I must begin by clearly stating that my views do not represent the entire community of sexual assault survivors. In the past two weeks, I have reached out to over 15 fellow survivors and asked for their opinions. After Joe Biden’s statements yesterday, I reached out again to find that there are many different opinions still. This topic is multi-faceted and complicated, and it is up to each of us individually to make our own educated and compassionate conclusions.
First, we must believe survivors. We must believe survivors beyond our political affiliations, beyond our skepticism and beyond our fears. In believing survivors, we must commit to hearing their story, honoring their choice to share their story and not searching for reasons to undercut their integrity or bravery. This includes accepting that inconsistencies are common among trauma-impacted memories.
Second, we must continue to understand that each story is complicated and memory is not a completely reliable function. Two people can experience the exact same event and have vastly different memories of it. There are many environmental factors that cause individuals to perceive the world around them in dramatically different ways.
Third, we need to admit that humans can fail while also admitting that they can grow. And we need to hold our politicians, our idols, our friends and ourselves to this standard. When we are talking about events from the past in particular, we are capable and have a responsibility to ask for both lament and repentance.
So, what do we do with Joe Biden?
Before Joe Biden made public statements yesterday, I could not vote for him by my own ethical convictions as a survivor. I needed to hear from him directly in order to begin to evaluate if I find him trustworthy enough today for the office of the presidency.
After Joe Biden’s public statements yesterday, I am now in a place of reflection where I am left disappointed. In his statement published through Medium, he did a few things very well which I’m always looking for when the accused respond: he articulated the need to believe women, he expressed their right to be treated with dignity (even in this case) and he identified the correct authorities to investigate any claims.
What leaves me still disappointed is Biden’s very straightforward denial of the claims: “They aren’t true. This never happened.”
This disappoints me primarily because “it never happened” leaves no room for the very possible reality that Tara Reade did feel traumatized by something Biden did. There have been enough women speaking out about how uncomfortable Biden made them feel physically, that it is plausible his actions traumatized Tara Reade even if they didn’t happen in the exact manner she remembers.
Biden’s language in his MSNBC interview on Morning Joe is more of the kind of response that helps me gain confidence in someone accused of assault in their past. While he still used the “it never happened” statement, he also said “I don’t remember any type of complaint she may have made. It was 27 years ago. I don’t remember, nor does anyone else that I’m aware of. And the fact is that I don’t remember.”
The “I don’t remember” is what I’m looking for from someone accused of sexual assault who believes they were falsely accused for an event well in their past. If we’re talking about an event from yesterday, anyone should be able to say “I did not do that” in regard to a particularly violent or traumatizing abuse. When we’re discussing abuse that is decades old, and especially in a relationship that has a large power distance, “I did not do that” is less reliable.
So what information do I still need?
Some of the women I’ve talked to feel like Biden’s response has been appropriate and they feel comfortable voting for him in November. Others, like me, are still looking for a larger acceptance of responsibility. There are at least 7 women aside from Tara Reade who have spoken out about how uncomfortable Biden made them feel physically, and his response last year was “Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.”
While it is assuring to me that Biden intends to be more mindful about respecting personal space, it’s not quite an apology. He explained the intention behind his behavior and made a promise, which is much of what I’m looking for, but he didn’t admit wrongdoing.
And that’s the issue: whether or not we remember our actions the way others perceive them, we need leaders who are ready to accept fully the weight of how their actions are perceived and how their actions impact others. In the case of Tara Reade, I need to know that he laments that there was ever any reason for her to feel unsafe, even if it wasn’t his intention or he doesn’t remember doing so.
Taking responsibility is also one criticism I’ve had with Trump throughout his presidency. It would be hypocritical of me to not expect the same of Biden.
M. J. is an author, coach and sexual assault survivor. She works in the non-profit world, is a crossover voter and an avid reader. A self-described “pragmatic visionary”, M.J. is both a data fiend and a dreamer.