In a genuine portrayal of the long-term effects sexual assault can have on victims, Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in the popular television series House of Cards echoed the statements of many authors we have read in class. While many media portrayals of sexual assault go for shock value, showing the attack or the flashbacks the victim experiences immediately after the attack, few have provided such brave insight into the experience of victims many years after the attack. For many, the memory of their terrible experience remains present, something they have to “strangle” every day to keep it from terrorizing their consciousness; it is an irrevocable memory, persistent and intrusive. This trauma, it seems, can haunt survivors as long as they live.
In the episode, it is revealed that Claire, the strong-willed, “ice bitch” wife to Vice President and HOC protagonist Frank Underwood, was raped by her boyfriend in college when she meets him again at a pinning ceremony for his military service. For one of the first times, we see the resolute Claire struggle a bit, but she holds strong through the ceremony. Later, in an unusual showing of vulnerability, she speaks about how she has worked to silence the memories she has.
“Every time I think of her pinned down like that, I strangle her, Francis. So she doesn’t strangle me. I have to. We have to. The alternative is – it’s unlivable.”
Claire, it appears, rebuilt her sense of self following her attack by hardening herself off to the trauma, refusing to let the memory invade her present consciousness. In such a way, her anger has fueled her; she found strength in her silence, building a life of power and influence (however ruthless that influence may be), unwilling to let her attacker keep her from realizing her goals. Her actions reflect much of the complexity of trauma described by Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery. As irrevocable memory, Claire’s attack will forever be present in her consciousness, and to deal with the trauma, she appears locked in constriction, a state of altered, numbed consciousness in which a survivor experiences a sense of detached calm. This is evident in her behavior and the way she refers to herself experiencing trauma in the third person, stating “…I strangle her, Francis. So she doesn’t strangle me,” as though she is observing the trauma she experienced during the attack and every subsequent time it comes up again in memory from outside her body, feeling that “the event is not happening to her”. Perhaps this is the root of her “ice bitch” mentality; to protect herself from painful intrusion, she remains continually in such a state of detached constriction. However, luckily for her, it seems, she has been able to utilize this detached nature to exert power within the political sphere, and in this way she has achieved much success.
But what is justice for Claire? It’s clear that no legal justice occurred in this situation, nor does it appear that Claire has spoken with anyone about it other than those very close to her. Whether she refrained from speaking out about her attack because of her own desires or because she knew it would likely be unsuccessful to come forward is unknown. Yet it seems her trauma drives her; after experiencing something so awful, she learned to block the memory out, putting her head down and working hard and strong until she became the influential political figure she is at present. She is together, controlled, powerful – that is, until she meets her attacker again at the ceremony and later when, in a media interview, she is drawn into revealing her attack – but at what cost? As the news of her attack begins to circulate, she finds herself at the other end of a personal “devil’s choice,” and it is unclear as to whether the decision to achieve traditional justice by coming forward is worth the risk to her career and emotional well-being after years of pushing the memory away. Sharing a traumatic story is extremely hard for anyone, especially a prominent public figure like Claire who will surely have to contend with many media attacks. Is gaining a more traditional sense of justice by telling her story really worth it? While she was hardened by “strangling” the memory of her attack, she did come out a stronger woman, and viewers may wonder whether through her success she achieved her own form of justice, unconventional but just as salient for her. At the end of the day, isn’t that salience, regardless of whether or not we can classify it as “justice,” what really matters?
Regardless, I am pleased with what House of Cards’s writers have presented in this storyline and the tough questions they are motivating viewers like me to think through. True justice isn’t “one size fits all,” and we must push ourselves to ask these questions in the aftermath of traumatic situations like Claire’s to determine what is right and what is just for the victim.
Bevernage, Berber. “Introduction.” History, Memory, and State-sponsored Violence: Time and Justice. New York: Routledge, 2012. 1-19. Print.
Herman, Judith Lewis. “Trauma.” Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. London: Pandora, 1992. Print.
Willimon, Beau. “Chapter 15.” House of Cards. Netflix. 14 Feb. 2014. Television.