In Light of the Junot Díaz Essay, What About the Women Who Have Loved Male Survivors?

I'm one of them

Junot Díaz Abuse: Writer Gwen Benaway standing against a brick wall.

Earlier this week, writer Junot Díaz published a personal essay in the New Yorker that disclosed a secret he has been carrying since childhood—that he was sexually assaulted twice at the age of eight. In his essay, Díaz describes how the impact of his trauma caused him to wear a mask throughout his life, preventing him for being faithful to his partners and unable to feel comfortable with intimacy. As posts about the story flooded my Twitter feed, I immediately read it and retweeted the link. But as I watched the reactions to the essay pour in, I felt a quiet discomfort that grew as the day went on. Something felt wrong here, even if I didn’t have the words to say what it was. I reread the essay, now focusing on the long list of women Diaz cites, marked only by their capitalized first initials. When I reached the point in Díaz’s essay where he recounts how his former fiancé finally called him out on his behaviour before leaving him, I felt a familiar hurt in my chest.

Then I remembered the moment when my ex disclosed his rape to me. I was 400 miles away from him at the time, at a writing retreat in the mountains. He sent me a casual email with a Word doc of poems attached. I left the workshop I was in and went outside to sit in the sun. I opened the document and started reading. The first poem was titled, “To the Man Who Raped Me.” My heart stopped for a moment and then restarted in a sudden lurch that made me want to vomit. My ex was abusive, and I knew he had abused other female partners in the past. Finally, with his disclosure, I had a small glimmer of why.

That memory also explains why I was so triggered when I first read Díaz’s essay. When he writes about his fiancé, he says, “and because I ‘loved’ her more than I had ever loved anyone… I cheated on her more than I had ever cheated on anyone.” Reading that line, I instantly flashed back to my ex saying almost the exact same words to me. As a survivor myself, I have profound empathy for Díaz’s honesty as well as the difficulties of trusting someone when you’ve been violated yourself. But I also can’t help but empathize with the women he hurt along the way.

I have been that woman, the one who falls in love with a man who is also a survivor. Díaz writes that a few months after confronting him, his former fiancé, “got her head together and kicked [him] out of her life completely.” What he doesn’t write about are the conversations she must have tried to have with him first about the ways he’d broken her trust. For many women in relationships with male survivors, our role is often to be caretakers, second mothers and a healing body. Sometimes, as in my case, that includes becoming an object for their abuse as they re-enact and externalize the trauma of their lives onto our bodies.

Men don’t need to disclose their trauma for their partners to be affected

When my ex disclosed his rape to me in graphic detail in his poem, I didn’t know what to do or say back. But I wasn’t surprised—I knew he was also a survivor, even though we’d never discussed it before. I could feel the after-effects of intimate violence whenever we touched. The women in Díaz’s essay must have had similar experiences—it’s just not possible to repeatedly be intimate with a survivor and not feel the echo of their trauma.

For racialized women, the dynamics of loving a male survivor are even more charged. Racialized women are often expected to be nurturing and overly generous with men—while also being fetishized for our ethnicity or skin colour, We are frequently treated as disposable and hyper-sexualized by mainstream media—and we collectively have the highest rates of domestic violence, murder and sexual assault, especially those of us who are Indigenous, Black or trans. So, when Díaz recounts his childhood sexual assaults while also describing how he’s harmed racialized women, we must pay attention. I’m not directly equating Díaz’s actions with my abusive partner, but what he’s disclosed in the essay—cheating on multiple partners, breaking up with them without warning, not explaining or being in contact with them after—was clearly harmful to his partners and likely had a lasting impact.

I tried to leave my ex four times before I finally walked out of his life. Each time, I confronted him over his patterns of abuse with me and asked him to seek help. And when I went back, it was because he apologized, said he was seeking help and told me how grateful he was for my love. Like Díaz, he narrated his behaviour as a reflection of his childhood trauma and struggles with depression. While I believe my ex was sincere in examining his own trauma, his willingness to be reflective or change his actions stopped where my body started. My ex isn’t Díaz and we should be careful about judging all men by our past experiences of harm, but stories like mine about male partners are a common thread for most women I know.

Accountability is important—but complicated

For many male survivors, particularly racialized men who bear the weight of racial oppression and toxic masculinity, accountability is difficult because they often are both victims and abusers. While Díaz deeply examines the impact of his trauma on him, the women in his essay are barely visible. Their initials are dehumanized sign posts in the road of Díaz’s own journey towards himself. When his ex-fiancé confronted him and finally walked out of his life, did she know about the details contained in this essay? Did she realize that her life and pain would one day be reduced into a single capitalized initial inside an essay that countless thousands of people would read?

I don’t know the answers. It’s possible that Díaz did the work of being accountable to her and his other partners, but the essay itself doesn’t raise the idea of accountability for past harms. It doesn’t tell us how Díaz has unlearned his trauma or why he considers his current relationship a success. Since masculinity, particularly racialized masculinity intersected with trauma, is rarely talked about, those insights from Díaz would have been very valuable. We can’t expect survivors to have perfect narratives or to be fully healed, but we can ask them to be accountable to the ways their trauma has led them to hurt others.

That’s why, as important and meaningful as Díaz’s essay is, it only does half of the work of disclosure. I hope Díaz is finding the response to his essay healing and that speaking out publicly is enabling him to work through the traumas he carries. I also hope that the women who may have been harmed by loving him have been able to be heard, affirmed and cared for to the same degree as he has been.

Often, disclosure places the burden on women

With great care and empathy for Díaz and his experiences, I want to remind you of a truth that I know from my own life: Women, especially racialized women, disproportionately carry the impacts of sexual violence and abuse. We speak out at great peril to our lives and well-being. Often, we care for men who hurt us. We do that work in part because it’s expected of us, but also because we love them and see the ways they’ve also experienced harm. And our love and hurt doesn’t stop when we leave; it continues for years afterwards, shaping all of our intimacies and desires.

Unlike Díaz, we don’t often get essays in international media platforms to discuss their abuse. We live with it for years in silence. When we do speak out, like I finally did, we rarely get justice or even acknowledgement of our harm. Women who’ve been harmed by intimate partners deserve to be more than an initial in an essay detailing how a man found his way back into healing. While we can applaud Díaz for speaking out and working to heal from his traumas, we should also ask some questions about his efforts to be accountable to the women whose lives he changed.

After all, if Díaz is truly committed to work of healing from his past, these are questions and conversations that he should welcome.

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