The title of this diary is the title of an essay by Roxane Gay. A few days ago I posted this diary.
It is intended as a short introduction to Gay and her just published collection of essays. I am in the process of reading the book and learning more about her and her talents. I am making interesting and delightful discoveries.
Gay is an assistant professor of English in the MFA program at Purdue. She has the academic credentials and a growing body of published fiction that is getting both critical and popular attention. Her parents were immigrants from Haiti and she grew up in middle class circumstances in suburban environments. However, her life has hit some rough bumps along the road.
The Bad Feminist book is a collection of essays, most of which have been previously published in other places. The one I am focusing on here is clearly the best one I have read so far in the collection. Because a version of it was originally published online I can provide a link and some quotes. I can't begin to do it justice with a second hand presentation. I hope to temp people into reading the entire essay. It is well worth the time.
This essay is about sexual violence and how it is usually presented in the media in what Gay sees as a sensationalist manner that desensitizes the public to the pervasive influence of the rape culture. There is a piece of information about her personal experience that I think is relevant here to which she only alludes to in a very oblique manner in this particular essay. Elsewhere she discusses it more explicitly. She is a survivor of being gang raped as a child in middle school. The experience created multiple forms of trauma for her that have had extensive consequences for the rest of her life. This very polished piece of critical and analytical writing is informed by her personal pain as well as her considerable professional skills.
There are crimes and then there are crimes and then there are atrocities. These are, I suppose, matters of scale. I read an article in the New York Times about an eleven-year old girl who was gang raped by eighteen men in Cleveland, Texas. The levels of horror to this story are many, from the victim’s age to what is known about what happened to her, to the number of attackers, to the public response in that town, to how it is being reported. There is video of the attack too, because this is the future. The unspeakable will be televised.
The Times article was entitled, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” as if the victim in question was the town itself. James McKinley Jr., the article’s author, focused on how the men’s lives would be changed forever, how the town was being ripped apart, how those poor boys might never be able to return to school. There was discussion of how the eleven-year-old girl, the child, dressed like a twenty-year-old, implying that there is a realm of possibility where a woman can “ask for it” and that it’s somehow understandable that eighteen men would rape a child. There were even questions about the whereabouts of the mother, given, as we all know, that a mother must be with her child at all times or whatever ill may befall the child is clearly the mother’s fault. Strangely, there were no questions about the whereabouts of the father while this rape was taking place.
The overall tone of the article was what a shame it all was, how so many lives were affected by this one terrible event. Little addressed the girl, the child. It was an eleven-year-old girl whose body was ripped apart, not a town. It was an eleven-year-old girl whose life was ripped apart, not the lives of the men who raped her. It is difficult for me to make sense of how anyone could lose sight of that and yet it isn’t.
Gang rape is a difficult experience to survive physically and emotionally. There is the exposure to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, vaginal and anal tearing, fistula and vaginal scar tissue. The reproductive system is often irreparably damaged. Victims of gang rape, in particular, have a higher chance of miscarrying a pregnancy. Psychologically, there are any number of effects including PTSD, anxiety, fear, coping with the social stigma, and coping with shame, and on and on. The actual rape ends but the aftermath can be very far reaching and even more devastating than the rape itself. We rarely discuss these things, though. Instead, we are careless. We allow ourselves that rape can be washed away as neatly as it is on TV and in the movies where the trajectory of victimhood is neatly defined.
I cannot speak universally but given what I know about gang rape, the experience is wholly consuming and a never-ending nightmare. There is little point in pretending otherwise. Perhaps McKinley Jr. is, like so many people today, anesthetized or somehow willfully distanced from such brutal realities. Perhaps it is that despite this inundation of rape imagery, where we are immersed in a rape culture, that not enough victims of gang rape speak out about the toll the experience exacts. Perhaps the right stories are not being told or we’re not writing enough about the topic of rape. Perhaps we are writing too many stories about rape. It is hard to know how such things come to pass.
I am approaching this topic somewhat selfishly. I write about sexual violence a great deal in my fiction. The why of this writerly obsession doesn’t matter but I often wonder why I come back to the same stories over and over. Perhaps it is simply that writing is cheaper than therapy or drugs. When I read articles such as McKinley’s, I start to wonder about my responsibility as a writer. I’m finishing my novel right now. It’s the story of a brutal kidnapping in Haiti and part of the story involves gang rape. Having to write that kind of story requires going to a dark place. At times, I have made myself nauseous with what I’m writing and what I am capable of writing and imagining, my ability to go there.
While I have these concerns, I also feel committed to telling the truth, to saying these violences happen even if bearing such witness contributes to a spectacle of sexual violence. When we’re talking about race or religion or politics, it is often said we need to speak carefully. These are difficult topics where we need to be vigilant not only in what we say but how we express ourselves. That same care, I would suggest, has to be extended to how we write about violence, and sexual violence in particular.The version of the essay in the book is an expanded version of this one. There she goes into a more in depth discussion the notion of the rape culture and male privilege. While this is material that I am fairly familiar with, she gives me new perspectives on it.