Editor’s Note: This piece contains a survivor’s account of rape and touches on abuse and trauma.
If you ask survivors what has made them strong, you can be sure most won’t credit the harms they suffered or the assailants who harmed them. Yet Game of Thrones writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss assigned this stance to Sansa Stark in “The Last of the Starks,” giving her a line that attributes her strength, empowerment, and growth to her history of abuse and to the men who abused her. And as a survivor myself? I’m livid with Benioff and Weiss, the show’s creators and writers, for giving such an inaccurate line to a character who deserves better.
The line in question occurs during a feast celebrating the North’s victory over the Night King and the Army of the Dead. Sansa approaches Ser Sandor Clegane, AKA “the Hound,” and they begin to talk about the differences in her. The Hound tells Sansa, “You’ve changed, little bird,” referring to the nickname he gave her in “Blackwater,” an episode in Season 2. He follows with, “None of it would have happened if you’d left King’s Landing with me. No Littlefinger. No Ramsay. None of it.” In response, she covers his hand with her own and says, “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life.” These are meant to be words of comfort, releasing the Hound from guilt. But instead, they imply that if she hadn’t been psychologically, physically, and sexually tortured, she would not have grown into a capable, intelligent, strong woman. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and it is irresponsible for Benioff and Weiss to suggest otherwise.
I know this for many reasons, one of which is my own experience. I was raped on Feb. 13, 2009, during my third year of college. I attended a party at a friend’s house, had three drinks, cut myself off, but remember nothing else — apart from coming to in my bed, being raped by a man who’d also attended the party. I remember needing to stagger to the toilet multiple times to vomit and after I returned, he said nothing and resumed his violations. The next day, I felt like I’d been beaten. There were many bruises on my neck and the skin on my lower back was rubbed raw. I battled insomnia for months afterward, relying on NyQuil to sedate me or waiting until dawn to feel safe enough to rest.
I didn’t trust another man for months, and when I did, I broke down crying at the idea of being intimate. I was terrified and panicked until he told me his story of a high school heartbreak and a hook-up he’d regretted: a past that mirrored mine enough to calm me into consent. Only later did I find out he’d lied about his history to coerce me into saying yes, a form of sexual assault.
While not as brutal, my experiences are much like Sansa’s. She felt lucky to be chosen by Joffrey Lannister, falling for his fake apologies and forgiving for his cruel behavior for a time, but later Joffrey holds her captive in King’s Landing, continually breaking her down. He threatens her life, forces her to see her father's head on a pike, and threatens to rape her during her wedding celebration to Tyrion Lannister.
She cannot find a way to escape until Season 4’s “Breaker of Chains.” She flees King’s Landing with the help of Ser Dontos only to be taken in by Littlefinger, who begins to manipulate her, using his love for her late mother as a shield. After his marriage to her aunt Lysa, Sansa is subject to the lady of the Vale’s torments, including another threat on her life. She is saved from death, but Littlefinger later pressures her to marry Ramsay Bolton, who beats and violently rapes her from their wedding night on. She only escapes Ramsay with the help of Theon Greyjoy, another victim of Ramsay’s tortures, and through victory in the Battle of the Bastards, after which she feeds Ramsay to his hounds. She later deals with Littlefinger similarly after he attempts to turn her against her siblings, Jon and Arya; she charges him with murder and treason, and Arya executes him for his crimes.
It’s true that Sansa’s character strengthens over the time these abuses took place, but it was not because of them that she grew strong. Her circumstances may have triggered her survival instinct, but in the end, she learned to do more than survive. She was able to thrive, to govern, to strategize in battle, and to make decisions independent of men’s counsel in spite of what happened to her, not because of it — and regardless of the words Benioff and Weiss put in her mouth.
I know this as a victim and survivor of trauma and a scholar of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr. Judith Herman’s work taught me that prolonged, repeated trauma results in complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and that this syndrome can cause chronic anxiety and distrust, explosive or inhibited anger, hyper- or hypo-sexuality, feelings of helplessness and alienation, and a need for justice or vengeance. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps The Score, adds that those with C-PTSD suffer flashbacks, operate in a constant state of “fight or flight,” and may work constantly to avoid facing their traumas. Deirdre Barrett’s book, Trauma and Dreams, states that this type of trauma causes repetitive nightmares that cause violent movements during sleep and sometimes attacking a bed partner. Sansa has exhibited all these behaviors, as have I.
More importantly, though, all three researchers agree that cumulative trauma results in debilitating fear. Once a person has been chronically abused, this fear becomes a part of their everyday life, continually revictimizing survivors into believing they’re unsafe and helpless — a “little bird,” if you will. Only therapeutic experiences such as inhabiting a safe space, finding a good support network, taking positive actions, and allowing time to pass can help someone become strong again, and Sansa has done many of these: remaining in Winterfell, reconnecting with her siblings, and focusing on the good of her people through leadership.
Even still, the memories never leave. It has been seven years since I was last victimized, but I still take medication to suppress nightmares and panic attacks. I still turn to therapy and research to heal the damage done to me. I still need to remind myself “this is not then.” Sansa finds it hard to trust anyone, even her own brother. She watches carefully for signs of power abuse and betrayal. She keeps herself safe by avoiding romance with any man.
I took back my life through activism, writing, mentorship, and a surrender to self-care. She did it through seeking justice, by ruling the Northern people she loves, and by refusing to submit to anyone, not even a female ruler coming to fight for the North or to Jon/Aegon when he swears her to secrecy about his identity.
Benioff and Weiss may have meant for the best when writing Sansa’s line to the Hound, but the words themselves deny the truth of her experiences. They refute the actions she took—actions they wrote—to heal, they ignore the psychological impact of cumulative trauma, and they could cause harm to survivors who don’t feel strong, either because of or in spite of what happened to them. Rape, assault, and abuse are designed to make people feel like denigrated, powerless “little birds.” True healing takes place when survivors reject that narrative and find power and affirmation elsewhere. This is true for me, for Sansa, and for every person who has ever been wounded by others. To say or imply otherwise is irresponsible and damaging, especially when writing for a show as popular as Game of Thrones.
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wrote Sansa’s story and should know her character thoroughly. She deserves to own her growth, not owe it to her abusers. She may be a show’s invention, but she deserves better. As for us viewers, we are not fictional. Our scars are real. We deserve writers who truly reflect a survivor’s story.