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  • Writer's pictureAlex Houseknecht

Choosing Embodiment (Part II)

This is the second of three posts on sexual abuse and embodiment. You can read the first post here.

Embodiment is the act of moving inward, into the context of the body. In order to better understand how and why this might be realized, embodiment can be conceptualized as the process of recovery. Herman (1992) conceptualizes recovery as a three stage process: (a) the establishment of safety, (b) remembrance and mourning, and (c) reconnection with ordinary life. Thus, embodiment is the act of moving inward, for the sake of moving back into relationships and into the world. In this sense, embodiment enfolds many aspects of healing, including gaining awareness of trauma, grieving, facing fear, and risking vulnerability with trusted others. Choice is a fundamental aspect of this process.

To fully understand the survivor’s ambivalence in choosing embodiment, we might imagine being cast in a play. There is a context to this event, in that the cast and audience know the structure in which they are jointly participating. This structure is the portrayal of fictional characters in a predetermined narrative, created by real human beings with stories that simultaneously transcend and are irrelevant to the drama. What would it be like turning to the audience in the middle of this performance and proclaiming that we are not, in reality, the character we are portraying in the drama? In the anticipation of doing this, what would we feel? Perhaps anxiety, shame, or dread.

To address the truth is to erupt from the established structure and consequently the expectations of this structure. Beyond this, it is important to remember that the perpetrator (director) is standing just off stage. This is the individual who has overseen the entire production, from conception to actualization. Perhaps we could imagine the terror, guilt, or shame that would be evoked in the anticipation of ‘betraying’ the abuser’s drama.

It is profoundly difficult for a survivor to choose embodiment. Through the perpetrator’s perverse strategy, the stage appears as the reality within which to search for the truth. However, the stage exists outside of the context of the survivor’s body, removed from their presence. They are cast only as an actor, searching for the truth of the perpetrator within his own perverse drama.

The significance of embodiment is revealed through the culminating statement: “I have been sexually abused.” This statement is profoundly meaningful because it ruptures the perverse drama. The survivor erupts from the stage and views the drama not from within its oppressive walls, but as an act that was perpetrated against them. The drama is then integrated into the context of the survivor’s body, in that its meaning shifts from the intricacies of the drama itself to its use as a weapon to violate the survivor’s body and spirit. The truth is exposed and the reality of betrayal is made evident. The survivor experiences the impact of abuse and their attention is turned toward the horror, rage, and grief of the betrayal.

We can now move into the revelations that emerge after this movement inward. Here we will begin to grasp the potential that is birthed within the life of the survivor, which will inherently point toward their capacity to participate in the fight for systemic justice.

*The third and final post in this series will be posted in two weeks.


Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence--from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, N.Y.: BasicBooks.

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