, property, weak, and, the most hurtful one of all, crazy; too irrational to be able to give a coherent objective thought about how we perceive the world. Our perspective isn’t taken seriously because of hard wiring and conditioning brought onto us by a society that tells us what is acceptable or “normal.”
This past year and the massive movements such as Me Too and Time's Up have been extremely empowering and validating for survivors, but also incredibly painful. While no one had to tell me that rape was such a worldwide epidemic, to see the flood of stories so similar to my own was both freeing and soul-crushing. Waves of memories and detail came flooding into my brain every time I read the words, “I froze.”
I thought I was the only human who experienced this. I carried so much guilt and confusion about my response to the abuse. It made me realize I had believed the messages society as a whole sends women on a daily basis. It's almost as if my mind has been conditioned to believe it must have been my fault, I must have done something wrong, not him, he obviously couldn’t help it. I accepted my powerlessness and felt I deserved it somehow. Why? After years of processing and looking back I see these experiences so clearly for what they are. So finally I asked myself, Why would you feel this way?
A quote I wrote down in my journal years ago from Ph.D. Ian Robertson and his book, The Winner Effect, comes to mind: “Men are not systematically deprived of human rights of education, relationships and work by political and religious systems because of their gender in many countries, but women are. The resulting powerlessness of hundreds of millions of women fundamentally shapes their brains, reducing their capacity to change their situation.”
Sometimes we are held down, not just by our attackers, but of what we know about our place in the world. She may freeze because she is terrified but also because she knows, deep down, there is nowhere for her to go. An estimated 400,000 untested rape kits are sitting on shelves in the United States alone. Rape kits that not only help convict the guilty but exonerate the innocent. If that doesn’t tell us how people feel about violence against women, I don’t know what does.
After doing more research on this "freeze" response, I found the following information on something called "Tonic Immobility." This is a trauma response that animals will exhibit during an attack, they will freeze or “play dead,” perceiving it as the best option when the animal sees little immediate chance of escape or winning a fight. The animal initially reacts by struggling and attempting to escape, but after a brief period of continued restraint these reactions subside and it assumes a catatonic-like posture which persists in the absence of further contact.
A special issue of The Psychological Record, from 1977, was devoted to this topic and I have submitted it here today along with my full testimony.
There are two specific instances of sexual assault I have experienced that really stick out in my mind. In fact, they are burned into my brain. Branded there for life, a mental scar that I feel, every day.
My experience with domestic violence was this. Toxic mental, physical, and sexual abuse, which started slow, but escalated over time, including threats against my life, severe gaslighting and brainwashing, waking up to the man that claimed to love me raping what he believed to be my unconscious body, and the worst part, sick rituals of binding me up by my hands and feet to be mentally and physically tortured until my abuser felt I had “proven my love for them.”
In this moment, while I was tied up and being beaten and being told unspeakable things, I truly felt like I could die, not just because my abuser said to me, “I could kill you right now.” But because in that moment, I felt like I left my body. I was too afraid to run, he would find me. I was too afraid to fight back, he had threatened to kill me before.
I was too afraid to have him turn on me, I knew what would happen if he got angry.
Once I realized what he was going to do, I froze, and it was as if I could see myself from the outside and for the first time in months I felt something, utter shame and despair. I had no idea what to do to change my situation. So I went numb, soon I couldn’t feel anything. I wasn’t alive.
My self-esteem and spirit were broken.
I was deeply terrified and that fear lives with me to this day.
What makes me more hurt and more angry than the actual rape and abuse itself, was that piece of me that was stolen, which altered the course of my life.
Because of this abuse and my already spiritless person, when I was pushed onto the floor of a locked storage closet by another attacker after hours at a bar, my body instinctually knew what to do—disappear, go numb, make it go away. Being abused and raped previously made it easier for me to raped again, not the other way around.
Not a day goes by when I don’t hear the words this man whispered into my ear over and over, “You’re going to be fine, you’re going to be fine, I promise, you’re going to be fine,” and my small voice saying back, “No, no, no, no, no,” until it faded into nothing. I remember the feeling of shutting down or "freezing" and utter shock taking over. I couldn’t even make a sound. I felt a piece of me disappear, a piece that has never returned. In other words, I was not fine. I am not fine.
As of right now, the definition of "consent" does not cover this very common response to trauma, or fear. As of right now, a woman can say no 50 times, but when she reluctantly gives in because she feels she has no other choice, or “freezes,” that is considered "consent." Not an animalistic instinct which kicks in, not an automatic response or what our bodies and fragile minds do to try and protect us, but consent that is protected by law. As of right now, even if I went after one of my attackers, it wouldn’t matter, because under law what happened to me was considered "given," with my full consent. I think a vast majority of woman can relate to the feeling of walking into a situation, realizing what it is, and thinking, Oh no… here we go, it's me today.
The things my attacker whispered stand out to me as someone experiencing a starkly different reality than mine. His words were a “You’ll thank me later” statement, and if I am distressed, I should trust him. Imagine for a moment what his testimony would be, of the same "sexual encounter." He would get empathy and I would get questions. We still victim-blame because we don’t realize there are two victims of rape. The women who are being raped and the young boys who are growing up to be rapists. Their entire lives led them to this point. So what is happening? Why are men and women so conditioned in this way?
I was told the signs. My mother is also a survivor, but even she couldn’t protect her daughter from the messages women and men are fed by society that plays a role in determining our fate, or the dark magic of gaslighting.
The aftermath of rape is a huge part of the conversation that needs much more attention, and in this case I can speak from my own experiences. So often we speak of these assaults as no more than a few minutes of awfulness, but the scars last a lifetime. I cannot stress this enough.
Even though these experiences happened a decade ago, I still struggle with the aftermath; my relationships suffer, my partners suffer, my mental and physical health suffers. Seven years after my rapes—plural—I was diagnosed with long-term PTSD, which I had been living with all that time without knowledge about my condition. I simply thought I was going crazy, which is also how we commonly refer to a woman’s distress: lunacy.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome is more widely known in relation to vets returning home from war, but by definition it is "a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it, or other threats on a person’s life."
I struggled with depression, addiction, agoraphobia, night terrors; so many times, a sleeping partner of mine has awoken to their love screaming in the night and gasping for air in a pool of sweat, after having some sort of vivid dream of my abuser or hearing them say my name so loudly in my ear, or hallucinating a vision of them standing in the corner of my room. The feeling of paralysis returns when there is a loud noise and I am home alone, convinced someone is coming to hurt me. I stay awake all night clutching a baseball bat, which began to replace my distraught and absent partners, as trust and touch became increasingly more difficult. I struggled with self-harm, to the point of two suicide attempts, which landed me in a psychiatric hospital for a short period of time. This was, however, a turning point in my life, and when I started seeking professional help to deal with my trauma and mental stress. This was the beginning of a very long road to recovery. I am incredibly fortunate because I have the means to pay for such treatment and care which I still utilize to this day. Others are not so fortunate, and, because of this, rape is often more than a few minutes of trauma, but a slow death.
I was forever changed by these experiences, not just because of the violation, the loss of ownership over my body, the actual physical pain, but what it meant about the world I called home. I don’t often think of how I wish my rapists would be punished, although true justice would be a miracle, but I think of the children they once were. I wonder what must have happened to them, what they were taught, what trauma they endured that led them to these inhumane acts.
I view the world differently after knowing what darkness lurks underneath the surface of sometimes even your most trusted partner, and what human beings are capable of without unconditional love or lessons in empathy.
I would like to say to my attackers, that I don’t hate you, I feel sorry for you. I am not here to shame you, I want to understand you and want you to understand me, but you have to listen first. We all have to listen and we have to be brave enough to have the conversation and ask the "why"s. The whys are what connect us.
This makes me think of my son, the world he will be raised in, and the day I will have to explain to him what rape means and why it happened to his mother.
When I knew I was to become a mother, I prayed for a boy. Not because I wouldn’t have wanted a girl, but because I would have to protect my daughter too much, and many things would unfortunately be inevitable in her future. Then I realized, it could be just as easy for my son to fall prey to the lies society tells us about men. Things like, "They have uncontrollable impulses to hurt people." Because, let's face it, a man having an uncontrollable impulse to engage in a sexual act is not what sexual assault is. Sexual assault is an uncontrollable act of violence, against someone else’s body, mind, and spirit. How cruel to tell a child this is just how all men are, and how cruel to turn a blind eye to all the ways we perpetuate this lie. Since men are often told to hide their emotions, this very behavior could be a cry for help. While women seem more prone to cry out by punishing themselves, the opposite seems to be true with a majority of men. And this deserves a much deeper look.
So I am also here to advocate for men, and especially my son, who I hope grows up knowing he is much more valuable than that, and who I can only hope I will set an example for by continuing to fight for him, myself, and all the people affected by abuse, because that is our job as parents and as leaders. The way we change starts with proper education, not just about the medical terms of sexual intercourse and how it works, but about true connection with another person. How can we begin to talk about rape when we barely even teach people what good, healthy, safe, and loving sex really is?
But above all, it starts with the rule of law. It starts with people leading by example and coming to the aide of our girls, but also our young boys, who are just as susceptible to the toxic messages we send THEM to break their spirit and change their fate. This bill is just one step in the right direction of setting the bar higher for what is right and what the standard will be that we set for society. It's the safety net that may help save someone's life one day. It's called progress and it starts here.