I’m going to have an angry rant. And I’m not going to apologise for it. Because a man I had nothing but respect and admiration for said some truly contemptuous things this week. Yeah you guessed right – I’m talking about Steven Fry.
I’d always held Mr Fry in high esteem. He’s a highly intellectual man who has made a stand for people with mental health issues. To me, it was admirable to see a celebrity talk openly about the hideousness of depression and disclose that it is something they have experienced. That’s why I was so impressed when I saw Ruby Wax give a talk on her latest book this week.
At the same time, that is what makes his moronic comments about abuse victims really sting. I don’t usually get angry about the stupid things celebrities come out with, but I was genuinely hurt by him trivialising the issue of sexual abuse. He is far too articulate to have accidentally said those things. I agree with him on the free speech topic – without abuse and rape in theatre and on TV etc. these awful, real life traumas would be harder for society to talk about. Theatre has a valuable place in enabling an open public discussion on difficult themes.
If you didn’t catch the interview, here’s what he said:
“They’re [rape and abuse] terrible things and they have to be thought about, clearly, but if you say you can’t watch this play, you can’t watch Titus Andronicus, or you can’t read it in a Shakespeare class, or you can’t read Macbeth because it’s got children being killed in it, it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place, well, I’m sorry.
“It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place – you get some of my sympathy – but your self-pity gets none of my sympathy because self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity.”
Then he went on to tell abuse survivors to “grow up.”
Aside from being highly offensive to suggest that all abuse victims are childish if they complain about the misery of dealing with their past, his comments about self-pity actually made my blood boil. That’s because self-pity is such an important quality in recovery. Self-pity means feeling sad for the suffering you’ve experienced, feeling compassionate towards yourself and allowing yourself to mourn your losses. It isn’t an ugly emotion, it is a vital part of the healing process.
Fry understands the pain of mental illness. And he isn’t stupid, so he must know that most survivors of abuse suffer from symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression. It makes me furious that he could be so callous; publicly stating something exceptionally cruel about those of us who are fighting these demons every single day.
I would love to have some self-pity. Every now and again I do find a little, and it is amazing to care for myself enough that I feel sad about what was done to me, and what was taken from me. The alternative to this compassion is self-loathing; feeling shame and disgust, harming myself, drinking or taking drugs to numb myself and frequently having suicidal thoughts.
Self-pity is not ugly. Belittling childhood trauma that impacts an individual for the entirety of their life is ugly. Trivialising the awful pain of remembering being violated is ugly. Undermining the hard fought battle for self care and self compassion by telling victims to ‘grow up’ is ugly.
I want to finish this furious rant by saying that I see nothing but strength and beauty in the survivors I encounter in person and online. And I truly hope that the bile in this one man’s comments doesn’t stop people coming forward to ask for help and talk about these horrendous experiences.
Here’s an article from the Guardian on Fry’s meagre apology. It also includes a link to the interview on Youtube. Be warned though, the trolls are having a field day with the comments section.
Photo: Matt Brown, Creative Commons.