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Mary Wakefield

We must defend freedom of reaction

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

Debbie Harry, Blondie’s lead singer, has written a memoir in which she relates, in her usual deadpan, punk-rock way, the strange, horrific things that have happened to her. She had a narrow escape from Ted Bundy, the serial killer; David Bowie showed her his penis (‘adorable’, apparently) and early in her pop career she was raped by an opportunist burglar.

‘He poked around, searching for anything worth anything. He piled up the guitars and Chris’s camera. Then he untied my hands and told me to take off my pants… I can’t say I felt a lot of fear,’ writes Debbie. ‘In the end, the stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape. I mean, we had no equipment.’

Debbie’s sangfroid in the face of sexual assault is unusual, but what’s surprised me more is how extremely disapproving people are about it — more disapproving of her reaction than of the crime itself. Debbie Harry’s rape story is reasonably well known, she’s been doing the media rounds, but no one seems to admire her resilience. Most people I’ve spoken to about it seem to think that she must be either repressed or psychotic to deviate so completely from the received reaction to rape.

This has me worried. I think we’ll end up having to fight not just for freedom of speech, but freedom of reaction too, which is almost more alarming. Our reactions are instinctive and individual. Without the freedom to shrug off offence, to laugh at the blackest jokes, to realise that we’re roughly OK, if it happens that we are, even after something as awful as rape, we’ll be less human.


I hope I’m imagining it. I don’t think I am. Think back to Meghan Markle’s recent interview with ITV. She’d tried to tough out royal life, she told Tom Bradby, but: ‘It’s not enough to just survive something, right? You’ve got to thrive.’ Catchy. Give that duchess a Ted talk. But Meg’s point wasn’t just that she didn’t care for the stiff upper lip approach — it was that it is actively dangerous for everyone. ‘I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging,’ she said, the unspoken assumption being that if, say, the Duchess of Cambridge or the Queen seem to cope OK, it’s just because they’re in denial. For all her apparent calm, QE2 must be a mental-health time bomb, because to be stoic about the pressures of royal life is not an appropriate reaction.

Last weekend I read that Meghan was said to be ‘struggling’ with Prince Andrew’s reaction to the questions about sex he was asked on Newsnight. Were she married to him, or paid to advise him, that might make sense. But what’s there for Meghan to wrestle with? What’s his reaction to do with her? To be triggered by the fact that a deluded twit had a deluded and twittish reaction is to have very odd expectations about people.

There’s a teacher called Holly Rigby who appears on TV sometimes, who wrote of the Andrew affair: ‘Every time we laugh at Prince Andrew and fail to centre the victims, we make it even harder for women to overcome trauma.’ Here it is again — this idea that there’s a sanctioned list of reactions; that we shouldn’t laugh at something horrific or embarrassing. It’s such a sad misunderstanding of humanity. Of course people laughed at Prince Andrew’s interview — it was an eye-popping car crash and people laugh for all manner of reasons. They laugh with incredulity, to relieve tension and to distance themselves.

Some of the most caring people in the grisliest of jobs laugh at the darkest things — it’s a way of coping and of gaining perspective. Doctors joke about death; psychiatric nurses joke about mental illness; Russians joke about the worst things you can imagine — except of course under Stalin, who really knew how to police reactions. There’s actual science to suggest that people who appreciate dark humour may have higher IQs and be less stressed and aggressive than people who turn up their noses at it. I’d be interested to know what Holly and Meghan make of that.

Perhaps it’s the internet that’s made us so uncomfortable when people react in a different way. We’ve all been effectively groomed by social media’s insatiable appetite for ‘likes’. I look back with incredulity on the days of my introduction to Instagram, when I assumed that the point was to react honestly to posted photos. ‘Stop pouting!’ and ‘Put some clothes on’, I’d write under selfies of my lovely niece Lexi. I know now there’s only one right way to respond to an Instagram selfie: ‘Yaass! Queen! This is… everything!’

But there’s a dark side to conformity, as we all now know well. The more we expect everybody to react the same way, the nastier we are to anyone who falls out of line. There’s a fascinating interview online with a self-confessed internet troll in which the troll explains that though he actively ruined some poor sod’s life, ‘cancelled’ him as they say, he felt at the time that he’d done no wrong. He wasn’t even aware, until he looked back on the affair, that he had been the chief tormentor. My online friends cheered me on, he said, so I just felt I was doing the right thing. Go on, push Piggy off the cliff. Be a hero.

Back to Debbie. If her younger fans feel uncomfortable with her taking her rape in her stride, it might be because in America (and increasingly in the UK too) there’s a backlash against the celebration of resilience, especially of the sort extolled by the Facebook COO and billionaire Sheryl Sandberg. The kids point out that it’s often the poorest people who demonstrate the least resilience. They’re right.

I would suggest, though, that the right riposte to ‘everyone’s a survivor’ isn’t ‘every-one’s a victim’. Better and more truthful to simply say that people react differently to different things, and hooray for that. Let Debbie be. Celebrate difference. Once upon a time, I thought that was the point.


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