Marvel’s Jessica Jones Helped me Rewrite Traumatic Memories for the Better
“Stepping into the form of the women who, in my imagination, protect me, is a bodily reminder that I can protect myself”
image Jessica Jones (via IMBD)
words Rosie Price
Trigger Warning: This piece contains references to sexual violence
These days, when I think about the night I was raped, there are multiple endings to the same story. There’s a version where the bedroom door is broken down just before I am harmed; another where a car drives straight through the wall and I am scooped up out of the rubble and brick, driven to a place of safety. Here, there is a bed piled high with blankets, there are loving, familiar faces, warm hands holding mine.
My rescuers are usually women. Family, friends – my fiercest protectors. But there are also fictional characters. These, I have taken from the screen, inserted retrospectively into the memory of the most difficult night of my life. For a while, there was Elizabeth Jennings, the KGB sleeper spy on HBO's The Americans. Later, DI Catherine Cawood from the BBC series Happy Valley. My favourite, though, has always been Jessica Jones. A rape survivor with superhuman strength, Jessica Jones is a part of the Marvel Universe, a superhero in recovery with a drinking problem and post-traumatic stress. When we meet Jessica, she is a private investigator who sleeps in her leather jacket and lace-up boots on the floor of her Hell’s Kitchen office, wakes with a hangover to scale buildings, fight villains, lift cars from small children.
Jessica, when she arrives on the night of my rape, doesn’t need a car to break down the walls of that room. For her, demolition is effortless – a well-placed jab and a roundhouse kick are enough to send cracks through brickwork; a crowbar, maybe, for added efficiency. And as soon as she’s there, standing at the threshold, as soon as that darkened bedroom is flooded with light, for me, it’s over. I am safe. I am saved.
The story didn’t always end this way. Aged 23, I suffered acutely from the symptoms of delayed post-traumatic stress. As is the case for many rape survivors, I was afflicted by the memory of my assault, which would be triggered by a colour, a sound, a smell. My pupils would dilate, my breath would shorten, and – regardless of where I was, what I was doing, how safe I’d felt just moments before – my body would freeze, just as it had that night years earlier.
I became depressed, anxious. I was having daily panic attacks. I was signed off work and I stopped socialising. I changed the way I dressed, stopped wearing make-up so as not to attract attention. Getting on the underground, being trapped in a confined space, was out of the question. I was lucky to have friends, family, a partner who picked me up, persuaded me to go to the doctor, to take medication, to stop drinking and start exercising, and, I think most importantly, to see a therapist who specialised in EMDR.
EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, is a specialised trauma therapy that helps to process and integrate fragmented memories lodged in the hippocampus. EMDR looks, from the outside, something like hypnotism. A session typically begins with the patient describing the intrusive thoughts and memories she is struggling with. Those memories and the accompanying thoughts are then placed at a distance, viewed as if they are scenery flashing by on a train, or as the image in a grainy, distant photograph. Then, the therapist holds up her hand, and the patient watches the hand move from side to side. Every thirty seconds or so, the therapist pauses, lowers her hand, asks the patient to describe what she is thinking, what she feels, how the memory has changed and what it has conjured.
The first few times I completed an EMDR session, I would walk home from my therapist’s office as though through treacle. I would sleep for the rest of the afternoon, and at night I would dream vividly of my assault. The next day I would wake as if with iron on my chest. These symptoms, colloquially known as an EMDR hangover, would last for a couple of days. I would have EMDR on a Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday would be a write-off. But then, by Friday, without fail, I would wake feeling lighter, more hopeful, less despairing. Somehow, the EMDR was working.
The brain, like any organism, favours the neural pathways that are familiar to it. So, if a person believes they are to blame for being raped, or that they are broken because of it, that they are not safe in the world and will never be safe again, then the brain is all too comfortable in reaffirming these beliefs. Lisa Grande, counsellor and EMDR therapist, explains: ‘EMDR Therapy works by shifting feelings stored in the nervous system and rewriting neural networks. During the session distressing thoughts and feelings are held together with more adaptive, positive thoughts and feelings which, in time, can overwrite the narratives that have taken root as a result of trauma.’
One extremely effective tool for remapping these pathways is by introducing into the memory an intervention from an external figure, who, as Grande explains, ‘embodies characteristics – strength, bravery, compassion – that a person may have needed at the time they were traumatised, but did not have access to in that moment.’ Grande calls these figures ‘positive resources’, and they can be fictional or historical characters, real people. Sometimes, she tells me, even animals. ‘Aslan [The Chronicles of Narnia],’ she says, ‘he comes up a lot.’
For me, it was Jessica Jones who became a regular fixture. Her function was to override the debilitating belief I had developed: The world is not safe; I am not safe. That night I had been alone, nobody had come to save me. I had begun to believe that I was not deserving of safety or protection. But with Jessica there, battering down that locked door or, simply, the exterior wall with her fists, pinning the man who was about to attack me to the wall with one hand – I’ll admit, sometimes, it got violent – those beliefs began to soften. The associations loosened. In time, eventually, I began to feel safe.
Rewriting stories, particularly for rape survivors, is so powerful because it restores the agency that was denied us during our assault. But something I’ve learned from EMDR is that rewriting memory and telling stories doesn’t have to involve writing, or even speech. There’s a small practice I still do with my therapist at the end of a session, in which she asks me to describe how it would feel to be in the body of one of those characters: Catherine Cawood, Elizabeth Jennings, Jessica Jones.
This practice does not require you to undertake EMDR Therapy, and it is not exclusively for trauma survivors. Truly, it is for any person – and I’d hazard that this includes just about everybody – who has at some point felt unsafe in the world. It requires, simply, the conjuring of a person, fictional or otherwise, who fills you with a feeling of safety, and of strength. How would you be standing? What would your posture be? Where would your hands be? How would you breathe? How would you feel? How would you look at the world, and how would it look back at you?
Stepping into the form of the women who, in my imagination, protect me, is a bodily reminder that I can protect myself. For the most part, I am safe. I can move safely through the world. And, these days, if ever I require an EMDR session (it’s rare), the woman I conjure, who comes to rescue me, is not Jessica Jones – but me, and the person I am now.