Dismantling the Social Stigma of Being an Abuse Victim

My novel, When Oceans Rise, follows a young Filipina American girl who becomes trapped in an abusive relationship and willingly gives up her voice to a sea witch to escape. It was born from a moment when I decided to go surfing during a hurricane and nearly died.

If you’ve ever surfed, you know that for days before a hurricane hits, the storm will feed the ocean and create giant swells. Surfers flock to these swells, especially in Corpus Christi (the town where my book is set and where my own incident occurred) because that location does not generally get to enjoy such big waves. For years, I’d tell that terrifying tale of the moment the current changed directions, and I fought being swept out to sea or hitting the jagged jetty rocks. The biggest question I’m always asked is, why would you go surfing during a hurricane?

I’d wave a hand dismissively and say because I was seventeen and reckless, and that’s what teenagers do. Most people would accept that answer. But one day, during a master’s creative writing course, a professor did not.

“What really drove you to go out there?” she’d asked. “Explore that deeper.”

My stomach sank because I’d always known, but I’d never wanted to talk about it. I was afraid to open up about it because there was, and still is, a huge social stigma surrounding abuse victims.

At the time I’d chosen to go surfing during a hurricane, I was in a horrible place in my life because I was in a mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive relationship, and I didn’t know how to escape. For years, I’d been gaslit by my boyfriend into believing that he was the only one there for me until I’d truly had no one to turn to—or so I thought.

That’s the thing about gaslighting—a victim can be led over months or years into believing they will be alone if they say anything, that they are unworthy, that no one will understand or even believe them. The idea that family and friends will not be there for them is often not true, but victims believe this anyway because they were manipulated over a period of time. A victim’s power isn’t taken away all at once but slowly stripped over time.

My family and friends would have saved me had I been able to voice what was happening, but I’d been driven to a place of fear. I simply couldn’t because of years of erosion to my autonomy and support system.

Yet, it wasn’t just the gaslighting that kept me silent. The social stigma of “I would never let that happen to me” was strong. People who have never been abused can sometimes find it hard to understand how this might happen to someone because there is a subtly to gaslighting, and that is what When Oceans Rise attempts to shed light on.

There is a moment in my novel when Malaya still blames herself for everything that happened. Her mother helps her understand how she was manipulated by asking her if she would have stopped trusting her family if her boyfriend had just said to stop trusting them. The answer was a very eye-opening NO for Malaya because it unfolded the layers of power-stripping this guy had done to break her down. It’s accomplished with simple phrases that can even sound romantic, like when Malaya fights with her mother and her boyfriend makes her feel better, then adds, “Because I’m the only one who’s there for you.”

Why is this statement dangerous and a sign of gaslighting?

Because someone who loves you should want you to have an intricate support system made of family and friends who you can turn to in addition to being there for you. Nobody should ever want to be the only person you can trust. But most significantly, this is such a subtle statement an abuser can say, which seems like it’s full of good intentions but is meant to drive a wedge between a victim and the people they love. It is okay to disagree and fight with the ones you love. It is okay to seek comfort from other people. It is not okay to start distrusting someone because of another person’s influence unless they truly deserve the distrust. When someone says they are the “only one” you can trust, it plants the idea in your head that no one else will understand what you’re going through, and they have started to strip your power.

We don’t want to believe that teenagers do this to each other, but they do. It happened to me as a teenager. I’d seen it as a teacher, and I was horrified. Even as an adult, I was still learning that my situation was more common than I’d ever imagined. I wanted to write a story that helped people understand that they aren’t alone. I wanted to show people some ways that a victim becomes a victim so they can save themselves and save others. But I also wanted to dismantle the social stigma of abuse that results in victim blaming.

These people are not weaker because they ended up in this situation. These people shouldn’t be shamed because it might make them not want to speak out against their abuser. These people should be able to share their stories because it would reveal how common this type of abuse is and might prevent more situations like this in the future. These people are my people, and they need to be given a voice rather than shamed into silence.

Not long ago, an early reader gave me her reactions to my novel, When Oceans Rise, a few chapters at a time, and that ever-present stigma reared its ugly head when the words, “I totally blame Malaya,” came out of her mouth. Just as I’d feared, the stigma was still as strong today as it was when it happened to me. My stomach sank at this victim blaming, but probably not for the reasons you think. You see, she hadn’t gotten to chapters in which the character starts understanding gaslighting. She hadn’t caught the subtle ways that this character was manipulated and THAT’S what made my stomach sink. Because it’s that easy to miss the signs of gaslighting until it’s too late. I fear for her like I fear for a lot of people who are too sheltered from this topic, for that kind of shelter can lead to rough storms ahead.

I only hope that When Oceans Rise can shed light on how victim blaming only empowers abusers. I also hope that anyone in Malaya’s situation finds the strength to use their voice—to reach out to anyone they feel safe with, whether that be past support systems, teachers, parents, police, etc. If one doesn’t feel safe enough to contact people they know or authorities, they could also try calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

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