Understanding How Domestic Violence (Re)Shapes Identity: A Conversation with Jessica Sims

Jessica SimsJessica Sims, a doctoral candidate in Stony Brook’s Department of Philosophy, received the 2016-17 American Fellowship from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) for her work developing a therapeutic approach to help victims of domestic violence.

In this interview with Francisco Delgado, Sims discusses the value of interdisciplinary work, her concept of “existential captivation” that explains why some victims of domestic violence refuse to leave their attackers, and how her experience applying for the AAUW American Fellowship actually helped hone her research focus.

Existential Captivation: Understanding How Domestic Violence (Re)Shapes Identity

Delgado: What are some of the things you have learned over the course of this project?

Sims: My research began with a simple, yet seemingly unanswerable question: why do so many victims of domestic violence find it difficult to leave their abusers? This is of course a question that many people immediately understand and identify with, but few can offer a satisfying answer. In a quest for answers, I began with a study of ancient and contemporary philosophical theories about the nature and structure of human consciousness. There I discovered that one can view the human being as a unique entity that must cultivate a personal connection to the surrounding world. Further research demonstrated that one’s own identity can severely break down in situations wherein specific coercive behaviors are employed against her. Furthermore, I found that a person’s identity does not simply disintegrate in these instances, but instead becomes pliable and thus provides an abusive partner with an opportunity to actually reform it to his own liking. I call the process whereby an abuser hijacks a victim’s identity through the repeated application of psychological coercion “existential captivation.” Prolonged exposure to existential captivation proves to alter a victim’s personal identity in the manner of an addiction.Once altered, her new identity is likely to persist until the she locates a safe place wherein she has the sufficient time and support needed for rehabilitation.

Delgado: Were there any preexisting models for your project that you found particularly helpful?

Sims: There are no preexisting models that have aided my research. Part of what I find compelling about this avenue of research is the fact that so little has been written about the issue of domestic violence from a philosophical perspective. The fact that it has not been taken up in philosophical debates does not mean that it is not worthy of discussion. On the contrary, it is an urgent issue that effects numerous aspects of private and public life, demanding attention from all aspects of the academic community. A couple of reasons for the neglect of this problem in philosophical circles might be the fact that women are extremely underrepresented within the discipline of philosophy as a whole, and moreover the training we receive primarily prepares us for theoretical research. The atmosphere surrounding women in philosophy and the practical application of philosophical theories does however show some signs of changing. In fact, just this year my project has received national recognition and my colleague in the philosophy department, Eva Boodman, also received an award from the NYC Public Humanities Institute for her research on operations of power and knowledge within educational institutions, including prison populations.

Delgado: Could you tell us more about the therapeutic approach you developed to assist victims of domestic abuse? What, for instance, does it entail?

Sims: When I first set out on this project I had proposed to develop a therapeutic approach to help victims of this type of abuse reclaim their personal autonomy. Now that the research has really taken shape it has become clear that simply outlining the problem and explaining how it takes place is a dissertation project in and of itself. My present work demonstrates that an individual who suffers from existential captivation is uniquely vulnerable because she is at the mercy of an abuser who seeks not merely to physically assault her, but rather to rob her of her human potential for the sake of placing it into his own service.

In effect, my work touches on a phenomenon more closely related to human enslavement rather than felony assault. My hope is that this research can begin to help advocates, therapists, and law enforcement gain greater access to the disturbing phenomenon that takes place between a victim and her abuser. I look forward to using this research in the next phase of my career. I plan to partner with community leaders who are already working to end a variety of problems that involve this form of abuse. Domestic violence and human trafficking are just two examples of abusive situations that employ existential captivation as a means to keep victims quiet and compliant.

I am deeply committed to finding ways to liberate these individuals, and the first step in that process is making visible the subterranean methods that abusers use to turn victims against themselves. Any therapy that seeks to rehabilitate existentially captivated individuals must begin with an understanding that the victim is not responsible for her abuse, that the abuse has likely altered her identity in fundamental ways, and finally that she undoubtedly needs help freeing herself from the invisible net that has been cast about her.

Delgado: Your current project links philosophy, sociology, and psychology. How did your philosophy training prepare you for such interdisciplinary work?

Sims: The training that one receives in a philosophy department is twofold. Philosophy students are responsible for educating themselves about distinct philosophical theories, while they are also trained in a number of interpretive methods that allow them to examine those theories (and ones from other disciplines) with a critical eye. Stony Brook’s Department of Philosophy is unique insofar as it partners with a number of others such as women and gender studies, physics, and religious studies to name a few, in order to facilitate direct research between disciplines. My formal training in critical thought coupled with the collaborative atmosphere in the philosophy department here made it possible for me to confidently delve into works traditionally associated with psychology, psychoanalysis, and sociology and thereby draw independent conclusions about research in each of those areas.

AAUW Fellowship: Application Process

Delgado: When or how did you hear about the AAUW fellowship? What about it appealed to you?

Sims: : I discovered the American Association of University Women (AAUW) fellowship on the SBU Graduate School website under External Funding Opportunities. The American Dissertation Fellowship is designated for women in the final year of their doctoral research who are seeking to promote the flourishing of women and girls. This fellowship appealed to me because it provided the financial and community support I needed to complete my research, which aims to understand how psychological coercion can effect self-identity and, moreover, prime individuals for prolonged abuse. I felt that AAUW would support my research and its purpose to explain and remedy the dehumanization of women that takes place in domestic violence as well as other associated capture crimes. My experience with this amazing network of women not only confirms my initial assumption, but, in all honesty, has completely surpassed my expectations.

Delgado: Was this your first fellowship you applied for? If not, how do you think your previous application experiences helped you write this one?

Sims: : The AAUW American Dissertation Fellowship was the first fellowship that I ever applied for, but I did not receive it on my first attempt. I applied to five or six additional fellowships that year, but was rejected by all of them. The AAUW award continued to stand out to me because it most closely aligned with my interests and research. When the call for applications went out the following year I decided to give it another try. I was in a much better position the second time around because the application’s long list of pointed questions and reflective essay had deeply affected my research after my initial rejection for the award. I found that the AAUW’s intense application process had actually encouraged me to focus on the practical dimensions of my deeply theoretical work that I had not completely thought through at the time of my first application. In particular, it pushed me to affirm my commitment to women and girls and thereby encouraged me to realize my own potential for that end. It was with this new insight and conviction that I reapplied for the award and was finally selected for it

Delgado: Having ultimately succeeded with your fellowship application, what advice would you give to any graduate student seeking an external fellowship?

Sims: : My best advice is to be selective. Spend your time wisely by applying for fellowships that truly suit your research interests and honestly reflect your progress to degree. For example, if you are just starting out on your dissertation, then a review committee is going to have a hard time believing your claim that you will be prepared to defend the following spring. Really dedicate your time to those applications that you qualify for. What I’m saying is that it’s about quality over quantity. Be the champion of your own ideas. If you are truly passionate about your project and can effectively communicate it to others, then chances are that others will embrace it as well. I had real passion for my project once the second round of AAUW applications rolled around and this certainly came across to the readers. I truly believe that this played a large role in my project’s having been selected.

Delgado: Thank you, Jessica

Francisco Delgado is a PhD candidate in English. His dissertation examines how multi-ethnic American writers use the dystopian genre to address racism, classism, and misogyny. He is also a 2016-17 Humanities New York Public Humanities Fellow.