Thoughts on “Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence,” by Tanya Selvaratnam
Updated: Jun 5, 2021
I was so immersed in this book that It took me less than 24 hours to read, and I dog-eared so many pages it almost became useless to mark the pages I wanted to come back to. Sharing some of the things that particular struck me about this book seemed like a great place to start in writing my very first ever blog.
Ms. Selvaratnam writes about her experiences as a survivor of intimate abuse at the hands of her then partner, Eric Schneiderman, who was at the time the powerful and well-connected Attorney General of New York. During the time of their relationship, he was riding high as a democratic hero who was going to hold newly elected President Donald Trump accountable for his various shady dealings, and as a hero and champion of women and feminism.
Selvaratnam was herself immersed in a successful career as an author, filmmaker, and producer. The match seemed like a fairy tale, but gradually, Schneiderman engaged in a classic pattern of intimate partner violence that both pulled her in while simultaneously breaking her down. The liberal hero and women’s rights advocate he portrayed himself to be in public existed in stark contrast to the verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive person he eventually revealed himself to be in private. These are, unfortunately, common dynamics in those who perpetrate intimate partner abuse.
In this book, Selvaratnam reveals in excruciating detail the process by which she found herself daily surviving his abuses, and lays out how her experiences map onto those of countless survivors of intimate partner abuse worldwide. She also reveals how she marshalled the supports of friends, experts, and professionals to remove herself from the relationship, and to ensure that no other women entered into relationships with him unaware of his abusive patterns of behavior.
What follows are some of the things that led me to dog ear the pages of the library book I was reading (sorry librarians!).
Selvaratnam opens the book with a quote from When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams: “To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power.” I haven’t read Williams, but now I certainly want to. It struck me how much this quote reminded me of my favorite Margaret Atwood quote, from her “Spelling Poem,” which was a precursor to The Handmaid’s Tale: “A word after a word after a word is power.”
In both of these I see the idea that we can both gain and lose, take and give, power with our words, our voices. The idea that being literate, having the words and knowledge to describe things, a framework with which to understand things, having a voice gives us power….and the idea that others (those who oppress us, those who abuse us), can also attempt to control and exercise power over us by trying to take our words, our voice, our framework of understanding (hello, gaslighing!) away.
Also I see the idea that we can work to regain our power by sharing our words, our knowledge, our experiences with others. And that we can take power away from those who abuse us by exposing them with our words. By educating others not just about individual folks who abuse, but about what abuse looks like, and how to escape from it.
By reducing stigma with our words; saying “this is what it looks like,” and “this is more common than most of us know,” and “me too.” And that we can support and share our power with each other, fellow survivors, fellow women, fellow human beings, with our words.
Selvaratnam quotes Patricia Evans describing verbal abuse as “built into our culture” via commonly accepted features of our culture such as “one-upsmanship, defeating, putting down, topping, countering, manipulating, hard selling, and intimidating.” Evans describes a variety of “power plays” as common, and even desirable and rewarded, in our culture, and identifies them also as common features in abusive relationships, which the partner who is abusing often denies, in an attempt to gaslight their partner about the abuse.
I was so struck by how Evans described something I’ve often thought and felt, but never quite articulated. Verbal abuse is built into the fabric of our culture. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the ugly wallpaper in every room we’re in. It’s so much a part of us that it allows abusive behavior to hide in plain sight. We’re so comfortable with abusive behavior already that it makes it challenging to spot abusive behavior in relationships. We’ve made it normal. In looking up Patricia Evans, I’ve discovered that she has a website, Verbal Abuse Official Information Site – Renew Your Spirit, Reclaim Your Life., which I can’t wait to explore!
Another topic that has been on my mind lately was spelled out effectively and repeatedly in this book: The increasingly common attempts made by partners who abuse to conceal their abuse in the guise of consensual kink. Selvaratnam describes Schneiderman slapping her, spitting on her, penetrating her with his fingers while she slept, and forcing her to call him “Master” and “Daddy.” She described him calling her his “brown slave.”
This theme (hiding abuse in the guise of consensual kinky sexual behavior) has been increasingly common in my treatment groups with folks who have committed sexual offenses. As Selvaratnam repeatedly points out, perpetrating violence on, exercising power and control over, putting down, threatening, belittling your partner in a non-consensual way that is not agreed upon ahead of time and is not enjoyable for your partner is not kink. It’s abuse.
In recent discussions with other folks who do sex therapy, we’ve considered that an abuser can make it challenging and uncomfortable for folks who like to see themselves as sex-positive to confront them about their behavior, as we often fear being seen as judgmental of someone’s sexual interests, and we want to be seen as open-minded. Folks who attempt to hide their abuse this way are aware of, and are taking advantage of, that fact. They are also taking advantage of the general public’s limited knowledge of alternative sexual interests. The more we can shine a light on these shady abusive strategies, the better.
Awesomely, Selvaratnam notes that The Cut ran this article: Eric Schneiderman and Men Who Excuse Violence as ‘Kink’ (thecut.com), which does a marvelous job of calling out this type of BS behavior. She also notes that they ran an accompanying guide, “Here’s How Consent and BDSM Role-Play Actually Work,” citing sex educator Barbara Carrellas. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Gosh, I don’t know enough about this, check those out!” Also check out awesomely helpful websites for organizations like the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, and TASHRA.
Near the end of the book, Selvaratnam shares a list she wrote of the advice she wished she’d been given, and that she wanted to give to others who are being victimized. It strikes me as something that should be shared as widely as possible to connect with as many folks who needs this advice as possible, so here is a summary of that list:
Document what’s happening. Include dates and save correlating materials like emails and photos.
Tell people who you trust to keep your information private.
Figure out who you can talk with who will know what to do (friends, professionals, etc.)
Know that you’re not alone. Know that you’re not crazy.
It’s okay to feel traumatized, and there is no need to feel ashamed.
If your partner is not willing to acknowledge the problem and get professional help, they probably aren’t going to change. Get out.
Focus on yourself, and stop worry about caretaking your abuser.
You are the most important in all of this.
If you are reading this, and you need more information, or a safe person to talk to about what’s happening to you, here are some resources: