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Published: Mon May 11 2020
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Notes on Writing about Sexual Violence

AGNI is publishing this essay as part of The Ferrante Project.

“What would happen,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser asks in her oft-quoted poem “Käthe Kollwitz,” “if one woman told the truth about / her life? / The world would split open.” Over the past few years, I’ve begun to question the truth of that statement, especially as it relates to telling the truth about sexual violence. What is the purpose and function of writing about rape? More to the point, what to me is the purpose and function of writing when writing about my rape?

These questions grew more painful to consider after I published my first book, which examined the long-term effects of violence and survival, and more painful still when I learned this book had ended up on the reading lists of various feminist tastemakers on Twitter, one of whom noted that she was using the book as a writing prompt for her students’ exploration of violence. Thus my personal experience was to become a jumping-off point for others’ creativity, my descriptions of my assault disseminated and refracted through the exercises of strangers so they could understand the effects of such violence themselves. My assault would thus become both symbol and trope, something that could be parsed and imitated until all the rage and humanness drained out of it.  I had always known, of course, that this one of the possible outcomes of publishing such a book, especially one that ended up in the maw of social media. But actually reading this student’s response to my essay, in which my assault was reimagined and repeated back to me in her language, made me feel both sickened and small.

Speak truth to power, writers and non-writers alike declaim, and now I’ve seen this phrase trickle through the feeds of people on Facebook and Twitter. The aim is to tell the truth of our lives as we see it, as directly and with as little remorse as possible. Such an outpouring of personal testimony has indeed cracked open the world, in part by reminding participants in social media that the things most American institutions want to forget about our nation—its violence against people of color, its killing of LGBTQ people, its seemingly implacable hatred of women and their bodies—stubbornly persist. There is indeed a power and value to truth-telling. But truth-telling relies on narrative, and narrative telling—even supposedly artless, immediate telling—is in fact crafted. It wants a particular response, and nothing crafts language so effectively as a Web format that requires you to express yourself in 280 characters or less, and sells these truth-telling nuggets in a stream of visual media, making it impossible for the audience to focus on any but the most extreme, compelling, and direct language.

Social media and truth-telling both encourage the reader, primarily, to emote. And having emoted, having felt all the things and thought all the thoughts the writer has asked us to think and feel within that limited format, we can walk away from the engagement satisfied with the blunt, brute fact of our feelings. Social media offers a veneer of authenticity that claims the authority of survivorship and thus makes autobiography and resilience satisfactory political goals.

A memoir about sexual assault guarantees a certain amount of attention, because it is sensational and because writing about violence encourages a kind of voyeurism. But while this may be one possible response, it is not this writer’s desire to make the reader participate in the imagined reconstruction of violence. And reconstructing another person’s trauma is not what we teach other budding writers about the purpose of testimonies of violence, in particular the testimonies of violence that women might produce. If anything, we argue, women’s testimonies should inspire not empathy (or not only empathy) but political outrage, in large part because women’s autobiographical writing has been so effectively suppressed over centuries. Women’s writing about violence serves as a public novelty, one which, if it does not always receive the social stamp of high art, at least promises an authentic expression of rage, of grief, of endurance and survival, and—most powerfully—of hope.

But I’m not actually that interested in resilience. I want jail time for offenders. I want politicians tossed out of office, priests defrocked, federal judges fired and replaced. I want a country that doesn’t treat violence against women as sexual entertainment.

~

Over the past year, I’ve begun to hate the book I published. The more I read from and talk about it, the more politically and aesthetically suspicious my own writing appears to me. Who had I written it for? Who did I really imagine as its audience? The project started, in part, as a reaction to the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which got me thinking about the ways in which sex discrimination has shaped my working life, which got me thinking about the sexual assault I experienced as a twenty-year-old woman at a coat factory where I worked one summer as a down stuffer along with several itinerant workers, one of whom attacked me. The book was finally published around the time that our current president, then a presidential candidate, admitted to grabbing women “by the pussy,” which made the #MeToo hashtag started by Tarana Burke in 2006 erupt into a firestorm. Into this storm my book was tossed, and while I was happy at first to add my voice to the movement, over time I began to feel that the book sounded less like me than an automated reply. Using the same language that has characterized the experience of so many other women certainly brings me into community with them, but that shared language also makes the stories of survivors feel depressingly interchangeable and flat.

Perhaps this flattening is created in part by our social expectations about female psychology and women’s writing, in particular our assumption that women’s writing is primarily or only autobiographical, not imaginative, and that it stems from an institutionally disadvantaged position that we equate with pain. This, too, enrages me. It feels as though, because I am female, I was born into this language and psychology; as a woman and a writer, I am a grievance waiting to be heard and endured. At times it feels that the best I can do is pay close attention to that grievance, to give it a slightly different shape and coloration. By writing about my assault, I confirm the most inarguably authentic position of the not-male, and also the not-white: the pained, the wounded, the helpless, the small.

To speak about one’s assault in a way that feels actually authentic is to thread the needle through an incredibly slender eye, made ever more narrow: by the pressure of therapeutic services, which argue that such narratives are not only good, but necessary for psychic healing; political and social institutions, where truth-telling makes for good rallying cries and possible legislation; and by social media, which argues for ever more devastating expressions of the self to be streamed and consumed and disseminated.

Effective writing about violence shares many of the aesthetic traits of political language, which is to say its directness resists excessive or subtle interpretation. It compresses time and context in order to focus on the moment at hand. Writing about violence authenticates itself through the performance of immediacy and vivid feeling. This is what suggests truth—and it is surprisingly, distressingly easy to duplicate.

The social media performances of grief, selfhood, and outrage I daily read feel suspiciously like masquerades. In my feeds, writers try to outshine and outthink the politicians and abusers inspiring our outrage, using language whose nuance rarely rises above theirs. In this way, we are shackled to victimizing doubles. As much as I despise the self-help books, the prayer circles, the thin whine of grief on Twitter and its overuse of the word trauma, the only identity that seems unable to be challenged or shamed is that of the victim. Thus I and others willingly write into and about how we have been diminished or shamed, to stop ourselves from being attacked by those claiming to be more morally progressive online, because the only way to keep yourself safe within that group, it seems, is to become the witting accomplice to your own self-objectification.

Refracting and repeating narratives of violence also risk downplaying or even ignoring matters of race and class in favor of the sensational act itself, even as race and class make violence a more or less likely experience for a person to have. It is not lost on me, for example, that I come from a middle-class family and was attacked by someone skirting the poverty line, that what brought us together was a coat factory that relied on both our labor to exist: me, the mixed-race college student earning money for her next year’s tuition; my attacker, a white man who moved from job to job, city to city, aimless and resentful of the opportunities I would have in a world he imagined pandered to minorities. It is not lost on my either that the stories we repeat most often online are those told by and about middle and upper middle class white women. Our retweeting and sharing of these stories replicates the culture’s co-opting of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo hashtag into the world of (largely) white and (largely) middle-class feminism.

The young student, consciously or unconsciously, performed this co-option when she imitated my writing. She understood that some part of writing about and against violence, especially the violence that women experience, is imitative and coercive. One does not have to be a victim of violence to render that violence believably or powerfully. The actual experience of an assault may be private, it may reveal the world to be artless and cruel, but the sharing of it depends entirely on creative skills, detailed images, and ideas of identities that can be appropriated.

~

 Even as I write this, it strikes me that perhaps I’m wrong to think we’ve become numb to, or jaded about, female narratives of pain. I think back to that look on Arizona senator Jeff Flake’s face in the elevator as he fled the Kavanaugh hearings, the moment when a protester pried apart the elevator doors to demand he hear about the assault she’d survived. I see again the pain twist across his face. Perhaps the reason the #MeToo movement hasn’t achieved more substantial victories for women is not that its language has started to feel formulaic, but that it really is too painful for people to witness. It’s too painful because it asks those who have not suffered to imagine the limits of their physical invulnerability—to realize, if only empathetically, that their sense of self-protection is a fantasy. We turn away from the language of violence not because it has become anodyne, but because we see how easily each of us can be made a victim.

“Perhaps writers like us really can change the world,” one young woman wrote to me recently in a private Twitter message. “Your book inspired me to tell my own story. You can check out my feed.” I thumbed down the screen to read it, the words of this stranger who, like me, was humiliated and hurt, raw and furious, her own terrible story wedged now between video grabs from a Trump rally and a trailer for John Wick 3. I stopped reading and her story flickered past. I wrote privately to thank her, added a few glib notes of praise, and told her I hoped she’d continue writing. Then I deleted her message.

 

The Ferrante Project: The freedom of anonymity brings together sixteen women writers of color (alongside sixteen visual artists in a linked project with the Warhol Museum) who anonymously contributed new works in response to, or critique of, the cult of personality, posturing, and preemptive celebrity of writers at the expense—sometimes—of the quality and provocation of the work itself. This is a collaboration between Aster(ix) and CAAPP: Center of African American Poetry and Poetics.

Contributors include Angie Cruz, Sarah Gambito, Dawn Lundy Martin, Khadijah Queen, Ru Freeman, Ayana Mathis, Vi khi nao, Cristina García  Cathy Linh Che, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Deborah Paredez, Emily Raboteau, Paisley Rekdal, Natalie Díaz, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, and Jamey Hatley.

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