One Saturday during the winter of 2018, I was staffing the weekend on-call shift for my job at a domestic violence shelter for immigrants and refugees. I got an urgent call from a co-worker, who told me that I had to get to San Francisco right away. One of our shelter residents, a Vietnamese immigrant and a mother with young children, had been attacked. She had been in her workplace alone that morning, setting up shop and getting ready to open for the day, when her abusive ex-boyfriend arrived. He entered the building, began to argue with her, and when she told him to leave, he beat and raped her. He recorded the sexual assault on his phone.
I arrived within minutes of the police, who refused to allow me access to the survivor, who I’ll call Linh, until they had taken a statement and collected evidence from the site of the assault. They arrested her assailant, who had been lingering outside the building, just around the block. She was distraught and terrified as I took her to the hospital, where we were ushered into a private room and met by a SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) nurse. She was an older white woman with a steady, gentle voice; she introduced herself, then used the hospital language line to procure a Vietnamese interpreter. Through the tinny, distant voice that came through speaker phone, the nurse explained to the survivor her options: STI tests, preventative medications, Plan B, a rape kit. She was going over these procedures when an investigator from the police department barged in, fully armed, to take a statement from Linh. He ordered her to tell him what had happened. He demanded to see the videos of the assault for evidence and shouted at her to speak clearly, to stop crying. It was a hostile interrogation. The nurse and I both filed complaints with the police department and to the San Francisco Department of Police Accountability. Nothing happened. As for the case against Linh’s abuser: The investigation was dropped, citing insufficient evidence. The police never even bothered to issue her an emergency protective order.
This incident is far from unusual. For survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, contact with police often means neglect, physical force, and targeted harassment, or entrapment in the criminal, immigration, and family law systems. It is no wonder that the vast majority of victims do not reach out to police for help. Yet the ones that do still number in the thousands.
Calling 911 or a hotline is usually the last resort in a series of attempts to get support. Behind every person who has ever had to call a complete stranger for help is a sequence of loved ones who had turned them away, an absence of community. A set of social conditions that establish isolation.
Three summers ago, I reached out to a cousin for help with an escalating situation of elder abuse within my family. My mother was the victim. My cousin and I had lived together for at least half my childhood; we had been like siblings. And though we had not kept in consistent touch as adults, I still turned to him in times of crisis. Though we had not spoken in years, I texted him about it. Later that night, he called me.
I loved my mother, had always loved her, and long believed myself to be her protector — in spite of, or perhaps because of, our difficult history. I took it for granted that my cousin would also be shocked by the details of my mother’s abuse. I assumed that he would also find it horrifying, or at least, that he would share in my distress. Yet he was not inclined, in any way, to help. Rather, he seemed indignant, almost accusatory in his defensiveness, in explaining why he couldn’t, wouldn’t.
Over the years, I had noticed his disinterest in my mother, but in my own intense loyalty to her, I failed to register it as anything significant. It was only in this conversation that I began to suspect that his indifference was cover for a much deeper aversion towards her. I quietly absorbed this observation while we talked; did not argue it. I dropped the request with the understanding that he would return to the topic on his own volition. So I changed the subject, letting him guide the conversation. I sensed that whatever was there was not for me to interrogate, but for me to create a safer environment to release. Eventually he asked me: “Do you remember much from when we lived together?”
“I think I was too young.”
“Well, what do you remember?”
“I remember bugging you a lot, stealing your baseball cards even though you bought me my own. I remember the big glass windows by the front door, watching Power Rangers with you, the floral patterns on the living room sofa. I remember fireworks on your birthdays.”
He laughed, said that I only held onto the good parts. Didn’t I remember anything else?
“I remember the police came.”
“The police came all the time,” he said.
He meandered in slow, skittish circles around those years. He wanted me to understand. I didn’t remember his memories — memories in which my mother had terrorized him, beaten him, held him hostage to her furious turns of rage. His stories were all new to me, yet they were consistent with what I knew of the mother from my childhood: violent, unpredictable, and so full of anger that I couldn’t understand. I had always imagined, perhaps naively, that the abuse had started with me. He kept telling me that I could ask him anything, but I dreaded what he had yet to reveal. It was apparent in his stalling that he wanted to tell me something else, too, yet was uncertain about if he should do so. He stopped, cleared his throat, sighed.
“Your mom… Are you sure you want to know this?” he asked. “Because nothing about this is going to make your life better. In fact, it’s only going to make it worse, and you’re going to be alone in thinking about it. It’s so long ago, you know? She’s not thinking about it, I’m not thinking about it. It’s just going to be you. Once I tell you, there’s no going back. I’m asking you seriously. Really think about it. Are you sure you want to know?”
In that moment, I knew.
For his sake, I didn’t hesitate.
I said yes.
He told me.
Apologized for telling.
“I’m just glad you’re not mad at me,” he said.
The theory of transformative justice grew from a set of impossible tensions: that sexual and domestic violence are widespread, that people can be reluctant to report it because they are so often victimized by those closest to them, that many victims feel forced to call the police anyway — and are then overwhelmingly met with neglect, blame, or additional violence. It seeks to rectify this situation by emphasizing the humanity of all involved, the role of communities in intervening in violence, and the impact of the criminal legal system in exacerbating and producing gender-based violence.
The term “transformative justice” was coined in the mid-1990s by a Canadian Quaker named Ruth Morris, a prison abolitionist. She was critical of the way that the “restorative justice” framework addressed interpersonal conflicts without talking about how they were shaped by larger forces, like racism and patriarchy, and was thus easily absorbed by the state into court-ordered procedures. Feminists of color like Mariame Kaba, Mimi Kim, and Shira Hassan developed the framework further in their work on gender-based violence, helping to popularize the term. Hassan, whose activism began in harm reduction, prison abolition, and community accountability more than 25 years ago, has pointed to what she views as the organic evolution of transformative justice in marginalized communities of color, sex workers, and drug users. “I didn’t know what it was called, we were just figuring out what to do because the police weren’t safe to go to and social services didn’t know what to do with us,” she says in a 2020 video from the Barnard Center for Research on Women.
In the 2000s, feminists of color expanded upon transformative justice as a counter to the pro-police politics of the movement against domestic and sexual violence. The anti-violence movement had, in its early days, worked independently of legal systems — and had even expressed outright suspicion or rejection of police — but eventually turned to a pro-policing approach to curbing abuse (to the horror of groups like Santa Cruz Women Against Rape, who in 1977 wrote that “attempts at ‘good relations’ with the criminal justice system have served to co-opt our movement.”) This turn was cemented by the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994 alongside then-Senator Joe Biden’s infamous crime bill, which tied federal funding for domestic and sexual violence programs to policing and prosecution. Anti-policing feminists and transformative justice proponents, like Kim, who has founded two domestic violence organizations, and Kaba, whose 30 years of anti-violence work started out at a domestic violence shelter, were themselves once victim advocates for survivors of rape and abuse. Over time, they found themselves disturbed by the broader anti-violence community’s overwhelming whiteness, racism, and uncritical support of policing and prisons. Transformative justice, they hoped, would be a meaningful intervention for the movement.
Within a transformative justice framework, communities address violence and trauma through collective action to support survivors’ safety and healing. In cases where it is possible, it also advocates for helping the people who caused the violence to take accountability. The Creative Interventions Toolkit, co-authored by Kim, documents real-life examples of transformative justice in action, and outlines possible models for similar community-based strategies involving three distinct categories of intervention: survivor support, accountability for abuse, and community responsibility for facilitating the conditions for violence. With the development of resources like the toolkit, transformative justice showed the many ways that people can intervene: by supporting survivors without judgment or blame, coordinating safe transportation, organizing shifts to stay with a survivor at their home to help them feel safe, having frank conversations with the person causing the violence, or updating organizational protocols to include a functional set of practices to prevent or address gender-based violence.
However, when people hear the phrase “transformative justice”, most understand it as a sort of community accountability process — which is but one of the interventions proposed. This type of process entails mobilizing the community to aid in someone’s transformation by holding them accountable for the violence or abuse they caused. It usually looks like a series of meetings with the involved parties, their support teams, and a facilitator; the group works to transform the harm into reparative acts toward the survivor and to support meaningful reform for the person who harmed them. For this to work, those involved must not only care about the violence, but understand it well enough to meaningfully challenge its convoluted dynamics.
I must confess, I do not have much faith in “community” — a loose concept that, on the left, often serves as a site of fantasy for our grander political aspirations, a panacea to the atomizing effects of capitalism. Over the years I have accompanied survivors through the many betrayals of domestic and sexual violence, as a friend, a rape crisis counselor, a domestic violence shelter advocate, and as a community organizer. These experiences have been instructive: through the quiet moments listening to abused friends or family, conversations with strangers on hotlines, and accompaniments to the formal, dread-inducing chambers of the courtroom, I have witnessed the devastating ways that disclosures of rape and abuse bring down social punishment for victims. I’ve since come to understand self-blame as a sort of paradox; an anticipatory, painful, and self-protective instinct that we are all trained into by our families, communities, and institutions, long before we ever come to regard ourselves as “survivors.”
The dream of community is one fissured by the realities of intimacy. When you tug at the thread of a survivor’s experience, what unravels is not only the story of one person, but an entire network of relationships. Pledges of empathy, care, and protection are easily made in the abstract, but when it emerges that a victim is a lowly human, not a saint, and that the abuser or rapist is not an unrecognizable monster, but rather, a cherished member of the community, solidarity is distributed much differently.
In other words: the promise of community is in its potential to heal, but in all likelihood, it is also the site of the most profound trauma. The violence is not only close to home, but in the home. And in speaking with my cousin, I was confronted with the intimacy of this cruelty, the depths of which I had never imagined.
For the rapist I love has always loved me more than anything else in the world. And I have always loved her back with the fierce loyalty of a first-born Korean daughter. As a child, I did my best to carry her loneliness, as well as her will to live. Still, she was afraid of losing me, and thus isolated me, abused me. To protect herself from her shame, and to prevent me from discovering the truth of this shame, she raised impenetrable walls of fiction around me. Fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins: all became loathsome, duplicitous, evil. She built her world around me, and I grew up sequestered within her. I learned to love what she loved and hate who she hated. I didn’t realize there were other worlds apart from the one she and I shared, and that in another, she nearly killed my cousin, the best friend and hero of my childhood; that she extinguished his belief in God, changed his life forever.
Rape is transformative, and its afterlife both potent and indefinite. To reckon with it is also transformative. But understand, this reckoning is not a hero’s journey. Under the cumulative weight of the violences that have marked my life, I do not emerge intact, or good, or brave, let alone victorious. I do not emerge any better or wiser for what has happened to me, or for what I have witnessed. A friend says to me: time passes, things change. But nothing changes what actually happened. And if you live like it didn’t, you feel crazy, and like you have no reason to feel crazy. If you live like it did, you can’t accept anything around you.
And so I understand. Why so many people must believe that such intimate forms of violence exist independently of them, completely external to their worlds, even when everything in our lives proves this wholly untrue. Why we displace the shame of our own lives onto those who call attention to our shared realities. Why we lie to ourselves, even when it may mean sacrificing the people who need us most — even when it may mean turning away from the possibility that we could change things, alter the course of entire lives, perhaps even generations. If we look away, we are all still safe; if we look away, nothing has to change.
Transformative justice, as envisioned by its most powerful proponents, is an important counter to the deep, impractical cynicism of the mainstream, in which permanent separation and legal punishment are viewed as the only correct responses to gender-based violence. However, as it balloons in popularity beyond the context of feminist anti-violence work, so, too, have people’s expectations. Transformative justice is narrowed and individualized to refer only to accountability processes. The specific dynamics of power and control that shape gender-based violence collapse into a nebulous category of “harm.” Idealists propose unconditional love in the face of violence. Activists with untested analysis or experience supporting survivors rush towards what they hope will be a politically tidy resolution, a sort of campaign they can win.
Many come to transformative justice with high hopes because of their ideological affinity as prison abolitionists, feminists, and survivors. They hope for victims’ healing, sinners’ redemption, and an unbroken community. But a transformative justice process guarantees none of these outcomes. They are not magic. They are no more and no less than a series of very difficult meetings in which the police and courts are not called upon to adjudicate. They may offer a structure for a survivor to have their experiences validated, challenge someone’s patterns of abuse or assault for the first time, or increase a community’s understanding of gender-based violence. But a person’s healing or transformation: these are often lifelong processes that cannot be expedited by having the right values and analysis, or enough people on board. As in any human process, many things can and do go wrong.
“Even in processes that start in an ‘ideal place’, where everyone is on board and clear goals are set… they can become really difficult to navigate,” said Sammie Ablaza Wills, a community organizer and former executive director of Lavender Phoenix, a group that organizes in Asian and Pacific Islander trans and queer communities and has wound up involved in transformative justice processes for sexual assault and abuse. “At best, there can be a sense of growth,” Wills told me. “At worst, it can feel like a replication of the violence itself.”
Rachel Caidor, a prison abolitionist and anti-violence advocate, has spent over 25 years on the front lines of community-based responses to sexual and domestic violence, including transformative justice. She observed that the burden of a “successful” process is often placed squarely on the survivor’s shoulders, who is usually highly activated and traumatized while they are being expected to lead everyone forward. While deference to survivors for what a process should look like may come from a genuine place of wanting to show respect and consideration, Caidor said that often, “it’s a total misunderstanding of what ‘survivor-centered’ means.”
At times, the burden can be overwhelming, even for those most committed to the idea on a philosophical and practical level. “My healing was delayed for years by choosing to do a process,” reflected Emi Kane, who has been active for the past 20 years in anti-violence organizing with formations like INCITE! Women and Trans People of Color Against Violence. Kane left an abusive relationship of seven years in 2018 and attempted to organize a transformative justice process with her ex-partner. Today, she says that given the chance to start over, “I wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have tried.” Like many survivors, Kane believed that if she could somehow get her ex-partner to understand the harm she was causing, maybe things would finally change, and future abuse could be prevented. “When you’re in those situations, you just want so desperately for there to be something that would make everything make sense; make them see your humanity again. But in reality, being in this process, it further trapped me in a cycle of abuse, with my ex, and with my community.” Since that process concluded, Kane has had hundreds of conversations with survivors nationwide, who have found her frank posts on social media about her experiences resonant. For many survivors, sometimes it isn’t more engagement with their abusers that’s needed — but distance.
To Kane and others in similar positions, the mantra of “no one is disposable” — popularized by activists like Dean Spade and Tourmaline to describe their case for prison abolition and transformative justice — became personal. If they walked away or refused reconciliation, was that akin to cruelty or punishment? If they didn’t try harder, did that mean they would be responsible for any future acts of violence? If they gave up, was it all just for nothing? In hopes of shifting others’ harmful patterns they delayed contending with their own need for healing.
“The truth is, in these situations, there’s just a grief that is unresolvable,” said Kane. “I don’t know that we know how to sit with that discomfort, that there are some things that will not be resolved through any kind of intervention. And I wish that we could stay with survivors when they need it most, through that uncertainty.”
When I was a child, my mother and I often went to the tidepools. She would pack our food for the day, small rolls of rice and seaweed, and remind me to bring a jacket as I filled up our water bottles. Upon arriving at the shore, we would follow the swells of the ocean, waiting for the waves to retreat into low tide before picking over the rocks like two small birds. We peered at sea urchins and anemones; gathered hermit crabs to feel them prickle across our palms. Eventually we would stop to eat as the sun radiated a steady heat down the crown of my head, which would recede into a gentler warmth as the hours passed. I cherished these days; felt the way the wind and water wore us down to become smoother, freer versions of ourselves. It was in these precious afternoons that my mother passed on her love of the ocean to me; perhaps the least complicated form of devotion I’ve inherited from her.
Then one day we arrived, and everything was dead. There had been an oil spill and we hadn’t known. The shoreline that had glittered and roared with all kinds of life had soured in its wake; become a discolored bruise of a thing. It wasn’t a slick of black and blue, freshly saturated in its damage as one might expect. Instead the coast looked stale, rancid; patterned with streaks of dark, greasy brown, a sickly gray, something the hue of pus. The tidepools were vacant of their many occupants. We poked around, put our shoes back on. Walked back to the car and returned home.
In the wake of the disclosure, I chose to believe the unbelievable about the person I have always loved most. In doing so, I orphaned myself overnight. My memories felt polluted; corrosive to touch. I wanted to vacate my history, leave no trace of myself behind in the life that had housed me. At one point, I asked my cousin if I could confront my mother, tell her that I knew. I suspected he would say no, but in those early days following our conversation, I did not know what to do with what he had told me. He indeed said no to my request, and then within minutes, reversed course. “You can tell her. You can tell anyone,” he said, “if it helps you. It’s understandable to want answers.” The quiet grace of it devastated me. He had never received answers of his own; had carried this secret alone for so long. Who was I to ask for more? What did I imagine I could rectify by confronting her, or anyone, with the truth? The story had no forward momentum; no way for anyone to be particularly useful. The victim had grown up. The perpetrator aged into a kinder, gentler version of herself, almost unrecognizable from who she had once been. It was an impossible contradiction. On the surface, nothing had changed. And yet my internal world had collapsed.
In the days following that first conversation with my cousin, I texted a few of my closest friends to let them know what I had learned. One of them, a friend familiar with my family, asked me: “Do you believe him? Do you think your mom had the capacity for that type of violence?” She knew of the ways I had long viewed my mother as an abuse survivor herself. I told this friend that if I knew anything from this work, it was that anyone was capable. I asked her, what would he have to gain from inventing such a story, one which he only found the will to tell three decades after the fact?
I had long forgotten about this conversation, but my friend remembers it for me. She says it has stuck with her in the years since. What had been intuitive to me, she reminded me as I wrote this, was not intuitive for most: my reflex to believe him, even at the cost of everything I knew about the most important person in my life, was not one that came as just a matter of common sense. Instead, it ran counter to it. Believing my cousin came as a reflex because I had carefully trained myself into it. It was muscle memory that I had deliberately cultivated over the years in service of my work. To apply it to myself felt like self-immolation. For years after, all I saw around me, all I felt was the aftermath of this burning.
I still return to that night often. That first year, it was all I could think of. When I walked outside, when I woke up, when I was in transit, when I closed my eyes, I would hear my cousin’s voice, crackling with raw grief. Of course I wanted him to tell me. There were many points at which I could have ended the conversation, long before the actual disclosure. Because at every turn, he had offered me a way out. And each time, I chose to respond with my own invitation for him to stay with me, if he wanted to. To seriously take on the work of supporting survivors is to understand that the choice to receive someone’s pain is as active, as careful, as the one to share it is.
“You only remember the good parts,” he had said that night. It’s mostly true. Though I can recall police cars, screaming, and shattering glass in brief flashes, my recollection of our shared years are largely filled with memories of him. I can see us then, almost 30 years ago, and the way I followed him like a small, determined shadow. I had delighted in my own persistent — sometimes annoying — efforts to remind him that I was there.
We were so young. When I look back now on our childhood selves, it is difficult to fathom how our silly, trivial antics over pogs, Power Rangers, or baseball cards coexisted with a type of violence that many adults could not imagine. It doesn’t seem possible that in this time, where it felt that entire worlds lived and died between us, that joy could have been present. For him, given what he silently endured, and for me, what I may have forgotten, or not been allowed to register.
And for what I was spared. Some part of me wishes that I had been able to follow him into what he had to endure on his own, even if I could not have protected him. Submerged within this wish is a deep sense of guilt, even shame, that he was targeted for the worst of my mother’s violence and that I was not. That I was thus separated from him and his experiences, made into a life size reminder of his aloneness and vulnerability. That my own abuse paled in comparison. That this was the reward, for having been her daughter by blood and not obligation. That any of this was supposed to be mercy, or love. For so long, he carried this trauma as a secret from me; protected me from his grief for as long as he could bear. From a distance, I unwittingly spent much of that same time preparing myself to receive the truth of his pain. Preparing myself to become someone who could bear to let a truth like this change me. Nothing will ever change the past, or be enough to rectify it. But there are two of us, now, who grieve it.
H. Shim has over a decade’s experience supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence, particularly in immigrant, refugee, and queer/trans communities. She is a co-founder of Survived and Punished, a national organization dedicated to supporting criminalized and incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence.