I was home sick from work when I first began riding shotgun with detectives Olivia Benson, Elliot Stabler and Odafin Tutuola—three of the main characters on NBC’s long-running TV crime drama “Law & Order: SVU.” Partners Benson and Stabler proved capable tour guides as we navigated through New York City’s tragic underbelly, with its revolving door of sex workers and rape victims. As it turned out, however, that Netflix binge would end up revealing much more about my own history of trauma than it did about the characters on the screen.
Days later, my newfound obsession showed no signs of waning. I had to know who “Liv” and “El” would save next. “Just one episode more,” I told myself, like one of Tutuola’s drug-addicted confidential informants. Who cared that it was nearing 2am?
The victims riveted me. As I watched Olivia gently pushed back the hair falling into the face of a crying rape victim, I felt tears well in my own eyes. Detective Benson always knew what to do, sometimes squeezing victims’ shoulders in a soft, supportive gesture, while of course remaining respectful of their boundaries. It was odd, watching these interactions while knowing I’d never let someone try to comfort me that way. Although I consider myself a fairly well-adjusted person, I prefer to keep certain feelings safely on the periphery of my consciousness. It’s as if they’re on the other side of a glass door, and I can’t let them in.
I was carrying my cat across the dead, sharp grass that separated my house from my neighbor’s on the August morning that I first met the man who would molest me.
“Is that all you have to play with?” he asked, gesturing at the cat. “Don’t you have any toys?” I had plenty of toys, but was too shy to answer. Holding up a finger, he told me to wait until he returned. He reappeared with his arms filled with cheap plastic boy toys in garish reds and yellows. I accepted the gifts wordlessly from this man, who would later use his status as a family friend and sometime babysitter to abuse me.
Growing up as the survivor of abuse, weird flashes of memory color your perception of the world without you realizing it. For many years, I thought the way my molester smelled was just the way all men smelled. Later I realized I was actually remembering the scent of the alcohol and sweat that seemed to always be seeping from his pores.
When I resisted his abuse, he called me spoiled. He also told my mother he was “concerned” that I’d been lying a lot—which confused her, because I didn’t lie—to plant seeds of doubt in case I ever ratted him out.
But I didn’t. The only person I ever told was my best friend, six years old and just as scared and confused as I was.
As the lie continued on, I dissociated from my childhood trauma. As a teen, I laughed at jokes such as, “What’s a virgin in West Virginia?” “Ten-year-old kin run real fast” and felt no sting of familiarity. Even when I did start talking about my abuse, many years later, it was from a place of abstraction. It wasn’t until recently that a therapist forced me to consider the numbness that had taken over that part of me.
Fast forward to my “SVU” Netflix binge, and I began to wonder why it was so much easier for me to cry for the fake victims on the show than for myself. I was watching “SVU” not only in a snarky, guilty-pleasure kind of way, but also as a sort of cultural anthropologist. I categorized and filed away the ways in which the fictional victims dealt with their traumas. How many sexual abuse victims became successful later? How many suffered from debilitatingly low self-esteem? How many abused drugs and alcohol, seemed stuck in abusive relationships or became prostitutes? After a while, I realized that the show was more than a source of entertainment. It was actually helping me feel things—if not for myself, at least for a kind of avatar stand-in.
While it may seem odd to take cues from a show that has been criticized for its not-always-accurate depictions of abuse, it turns out that I’m not the only one who has been able to seek catharsis via entertainment.
“It can feel safer and more approachable to feel for someone else rather than to connect with your own emotions,” Holly Parker, a psychotherapist at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, tells Quartz.
Indeed, a 2015 study conducted by researchers at Mississippi State University of college freshmen found that exposure to the “Law & Order” franchise in particular had a positive impact on viewers’ attitudes about rape culture. Subjects who told researchers that they watched the show appeared to have a better understanding about issues of consent and were less likely to blame victims for their own assaults.
Meanwhile, the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” has lead to at least 17 new members joining a Boston-area support group Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, according to a story in the Boston Globe. The film told the true story of how journalists helped uncover Catholic priests’ widespread abuse of children in the Boston area. Similarly, two 2002 Irish TV shows dealing with sex abuse by clergy members are thought to have contributed to an 18% increase in the number of rapes reported to a Dublin rape crisis hotline that year.
“For people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, it can be a part of their past that’s shrouded in shame and secrecy,” Parker tells Quartz. “So for a show to openly portray a character who has had this experience, that reflects a social acknowledgement that abuse happens to others, and that the person watching it is not alone.”
It can also be cathartic, as it was for me, just to see cases of abuse taken seriously. That the events mattered and merited acknowledgment was comforting in itself, especially for someone who never received resolution in real life.
Of course, my experience is not universal. Media portrayals of sex abuse may have the opposite effect for other victims, with devastating emotional consequences.
“Movies or TV programs that show children being sexually abused and not protected won’t be as satisfying an outcome for many people and might even create more fodder for anger, avoidance or retraumatization,” Robin Deutsch, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center of Excellence for Children, Families and the Law at William James College, tells Quartz.
Still, for those of us who have trouble confronting feelings about our abuse, TV shows such as “SVU” can be “an illuminating lens through which people who have been abused can come to understand their experience better,” Parker says. “And if the character both struggles and is able to successfully reach out for help and go on to recover, then the storyline offers a powerful window of hope. “
Early in the second season, (paywall) in an episode unsubtly titled “Closure,” actress Tracy Pollan plays a woman named Harper Anderson, who became so traumatized after rape that she went to bed wearing running shoes for months. When confronted by Olivia, however, Harper denies that her assault still affects her. “I lit the candle, I did the therapy, did the yoga—I’m over it!” Harper insists.
Speaking calmly but authoritatively, Olivia replies that in reality, closure isn’t about forgetting about the past. Indeed, abuse can have a profound impact that may never go totally away—something I’ve recently started to acknowledge as well. With the help of a therapist and my TV trauma cohorts, I’m now better able to face feelings I kept buried for years and have learned while that those experiences helped shape who I am, they don’t have to cripple me. The glass door is sliding open, slowly.