Scoundrel Time

The Hierarchy of Suffering


When I hesitated before posting #MeToo on social media several months ago, I noticed that I wasn’t the only woman wondering if my experiences of workplace sexual harassment fully qualified for this conversation about the ubiquity of sexual predation, rape, and abuse. This reflexive tendency to defer to the “greater” pain of others has been a lifelong practice of mine, and apparently I am not alone in this regard. As a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, I recognize evaluations like this—about who must have suffered more, who suffered how and when and where—even when they aren’t spoken aloud.

Although it is not necessarily a part of public discourse about the Holocaust, there are many survivors as well as their descendants who are, even now, privately and uneasily comparing their experiences. Survivors of concentration camps other than Auschwitz, for example, might appear to minimize the horror by saying (as my father does), “Buchenwald was a slave labor camp, but it didn’t have any gas chambers. It didn’t exterminate people.” People who were in hiding (like my mother) might say: “At least I was never deported to a camp.” People who fled Europe in the late 1930s or even mid-1940s might say, “I was lucky to get out in the nick of time.”

It’s understandable and yet confounding that many of us who were raised by people who endured some of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century (do you see how I qualify the phrasing? I can’t help myself) learned that the worst had already happened before we were born. Some of what our parents endured was so nightmarish it could never be named in words at all.

I know many women whose personal histories were triggered in complicated ways by the #MeToo movement: the all-too-familiar blaming of victims; debates about who did or did not fight back; the dilemma of forgiveness; preferences for speaking out or remaining silent—even decades after the fact. (I feel compelled to mention how relentlessly these quandaries also afflicted the survivors of the Holocaust.) Yet it isn’t just the echo of the traumatic past that reverberates. In what is considered by many to be a newly defined universe, some old conundrums remain. How do we retain a sincere understanding of the singularity of an individual’s victimization while addressing an epic level of cause and effect? Having reflected upon the Holocaust and its legacies for my entire life, I find it necessary and important to remember that studying systemic dehumanization (and the vast damage that results) can obscure the one-person-at-a-time level of suffering, or make the individual experience seem somehow less urgent or particular, even to the victims themselves.

The specific naming of #MeToo nightmares has suddenly become so common as to risk the cumulative effect of tedium—which would be, of course, the opposite of the intended effect—and along with that flood of reports, a variety of collateral concerns arise. For example, in Salma Hayek’s eloquent piece in The New York Times, she notes: “my story, as important as it was to me, was nothing but a drop in an ocean of sorrow and confusion.” Despite the fact that Harvey Weinstein not only bombarded her with sexual intimidation and manipulation but also threatened to kill her, Hayek appears to have had doubts about “adding [her] voice to the chorus.”

It’s a paradoxical challenge. How to endorse the unique significance of each individual experience while at the same time avoiding the blurry (or not) boundaries among perpetrators? Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tried distinguishing between allegations against Senator Al Franken and those against Weinstein, Roy Moore, and Donald Trump, yet insisted that “we owe it to our children” to be spared “explaining the gradations between sexual assault, sexual harassment and unwelcome groping.” Her definition of “clarity” is to reject distinctions, somehow proving that “any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable.” I disagree. Clarity, in my view, demands that we categorically deplore all forms of sexism—from the most subtly dehumanizing language to the most violent assaults—while definitively identifying each type of behavior that needs to be both punished and changed. Explaining gradations isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wholeheartedly attempt the effort.

Here is a related, or perhaps contrasting, issue. When Matt Damon (and a handful of other male celebrities) recently spoke out about the importance of differentiating between behaviors, he was loudly denounced for daring to comment on what he couldn’t possibly understand. Actress Minnie Driver, in The Guardian, wrote:

There is no hierarchy of abuse—that if a woman is raped [it] is much worse than if a woman has a penis exposed to her that she didn’t want or ask for … you cannot tell those women that one is supposed to feel worse than the other.

And it certainly can’t be prescribed by a man. The idea of tone deafness is the idea there [is] no equivalency.

How about: it’s all fucking wrong and it’s all bad, and until you start seeing it under one umbrella it’s not your job to compartmentalise or judge what is worse and what is not. Let women do the speaking up right now. The time right now is for men just to listen and not have an opinion about it for once.

To calibrate subjective experiences from an outsider’s point of view is especially infuriating, given the long history of silenced female voices. Still, I believe that we have to address the systemic abuse and all of its enablers without lumping all perpetrators into a single category. A hierarchy of behaviors does make sense; it’s what our criminal justice system is based upon. Justice can only be served one person at a time, and yet that cumulative effect is what will change the system.

And, we must remember that each victim is entitled to choose how best to define his or her experience, while making room for every story to be told. It is up to the victim to decide, for example, whether to name (or not name) her perpetrator(s); whether to turn toward the camera and say “Me too;” to report in anonymity; or not to share anything at all. The inadequacies of language may add to the problem of identification, but they do not need to compound the agony of anyone already struggling with the challenges of living with and beyond a devastating event.

Suffering is not a contest. In the sweep of history and in the feverish waking nightmare known as Trump’s America, it’s impossible to calibrate the full human cost of hate-crimes, misogyny, bigotry, and violence. The pain and aftermath of trauma—whether inflicted physically or psychologically, from institutionalized racism and industrial-strength weaponry to micro-aggressions and domestic abuse—all must be considered worthy of our awareness, worthy of deliberate and ongoing efforts to repair the damage and prevent its recurrence.


While we can acknowledge that imprisonment in Auschwitz was measurably worse than in a labor camp, that being raped is unquestionably more damaging than being groped, we can also agree that individual episodes of torture need not be measured against anyone else’s atrocity. We shouldn’t apply our own standards of harm and resilience to others and their unique suffering. Scars do not need to be visible, nor do they need to be explained or corroborated in order to fit into a hierarchy or to deserve recognition and compassion. Apologies differ from amends, and retributive justice differs from restorative justice. We must be infinite in our willingness to listen, even when the stories are too excruciating to be spoken aloud.

In an October issue of The Daily Beast, Malia Griggs writes, in a voice saying “I, too”:

Did that thing I’m thinking of count? It seemed small at the time, because who hasn’t that happened to? And it wasn’t even the first time, nor the last. And if I talked about it, it wouldn’t be surprising or interesting, or maybe it’d be shrugged off as a “gray area,” pushed to another day, forgotten.

It is this casualness of sexual harassment and assault, no matter how you define “women,” or who you do or don’t choose to have sex with, that stings most and makes me feel less inclined to speak out. That, in itself, is why I must add my voice.


Describing an individual experience of suffering and victimization does not preclude a collective response but actually supports a collective accountability. When we see that erasing one person’s uniqueness and originality can lead to objectification, abuse, and even mass murder, we are more likely to recognize that unconditionally valuing each truth can lead to healing. Telling one’s story, insisting that the ledger list every single offense, can become a claiming of agency. The process is singular; the effect is cumulative. Just as empathy can be both one-at-a-time and all-together, justice can be both individual and collective. One leads to the other.

As for naming oneself—whether victim or survivor, accuser or seeker of justice— these terms get to be chosen by the individual involved. (Deferring to what might be the greater sorrow of others can sometimes be a way to heal or at least to steer away from perseverating, from getting lost in the tangle of re-traumatization. It can also be a means of denial or avoidance, but that’s another conversation.)

Empathy is not a pie. Expressing it person to person doesn’t diminish our overall supply. Indeed, by expanding our empathy to include every victim, we are better prepared to face up to the vast human legacy of perpetrators and victims for whom we must all bear collective responsibility.