email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BodiesBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecause We Are BadBecoming AnnaBecoming MyselfBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGetting OffGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Am Dynamite!I Am I Am I AmI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMaybe You Should Talk to SomeoneMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNever EnoughNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Apparent DistressNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsRXScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabServing the ServantSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family GeneThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Neuroscientist Who Lost Her MindThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Quiet RoomThe RecoveringThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou All Grow Up and Leave MeYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
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