Why Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Honesty About Trauma Matters

The lawmaker spoke unflinchingly about how the trauma of her past sexual assault "compounded" with her experience at the Capitol. Why are some men so mad?
AOC spoke for 90 minutes on Instagram Live on Monday, Feb. 1, about her experiences at the Capitol.
AOC spoke for 90 minutes on Instagram Live on Monday, Feb. 1, about her experiences at the Capitol.

One of the first things experts will tell you about trauma is that the body never forgets.

The mind may move on for a time from a traumatic experience, but the minute you encounter a trigger — a smell, a threat, a verbal cue, a sound — your body goes into overdrive. Suddenly comes the shallow breathing, the heart palpitations, the fuzzy brain, the tightening of the chest, the terror that seems to animate every cell of your body. Trauma leaves “imprints on body, mind and soul,” as Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., writes in his 2015 book on trauma, “The Body Keeps the Score.”

This is what Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was referring to late on Monday night when she told more than 150,000 people who tuned in to her Instagram Live to hear her recount her experiences during the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: that “trauma compounds.”

Before getting into the meat of her story, which unfolded in harrowing detail over the course of a 90-minute livestream, Ocasio-Cortez made a disclosure.

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” she said, after apologizing to loved ones who may not have known before she chose to share this history with the world. “And I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other. And so whether you had a neglectful parent or whether you had someone who was verbally abusive to you, whether you are a survivor of abuse, whether you experienced any sort of trauma in your life, small to large, these episodes can compound on one another.”

She then went on to describe the hours she spent in hiding during the Capitol attack, first behind the bathroom door in her own office as a white man, who later turned out to be a Capitol Police officer who had failed to identify himself, screamed “Where is she?” and, later, in Rep. Katie Porter’s (D-Calif.) office for six hours. Ocasio-Cortez said that she genuinely believed at one point that she was going to die, and kept describing her body as being “at a 10” during the ordeal. And yet she only recognized the experience as traumatic when her fellow “Squad” member Rep. Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.) told her explicitly that she had experienced trauma hours after the fact.

“My story is one of many stories of what happened in the Capitol,” she said, making sure to emphasize that “it’s not the only story, nowhere is it close to the central story.” Ultimately, she told viewers that she was sharing these details in order to ask for accountability and counter the cries from many on the right — including those in Congress who had stoked the false claims of election fraud that ultimately led to the violence at the Capitol — that the nation simply “move on.”

The congresswoman’s story was largely met with support, empathy and gratitude for her conviction that healing, both personal and collective, requires truth and accountability. But for a handful of people — mostly white, mostly male — on the internet, Ocasio-Cortez’s disclosure of her past sexual assault struck a particularly fragile nerve.

Freelance journalist Michael Tracey quote-tweeted my tweet about Ocasio-Cortez’s disclosure, and branded it “a masterclass in emotional manipulation.” (He got rightfully and roundly dragged soon after.) Less public male Twitter users crowded my feed with claims that the mere mention of sexual assault — as added context for her response to subsequent trauma — made Ocasio-Cortez a “melodramatic narcissist” and a “drama queen.” Her status as a survivor of sexual assault was merely “a promo for AOC.” It had “zero relevance” to the story of the insurrection, they argued.

The overarching message seemed to be that Ocasio-Cortez could not be trusted as the narrator of her own traumatic experiences, nor about the impact of them. I found myself wondering when these men would consider an acceptable time to talk about one’s assault. When it happens? Well, that might ruin a young man’s life. Years later? Well, why bring it up after so long. In the context of new, fresher trauma? That’s just irrelevant manipulation.

“No time seems to be the right time to talk about sexual violence and its ripple effects in a candid and honest fashion. It’s always just a little too inconvenient for the men who might be forced into some hard self-reflection as a result.”

This is a bind many survivors, especially women, find themselves in. No time seems to be the right time to talk about sexual violence and its ripple effects in a candid and honest fashion. It’s always just a little too inconvenient for the men who might be forced into some hard self-reflection as a result. For them, it is much easier to turn the tables and claim that the woman sharing her experiences is the real perpetrator, committing the high crime of alleged “emotional manipulation.”

“Women like AOC, who bravely share their stories and the impacts of sexual violence, aren’t out for attention, money or to ‘emotionally manipulate’ anyone,” said Bridget Todd, director of communications for women’s advocacy organization Ultraviolet. “There is no ‘devil’s advocate’ when it comes to sexual assault.”

When I was rereading passages of “The Body Keeps the Score” and revisiting clips of Ocasio-Cortez’s gripping livestream, I kept thinking about Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman.”

In the film, which was released over Christmas and then more widely in January, Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman whose entire life has been subsumed by the rape and subsequent suicide of her best friend Nina. Disconnected from her own body and the people who surround her, Cassie uses her body to set repeated traps, pretending to be blackout drunk in public and waiting for a Nice Guy to offer to take her home. One always does, and he always tries to take advantage of her — right up until the moment she reveals she isn’t so incapacitated as she originally seemed.

The men she encounters over the course of the movie predictably brand her “insane,” a “psycho.” But even more than revenge, what Cassie seeks is control ― some semblance of agency within the aftermath of a trauma that she had no power over when it occurred.

“Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in control of yourself,” writes van der Kolk. “In order to regain control over yourself, you need to revisit the trauma. Sooner or later you need to confront what has happened to you, but only after you feel safe and will not be retraumatized by it.”

Cassie’s fictional desperation for some form of accountability, some form of justice, some wider understanding of the invisible marks that violence — and the threat of violence — leaves behind, some reclamation of control, feels related to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s determined resolve in the face of an insurrection. Her body has not forgotten the trauma of sexual assault, nor has it forgotten the trauma of hiding behind a door in complete silence, believing that she was experiencing the final moments of her life.

“I’m not gonna let this happen again,” she said last night, her voice steady after breaking multiple times before. “I’m not gonna let it happen to me again, I’m not gonna let it happen to the other people who have been victimized by this situation again, and I’m not letting this happen to our country ever. I’m not gonna let it happen.”

The body never forgets and neither should the rest of us.

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