The Stories We Tell to Survive

Philosophy professor Susan Brison reflects on the new edition of her trailblazing 2002 book, Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self.

For months after she was sexually assaulted and left for dead in the French countryside more than three decades ago, philosophy professor Susan J. Brison had to stop herself before saying, "I was murdered in France last summer." 

"I am not the person who set off, singing, on that sunny Fourth of July," Brison wrote in her trailblazing 2002 book, Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. "I left her in a rocky creek bed at the bottom of a ravine. I had to in order to survive."

At a time when philosophers were trained to avoid first-person narratives in favor of an abstract, universal voice, Aftermath centered Brison's personal story of rape and recovery alongside philosophical investigations of trauma and the nature of the self. 

"It is not an exaggeration to say that Aftermath changed the way that many people think about what philosophy is and how it can be practiced," the editors of the American Philosophical Association's APA Studies on Feminism and Philosophy wrote in the introduction to the journal's latest issue, which pays tribute to the 20-year anniversary of the book and the publication of its second edition

In the years since Aftermath, Brison has continued writing about sexual violence in both academic and general interest outlets, including a column in Time magazine detailing her experience of being raped at age 20 and the depression that followed. 

Brison has also written extensively about the ethical complexities of free speech online, including a recent co-edited volume, Free Speech in the Digital Age

This past summer, she was named the inaugural director of Dartmouth's Susan and James Wright Center for the Study of Computation and Just Communities

In a Q&A, Brison reflects on how the philosophy profession has evolved since Aftermath, her advice for survivors of trauma, and why she now feels compelled to write about suicide. 

You published your first scholarly article about rape in a peer-reviewed journal in 1993, nearly a decade before Aftermath, and note in the book that some of your senior colleagues advised you not to continue this type of writing if you wanted to get tenure. How has the profession evolved over the past 30 years? Are lived experiences considered more relevant than they were previously? 

Philosophers and other academics are starting to write more in the first person, especially those who have been marginalized. There is greater recognition that one's positionality—for example, one's race and gender, and one's historical and geographical location—makes a difference to what one finds interesting to philosophize about and to what one says about it. 

Feminist philosophers have been interested in interdisciplinary work for some time, drawing on what was being done in other disciplines like law and sociology. I was very influenced by critical race theory, especially Patricia Williams' 1992 book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Williams incorporated first-person narratives and stories about other people into her theorizing in ways that gave me, as a white woman, greater access to the experiences of victims of race-based discrimination.

Over the last 30 years, philosophers have taken rape more seriously as a philosophical topic, and in the last decade, in particular, have published a large volume of books and articles about consent, domestic violence, and gendered violence. In 2022 I was really touched when the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy organized a conference that focused on Aftermath and how feminist philosophical scholarship has engaged with sexual violence over time.

You write in the preface to the new edition of Aftermath: "I now think that the most important and urgent issues for me to address when writing and speaking about rape are our nation's ongoing history of white supremacy, rampant and largely neglected violence against Black and Indigenous women and girls, and the irredeemably racist prison industrial complex in the United States." How are you engaging with these issues?

I have focused on stepping back and amplifying the voices of Black women. I've been educating myself and reading books by philosophers such as Michele Moody-Adams and Mvisha Cherry and by many prominent Black women in other disciplines.

In 2019, Shatema Threadcract and I co-organized a series of six public lectures at Dartmouth,  #SayHerName: Intersectionality and Violence Against Black Women and Girls, to draw attention to the ways Black women and girls are disproportionately subjected to violence. Speakers included Columbia University and UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term "intersectionality" as a way of describing how marginalized people face overlapping systems of discrimination. 

In 2022 I invited Internet studies scholar Safiya Noble and University of Pennsylvania philosopher and law professor Anita Allen to speak on issues of race and gender in information technology and the law. In my feminism and philosophy class, I also include writers such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Kristie Dotson, to give just a few examples. 

This past fall, I welcomed Princeton sociologist Ruha Benjamin as the first speaker in the Wright Center's inaugural lecture series. She wrote a groundbreaking book on algorithmic injustice, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, in which she argues that AI is often used in ways that exacerbate discrimination against Blacks. There was a myth that if we just let computers do things like select people for jobs or determine which people should get parole or get a loan, they would be much more objective. But given how technology has been used, it has, in some cases, made things worse. 

Mary Anne Franks, a professor at George Washington University Law School, also gave a lecture as part of the series. She explored how the tech industry has accelerated harassment, privacy violations, health misinformation, conspiracy theories, and terrorist propaganda, all in the name of free speech.

This summer I'll be teaching the course I created on ethics and information technology again and I plan to host another lecture series in conjunction with it. 

Looking back now on your recovery from sexual assaults, what is your advice for fellow survivors of trauma?

It sounds trite to say that things will get better, but I'm inclined to repeat a quote by a rape survivor support group leader in the first chapter of Aftermath, who said, "you'll never be the same, but you can be better." 

At the time, I thought, what are you talking about? I was so fortunate my life was going really well before this happened, and I just wanted to get back there. And she said, when your life is shattered, you're just sitting there among the pieces and you've got to put it back together again. But you get to decide which pieces to keep, and which ones don't work. So there are ways in which you can not only survive a traumatic experience, but—and I hate to sound pollyannaish—your life can be better. 

There are psychologists who talk about post-traumatic growth. And there is something like that. It's just very difficult to talk about without sounding overly positive. 

You recently gave a talk sparked by revisiting Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus and his sentence, "A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future." Why does this line resonate with you? 

I just happened to reread it, after only having read it in high school. I'd never forgotten the first two sentences: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

It was life's apparent absurdity that led Camus to question whether it was worth living. I've never been bothered by the fact that life is absurd, if that means, simply, that it has no meaning but the meanings we give it ourselves. But the phrase "belonging to the future" really captured my imagination. 

How does one get and keep a sense of belonging to the future? That's what I lost when I was 20 and was sexually assaulted—and, in a different way, when I was 35 and assaulted in France. I'm interested in how those whose lives come to seem hopeless can find the wherewithal to keep on living. In particular, how can constructing a narrative enable one to belong, once again, to the future?

In the last chapter of Aftermath, you recall your brother's suicide. You write that "he became trapped in an intolerable present, fearing his future and unable to tell the story any other way." The book's focus on the stories we tell ourselves to overcome despair feels especially relevant in this era of loneliness and social disconnection. What would you say to young people in the throes of depression?

Like college students across the country, Dartmouth undergraduates have mourned the loss of classmates from suicide. About a year ago, I took the first 10 minutes of a class on feminist philosophy to talk about suicide, something I'd never done in class before. 

That was the first time I mentioned that I went through this period when I was 20. I didn't go into detail, but I said, I want to tell all of you what I wish somebody had told me when I was your age and going through this. One of the main things is you're not always going to feel this way and you won't believe someone who says you won't always feel this way. You feel like this is going to be your life from now on, but that's not true.

I also read two poems I've found most meaningful in coming to grips with suicide: "Tattered Kaddish" by Adrienne Rich, which is about her late husband's suicide, and "Wait" by Galway Kinnell, who read this poem at Dartmouth some years ago when he was here as a Montgomery Fellow. He talked about how he wrote it after a student came to his office not seeing any point in carrying on. The theme throughout is, just wait, you have no idea what wonderful things are going to happen in the rest of your life. It gives me goosebumps just thinking of it. 

After the class I felt exposed and vulnerable and thought, maybe that wasn't the right thing to do. But the students were so grateful. They thanked me and told me how helpful it was. I'm convinced now that I need to write more about suicide. 

In a way, an advantage of having gone through a suicidal depression is that, because you've come out of it, you realize, oh, that wasn't a death sentence. You remember that things change, and that you can rewrite your life's narrative in a way that enables you to carry it on into the future. 

As part of Sexual Assault Action Month this April, Dartmouth offers a number of events to help create a safe campus community. 

Mental health support is available through Dartmouth 24/7 for students, faculty, and staff. Any Dartmouth student experiencing a mental health crisis can call the Counseling Center at 603-646-9442.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or use the online chat at