One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, by Karyn L. Freedman

Lynne Segal on an analytic philosopher’s first-hand account of sexual violence and its aftermath

May 22, 2014

I knew I would not find this an easy book to read or review, as it is the story of a brutal rape and its consequences. Any process of “coming out” is likely to be challenging; otherwise it would not be necessary. Nevertheless, once one is “out” and publicly embracing a new identity, it usually means there is something to celebrate, or that at least there are others with whom to celebrate. Not so, however, if like Karyn Freedman you are coming out as a rape survivor, asserting an identity you would never wish upon others.

One Hour in Paris begins with a description of Freedman’s brutal rape, at knifepoint, by a complete stranger. She was visiting a place that should have been entirely safe, the residence of an eminent Canadian academic with whom her ex-boyfriend was staying, when she passed through Paris at the end of a European holiday in the summer of 1990. The attack, by a young man named Robert who was staying in the flat, was physically damaging and utterly harrowing for this formerly carefree and confident 22-year-old Canadian student. Worse, its effects remained incapacitating for well over a decade, until Freedman began a prolonged process of therapeutic treatment and rehabilitation.

Freedman is astute on the dangers of extending, and hence diluting, the use of the term post-traumatic stress disorder

Freedman is an analytic philosopher, and this book is written in pellucid, but largely unadorned and somewhat flat prose: “It was at this point that it hit me like a truck that this man was not presently rational and that I was entirely at his mercy…It registered then that Robert was intending to rape and kill me, and that there was nothing that I could do to stop him.” However, reading this memoir, I was sometimes left disconcertingly swinging between the personal and the academic: why such a hazy description of Robert? (of whom we learn only that he has previous criminal convictions); why not a fuller description of psychoanalytic work on trauma, apparently jettisoned to accommodate more fashionable neurobiological accounts?

Nevertheless, as Freedman says she has three goals in writing this book, it is possible to consider how convincingly she realises them. The memoir is written first of all to assist her own healing and self-recovery; second, to share what she has uncovered about post-traumatic stress and how to deal with it; and finally, to reaffirm the feminist understanding that rape and its consequences are rooted in structural inequalities of gender that are still in urgent need of addressing.

The book’s first half is a detailed description of the rape, as well as of the silence and shame that Freedman lived with for the following decade, trying and failing to leave the event behind her. Ten years later she is still having panic attacks and finds it hard to travel alone, and new sexual relationships trigger flashbacks that leave her feeling unsafe and barely able to breathe. She avoids mentioning her rape to friends or lovers, refusing to see herself as a victim and knowing that, rationally, she is no longer in danger.

But Freedman’s recovery cannot begin, she finally realises, until she overcomes her refusal to accept that her former ways of being in the world, as well as her body and sexuality, have been lastingly damaged by the attack.

Only then does she start to heal via somatically based therapy, a process in which she is encouraged to relive the attack over and over again, but in the safest possible setting, with a supportive therapist beside her. In these sessions, which stretch over many years, she acts out different responses to the attack, training her body to feel less vulnerable so that the neurobiological damage produced by a terrorising event in which she had been unable either to fight or to flee, can be dismantled. That therapy, combined with coming out as a rape survivor, travelling to Botswana to join a workshop with African women and child rape survivors, and then completing this book, are all key stages in her recovery. By the book’s close, almost two decades after the attack, Freedman is in a stable, happy relationship and believes the work she has done in therapy has allowed her “to move beyond the place of trauma” and reinvent herself as a fortunate person. There is no reason to doubt that the book has indeed been part of her healing, and hence could serve as some sort of guide for others.

In my view, One Hour in Paris is only partially successful in achieving its second and third goals. Freedman’s short history of post-traumatic stress disorder is satisfactory, if sketchy and familiar. She rightly traces its origins back to late 19th-century work by Jean-Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud on the impact of psychological trauma, and mentions briefly the controversy around “shell shock” in the 1920s. More interestingly, she highlights the politically charged nature of discussions of the disorder in the early 1970s, with the medical profession acknowledging its existence only in the wake of efforts by activists to highlight the therapeutic and social needs of Vietnam War veterans damaged by the stress of combat.

Freedman is also astute on the dangers of extending, and hence diluting, the use of the term post-traumatic stress disorder, as when it is used to describe witnessing the suffering of others, be it professionally, personally or even from seeing horrific news reports. However, I find her (currently fashionable) recourse to neuroscience as providing the raw facts of the disorder less convincing. She writes that neurobiology clarifies exactly what happens for those trapped in stressful situations: “The result of this is a physiological disruption; our circuits go awry and our neurological systems…misfire and become maladapted.” While I do not doubt that numbing and hyperarousal are likely consequences of traumatic experiences, the discourse of “misfiring neural connections”, “biological systems getting jammed” and the like, merely provide a new set of metaphors for describing the effects of stress, rather than revealing, as Freedman sees it, the concrete truth of biological data (even if they can be made to correlate with synaptic arousal patterns). It is her belief in “neurobiological damage” that leads her to suggest that somatic therapy, rather than “talking cures”, is likely to prove more effective in dealing with trauma. But while this approach worked for her, again I see no evidence here to suggest that other forms of therapy could not be equally effective.

Finally, Freedman is clear that rape is best seen as an endemic political issue, not merely a personal one, given the universality of men’s violence against women and children. My only quibble is that although this is true – and much of the discourse of contemporary feminism prioritises precisely these realities of such gender violence and attributes it to structures of male dominance – her book does not throw any fresh light on how best to understand or tackle it. There is, for instance, no mention of systemic power structures other than gender, or to the possible imbrication of class or “race” in interpersonal violence, let alone any recognition that men too are raped, in considerable numbers, by other men. The institutions that foster the sorts of masculinity that tolerate or encourage rape are not addressed here, nor does Freedman tackle when, where or why sexual violence is most likely to occur. But this takes us into fierce controversies she perhaps understandably chooses not to tackle. I am sure that survivors of sexual violence, and those working with them, will find this a useful and insightful book.

The author

Karyn Freedman is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario, but she retains a great fondness for Winnipeg, where she was born.

Her native city “is not exactly in the middle of nowhere, but when you live there it can sure feel that way. It is freezing in the winter, and the winters are long. It is mosquito-ridden in the summers, which are not long enough. And if you blink, you might miss spring and fall. And yet Winnipeg is a beautiful place. It has the most expansive prairie sky and a brilliant sun that reflects blindingly off the snow throughout the winter.

“Winnipeggers love their city, and for good reason. It is a special place, and it breeds an arts and culture scene like no other in Canada. It also has had the honour of being named the Slurpee capital of the world for the past 14 years. I attribute all of my characteristics (can a fondness for frozen flavoured drinks be considered a characteristic?) and habits of mind to this one great city.”

Freedman moved to Toronto in 1996 to start her doctoral studies, and has remained there since. “I currently live with my partner Bruce Lynn in the downtown west end of the city. We bought a house together in 2007, and have been renovating it ever since. Bruce is a furniture maker, so although it has taken us a while, the house is now looking pretty good.”

The most charming thing about Ontario’s capital city, says Freedman, “is that it is a city of neighbourhoods, each one with its own character, restaurants, shops and demographic. It is a welcoming city and an easily liveable one.” Its greatest annoyance, she adds, is the city’s perennially woeful National Hockey League team, “the Toronto Maple Leafs. They became my team when I moved here in 1996, the same year the Jets left Winnipeg for Phoenix (more on that below). It was either the Leafs or the Phoenix Coyotes, and there was no way I was going to root for the Coyotes. It was a painful 15 years as a Leafs fan, each season more disappointing than the last. The minute Winnipeg got its team back in 2011, I jumped ship.”

Freedman grew up in a household where the life of the mind was valued. “My parents are progressive people, intellectually and culturally engaged. They both had successful professional careers, and they taught their children, by example, the value of critical engagement, hard work and the importance of education.

“We grew up in a household full of books, and although I was an avid reader as a kid, my two sisters took to schooling much better than I did. They both excelled at it, from elementary school on up. I, on the other hand, came close to failing high school (again, see below). But I hit my stride in university; finally, the lessons I absorbed in my youth kicked in.”

But her interest in philosophy took some time to develop, and came via a circuitous route. “In my final year of high school I helped put on a fashion show, for a couple of extra credits. The success of that show convinced me that I had a future in the fashion industry, which is how I ended up at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. I wouldn’t trade my two years there for anything, but almost as soon as I arrived I figured out that a career in fashion was not for me,” Freedman recalls.

“It was during my time in New York that I became interested in philosophy. I took my first philosophy course at FIT. I also helped start up the school’s first philosophy club, which had precisely one other member. It was a lot of fun. I have a distinct memory of the first time I read Quine, and also of the first time I read Richard Rorty - I was unhinged by the power of their ideas. I also remember the first time I read Aristotle. Although I understood that he was an important philosopher, I could not see past the sexism, classism and racism. I still kind of can’t.”

Of the philosophical traditions that influenced her as a student, Freedman says: “I did my undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, and I minored in women’s studies. It was near the end of my degree when the two finally came together for me, in the form of feminist philosophy, and it was an ‘aha!’ moment.

“My philosophical research interests are primarily epistemological, but my philosophical orientation is distinctly feminist. I have been influenced by the work of many feminist philosophers and theorists - Martha Nussbaum, Virginia Held, bell hooks, Iris Marion Young and Helen Longino, to name a few. But my development as an epistemologist was shaped most by the pioneering work of the feminist epistemologist (and fellow Canadian) Lorraine Code. More recently, I have been gripped by the British philosopher Miranda Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice.”

Freedman is a member of the University of Guelph’s Feminist Philosophy Research Group. She observes: “It is true that philosophy remains overwhelmingly male-dominated, in stark contrast to other fields in the arts and humanities in which women have achieved near (or above) parity with men. This is a real problem for our discipline and one that has recently received a lot of attention. It demands an explanation and a solution.

“The best explanations that I have heard point to multiple factors (see, for instance, Louise Antony’s eloquently argued “Different Voices or Perfect Storm: Why Are There So Few Women in Philosophy?”). As for solutions, well, the good news is that philosophers are taking this problem seriously. And blogs such as Feminist Philosophers and What is it like to be a Woman in Philosophy? are helping to expose the systemic discrimination in our discipline, which, at the very least, is a starting point for change.

“This disciplinary problem has no geographical boundaries, but I am fortunate, at the University of Guelph, to be a member of a department that is free from any such issues and that maintains an inclusive, supportive and welcoming climate for women in philosophy. We also have an unusually high proportion of academic faculty (seven out of 17) who do feminist philosophy. We formed the Feminist Philosophy Research Group to showcase the strength and depth of feminist scholarship on offer in our department.” 

Of the undergraduates Freedman teaches, she says, “two-thirds are coming to philosophy for the first time, but I don’t see this as an obstacle, either for them, qua students (and future philosophers), or for me, pedagogically. Undergraduate students, at least the ones that I have had the pleasure to teach, are curious and open-minded. They are interested in the kinds of questions philosophers ask, and willing to take a critical approach to thinking through possible answers to them.”

Universities have long been seen as places where progressive ideas hold sway and gender equality is, if not fully achieved, at least a topic of interest and concern. However, recent campaigns such as @EverydaySexism in the UK have highlighted concerns about the existence - and the rise - of “rape culture” and sexual harassment of women on campus.

Asked for her views on the current climate at her own institution and in the sector generally, Freedman responds: “What we know is that there is an epidemic of rape on university and college campuses, in Canada, the US, the UK and elsewhere. Statistics tell us that 1 out of 4 or 5 women on campus will be subject to sexual violence.

“We also know that no university is immune to this problem - not even progressive universities such as Guelph. Indeed, as a recently released US Department of Education report tells us, 55 universities in the US - including Harvard, Princeton, Emory and Tufts - are currently under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints. It seems evident that university administrators have failed to prioritise this problem. Clearly we have to rethink the way that universities deal with sexual violence on campus, but hopefully the Obama administration’s current initiative, which in January 2014, established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, will help to spark a shift in the right direction.”

Returning to the matter of her favourite sport and her native Winnipeg regaining a National Hockey League team after many years without one, Freedman says: “The return of the Jets to Winnipeg in 2011 has been a constant source of joy. Once again I have a team that I can proudly call my own. And while it is true that their first few seasons were far from stellar, I expect that to change under the direction of their new coach, Paul Maurice. They have some great young players, with Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele, and the rest of the team seems to be starting to gel. I have high hopes for them.”

The fact that there are now more outlets for her love of hockey than simply supporting a professional men’s team attests to how much the sport has changed in terms of opportunities for women. Freedman not only plays the game herself, but has had the pleasure of seeing women’s hockey become an Olympic sport.

“I started playing hockey a decade ago, when I was in my mid-30s. I now play three games a week, and there is almost nothing that I enjoy more. Girls did not play hockey when I was a kid, although I did play one year of ringette [a tamer version of the sport intended as a ladylike version for girls and women]. But these days it is a different story. Women’s hockey has taken off, at least in Canada, the US and Europe.”

Freedman continues: “The Canadian women’s Olympic gold medal hockey game at Sochi was one of the best games of hockey that I have ever seen. And the success of our women’s national team, Olympics after Olympics, has inspired young girls all over Canada. Sometimes I will arrive early at the rink for a game, and there will be a bunch of 8-year-old girls on the ice who are already much better hockey players than I could ever hope to be. It is a beautiful thing to see.”

Karen Shook

One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery

By Karyn L. Freedman
University of Chicago Press, 208pp, £14.00
ISBN 9780226073705 and 6117607 (e-book)
Published 19 May 2014

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