APRIL 4, 2014
When I was 19 years old I developed persistent headaches. My mother took me to the eye doctor to get my eyes checked. The doctor lived in our neighborhood. He was our family’s eye surgeon, he’d operated on both my grandfathers’ cataract, he was (and presumably continues to be) a well-respected doctor.
After the routine eye tests were done, the doctor noted I had slight myopia and that it, “appeared there was a weakness in the eye muscle that may be indicative of a general weakness.” I was anemic and underweight and he recommended a general physical examination. My mother said, “No problem, we’ll go to our GP”. “Why bother?”, he responded, “after all eye doctors are doctors first and receive the same medical training as everyone else”. Rather than bother with a separate visit he would be happy to do it himself, it would only take a few minutes. It sounded odd, but well he was the doctor. My mother knew him, and who were we to question the doctor? Why didn’t my mother step out, he suggested. I would be more comfortable that way. My mother looked at me: was I ok with that? I didn’t see why not, so she walked out.
He closed the door, I sat on the bed. He walked up to me, stood behind my right shoulder, began pressing my neck, unhooked my bra, felt my breasts, moved his hands down my stomach, pushed his hand into my underwear and began pushing his fingers into me. At this point I pushed him away, jumped off the bed and walked out. I didn’t go back in and my mother concluded the consultation. I said nothing to my mother at that point. She dropped me off at college. I felt strange and upset through the day, but I didn’t speak of this to anyone. In the evening I met my then boyfriend told him some of what had happened, but not the details. That evening, or perhaps it was the next day, I told my mother a version of what had happened but again, not in any detail. She asked if I wanted to lodge an official complaint. I didn’t. So my mother went back and confronted him. At which he flat denied anything untoward had occurred. If I were a victim, it was of a grievous misunderstanding. He had two daughters, he was terribly sorry if I had misunderstood, but really it was not his intention. He was only conducting a medical examination. I was not a child. I was a 19 year old, college educated woman. And I had let an eye doctor do something for which the new law prescribes a seven year jail sentence.
Why didn’t I say anything immediately? Why didn’t I struggle? When he unhooked my bra, why didn’t I stop him then? Why did I wait for him to go so far as to push his hands into my underwear?
But I didn’t wait.
Linear language is deceptive: “First he did this, then he did this, then he did this, and then I did this”. But this is a post-facto ordering of what does not feel temporally linear, and is not processed, or occur, as such. It plots the “event” of assault out as a series of discrete acts, as if there stretches an enormous span of time from the moment at which it decisively “begins” and when it “ends”. But no one experiences assault according to a timeline. In order to act you need to first make sense of what just happened, what is in fact happening. You’re sitting on a doctor’s bed (or standing in an elevator). You cannot quite comprehend what is occurring. You get thrown, confused, it all seems a bit surreal and bizarre. And it is in fact surreal and bizarre: who expects to be digitally penetrated in the office of an eye doctor, under the pretense of a medical examination for a headache? Who expects to be raped in an elevator by her boss, a person she has known for years, a friend of her father’s, the father of her best friend? Later, you struggle to piece together into a linear narrative what happened. Written like this it sounds vaguely ridiculous.
Why didn’t I tell my mother till much later? Why didn’t I tell anyone exactly what happened? Well, primarily because when I said this out aloud, I sounded really stupid to myself, let alone anyone else. What kind of idiot agrees to a physical exam by an eye doctor? Apparently my kind of idiot. And who would have believed me? If the current is anything to go by, precisely no one. There was no “footage” of the actual “event”. All there was were the secondary words of two “witnesses”: my boyfriend and my mother, and the “complainant” – me. He presumably could have said, “The truth is, it was an incredibly fleeting, totally consensual, encounter “. I had consented to be examined, I had agreed to my mother leaving the room, and it was indeed incredibly brief. But it doesn’t take very long to partially disrobe someone, grope them and penetrate them with your finger.
What the Camera Saw, What Joseph Saw, What the Judge Saw
If there were CCTV cameras outside that doctor’s office, and in the corridors of my college, what “evidence” would that footage have “captured”? Nothing. Or rather, the seeing machines would have watched someone go about her day just as she usually did: sitting in class, talking to friends, presumably “adjusting her hair”. It certainly would not have captured a breakdown, which apparently is the litmus test of violation in the current court of public opinion. It would, by Anurag Kashyap’s logic , “totally exonerate” him.
And here we come to the most puzzling aspect of a discussion currently underway in the press, wherein 168 seconds of CCTV footage from outside an elevator in a hotel in Goa are presumed to hold the magic key as to whether Tarun Tejpal actually assaulted a young woman or not. What exactly is the “hard truth” that the CCTV footage presumably reveals, against which the complainant’s version is “inconsistent”? Firstly, there is no footage from inside the elevator. Presumably the footage from outside sheds light on what happened inside. So we are being asked to abduce the nature of a series of events which themselves cannot be seen, from what can be seen. This may seem like belaboring an obvious point, but it apparently requires stating because what seem to masquerade as supposedly “objective descriptions” of “hard facts” can only themselves be interpretations. And here it is useful to look closely at a recent piece by Manu Joseph that appeared in the Outlook magazine that purports to do just that.
In ‘What The Elevator Saw‘, Joseph provides a supposedly neutral description of the footage and is at pains to demonstrate various inconsistencies in the complainant’s versions of what occurred and what is captured by the camera. But what Joseph does not tell us, is, what is the inconsistency supposed to reveal? In other words, what meaning is to be assigned to these “inconsistencies” in determining the truth or falsity of the complainant’s version of events? Suppose I were to say [A] hit me at 8:30 P.M. and then I walked off and ate an apple in statement 1, and that [A] hit me at 8:30 P.M. and then I walked off and ate an orange in statement 2, how is what fruit I ate relevant to whether A hit me or not?
So Joseph makes much of the fact that the complainant says that Tejpal held her by the wrist on three occasions, when according to the footage he did so only on the first occasion. The issue is not whether he held her by the wrist or not. The issue is what happened once she was inside the elevator for which there is no footage. So then, it would seem, the significance of holding her wrist is indicative of whether she was coerced into the elevator and if not, why did she enter it the second time? Did Tejpal pull her back in on day 2 or said she go back out of her own free will? So then we can ask, by the same token, why would someone walk into an elevator, and then walk out and then walk back in? Presumably because she felt uncomfortable being there. And why did she get in at all? Because Tejpal is someone she knew. He was not a stranger. He was the father of her best friend, a man she had known for years and trusted. When someone is assaulted by a figure of trust their first instinct is to hope that they will not do this again, that this will just go away. This is why children suffer abuse for years, why often women are reluctant to walk away from a situation of domestic abuse.
Or again, the complainant says they got off on the ground floor, when they actually got off on the second floor. Or that she first said she picked up her underwear, and then later says she pulled up her underwear. But I don’t remember whether the doctor actually took my shirt off, or half-pulled it up either. One makes these “mistakes”. In his rejection of Tejpal’s bail petition, which is a document in the public record, the presiding Judge who has seen the same footage as Joseph, reads it differently. For him the victim arranging her clothes seems to corroborate not contradict her previous statements of what occurred. The point is, there is no neutral truth the footage can offer, what it reveals is a matter of how and by whom it is being read.
Again, consider the use of adjectives and verbs in this text: After the first assault, the complainant says she walked out rapidly, and Joseph says they walked at a “leisurely pace”. And later in the text “they amble out of block 7, and as they do the Young Woman bunches up her hair and ties it in a ponytail.” What is the function of the adjective “leisurely” and the verb “amble” and the little detail about her tying her hair? They are meant to give to Tejpal and the complainant’s departure from the scene of an alleged crime a veneer of casualness. Supposing the sentence were to read, “they walk out of block 7.” It suddenly sounds very different.
The mere fact of inconsistency means nothing. Try this: reconstruct in precise and exact detail your every movement and action from 7:30 to 7:35 pm yesterday. Or this morning. Or 15 minutes ago. Where were your hands? When you walked out the door, how fast were you walking? Did you drop your keys before or after you fumbled for your phone? Or better yet, watch this video below.
We cannot see what is happening right in front of us, in real time, and yet we demand that someone recall in minute and precise detail her every move, gesture, posture as proof of the “truth” of what she says happened.
Memory is Not Data
It makes no sense to speak of memory in this way: as if a memory exists in a “pure” unadulterated form in the recesses of our mind, ready to be recalled. As if remembering an event were akin to extracting data from a processor, or footage from a tape. This is not what memory is, and this is not how we remember. Inconsistency is not a peculiar failing of traumatized memory, though by now there is an enormous body of clinical literature that describes the effects of trauma on recall, but of all memory. Memory is produced at the moment in which we narrate it. This is not a failing, it is the structure of the process of remembering itself. We recall the contours of an event or a situation and then we recall the details in fits, and starts, and fragments. These are not “lies”. These are what make us humans with human memories. Does this mean that what the camera reveals is the objective “hard truth” compared to subjective “inconsistent” human memory?
No. Because by itself the footage says nothing at all. By itself the footage is mute: all it shows is two people walking into and out of an elevator at various points over two days. It only makes sense, it begins to speak, when it is read against, nested within, a context comprised of statements, actions, descriptions, interpretations, artifacts that are not contained within it. Which, for instance, in this case includes two non-coerced confessions by Tejpal, three statements by the complainant, public utterances by Tejpal and the complainant, private correspondence between Shoma Chaudhary; Tejpal and the complainant, a stream of text messages between Tejpal and the complainant, witness accounts by a dozen people, technical evidence from the elevator in the hotel and so on.
To consider the footage in isolation as though it will yield some “objective truth” to the parsing of a hack with too much time on his hands, is a futile and dangerous exercise. This is presumably why the judicial process places limitations on what evidentiary materials may be publicly circulated prior to, and during, the trial process.
Whereof One Cannot Speak, Thereof One Must Be Silent
There is no doubt that something of a sexual nature occurred inside that elevator. Despite his vacillation Tejpal has never denied this. The issue at hand is what meaning is to be assigned to what transpired. The complainant has consistently maintained a singular coherent version of events: that it was non-consensual, that at no point did she accede by word or deed to what was being done to her. Amidst the fog of Tejpal’s confessions; repentances; penances; acceptances; lacerations and denials, it is by now difficult to discern exactly what it is he thinks occurred that evening in the elevator.
In the long ghoulish process that is a rape trial the details of what transpired, and what they signify will be worked out through negotiation between the statements, descriptions, interpretations of various parties. Certainly Tejpal’s defense team will pick apart and assign exculpatory significance to every small “inconsistency” in the complainant’s version. This is what defense lawyers are trained to do, and presumably what they are paid big bucks for. Regardless, the outcome of this trial will not, and cannot, hinge on the “evidence” of 168 seconds of tape. It is therefore best at this stage, for all concerned, to refrain from offering pithy commentary on footage they are legally debarred from viewing in the first place. And Joseph would be well advised to stick to doing what he knows, such as writing books on serious men, and not arrogate to himself the self-appointed role of forensic examiner, a task he is patently ill-suited to perform.
Finally it would be good if those descending on this footage like vultures on carrion (here’s lookin’ at you Seema Mustafa and Anurag Kashyap), were to remember that there is an actual person at the center of this situation: a young woman whose body, intentions, motivations, relationships have become the object of vicious public speculation. If you have not the integrity to be graceful, at least have the sense to be silent. Or politely put, let the courts do their job and, in the meantime, shut the fuck up.
Read more here — http://kafila.org/2014/04/04/if-a-woman-is-raped-in-the-middle-of-a-forest-and-no-camera-sees-it-was-she-actually-raped/
Leave a Reply