On Silencing Victims

Dr. Frank Njenga, possibly the most known psychiatrist in Kenya, wrote this piece on Tuesday that made me question his craft. A person wrote in seeking advice on whether she should tell people about being abused by a relative as a teenager. She is hesitant to talk about the abuse because the abuser is now a respected elder. You would expect a sensible response from Dr. Njenga but apparently that is asking way too much. He finds a way to make the victim seem worse than the perpetrator. I worry for the individuals he has had as clients over the years because, based on this piece, this doctor has no qualms about rubbing salt into people’s wounds.

Dr. Njenga attempts to use the Bible to disguise his victim bashing. He says that the person has a strong urge to tell the truth only because she is searching for freedom from guilt. Really? Freedom from guilt? Exactly what is this person guilty of? Does silence about an abuse one experienced make the person guilty? Is it not possible that their silence is their coping mechanism? Or maybe they weren’t ready to talk about it? Is it possible that they hoped their silence would somehow erase that memory? There are so many reasons why the person didn’t tell their truth before but for a psychiatrist to decide the victim is the guilty party is quite simply ridiculous.

The doctor references the biblical story of the adulterous woman which has no relevance whatsoever to this person’s experience. The reason he brought this story up is to point out that no human being is without sin. So because everyone is prone to sin then that means people should condone abuse? How does that even translate to sense in the doctor’s head? As if that’s not enough he proceeds to imply that the person is “sad, empty, hopeless and helpless” and therefore is using the truth to punish herself. What!? Not only that but also that she wants to speak out so as to “hurt the respected elder” and “bring shame and scandal to your husband, yourself and your children.” To what end though? The person was abused. How does telling that story bring shame and scandal to her husband and children? To say this is to imply that the victim should be ashamed and therefore keep the abuse to herself. Talk about promoting the culture of victim shaming that forces many to suffer in silence.

Dr. Njenga, storyteller that he is, brings up the case of a woman who was diagnosed with delusional disorder. Again, relevance? Unless the doctor is trying to suggest the person who wrote in has the same disorder. Pray do tell doctor, how can you diagnose a mental illness based on two  paragraphs a person wrote about their abuse and the truth? What gave her away? Was it her writing? Was it her choice of words? Or perhaps because she wants to talk about a truth that you think should not be told?

The doctor’s concluding advice – “…I would suggest you seek the opinion of a trusted friend, parent or spiritual counselor who would help you deal with the strong urge in a healthy way.” Really? What is the healthy way – since the doctor basically told the person to remain silent as summarized in his final comments – “The truth can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Take care”?

In his response, the doctor managed to – accuse the victim of harboring guilt, imply that she has ulterior motives, question her relationship with the truth, and urge her to remain silent and move on.

Victim blaming, shaming and silencing needs to end. It’s about time.

On that note, why did Nation Media Group editors allow this “advice” from Dr. Njenga to go to print? Surely you don’t need to be a psychiatrist to know that his response is inappropriate in every sense of the word. Last I checked, the media is in the business of, among others, giving voice to the voiceless, so why approve articles that perpetrate the very cultures that ensure continued silencing of voices?

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