The first time I admit in public to having been kidnapped and raped by a man I used to live with, I am at a nonfiction reading at the university where I work. I’ve given enough readings now that I’m usually no longer nervous, but as I sit in the front row at this reading, waiting for my turn to approach the podium, I feel profoundly ill. Because I was, some time ago, a graduate student at this same university, audience members include my former professors and mentors—people I now consider colleagues and friends. Also in the audience are former students, current students, future students, as well as people I’ve never met before, and for all I know will never meet again. One reader goes before me, but I don’t hear a word he says. My hands shake as I hold the book I will read from—still only a galley copy then. My legs nearly buckle underneath me as I stand from my chair. My armpits swim. Bile burns the base of my esophagus. The blood rising to my face tells me that what I am about to do is shameful, embarrassing, wrong. But for 14 years, I have kept a silence. Today I want to break it.
The blood rising to my face tells me that what I am about to do is shameful, embarrassing, wrong. But for 14 years, I have kept a silence. Today I want to break it.
The story of Philomela seems relevant here — that ancient cautionary tale against speaking about rape, which is in many ways about the impossibility of speaking about rape. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philomela is considered a minor character — a princess from Athens who is raped by a somewhat less minor character, who happens to be her sister’s husband, King Tereus, a tyrant from a war-waged kingdom across the sea from Philomela’s home in Greece. After the rape — after she has torn her hair and scratched and beat her arms — she curses Tereus and vows to tell everyone what he has done. Half out of fear, half out of rage, Tereus draws his sword. But instead of killing her, as she hopes he will do, he cuts out her tongue to prevent her from speaking.
It seems impossible to speak about rape precisely because this threat of violent retribution is real, whether explicit or implicit, but also because of the widespread belief in our culture that rape is an aberration: a violence so unthinkable, so unfathomable, so taboo as to render it unspeakable. It is unspeakable, we are told, because respect for the sanctity and integrity of a woman’s body is the norm. This is, of course, not the way most women have experienced their own bodies throughout history. For most women, rape has been the norm and respect the exception.
I learn first from social media that, in the early-morning hours of August 12, 2011, a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, woke up in her front yard, still a little drunk, unsure how she got there. She learned by checking Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr what happened the night before. She got drunk at a party, where she was very possibly drugged, before a group of high school football players also at the party taunted her, urinated on her, carried her unconscious by her wrists and ankles from that party to another party, and to another, while they fingered her in public, in the back seat of a car, on the sidewalk as she vomited into the street. They flashed her breasts to anyone wishing to see, stripped off her clothes, and took turns slapping her with flaccid penises.
When her parents took her to the police station two days later to file charges, the pictures and tweets and videos bystanders recorded of “the incident” had mostly been removed. “My daughter learned about what had happened to her that night by reading the story about it in the local newspaper,” the girl’s mother tells the press. In a video recorded that night, one of the party-goers, Ohio State football player Michael Nodianos, jokes about men raping and urinating on a dead girl. Between each line, each riff, each variation on the joke, he and the person recording the video laugh hysterically.
“She’s deader than Obi-Wan,” Michael Nodianos sputters in the 12½ minute video to his own hysterical laughter.
She’s deader than Andy Reed’s son.
She’s deader than Chris Henry.
She’s deader than OJ’s wife.
They raped her harder than that cop raped Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction.
They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson raped that one girl.
They raped her more than the Duke lacrosse team.
She is so raped right now, she is just a dead body.
During the rape trial in Ohio, it emerges that the person who recorded the 12½ minute video, in which Nodianos jokes about the rape, is the same person who recorded a video of one of the defendants molesting the victim in the back of a car. He’s a witness for the prosecution and has been given immunity for his testimony. Although he admits later deleting the video because he realized “it was wrong,” he says he recorded it because he thought the girl should know what had happened to her. It’s something he wanted her to see: how she was naked, molested, exposed. The witness admits it was his basement where the 12½ minute video is filmed. It’s his laughter we hear. It’s his hand trying to steady the camera. In another room of that same basement, maybe even while he is filming the video, another boy takes pictures of the 16-year-old girl: naked, unconscious, lying facedown on the floor.
Two boys, both juveniles, are found “delinquent” (the juvenile equivalent of guilty) in the case. “Such promising futures,” one anchor says on network television. At the reading of the verdict, one of the boys breaks down in tears in the courtroom, sobbing like a child: “My life is over. No one is going to want me now.”
The girl remains anonymous in all of this, though a few reports have carelessly revealed her identity and then quickly redacted it. It doesn’t matter; most of the people in the town already know who she is. She receives death threats. She is ostracized, abandoned by her friends. In the comments section of any of the articles about the case, she might be called a slur I won’t repeat. Her attorney speaks for the girl, says she feels relieved: “She just wants to get back to her normal life.” He’s nodding as he says this, as if this were not already “normal life” for many girls.
Each day, women and girls come forward to voice accusations against men who are famous or unknown, who are powerful or paupers. They voice accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Matt Lauer, and Peyton Manning; against men whose names we haven’t heard before at colleges and prep schools and high schools and middle schools, in hospitals and universities and prisons, in the military, in law offices, even in the White House. We are told that these accusations are the exception, or that this is an affliction particular to our present moment, or that these women are lying or trying to get even or get attention or extort money.
“The finest trick of the devil,” writes Baudelaire, “is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
Each day, women and girls come forward to voice accusations against men who are famous or unknown, who are powerful or paupers.
In Houston, where I live, a 16-year-old girl known simply as “Jada” comes forward to publicly accuse two men of drugging her at a party, gang-raping her, and posting pictures on social media of her unconscious body, one arm tucked behind her back, legs akimbo, naked from the waist down. That these men post these pictures without fear of the consequences is only proof they have no reason to believe there will be consequences. Jada was not the only girl at the party assaulted in this way. These same men, along with other adult men, drugged other girls, raped them, recorded video of themselves raping them, and posted these photos and videos to social media, where they are shared and shared and shared.
After her assault goes viral, Jada appears on MSNBC to speak with Ronan Farrow, who draws connections between her story and the story of his own family’s history of violence and abuse. That February, Ronan’s sister, Dylan Farrow, had penned an open letter about her experience of sexual abuse at the hands of her famous and powerful father, Woody Allen. The New York Times published Farrow’s 936-word letter in an online column; six days later, the Times gave Allen 1,800 words in the print edition to respond, a retaliatory account in which he denies the accusations, calls them “ludicrous,” their malevolence “obvious.” According to Allen, the whole thing is a long-enduring revenge plot by Mia Farrow, Dylan’s mother, who was, he says, hysterical and vindictive that he had an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, herself a teenage girl when their affair began. In his account, Mia can’t be believed because of her own history of dating much older men, because of her spite at being spurned, because perhaps she lied about the paternity of her son Ronan — that Dylan’s experience is a fiction created by her mother, that he couldn’t have committed this crime because of his fear of enclosed spaces, that in fact the accusation is a crime and he is its victim.
When two men — Clinton Onyeahialam, who is an adult, as well as an unnamed juvenile — are arrested in December, Jada returns to MSNBC to speak with Ronan Farrow again. As before, she appears with a family friend, a self-described activist named Quanell X, who is her advocate, her spokesperson, helping to call out the police for dragging their feet and to draw media attention to the case. This seems to be Quanell X’s main skill. In 2011 he held a rally in Cleveland, Texas, in support of a group of 21 men who were later convicted of gang-raping an 11-year-old girl. At that rally, he blamed the girl’s parents for the men’s violence, blamed the girl, pointed to her social media profiles as evidence she had already been sexually active with adult men, accused the police of letting the investigation be run by the KKK — all of this in spite of the crime having been caught on video, which had gone viral by the time the girl went to the police. The excerpts of the video that could be shown over and over on the news were extremely graphic, though not as graphic as the portions that were not shown. All 21 men were convicted, but only because they had pled guilty to lesser crimes, some receiving sentences as minor as seven years of probation.
Quanell X is sitting beside Jada when Farrow asks how she feels about these two men being arrested, what she wants to see happen to them. There is a long pause. She blinks several times, then says, “I would like to see justice. That’s it.”
All across the country this situation is replicated with slight variations: a woman reports rape, is told that boys will be boys; a woman reports rape, is not believed. She is shamed. She is ostracized, traumatized, and retraumatized. At best, the woman’s life is forever and irrevocably changed. At worst, she self-destructs. Men, however, seem to thrive in a culture in which they can rape women with near impunity.
I know, I know. Not all men.
One man — a white professor in Georgia — learns his memoir has been rejected by a publisher YET AGAIN, around the same time that I give that reading at the university where I work. “What do I have to do to sell a memoir in this country?” he laments to his female colleague. “Get kidnapped and raped?” His female colleague thinks first of ignoring him, of saying nothing at all, but instead asks him if he is talking specifically about me, about my book. He says yes and makes some kind of James Frey reference, maybe accusing me of making the whole thing up to get attention and a publication. Months later, the female colleague resigns her job — I don’t know if the two things are related — and much later she tells me this story while standing in the kitchen of my house.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Susan B. Anthony, writing in 1900, twenty years before women earned the right to vote, offers this: “No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public. For nothing which they have attempted, not even to secure the suffrage, have they been so abused, condemned and antagonized.”
I am on the phone with an editor at a women’s magazine known more for its sex advice than for its coverage of contemporary literature. The editor has a British accent — I think it is British anyway — and she is asking thoughtful, sensitive questions about my book and my life, about what connections I see between BDSM and sexual violence, if any, and about my advice to women who have survived sexual assault and domestic violence. It does not feel strange or uncomfortable to tell her about being raped. I cannot, after all, see her face.
After we hang up the phone, I don’t hear from her or anyone else at her magazine again until weeks later, just before the issue is scheduled to go to press, when the lawyer for the parent company of this magazine asks to see the police reports from my case, claiming they need to do due diligence to protect themselves against a defamation lawsuit from the man I accuse of kidnapping and raping me.
Keep in mind: I do not name this person — not in the book, and not in the interview. I give no identifying information about where the assault took place — not the city, not the state, not even the region. The man is an international fugitive, wanted on the same charges I recount in my book.
Nevertheless, the lawyer for the parent company for the women’s sex advice magazine is concerned this international fugitive might bring a defamation lawsuit against them, so he asks me to provide copies of the police reports from my case. This makes me very uncomfortable. But after gnashing over the idea for a couple of days, I agree to send the reports.
Hours later, the lawyer responds by saying that these reports are insufficient to satisfy their burden of proof. I might have forged the reports, the lawyer says; there’s nothing preventing me. Now he needs the police reports to come directly from the police department itself. I offer a contact name and number. The lawyer calls and the sergeant from the records department informs him that though, yes, she can confirm that there is indeed a warrant for the man’s arrest, and though, yes, she can confirm the exact charges, she cannot send him the records because the state has laws to preserve a victim’s confidentiality rights, which prevent the police department from releasing any information about the case. The lawyer then asks me to waive my confidentiality rights and ask the police department to send the files from my case directly to him. He alone will determine their veracity.
I learn at this moment that there are some people who will believe I am lying about what men have done to my body no matter what evidence I present to the contrary. I also learn it is not my responsibility to convince them.
I learn at this moment that there are some people who will believe I am lying about what men have done to my body no matter what evidence I present to the contrary.
Jon Krakauer points out in Missoula that, unlike murder, which results, very convincingly, in a dead body; or a kidnapping, which results in the clear absence of one; or even a violent physical attack, which results in medically verifiable wounds or contusions; rape is the only violent crime with a victim who is subject, and subjected, to doubt.
We find expressions of this doubt in our long and troublesome history of men deciding what rape is and what it is not. Several years ago, Representative Todd Akin of Missouri waxed ignorant on the phenomenon of so-called legitimate rape, wherein he opined that pregnancy never results from “legitimate rape” because a woman apparently “has ways of shutting that whole thing down.” Although this claim shows appalling ignorance about human biology, the choice to distinguish “legitimate rape” from other supposedly lesser crimes is not without precedent in the law. Many states, following the Model Penal Code created by the American Law Institute in 1962 to influence and standardize criminal lawmaking, still require prosecutors to prove that a man used force in order to find him guilty of raping an adult woman, and in every state, there is a distinction between the rape of an adult woman and the statutory rape of a girl, which, surprisingly, is a fairly recent development. For most of the history of this country, statutory rape existed only as a crime of “seduction,” punishable not by imprisonment but by fines.
Critics of harsher punishments claimed young girls should be held responsible for protecting themselves or for failing to: “In point of fact, the white girl of twelve anywhere throughout the civilized world, unless she is degenerate and imbecile, is abundantly qualified, so far as intellect is concerned, to protect her virginity if she so desires,” wrote Representative A. C. Tomkins of Kentucky in 1895. He opposed raising the age of consent since “sexual desire belongs equally to the male and female human being, and the law-makers of this state were then, and are now, unwilling to inflict the heaviest penalty of the law on the male when there is a possibility that the female is also to blame.” He goes on to make his case further against raising the age of consent from 12 by drawing on “science”—specifically the “scientific” fact that “negro girls” go through puberty earlier than white girls, become sexually active earlier than white girls, and are more “naturally sensual” than white girls—a “fact” he cites as proof that it is impossible to rape a woman of color.
I refer to this abominable text only because this “science” still survives today. We see evidence of it in our justice system, our literature, our television shows and movies. It survives as attitudes, as biases, as stereotypes, as bigotry.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou writes how, at seven years old, she is raped repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend, who threatens to murder her brother if she speaks about what they’ve done. What we’ve done? she wonders. When the man’s crime is finally discovered, far too late, and when young Maya, then called Marguerite, is hospitalized with injuries and the man is finally arrested for his crimes, Marguerite testifies against him. The lawyer asks her if it was just the one time or if it was many times, and Marguerite feels herself caught in a trap: if she tells the truth and says yes, it was many times, the lawyer will use it as proof of her “natural sensuality,” that she in fact could not have been raped by this adult man; and yet if she lies and says no, it was just the one time, she fails to convey the full force of his crimes against her. No is what she feels everyone in the courtroom expects her to say, even wants her to say. The lie enters her mouth and she lets it escape.
Her rapist is sentenced to a year and a day in prison, though his lawyer arranges his release later that afternoon. That night, he is found beaten to death, likely by Marguerite’s brothers and uncles, seeking justice where the courts failed to deliver it. She is struck mute with guilt about his death and does not speak for the next six years.
Rape is the only violent crime with a victim who is subject, and subjected, to doubt.
When an institution like a court, or a police department, or a district attorney’s office, or a university, or a family does not listen to a woman who speaks about her sexual assault, they betray an attitude that women’s speech does not matter — not when we give testimony, not when we make appeals, not when we report the violent crimes committed against us, not even when we say, very clearly, no.
Perhaps the lesson isn’t, then, that the violation of women’s bodies is unthinkable, but that men wield immense power when they think about, plan, and perform an act that we are told is forbidden. To be sure, one can often find pleasure in doing things that are expressly forbidden. We can each, no doubt, think of examples from our own youth. And yet I do not believe that the exclusive reason men rape is because they find pleasure in breaking a taboo. There are also taboos against cannibalism, but we hear of people eating other people almost never. But men rape women every day.
* * *
“I don’t hear her say anything,” Bill Cosby tells a team of lawyers during his deposition in the Andrea Constand civil suit. “And so I continue and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped.” Cosby’s euphemisms and innuendoes call to mind an image of the violence without the language of violence. To speak frankly, to admit drugging and raping this woman, would produce horror and revulsion, because drugging a woman in order to rape her is supposedly an unthinkable act. Cosby’s language is playful, as if the woman—what she says, what she does, what she might want for herself, the goals she might have set for her life—are entirely beside the point. It’s as if the fact of his eventual conquest has the power to remove his culpability for committing a crime, to remove the crime from history, to remove it even from the realm of possibility.
This trick, in which a man disappears himself (or is disappeared) from his actions, isn’t magic. We perform it on behalf of men whenever we talk about this violence that is supposedly unthinkable. We talk about the number of women and girls who are raped—in high school, in college, in marriages, in an attic, on a Tuesday—but not the number of men who rape women and girls. We talk of the women and girls who are murdered, kidnapped, found decapitated or frozen or barely alive in the front yard, or on the porch, or tossed on the side of the road, but not the number of men who murder, or kidnap, or maim, or destroy them. Nicole Brown Simpson was a “battered woman” before she was a dead one, but the man who beat her, and very possibly murdered her, escapes our sentences. We call Andrea Constand an “accuser,” a label we apply also to each of the dozens of women, individually and as a group, who have come forward to demand justice for being drugged and raped by Bill Cosby. Our language shields him, disappears him from the scene of the crime, transforms his crime into an allegation, a suggestion, a rumor.
This trick, in which a man disappears himself (or is disappeared) from his actions, isn’t magic.
The lawyers for Owen Labrie — a student at a private preparatory school in New Hampshire — disappeared him in exactly this way from accusations that he had raped a 15-year-old classmate. The girl’s testimony was harrowing: Labrie took her to a locked mechanical room, where he took off her pants and removed her underwear, where he kissed and bit her breasts as she was crying and telling him, “No, no, no,” where he scraped inside her vagina with his fingers, and held her hands above her head, and penetrated her with what she believed to be his penis. On the stand, Labrie denied this version of events, telling jurors, “I thought she was having a great time.” He denied penetrating her, denied that she had said no — although, when pressed by his lawyer about whether he had perhaps kissed the girl’s breasts too aggressively, he acknowledged that he “may have been a little carried away.”
If getting “carried away” is intelligible as any part of a defense, it is because some part of us believes that all men have this inside them — an instinct to which he had simply succumbed. And in the end, that defense succeeded. The prosecutors could not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” to the jury — made up of nine men and three women — that the sex was “nonconsensual,” so they acquitted him on the charge of felony rape. But they could prove that he used a computer to lure a minor for sexual activity, a felony, and that he endangered a child, a misdemeanor, and these are the crimes for which he was convicted, along with 3 misdemeanor charges of sexual assault. He wept as the verdict was read, even though his defense had prevailed in what it set out to prove: that he was, in fact, just a “normal” young man.
* * *
“One in five women who goes to college will be assaulted,” Vice President Joe Biden says in a press conference. The year is 2014. A presidential task force has just released the results of a study on sexual assault on college campuses. I know these numbers are inaccurately low, since estimates predict that only 13 percent of women who are raped report the assault to authorities. The rest keep silent out of fear they’ll be shamed, fear of retribution, fear of invasive, inappropriate, and insensitive questions. “It’s a parent’s worst fear when you drop your daughter off at college,” the vice president says to his audience. “You say a little prayer for one thing: that your daughter will be safe. You pray that your daughter will be safe.”
The White House’s 1 Is 2 Many campaign launches with a PSA that stars Benicio del Toro, who is seated in a black leather wing chair in front of a fireplace in a wood-paneled room. “We have a big problem,” he begins, “and we need your help.” The problem, we are told by an A-list roster of celebrities like Dulé Hill, Seth Meyers, Daniel Craig, and Steve Carell, is sexual assault. The PSA encourages men to speak up, to act, to become part of the solution to the problem only they can name. The message is important and necessary, although it may be somewhat undermined by its spokespeople. Daniel Craig, for instance, is best known for reprising the role of James Bond, a character whose reputation for seducing women is topped only by his reputation for disposing of them. “If I saw it happening,” Daniel Craig says in the PSA, tilting his head to one side, “I’d never blame her. I’d help her.”
Del Toro continues: “If I saw it happening, I’d speak up.” It’s uncanny, really, because his characters don’t show this same moral fiber. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for instance, it’s Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke who speaks up, who acts, who intervenes when he finds his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo, sequestered in a hotel room with an underage “religious freak,” having plied her with LSD on the plane in order to more easily pressure her into sex once they reach the hotel. In the PSA, del Toro looks directly into the camera: “If she doesn’t consent, or if she can’t consent, it’s rape. It’s assault.”
Which is the real message? The franchise or the PSA? The paycheck or the community service? If our role models tell us they in fact have high respect for women and we all should too, how should we understand the roles they play that reinforce the opposite message: that a man’s value is determined by his virility, by the number of women he’s slept with, by his disregard for a woman’s body, her autonomy, her age? Do they mean it when they say that women matter? Do we matter or do we not?
* * *
I was 14 the first time a man raped me. It was February, Valentine’s Day, and he wore a baseball cap, stood with one hand plunged deep into his jean pocket; the other held out a bottle, offering a drink. We stood in a liquor store parking lot beside the highway. Where did I tell my parents I would be? He was a few years older than me. Tall, like a man, I remember thinking. What did I know? He was on the basketball team, over six feet tall. His mustache and chest hair appeared in earnest patches. He took a drag of his cigarette, blowing the smoke over one shoulder. He never took his eyes off me. What did he see? I lifted the bottle to my lips, tipped it back, and took a drink.
In the morning, my thighs were purpled with bruises from his sharp pelvic bones, a rust-colored stain on the sheet beneath me. My arm was sore at the shoulder, my lips swollen, full and smashed-looking in the mirror. I bent over the toilet while the night returned to me in heaves and waves: our lips met once, and then again, and then he was clawing and desperate. I wanted to move away from him, from what was approaching and unstoppable, and let a “no” fall from my mouth — then a string of them dripping like pearls. Afterward he dressed and slipped out the door. The bile in my stomach surged, acid and cinnamon and sweet.
When people heard what had happened they explained it back to me: “Slut,” they said. “Liar.” “Whore.”
That was ages ago, and very little about our situation has evolved. Then, as now, people will ask questions: What was that girl doing there in the first place? What clothes did she wear? To whom did she talk? At which jokes did she laugh? How did she hold her hand while she was laughing? Did she touch her tongue to her teeth? Did she cross or uncross her legs? What else had she done with her body that day? What about the previous day? What about the weeks or months or years before? What messages did she send, because he must have gotten the wrong ones. He was behaving as boys do, as men do. Men have needs. What did she expect? Then, as now, a community will coalesce to protect him — a chorus of accomplices, of friends, of parents and mentors and law enforcement officers, of district attorneys and judges, of lawmakers and teachers and neighbors, of celebrities and colleagues and football coaches and babysitters — who validate and corroborate and shield the man from the reach of the terrible consequences we might inflict. They have so much more at stake than only him.
* * *
Twenty-one years later, a few months after that first reading in the library at the university where I work, I am standing at the bottom of an outdoor amphitheater in Portland, Oregon, where the seats are filled with people. I feel certain the man who kidnapped and raped me when I was 21 is among them. I am planning, after all these years, to tell everyone what he has done. He’s here, I think. He has come to shoot me with a gun. But nothing, not even that, will prevent me from speaking.
And here I am, alive, still speaking.
If getting ‘carried away’ is intelligible as any part of a defense, it is because some part of us believes that all men have this inside them — an instinct to which he had simply succumbed.
* * *
“Maybe none of this is about control,” Margaret Atwood writes in The Handmaid’s Tale. “Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it.”
“Power,” says Foucault, “is a set of relations between two persons.”
“Power,” says Voltaire, “consists in making others act as I choose.”
“Power,” says Hannah Arendt, “belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.”
We all know that men have power as a group, but I want to be clear about something: women as a group do too.
Before Elliot Rodger murdered six people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, California, he had a long history of expressing hatred and violence toward women. He planned the crimes, and his premeditation is documented in YouTube videos he posted days and hours before the shootings, citing rejection by women as one of his motivations for the slaughter. In one of the videos he says, “I don’t know why you girls have never been attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.”
When women on Twitter begin pointing out that these attitudes of sexual entitlement are consistent with a broader, misogynistic, sexually aggressive culture, men on Twitter get defensive and assert that “not all men” are misogynistic or aggressive or homicidal. One woman — I wish I knew her name — begins tagging her tweets #YesAllWomen in response to the “not all men” argument, to make clear that, no, not all men are homicidal maniacs, but, yes, all women live in fear of those who are. Within days, millions of women everywhere in the world are tweeting their experiences of fear, intimidation, and harassment. At one point, there are as many as fifty thousand tweets a minute, each sharing an experience of everyday misogyny.
The backlash against #YesAllWomen is harsh, with women being trolled, harassed, insulted, and threatened. It happens again, years later, with #metoo, as women reveal they have been blacklisted, fired, sued. The threats and punishments are intended to silence us. In this, they must fail.
* * *
The phrase “speak truth to power” applies here. Often considered an 18th century Quakerism, a form of pacifist resistance against King George I of Britain, the phrase actually first appears in a letter from civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who was in fact a Quaker and who wrote a letter in August 1942 to the Quaker leadership urging them against providing spiritual support to troops being deployed in World War II. “The primary social function of a religious society,” Rustin writes, “is to ‘speak the truth to power.’ The truth is that war is wrong. It is then our duty to make war impossible first in us and then in society.”
As I see it, to speak truth to power means to struggle against various silences: the official silencing of a criminal justice system that claims to protect us but instead renders us mute; a cultural silence that seeks to discredit us before we even open our mouths; and the smaller, private silences we have sometimes imposed on ourselves. It is this last kind of silence I have found to be the most dangerous.
* * *
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of Philomela does not end with Tereus cutting out her tongue. For a year, she remains imprisoned, weaving a tapestry that depicts the crime she suffered at this war-king’s hands — threads of deep purple on a white background. When the tapestry is finished, Philomela gives it to a servant, communicating to him through gestures to deliver it to her sister, the Queen. The servant obeys, not knowing what message the tapestry contains. The Queen understands the message, rescues her sister, and takes her back to the castle in secret. The two sisters conspire together to kill Tereus’s son, Itys, and serve him as dinner to the King. While feasting away, Tereus asks after his son. At this climactic moment, Philomela reveals herself, disheveled, disfigured, smeared in blood, and throws Itys’s head into Tereus’s lap. As he begins to understand what has happened to his only son, he flies into a rage and chases the two women out of the castle, through the woods, and into a field before the gods finally intervene and turn them all into birds.
In some translations, Philomela becomes a nightingale, doomed to sing her attacker’s name for all eternity: tereu, tereu. In others, her sister becomes the nightingale and Philomela is turned into a swallow, a bird that has no song at all.
Two things interest me about this story. The first is Philomela’s metamorphosis at the end, which is either justice or a further injustice, depending on your interpretation. The second, and more important, is her tapestry, an act of courageous speech that is not speech, this way of speaking out despite the impossibility of speaking. There is much to be learned from this.
To speak truth to power means to struggle against various silences.
Perhaps it is useful here to return to those famous lines by Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” It is a powerful image. But though I have turned to these lines often, I think what she is saying has proved only partially true. Many women have told the truth about their lives, however impossible that may seem at the time, and the world has gone on pretty much as before.
As you must have realized by now, the world does not shatter after I admit publicly to being kidnapped and raped. My mentors hug me and offer kind words of praise and admiration. Yes, I have a few very awkward conversations in which it becomes clear that others find the subject of my rape a more uncomfortable topic than I do. I now realize this has little, if anything, to do with me and have stopped considering myself responsible for other people’s feelings about that. And though I felt compelled to protect my family all these years from the painful story I carried, my mother and I had the most honest conversation of our lives after she read my book. My husband, whose opinion matters to me more than that of any other person on this Earth, said if anything, he loved and admired me more. Though my fear was that this secret would come to define me as “that woman who got raped,” that I would be shamed, ostracized, shunned, what occurs with far more frequency is that a woman approaches me, soaking wet with her own tears. She says nothing, which communicates a story for which she has not yet found the words.
In the 1960s, Betty Friedan called domestic oppression “the problem that has no name.” We might now call the epidemic of sexual violence against women the problem that has no language.
If we are going to do the difficult work of grappling with these failures, it is not enough that we speak our truth to one another in private or behind closed doors, though this is an important and necessary step. I understand the fear of breaking a long-held silence. It is a fear that holds tremendous power. But if there is any hope for justice, we must speak truth to that power. We must tell anyone and everyone who will listen. And those who will not listen must be made to hear.
* * *
From The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M. Johnson. Copyright © 2018 by Lacy M. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
* * *
Lacy Johnson is the author of The Reckonings and the memoir The Other Side, which was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime, and the CLMP Firecracker Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Tin House, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in Houston and teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University.