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It has taken me a year to write this review--not to write it, really, but to be ready to write it. And I wonder, correlatively, if you are ready to read it.
The question is one of logic, of probabilities and improbabilities. If a committed feminist writer like myself can reshelve a book on rape for months at a time, what hope is there of this book reaching a general readership with its story of trauma, narrative, and recovery, no matter how new or enriching or paradigm-shifting it is. What hope have I of convincing you to buy such a bookand to read itwithout saying something demeaning like, It isn't just about rape, or, It's about rape but it's also a very good read. And if I do try and sell you on this book, what happens to me? A feminist literary critic at the beginning of her career, I am tainted, just by speaking of rape and rape narratives. "Ruined" would be overstating the case (wouldn't it?). Think twice before writing another review at the intersection of sex, shame, and feminist self-consciousness, my practical side chides me. Even as I determine my willingness to immerse myself in the subject once more, I feel the undertow of impropriety sucking at my toes.
Last spring, around the same time I received my review copy of Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery, I delighted in discovering a website devoted to frank, intelligent discussions of sexuality: sexilicious.com. I visited it often, flooded with happiness just knowing a space like that existed in the world. After a couple of weeks of chatting there about such things as vaginal lubrication, cock rings, and other technicalities of erotic coupling, I received a strange phone call.
From a man.
At 5 in the morning.
He said we "met" online and wanted to get to know me better. I remembered no such encounter and ended the conversation quickly, returning to bed with a vague sense of violation. Surely he must know a phone call from a man I didn't know at five a.m. was inappropriate, would be construed as aggressive, disciplinary, exploitive. I felt caught--I had been talking about sex and was "found out"--by a man who, according to my caller I.D., lived in an area code nearby.
I immediately stopped posting to sexilicious.com, started locking my doors earlier, more methodically, nerves jangling in the backyard when my dog needed to pee right before bedtime. I spoke with my (then) boyfriend about the phone call and my fear, quoting the ominous 1-in-4 statistic, telling him most rapes occur in the woman's home, that in fact both women in the two rape autobiographies I'd read were attacked inside their homes.
He suggested I stop reading rape autobiographies.
I can't blame the whole year of procrastination on the discomfort of this subject matter, but it would be equally wrong to underestimate the power that fear of rape holds over women, and the urge to turn away. Indeed, this point structures Patricia Weaver Francisco's book on rape and the psychology of trauma--Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recoverywhich begins by establishing fear as a given in the female psyche: "women confess to interior conversations about rape that have an almost tyrannical persistence" (1). Francisco positions this internal dialogue opposite the paucity and awkwardness of everyday conversations about rape, proposing, "If the occurrence of rape were audible, its decibel level equal to its frequency, it would overpower our days and nights, interrupt our meals, our bedtime stories, howl behind our lovemaking, an insistent jackhammer of distress. We would demand an end to it" (2).
In particular, Francisco emphasizes the difficulty of sustaining a useful dialogue on rape between men and women--how men feel unjustly convicted by the very mention of rape, how eighty percent of marriages don't survive a rape. Where the rapist once seemed dapper, a la Rhett Butler whisking Scarlett upstairs to have his terrible way with her, now the more common image (a bastardization of feminist analyses) casts rapists as abnormal men, monsters, and there lies no middle space for talking about rape as something common in our culture, something that happens, something men do. If we perceive rape as part of a larger pattern of gendered conflict--the whole "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" thing--then perhaps women and men can work together on mending this painful rift. Thus warns Francisco, "men and women have a problem to solve, and the lack of rhetorical ground rules may keep us from going after it" (66). In this sense, Telling is not only about a single rape placed in context of a U.S. epidemic of rape, it is also about the power dynamics of language: who can speak, what can be spoken.
"Love is a word with no love in it, I tell my writing students, quoting the poet Donald Hall. Avoid abstractions, I say. Show us the peculiar way love looks to you, and we will learn something useful about loving" (79).
Likewise, rape is a word with no rape in it. The only way to say anything hearable or worth hearing about rape is to dwell in the particular, to push the grand narratives of science, religion, even feminism away in favor of the layered momenthow it's possible to lay face down on a bed, blindfolded, and still think clearly enough to plan on jerking your shoulder blade upward if the rapist knifes you from behind, to save your heart from being hit, or how the smell of gladiolas makes you edgy because for months after the attack these cut flowers, with their strong fragrance and associations with childhood and maternal protection brought solace into the injured spaces of body and home. These are only some of the "telling" details I found myself recalling at odd moments, weeks after reading them, months, glimpsing the sharp angle of bone just beyond reach while putting suntan lotion on my back in the bathroom mirror, pausing over the small bouquet of fresh roses Grandma sends home with me, first roses of the season smell the strongest, she says as I walk to my car.
In these particulars lingers the limited and limitless possibility of making contact, of moving a person to perceive differently, in this small window of time where I recognize her body in my body, her story in my story. And in the instant a woman sees the earth does not swallow her whole for telling, rape descends from the arc of myth and whisper, becomes mortal, a decision we make or don't make.
This notion of rape as a choice comes to me from Transforming a Rape Culture, edited by Emilie Buchwald, Pamila Fletcher, and Martha Roth, who define rape culture as "a complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm. In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change" (vii).
Nancy Venable Raine's memoir, After Silence, resembles Telling in thesis and structure. She, too, struggles with the tenacity of language, entrenched ways of seeing (or not seeing). Her chapter, "The Woman in the Amber Necklace" (an artful personal essay in itself), focuses especially on the pain and resistance of others to witness the fact of rape and its uninvited destruction of a life. After being told by the amber-necklaced woman that her "article was well-written. . . . But let's face it, no wants to hear about such terrible things," she returns to her desk only to discover "the cursor blinks like a caution light at a dangerous intersection" (119). Fortunately for her readers, she overcomes this writing block with flat-out gorgeous passages like the following: One winter many years ago I spent a week alone in a cottage on the coast of Maine. It was perched on a small rise fifty yards from the shore of an inlet, facing the sea. The ocean was icy even in August. When I looked at it in February through the picture window, the sight made me shiver. . . . The weather was clear that week, short days of bright sunshine on snow with the temperatures just below freezing. Then toward the end of the week the temperature began to drop. By late afternoon it was sixteen below. . . . The next morning I awoke to find the inlet and the ocean beyond transformed. Mists were rising up from the waters. The ocean was like a cup of steaming green tea, not cold at all.
All along the heat had been there, but I hadn't realized it.
It was like this with my shame. Words seemed to make it visible. (128) Both books, Telling and After Silence, use the personal journey to put a face on the fact of rape, wielding poetry to combat the call to silence so familiar to feminist writers.
Another important element shared by Weaver Francisco and Venable Raine is their research in the evolving field of Psychology, marked indelibly by Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery, which asserts the after-shocks of rape as a type of post traumatic stress disorder first diagnosed in war veterans and later in battered wives, extending for years into the victim's future, often unacknowledged and untreated. "Overwhelming terror, even a single instance of it," writes Raine, "can physically alter the brain forever" (60). The body holds the woman hostage, hyper-alert, "a terrorist inside my brain, a part of me" (59). Both authors also advocate alternative healing methods to accompany talk therapy, sharing their own initial skepticism at "bodywork" and other ways of grounding the self in the body, (e.g. massages, daily walks) and their ultimately positive results.
Despite my desire to support the genre of feminist autobiography, where personal lives provide compelling foundations for social criticism, I can't quite keep myself from asking whether the world needs both these books (awful! for shame! I know, I know). Venable Raine gives good reasons for multiple and frequent publications on this subject; not only because "[t]he rate at which information filters down from the growing body of literature about rape and other traumas is appallingly slow" (124), but also because "[e]very rape victim lives with a set of complex and infinitely evolving associations, and no two sets are the same" (237). Against what Weaver Francisco calls "the privatizing of grief" (199), many rape autobiographies might feasibly march forth.
Her unknowing reprise of Venable Raine's book does make several key points that do not appear in the former, such as the temporary solace of radical feminist separatism (against men and against media depictions of women) and her subsequent need for a world joined with men, a feminist heterosexuality that neither uncritically embraces het coupling nor exiles it as unsalvageable. While her use of fairy tale and time-worn feminist motifs of voice and silence don't quite come off as successfully as Venable Raine's, her argument--that, in order to create a world which takes her need for freedom and safety seriously, a paradigm shift must occuris as convincing as it is revolutionary, and deserves a more prominent place in her book and in cultural dialogues about assaults on the female body: "Women's beauty and sexuality exist," she insists, "for their own purposes in context with everything else" (220). (For further reading on this point, I recommend Linda R. Hirschmann and Jane E. Larson's Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex, in which they explore concubinage as an alternative to marriage, arguably leveling the bargaining table between men and women in negotiations of power, sex, and legal responsibility.)
One other reason I am cautious around a feminism centered on rape is that it deflects attention away from more everyday forms of sexism, letting slide the daily compromises and small gestures of hierarchy in the typical heterosexual relationshipall the hurt that finds no rhetorical expression or political weight, swept under the rug of the "normal." Focusing on outrageous acts of violence against the female body makes sexism seem exotic and unusual, extreme, distant. Rape activism, I fear, sells feminism by sensationalizing it, reminding me of evangelists preaching hellfire and damnation. Weaver Francisco recognizes this paradox of silence-by-feminism, writing, "Powerful unmediated truths are like straight gin; they can kill you, kill the 'you' in you" (116), but she cuts hers with a cloying sweetness (I'm thinking here of the Snow Queen fairy tale threading through Telling) that I find hard to swallow.
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Lucky by Alice Sebold, reviewed by Susan J. Brison, Ph.D.
© Lisa Johnson, 2001
Lisa Johnson did her Ph.D. at SUNY-Binghamton. She is the editor of Jane Sexes It Up, forthcoming August 2001