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Feeling the Fleshed Body

The Aftermath of Childhood Rape

Brenda Downing

In 1971, on two separate occasions, Brenda Downing was raped. She was in her final year of primary school. In the immediate aftermath, the shame she harboured, coupled with a failed disclosure the same year, meant she did not risk talking of her experience again until almost thirty years later and did not begin to address the trauma, held frozen in her body, for a further ten years.
In this book, she not only explores her long-term somatic response to the trauma of rape, but also examines the bodily responses of nine other women raped in childhood. Using a combination of somatic inquiry, writing and performance-making, her pioneering reflexive and embodied methodology reveals the raped body as agentic and subversive, with the capacity to express trauma through symptoms not always readily recognized or understood. Her findings have significant implications for the care and treatment of rape victims, for further research into the multiple impacts of sexual trauma, and for materialist knowledge-making practices.


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The moment when a feeling enters the body is political. This touch is political. — Adrienne Rich In the summer and spring of my final year of primary school, I was twice raped. I was on the cusp of adolescence. It was 1971, the year I turned twelve. These rapes both took place at night at the home of a school friend. The first time it happened I thought I was going to die. The perpetrator’s suffocating hand covered my nose and mouth. The terror I was experienc- ing made breathing almost impossible and prevented me from making any sound. My school friend slept on in another bed in the same room. The rapist was her older brother. Of course, given my age and the era, I did not have a framework of sexual violence in which to locate what was hap- pening to me, but I knew it was a terrible thing and something she must not witness. I never spoke to her about the rapes, and as far as I know, she remains unaware of what took place in her bedroom on those nights. I lost touch with her after we left primary school. I have written about these experiences of rape in great detail else- where: here it is enough to say that for many reasons I also kept this trauma from my family and chose instead to unburden my secret to a different school friend. While the intervening years have smudged my memory of the thought processes...

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