Christine Shearer-Cremean and Carol L. Winkelmann (Eds.), Survivor Rhetoric: Negotiations and Narrativity in Abused Women's Language.
Two recent books focus on the rhetorical and social contexts within which women give voice to their experiences of abuse. Together, they further our understanding of the various discourses that shape our thinking about abuse and survivorship. Survivor Rhetoric: Negotiations and Narrativity in Abused Women's Language, an anthology edited by Christine Shearer-Cremean and Carol L. Winkelmann, reveals how the discursive frameworks underlying psychotherapy, criminal justice, religion and other institutions, may function overtly or subtly to undermine the healing of abused women who are seeking to free themselves from painful and restrictive patterns of self-definition. The Language of Battered Women, a research monograph authored by Winkelmann demonstrates that despite the political nature of language, possibilities exist for women to move beyond these discursive constraints and construct more healing narratives.
Survivor Rhetoric includes essays by authors spanning a wide range of disciplinary affiliations: English, linguistics, American Studies, Women's Studies, sociology, and psychology. The anthology examines situated language use across a variety of contexts to reveal "the depth, breadth, and interlocking nature of cultural patterns that sustain the problem of violence against women" (4). In their introductory chapter, Shearer-Cremean and Winkelmann highlight pivotal problems in the study of survivor rhetoric. Issues of narrative credibility and agency are especially salient given that suffering women must make sense of their experience in terms of master stories and concepts that tend to be premised on men's dominant position in the culture. Each of the chapters invites readers to look self-critically at how their own assumptions and models may overgeneralize or otherwise delegitimize abused women's experiences.
The first essay, "Narrative, Gender, and Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse," by Elana Newman, centers on a basic premise underlying narrative therapy: the idea that successful coping with traumatic experiences depends on the survivor's ability to create a coherent personal narrative about those events. For survivors of child sexual abuse, this process of narrative sense-making may be hindered by cultural messages emphasizing women's culpability in the abuse. Thus Newman argues for the importance of integrating a gender perspective into narrative-based therapy with survivors. In "Speaking in Contradictions: Complex Agency of Battered Women Who Kill," Carrie N. Baker problematizes the diagnostic category of battered woman syndrome as a legal defense. According to Baker, the label "battered woman syndrome" imposes an overly narrow and totalizing subject position that prevents battered women from being seen as active, agentic, and appropriately resourceful in a dangerous situation, instead positioning them as mentally incapacitated and helpless. Batya Weinbaum's essay, "A Survivor Within a Culture of Survivors: Untangling the Language of Sexual Abuse in Oral History Narrative Collected in a Politically Violent Situation," analyzes the oral histories of women on the Israeli right, showing how the personal experience of violence is often conflated with the trauma of Jews surviving terrorist violence.
Like Baker's essay, the chapter by Cindy Holmes and Janice L. Ristock expresses resistance to the diagnostic descriptions put forth by experts. "Exploring Discursive Constructions of Lesbian Abuse: Looking Inside and Out," interrogates two significant yet overlooked expert discourses through which survivor identities are constructed: educational literature directed at lesbians experiencing same-sex domestic violence, and "backlash" books that seek to rebut feminist analyses of violence against women. Although reflective of different assumptions and agendas, both maintain an oppressive status quo that simplifies the problem of violence against women.
The next two essays take as analytic texts the published autobiographies of survivors. "Shattered Dreams: A Material Rhetorical Reading of Charlotte Fedders's Memoir of Domestic Abuse," by Cathy A. Colton analyzes a celebrity memoir, showing how religion-based narratives of the "good wife" provide the content for a belief system that rationalizes women's submission to battering. In "When the Daughter Tells Her Story: The Rhetorical Challenges of Disclosing Father-Daughter Incest," Brenda Daly analyzes the critical, often skeptical reception given to women's autobiographical accounts of father-daughter incest, particularly in the context of public debates over the reality of recovered (repressed) memories. The seventh essay, "The Epistemology of Police Science and the Silencing of Battered Women" critiques the objectifying language of reports constructed by police officers responding to domestic violence calls. Shearer-Cremean shows how, paradoxically, women may feel less empowered once police intervention is requested.
In "The Language of Healing: Generic Structure, Hybridization, and Meaning Shifts in the Recovery of Battered Women," Carol L. Winkelmann brings together ethnolinguistics and Bakhtin's dialogism to analyze the religious language of battered women living in a shelter in the Upper South. In this chapter and as expanded in her ethnography, The Language of Battered Women, Winkelmann shows how many shelter residents who have been raised in conservative religious traditions experience moments of transformational dialogue with other women, leading to new, more liberationist understandings of God, faith and suffering. Key to her position is the idea that the women exist within a complex polyvocality of secular and religious discourse genres in dynamic interplay. Both the book and chapter grew out of Winkelmann's participation over a nine-year period as a shelter volunteer.
The Language of Battered Women received the Outstanding Book Award for 2005 by the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender (OSCLG). Winkelmann's appreciative and long-term engagement with the shelter residents provided a unique vantage point for observing how women move and change one another through the use of language and storytelling. Commenting on the book, one OSCLG reviewer noted that "every qualitative researcher dreams for the moments that Winkelmann had with her participants." In documenting the ways in which particular faiths (here, fundamentalist and Holiness/Sanctified), class locations (under- or working-), and racial identities (African-American and white) differentially affect survivors' experiences, The Language of Battered Women reminds us that the homogenizing term, "battered women," may lead us to emphasize one dimension of experience at the expense of other relevant contexts and interpretations. The book holds invaluable insights, not only for academic researchers, but also for practitioners seeking to improve the quality of communication in shelters, advocacy groups, and other settings where survivors are enjoined in conversation.
Survivor Rhetoric: Negotiations and Narrativity in Abused Women's Language by Christine Shearer-Cremean and Carol L. Winkelmann is available from University of Toronto Press for $60, cloth; ISBN 0-8020-8973-9.
The Language of Battered Women by Carol L. Winkelmann is available from State University of New York Press for $29.95, paperback; ISBN 0-7914-5941.
Reviewer Jane Jorgenson is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of South Florida.
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|Publication:||Women and Language|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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