TW: sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, ptsd
I first heard “Praying” in a Lyft home from the airport, after a particularly morbid Las Vegas trip with my family. In Vegas, we’d spread the ashes of a dead family friend under the clown at Circus Circus. That night, we spotted a man in a motorized scooter strike a window a full speed, and drive down the length of the casino lobby with a wide streak of blood trailing him. The day after that, I saw a car flipped over on the strip and ambulances blocking traffic. On the flight, turbulence shook me from sleep every twenty minutes and kept everyone hushed with fear. Death seemed to be everywhere.
But the vacation was over. It was 4 am and I was in a stranger’s car, shaky and tired. I was cranky about how much money I’d spent on the trip, how exhausted I was, and all the domestic annoyances I’d be returning to as soon as I opened my door. I was as shut-down as a person can be while still conscious.
I knew Kesha had released a song about Dr. Luke’s abuse and her recovery from it, but I hadn’t sought it out yet. The volume on the car’s stereo was low. I knew immediately what I was hearing as soon as it started playing. The music swept me up. Quiet as they were in that car, the lyrics pierced my brain: I hope you’re somewhere praying. I hope your soul is changing.
My bleary, jet-lagged mind awoke. HOLY SHIT! This is not your typical survivor’s song! I sat up and turned my head, pointing my ear at the speaker to better drink it in. Kesha was not talking about how hard she’d worked to move on and fix herself. She was not thanking her abuser for having taught her about the harshness of the world. The song wasn’t about her moving on or forgiving him at all! It was about how Dr. Luke needed to get his ass right with God if he wanted to save his immortal soul!
Did she really just say there are things only God can forgive? Holy fuck! Kesha, we were all rooting for you and you did it, you brilliant glitter-coated ball of light. You made a song about recovery from abuse that doesn’t thank or forgive the abuser, that demands he reckon with who he is and what he’s done, that manages to be powerful and hopeful without sugar-coating the abuse. You did it, holy shit.
My brittle, bitter survivor’s heart was enchanted and transported utterly from the moment I heard the song. I knew I’d be listening to it constantly in the coming days. It was refreshing and arresting like a bucket of ice to the face. And yet, even then, as I made it up the stairs to my apartment with the lyrics still digesting in my mind, I knew my perspective on abuse and recovery was even more hard-lined than Kesha’s was. Mine didn’t lack prayer entirely, but it shone its spiritual light on an entirely different goal: Kesha wanted her abuser to recover and fall on his knees in repentance. I wished that my abuser would just die.
— — — —
Most mainstream victim narratives are about forgiveness and healing. That is doubly true for pop songs about surviving mistreatment. In “Fighter”, Christina Aguilera extols her new virtues — she has thick skin, she’s a quick learner, she works hard — and attributes all of them to the unnamed person who has mistreated her. In “Since You’ve Been Gone”, Kelly Clarkson attributes her newfound assertiveness to her recovery from an ex’s neglect.
Of course, these are songs about breakups, where both parties are likely to share guilt for a mixed-bag of moderate offenses. Nevertheless, the songs reflect back at the listener the platitudes that many survivors of abuse hear and internalize. Be thankful for what you’ve learned. Forgive the person who hurt you. Forget about them. Look at how much stronger you are now than you were then. Stop complaining. Make me feel better about what happened to you. Convince me it will never ever ever happen again. Then I can put it out of my mind.
People don’t always tell abuse victims things like that directly. It’s rude to tell someone who has been berated, stalked, raped, or struck that their misery is too ugly to share. But we abuse survivors pick up on those sentiments.
We hear it in the encouraging way people redirect attention away from the past, asking for reassurances about how much better we’re doing now. We see how much praise is heaped on victims who forgive and forget their abusers. In media, we see that abuse victims who crave recompense are seen as excessively violent, horrifying, and inhuman. We see how “inspiring” people find victims who do great acts of charity and advocacy, but only if they do so without going into too many gory details about their own experiences.
The world wants victims who don’t wallow in their grief. They want victims who can make them feel good. Maybe even victims who were improved, in some way, by their abuse. It’s a comforting fiction because it absolves the friends and family of victims of all responsibility. If abuse can be overcome through forgiveness and prayer, and if being abused kinda-sorta makes you a better person anyway, there’s no need to grapple with abuse’s societal causes. There’s no need to be upsetting or loud.
But Kesha’s not the type to be respectful and quiet. No wonder she blew the abuse-song genre wide open.
Kesha’s “Praying” is an abuse and recovery narrative that dips its toes into the “forgive your abuser and find peace” cliche pool, but ultimately withdraws from it, to confront more complicated feelings in a refreshing and powerful way. Yes, the song is anthemic and spiritual, and features a growing chorus that raises its collective voice to the heavens, but it’s not a pat, comforting ditty about letting go. It’s a song about healing and getting stronger in the wake of abuse, sure, but it doesn’t deny the brutal wrongness of what Dr. Luke did or thank him for it. It provides hope without removing responsibility. It begs for the abuser’s contrition instead of granting forgiveness.
In those ways, the song is revolutionary. It still doesn’t go far enough for me, though. This abuse victim isn’t praying for their abuser to find his peace, falling on his knees. I’ve long given up on the prospect of him healing. These days all I pray for his for him to stop existing.
— — — —
I’ve written about my abuse before. I will probably keep writing about it for a long time. There’s so much left to discuss. Even a brief abuse experience bleeds into so much of your life.
Being abused has affected my reactions to strangers on the street, the sensitivity and extremity of my startle response, what parts of my body I like and don’t like having touched. It’s impacted my body image, what kinds of sounds scare me, and how I feel about yelling. Being abused has changed my outlook on the world, my feminism, even my sense of hope for my own future. Being abused has made me an angrier, more bitter, more combative person. It’s made me into someone who screams at street harassers and chases down men who flash people down the street, trying to strike them in the head with my groceries.
But it was not my abuse that made me into the kind of person who prays for another human’s death. For years, I prayed for my abuser to become a better person, in fact. It was only after I learned he’d continued abusing others, and had escalated the violence of his outbursts, that I lost all hope for his contrition and began yearning for his death.
— — — —
In some ways, I think Kesha and I are at different stages of the abuse-coping process. I was in the relationship from 2009–2011, and have been far away from the perpetrator for over five years. Kesha’s only recently been able to break entirely from the man who drugged and raped her. That period of safety following years of suffering is one that encourages contemplation. It’s a time for deep thinking about the extremity of what you’ve suffered, and why you were treated that way. When you’re finally free and safe, after years of torment, it’s nourishing to think back on your abuser and hope that they’re out there, somewhere, learning.
I had a period like that. After I broke up with the man who stalked me, threatened me, pinned me down, and forced me to have sex with him, I felt a massive heartswell of relief. He got arrested for something else. He was under house arrest. Then he moved away. The distance and the consequences he was facing gave me pause, and hope. I thought perhaps he would go back to therapy, get on some good meds, and learn from his mistakes. As long as he was far as fuck away from me, and I was healing, it was beneficial to imagine him as a better person. It seemed plausible, even.
Then I heard from one of his subsequent victims. I learned he had become more violent, menacing, and contemptuous in the time he’d been away. The physical, emotional, and verbal mistreatment this person endured was an order of magnitude worse than anything I’d experienced. It was the kind of unrelentingly hateful onslaught I’d always feared receiving from him, but never did.
My empathy for him as a complex human soul with the capacity to change was immediately extinguished. For years, as I prayed for him and wished him well from a comfortable distance, he had been beating and berating other, younger people with increasing fury. I knew that, statistically, domestic violence perpetrators worsen their treatment over time, but I wanted to believe he was the exception. I wanted to have hope.
The only thing I hoped for, after that, was that he would be stopped. I started fantasizing about travelling to where he lived and putting it to an end. I wanted to murder him myself. Failing that, I wanted him to die. Ideally, I wanted that death to be painful. Years prior, a man who had raped me died of a heroin overdose. I found myself yearning for my abuser to face similar karmic justice.
— — — —
These feelings are ugly and border on unspeakable. They make me seem hateful and unwell. I’m not a tidy, at-peace victim. I’ve been corrupted, not improved, by my experiences. But I’m fine with that. I cannot be at peace as long as this man keeps hitting, threatening, and assaulting people. I won’t actually seek him out and use violence to end him, but I will comfort myself with images of his death. I will feel relief if an early death does occur.
And that’s where Kesha and I differ. She finds herself praying for Dr. Luke, hoping that he recognizes the harm he’s done to her and ceases being a terrible person. She wants God to forgive her rapist, even while acknowledging she cannot forgive him herself. I, on the other hand, have prayed and prayed for my abuser’s recovery and then learned that he was still out there, harming people far more brutally than he harmed me.
Victims are expected to process their trauma in acceptable, feel-good ways. We’re supposed to make non-victims feel good by brushing our own pain under the rug and emphasizing the positives of the experience. If we forgive or pray for the people who mistreated us, we are “being the bigger person” and “doing the right thing”.
I deeply value the message of Kesha’s song, and I think it is challenging, unique, and important. It moves me to tears every time I play it. However, when I hear her singing that she prays at night for Dr. Luke, I can’t help but feel a resounding fuck that. We abuse victims don’t owe our abusers any prayer. We are already the “bigger person” by virtue of having not raped or beaten anybody. The people who have mistreated us don’t deserve having us in their spiritual corner. Instead of praying for the man who hurt me, I will be praying for my ex’s other victims, the ones who have suffered because he’s still alive. And sometimes, I will be praying for his death. That doesn’t make for a very pretty song, but that’s what my recovery looks like.