Why Stephen Fry’s Comments About Sexual Abuse And Mental Health Are Harmful To Survivors

by Autumn Aurelia

Earlier this month, English comedian and actor Stephen Fry — who is also president of the mental health charity Mind — criticized survivors of childhood sexual abuse for their “self-pity” during an appearance on The Rubin Report.

While criticizing the concepts of trigger warnings and safe spaces, Fry said, “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. Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself. The irony is we’ll feel sorry for you, if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just grow up.” After facing criticism, Fry apologized.

Here, one survivor responds:

Twenty years on from my own experience of being abused as a child, and today I wake from a Diazepam-haze nightmare, screaming and sobbing into my pillow, begging my carer for reassurance that I am not reliving the event all over again.

While dramatic to some, this is actually a pretty standard morning for a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

After an hour or so of being given the reassurance I require, I am finally able to make it out of bed to begin another day, praying that this day won’t be as bad as the last. I’m completely and utterly housebound due to the severity of my various disorders, a cruel cocktail of OCD, BPD, depression, PTSD, and so every day brings an array of different struggles. From fearing the telephone ringing with news of my mother’s death, to hearing the sound of police sirens outside, conjuring images of men coming to take me away because I committed a crime I don’t remember, I am trapped inside my own mind twenty-four hours a day.

I avoid the news at all costs, but when I see Stephen Fry trending on Facebook for comments he made about sexual abuse survivors, I feel compelled to read on; in part, because I feel that he is addressing me personally, and also because he is, of course, the President of Mind, a charity I have always respected.

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At this point, I am feeling pretty strong and positive, given my ability to move on from this morning’s panic attack. This feeling, however, does not last. In the few minutes that it takes me to read the article, I am immediately thrown back into the turmoil I felt just an hour or so before.

I make a rash decision to pick up my carer’s phone (something I never do — I don’t even own a phone of my own due to the nature of my OCD) and call Mind with the intention of making a complaint based on how this has made me feel. I talk to a kind man who assures me that Mind is taking the situation very seriously and that they wish to speak with Stephen about the comment. At this point though, I break down completely, knowing that any minute now my own mind could take me to that dark and dangerous place it always does when I feel invalidated.

In this moment, I pass the phone to my carer and huddle up on the sofa, sitting with my hands between my knees, desperately resisting the urge to take a blade to my arms. All the while, Fry’s words echo in my head with the condescending tone of my own abuser or of the various adults I confided in growing up: “It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place … no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself … just grow up.”

I was just 8 or 9 when my abuse started, far too young to know anything about sex but old enough to force me to “grow up.” And that’s the most difficult part about all of this, Stephen, because those who have suffered the brutal act of child abuse are ripped away from their childhood before they even get a chance to experience it.

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What good will come from Mind speaking to Fry? What use is there in raising the concerns of their supporters if they are not raising their own concerns for their President? Where are their opinions? I cannot see how Fry can sufficiently represent the largest national mental health charity while remaining so blind to compassion.

Instead, we receive the standard spill we always do when it concerns a ‘celebrity’ in a position of power; we hear about the good they have achieved, but never about how that that good has been undone:

“As President of Mind, Stephen Fry has done a huge amount to raise awareness and understanding about bipolar disorder and other mental health problems. He has supported Mind in our campaigning activities over the last decade and has helped enormously to change public attitudes in the UK about mental health for the better.”

Simply speaking to Fry is not enough, and he needs to suffer the ramification of his actions. How can the President of Mind have such a callous view of abuse survivors? While he has since issued a statement, it read more like a forced apology and not an explanation of why such a public facing figure should have spoken in this way. Can he adequately fulfil his duty as a mental health awareness advocate when he can speak so casually against those he claims to fight for, or should he now step down from his role?

In his rant, Fry went on to say that our stories, our pain gets us some of his sympathy, but that our self-pity gets us none, because “self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity.” I couldn’t disagree more, Stephen. I don’t need your sympathy, quite simply your compassion.

I will not be the only one affected by Fry’s irresponsible comments on child sexual abuse. I will not be the only person triggered into a suicidal episode, or who feels punished and invalidated for experiencing the pain of their past; a past they had no control over.

I am one of a great number of sexual abuse survivors who have been triggered by his thoughtlessness and utter lack of compassion, and while free speech is important, it does not give one the right to say whatever they please and not face the consequences. I do not suffer from self-pity; I suffer from the reality of sexual abuse and the invalidation that often goes along with it.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons, Mind

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