science of us

The Psychological Power of the Second Person

Photo: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

In Leaving Neverland, the new HBO documentary which details two men’s accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson, both men — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — speak plainly and matter-of-factly about their experiences. But one of them, James Safechuck, also adopts an interesting linguistic habit when recounting his story: He switches often between the first and second-person when describing his own thoughts and experiences. “It was very much a secret. He would tell me that, if anybody found out, his life would be over, and my life would be over,” Safechuck says. “And that’s something he tells you over and over again.” Later: “Your love for him is growing, and your relationships with other people are getting less … You start to think that your parents are bad, and that Michael is good.”

Using the second person to refer to one’s own perspective or experience isn’t an uncommon way to speak, of course; most of us use it, in some form, in everyday conversation: You might complain to a friend “You couldn’t see anything,” when it was you, not her, stuck in the back of a crowded concert hall, for instance. We also tend to fall back on “you” when we give each other clichéd advice, as in: “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” While most of these will go unnoticed, I found every instance of Safechuck’s second-person usage striking. What purpose does that universal “you” serve when used to describe something so singularly awful as what he endured? And how might it be useful, both to Safechuck and to viewers, to use “you” when processing one’s own trauma?

Perhaps the primary effect of these “you” statements is that the viewer begins to imagine her or himself in Safechuck’s situation, and perhaps that’s the point. Research done by Ariana Orvell, a graduate student of social psychology at the University of Michigan, suggests that one’s use of “you” to tell a story about oneself serves important functions, one of which is to facilitate a shared understanding of common (if not universal) experiences.

Orvell’s research doesn’t apply to abuse survivor stories specifically, but Dr. Jim Hopper, a psychology teaching associate at Harvard Medical School and educator on the neurobiology of trauma, says her research is consistent with what he’s observed in his own work. Particularly because abuse survivors feel that they’re unlikely to be believed, they may slip into second-person language as a way to suggest to those listening that it could happen to them, too. This may be especially true of male survivors, who are raised to believe that boys and men are sexual aggressors, not victims. “For boys and men, there’s a particular concern of being stigmatized, as if something must be terribly wrong with them that this happened to them,” he says. “For them to use this language too, like ‘Hey this could be you,’ to other men and other people listening, is a human response.”

Hopper, who also provides assault training to police officers and prosecutors, says he deliberately uses inclusive language to make a similar point. “When I teach the neurobiology of trauma to cops and prosecutors, I continually say, this could be you. Or I’ll say, this is how our brains respond,” he says. “I often use the word ‘our’ to include myself and them, because I’m up there as the authority.” By using inclusive or second-person terminology, we’re better able to emphasize that our experiences aren’t entirely individual. In lighter circumstances, “you-” directed language might be meant to inspire, or advise (Orvell cites “You can actually learn a lot from others who see things differently than you” as an example), but in the case of sexual abuse — a crime experienced by one in six men and one in four women — it serves as dire reminder to not think yourself exempt, or invincible.

Using “you” instead of “I” serves a protective function as well, and may be indicative of dissociation, a common trauma response in which a person disconnects from his own thoughts, feelings, and memories. In a story for the New York Times, trauma counselor Hassan al-Zeyada used the second-person he so often saw in his patients to recount an air strike on his family home in the Gaza Strip. “You try to help the people with their suffering,” he told writer Anne Barnard. “It’s totally different when you have the same experience. You lose six from your family — three brothers, your mom, one of your nephews, your sister-in-law.” Catching himself, Barnard writes, Zeyada “took a mental step back … he was exhibiting dissociation, speaking in the second person to distance himself from pain, as well as denial.”

“If dissociation is a disconnection of your awareness from unwanted, unpleasant, disturbing body sensations, images, and thoughts, and you’re being repeatedly sexually abused by an older guy who is also doing nice things for you, you’re going to expect dissociation,” says Hopper. In fact, dissociation is a function of the so-called “grooming” done by alleged predators like Jackson, a process in which which gifts, favors, and slowly escalating exposure to sexual imagery and activity makes sexual abuse seem normal, even welcomed. “The child learns you can pay attention to the things you like, and the cool things they’re buying you, but you don’t have to pay attention to what feels uncomfortable to you,” adds Hopper.

In essence, the use of “you” by abuse survivors serves to pull you in as it pushes the speaker himself away. “On the one hand they’re distancing, and on the other hand they’re trying to pull you in a little bit from your attempt to distance from them,” says Hopper. Safechuck and Robson (and, surely, Jackson’s other alleged victims) take no apparent delight in telling their stories. They clearly wish these things hadn’t happened to them. But if they must be here, recounting private traumas for an often critical public, they want you to know it could just have easily been you.

The Psychological Power of the Second Person