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Last summer, Jen Percy, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, came across a peculiar video of an opossum pretending to be dead. The animal was actually involuntarily paralyzed, in a state known as apparent death, a biological response in many animals most often initiated by a predatory attack.
I wonder if humans do that too, she thought.
A few weeks later, she read a victim statement by Jessica Mann, an actress who testified that Harvey Weinstein had raped her. In the statement, Ms. Mann described feeling “immobile.” Her description of the encounter sent Ms. Percy on a quest to understand those feelings of paralysis as they relate to the experiences of other victims of sexual assault.
Over the next year, she interviewed dozens of victims, investigators, biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists in an attempt to answer questions that nagged at her: Why would the human body sabotage its own defense system? Why aren’t police officers and prosecutors in America trained to recognize these common responses? And why don’t they know “freezing” can be an involuntary response by a victim of rape?
“It felt shocking that after the #MeToo movement we still hadn’t homed in on why these involuntary responses are happening to so many women or how they’re affecting sexual assault investigations,” said Ms. Percy, who wrote an article published Sunday in The New York Times Magazine about the involuntary nature of responses to sexual assault.
In an interview, she discussed how investigating the trauma of sexual assault compared with examining the psychological toll of war and how she cares for her own mental health while reporting. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
At what point did your reaction to the opossum video go from “That’s strange” to “That’s my next article?”
I was fascinated by the video because my mom is a naturalist and I grew up in rural Oregon, so I was always interested in animal behavior. But I didn’t feel like there could be a story, per se, until I found Jessica Mann’s victim impact statement from the Harvey Weinstein sentencing, in which she brought up tonic immobility, which is a response to a threat that leaves victims frozen or paralyzed. I started reading dozens of testimonies from victims who were raped and paid close attention to patterns in the language.
Where did you start your reporting?
I began by trying to figure out more about tonic immobility. I contacted shelters and people who were working with victims in the sexual assault field to ask if they knew of anyone who wanted to share their story. I interviewed a lawyer who told me she experienced tonic immobility after a violent rape, but didn’t know what happened to her until she started watching videos of animals playing dead.
How did you react when you realized that something women are often shamed for — not fighting back — was more often than not an involuntary response?
I felt sick to my stomach. It’s unfair that so many victims are going through terrible traumas but don’t have the language to describe it, necessarily, nor people to respond appropriately to their stories.
How did you build trust and encourage the women you interviewed to open up?
All the women I interviewed agreed to talk because they hoped that by talking they would help other victims. They really wanted the world to understand them. I sent them studies or talked about the science to ground their experience.
I have been interviewing trauma victims for quite some time. My previous reporting focused on soldiers and post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve learned some lessons while reporting on the ground in Iraq and talking to psychologists there about how to approach victims. It’s important to understand that their stories don’t always come out in chronological order. Not interrupting is really important.
How is your previous reporting similar to or different from investigating trauma caused by sexual assault?
In some ways, if you understand how the brain responds to a physical attack, it doesn’t matter whether it’s being shot in combat or having your car flipped over by a tornado — the brain responds in the same way. So although the context is very different, the way people were telling stories was the same, the sensitivities were the same, and the struggle to be believed, understood and treated well was the same.
How does this type of work affect you?
It’s incredibly taxing, but of course, I’m not the one in their situation, so I constantly feel privileged to hear their stories. The best advice I was given, by a psychologist in Iraq, was to try to be sympathetic but not overly empathetic.
You don’t want to try to imagine or relate to experiences — you want to leave a barrier, which is hard to do because you want to try to fully live in a person’s experience to understand and write about it well.