Laura Barcella | Longreads | November 2018 | 12 minutes (3,191 words)

In a 2015 documentary called “India’s Daughter,” one of Jyoti Singh Pandey’s rapists, Mukesh Singh, gave a disturbing jail-cell interview in which he placed the blame for his crime squarely on his dead victim. “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he said.

Singh’s quote is despicable, but it neatly summarizes many of the internalized myths that women all over the world walk around with each day: that women have a say in whether we end up brutalized. That we can twist our own fate by making simple choices like staying home at night, or not wearing skirts, or abstaining from drinking. It helps rapists rationalize their actions, and it makes women feel like we retain a semblance of control over what happens to us. Of course, it’s not true.

What do you think about when you think about rape? If you’re someone who has also been a victim, you might think about power, the nebulous lines of control. You might think about the outfit you wore and the plan you’d made for innocent fun with a guy you met twice before. You might think about drinking wine on the patio, of consent given and later revoked. You might think about ripped underwear; the dirt beneath the nails of his callused, unfeeling fingers; and the massive blue bruises you got in places you don’t remember being bruised before or since. You might think about the shame and humiliation of the morning after, of not knowing who to tell or what hotline to call or what to preserve in a garbage bag as “evidence.” You might think about what your friends will say; whether they’ll support your story or find a way to warp it into your fault (“I’ve seen how you act with men when you’re drunk,” “but what did you expect, inviting him over so late?”). You might think about the walk-in clinic you visited afterward and the painful tests you endured there (yes, there was blood). You might think about filing a police report, or you might remember taking to your bed for a week and trying to avoid thinking about anything at all.

In her powerful but accessibly written new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali explores how cultures around the world handle rape. She approaches this intimate, sinister type of violence with a decidedly global viewpoint, delving into how both individuals and governments treat their victims, as well as how they navigate the nuances of sexual consent. Sure, it’s different in America. But is it better?

Although Abdulali had never before written a book-length feminist treatise of this sort — she’s the author of two prior novels — she is no stranger to the subject matter. In the summer of 1980, shortly before she was due to leave her family in India and move to Boston for college at Brandeis, Abdulali was brutally raped by four armed men while hiking with a male friend in Bombay. She was almost killed, but her parents supported her, and her life crept on. She headed to college, wrote her undergraduate thesis about rape, and published an account of her story in an Indian women’s magazine called Manushi. The article garnered attention for daring to discuss a kind of violence that Indian women were typically encouraged to keep quiet about.

Fast forward to 2012, when Indian medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey, 23, was gang-raped and disemboweled on a private bus while returning home from a movie with a friend. Singh died of her gruesome injuries two weeks later, and the case, publicly dubbed the “Delhi gang rape,” sparked an international outcry. Singh’s attackers received the death penalty.

Asked to comment on the case, Sohaila Abdulali, who went on to work for a rape crisis center in Boston, penned a 2013 New York Times op-ed. The piece went viral, drawing a torrent of personal letters from survivors. Though it was never Abdulali’s intention to be a “symbol of rape” — and she is adamant that survivors can live happy, meaningful lives after even the most grievous trauma — her history informed her work, ultimately leading Abdulali to write What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape (The New Press).

The book is not your typical pop-academia offering. It takes a conversational approach to a painful subject, while still managing to avoid making light of rape or its legacy. Abdulali is careful not to speak for all survivors, acknowledging how rape’s after-effects manifest differently for everyone. And she examines the darkest questions surrounding what we don’t say about rape; for example, must rape victims be forever defined by someone else’s crime? Can rape ever be about sex instead of power? How can survivors find joy while still honoring their rage?

“We must talk about rape, and we must talk about how we talk about rape,” she writes at the book’s beginning.

I discussed the book with the author over coffee on New York City’s Lower East Side.

Laura Barcella: Tell me how the book came about.

Sohaila Abdulali: I had no intention of speaking up. I worked really hard not to speak up. But somebody took a picture of the old [Manushi] article I had written about my rape, and they posted it on Facebook. Then everything went crazy, because rape was the only topic anybody was talking about in India. But they couldn’t find any victims; nobody would speak up.

They found me and [I got the] New York Times offer, which worked out really nicely because it was the best possible platform and I could write that one piece and then say ‘no’ to every single person after that. In the last five years, I got away from the topic, wrote a column, did other stuff. Last year, I thought I would do a book. So I wrote to a publisher and said, ‘How about a book?’ And she wrote back saying, ‘What about a rape memoir?’ So I [told her,] ‘I’m fed up of this topic, and I don’t want to write about it. I can’t write a rape memoir because it’s not a main thing in my life anymore.’ She wrote back and said, ‘You don’t have to write a memoir. But you’ve obviously thought a lot about this and you have a lot to say; why don’t you just write a book about it?’ This was before #MeToo.

So I started off with the idea that I would write this book about something nobody is talking about.

Then I started writing it, and #MeToo happened. Just this week [in mid-October], India has gone crazy. #MeToo has exploded there; a government minister just resigned. For the first time in our history, women are being taken seriously there. It’s amazing. The book is coming out at the right time; it happened organically. The minute I started writing it, I was obsessed, and I got to talk to the most amazing survivors.

I had no intention of speaking up. I worked really hard not to speak up.

How did you find the survivors you interviewed for the book?

I found them through word of mouth. Also, when my New York Times op-ed came out, about 1,000 people wrote to me from all over the world. I wrote back to every single one, because I felt like, how could I not? Then I felt like I couldn’t [not save] the emails. So I put them in one file and kept them. When I was working on this book, I had this huge data bank of people to contact.

In your book, you wrote about India’s Justice Verma Committee report, which was released as an official government response to the horrific 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey. More than 80,000 people weighed in for the report, which laid out new laws and amendments related to violence against women in India. Did the report have much of an impact on women there?

Psychologically it had a fabulous impact. It’s an amazing thing to read. The Indian government strengthened some of its rape laws, and they strengthened some reporting. There’s a little more training. But I don’t know if there’s been even one less rape there. So who knows if it’s made any [real] difference. It’s also a historical document. They listened to people, and they went out there and talked to people. I don’t know how they did it in just one month.

You touch on how we describe sexual assault versus rape, and how rape is seen as a more ‘forceful’ word for a more violent act. What’s your take on the language that we use to describe sexual assault, and how you decided to include the word ‘rape’ so prominently in the title of your book? Did you ever think of calling it, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Assault?’

No, because it was about rape. That’s a really good, thought-provoking question. All rape is sexual assault, but all sexual assault isn’t rape. The more interesting thing about language is the way that people talk about victims and criminals. You know, the whole ‘boys will be boys’ thing, and how people [sometimes] talk about rape using the same terms we use for regular sex. Like the term ‘gang bang.’ A gang bang — is that consensual or not? It’s used for both.

It seems like there has been a shift in the way people talk about assault, post-Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. I remember there was a lot of dissent about Aziz Ansari, and whether his alleged actions [as outlined in January’s article] ‘qualified’ as sexual assault. So much nitpicking over the language regarding sexual assault versus harassment versus bad sex.

We make it more complicated than it has to be, but also less complicated. Because with all those discussions, even if there’s no real answer at the end, we’ve never had them before. It is important. And if you read that woman’s [story], he was disgusting. It was disgusting. He stuck his finger in her [mouth]. But even I hesitate about saying it’s the same kind of rape as some stranger jumping you on the street. Still, that doesn’t mean the trauma is lesser. It is complicated, but we need to talk about it. The more words we have, the better.

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Do you think that our culture has gotten better at grappling with nuances when it comes to sexual consent? Or appreciating the nuances, if not always respecting them?

I don’t know about the culture, and I’m not on the dating scene because I’m married. But I do feel that in my own family, among the teenagers, there’s a kind of understanding and discussion that there never was before in my generation. So that’s good. But to be clear, with consent, you can have all the rules [laid out], but if you don’t care how the other person actually feels, then it doesn’t matter what you say. Everyone should actually care if the other party is into it. Seems basic!

What do people get wrong when they talk about rape?

Oh, everything. For one thing, the idea that women somehow bring it on themselves. I mean, we have countries in the world where that’s kind of the law, right? In Iran, if you show your head and you get raped, then you’re [responsible for] it. And also [the idea] that men can’t help it. Many of the men I know absolutely can help it, and they choose not to do it.

We also get the effects of rape wrong. Because we either act like it’s no big deal, or we act like it’s the end of your life. Even more so in India. But here, too, women are considered damaged goods [after being raped]. But the impact is so individual, and it doesn’t necessarily have to correspond to what actually happened to you. Like for me, [my attackers were] strangers, and I’ve always thought, ‘Phew, I am so glad.’ Because I can put that away; it’s not part of my everyday life.

What about the psychological trauma? I know it’s very individual and plays out differently for everyone. But what are some of the misconceptions out there about what recovery is ‘supposed to’ look like for a survivor?

In America, one of the big misconceptions is that if you’ve been raped, you’re going to have PTSD that centers around sex only. Which often happens! But we don’t realize [that PTSD] can also relate to lots of other things. Like, I have this chapter on dentistry. I used to be devastated over going to the dentist. I had flashbacks of my rape every single time I went to the dentist, but I didn’t have flashbacks during sex. So I thought I was weird and never told anyone until this dentist came along and said she treats lots of people [with PTSD from rape]. We tend to have certain notions of what trauma is like.

We get the effects of rape wrong. Because we either act like it’s no big deal, or we act like it’s the end of your life.

How did you feel about the Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford hearings? Did you watch?

Oh, I couldn’t stop. It was so painful and disheartening from beginning to end. The only part of it that was good was her. She’s a hero. I can just barely imagine the courage it took her, and the months and years of thinking, ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’ Imagine how she feels — it didn’t even work. It didn’t work, and he was crying and screaming like a stupid toddler, and he got his way. If this educated, articulate, white, blonde, American woman can get up there and nobody gives a damn, what hope is there for the rest of us?

In one of the later chapters of your book, you wrote about how there’s this constant knot of anger inside you regarding men who rape. I related to that, and many women I know have that feeling regardless of whether they’ve experienced rape themselves. What do you do with this anger?

It’s not the dominant emotion in my life. But I think [many women] do have that anger, and whether we have it in regards to rape or something else, we’re doing the same thing that I’m accusing everyone else of doing in the book: using rape as a symbol for something else. It’s like, yes, I am angry that men rape — but what else am I really angry about? That, and the fact that they get more pay, plus all those other privileges? Rape is just one very easy piece; maybe the most dramatic piece. I don’t know what one does with the anger. Everyone has their own way [of handling it], but I don’t find that anger paralyzes me. It fueled me writing this book. I am also surrounded by fantastic men. So I cling to the notion that rape is a choice they make, and that they can learn not to make that choice.

The anger can definitely get tangled up with so many other issues, like Donald Trump’s election — ‘why are these men in power?’

And why are we surprised that Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court? We’ve heard much worse from Trump, and he’s our president. It’s stunning. Righteous anger is good, but there’s no use getting consumed by it and getting bitter. I was afraid when I sat down to interview people for this book that it would put me into a very dark place, because all the rape survivors I’d talked to before were from years ago when I worked at the rape counseling center [in Boston]. They were all in crisis; that’s why they called. So I imagined I’d go through that again, but the people I talked to for the book are all people who have come through it. It was actually really inspirational to talk to them and see how they survived.

Something else you discuss in the book is the idea that rape may not always be about power. What’s your stance on this? Do you think there are instances where rape is not about control, but simply about sex?

I believe it might not always be predominantly about power and control. There’s always an element of power there, but I believe that it’s not always the motivation. It’s too simple to say that. We have to think about these oversimplifications.

As you were working on the book, did you learn anything surprising that you didn’t know or realize before?

There weren’t many blinding revelations. I didn’t actually plan the chapters that much; they grew out of my interviews. The first four people I talked to were all women, and they all had stories of telling people [about their rapes] and having someone really close to them say, ‘What did you expect?’ So that’s when I thought I had to have a chapter called ‘What Did You Expect?’ And then the dentist [chapter]. I told someone I was writing this book and she said, ‘Oh, I know this dentist who works with trauma survivors.’

How long did it take you to finish writing?

Six months. But I had four publishers, so every editor had separate comments.

Are the four versions slightly different?

No, they’re all the same. I really enjoyed the process. I’ve been really lucky. I think if I had written this book ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been as clear about what I wanted. I had this BBC interview last week with a woman in London. And she said, ‘Were you surprised at your father’s reaction [to your rape]?’ And I’d never thought of that before. I said, ‘No. He just acted like my father.’ That’s the other thing with rape, right? Somehow we put all this baggage on it and we expect people to behave differently from how they otherwise would. But people behave true to themselves. If you’re a jerk, you’re going to act like a jerk [when your loved one is raped]. If you really believe that your daughter’s welfare comes above all else, then that’s how you’ll act.

Who do you most hope will read your book?

I really feel strongly that this book is for everyone. I really, really hope a lot of men read it. Not because it will help them not to rape, but it might help people to think about the dynamics in their lives and how to help people they know to whom this has happened. Of course it’s a feminist book because I’m a feminist, but it’s not a feminist book that is only meant for certain people. I really hope it has a broad readership. And I know it’s weird, but I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope that comes across.

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 Laura Barcella is an NYC-based journalist and author.

Editor: Dana Snitzky