Back in the 1980s, I tried to write about being raped. I wrote it for a Louisville magazine editor for whom as a careful reporter I’d won prizes. He always said “we” rather than “I” -- and had repeatedly urged, “Come out from behind those facts and quotes, Gail. Write essays. We want to hear your voice.”
When I told him that he probably didn’t want to hear what my voice had to say, he said, “Of course we do.” Words were pushing at my teeth, and I believed him because he was the editor not only of the cultural magazine for which I worked but of a feminist magazine (yeah, he edited a feminist mag, don’t ask). I’d never written for it but I figured that it wouldn’t shy away from the topic.
Rape is usually depicted from the attacker’s point of view -- that is, you see it. Secretly and even openly therefore it’s an exciting thought, and gee, she probably liked it. I wrote about rape though largely by copying from a piece of paper that I’d kept crawling back to one night to keep myself sane, dried blood still on it, because among other things, the man who had trapped me in my house in Dallas had flung me against counter edges and walls and slammed me onto the floor, then dropped from his full height of over six feet, knee first into my abdomen.
I wrote from inside the way real rape is, a torn and battered body being the least of it, the shock, the fear, the fury, the hatred I feel, the visions of plunging knives that I didn’t have into his chest, knives in and out, me fighting him off not caring about the pain until suddenly I know that his rage has taken him over completely, that if I don’t stop struggling, he’ll kill me, then using all my emotional strength to force myself to go physically limp to save my own life, hating myself for the choice, my soul desperately climbing the walls of my own mind, trying to get out. I get to a phone, call the police. The police come. One cop claps a hand on the guy’s shoulder with that bro grip and they talk a long while, while another pats me on the rear with a familiarity no man has ever dared show to me before. They leave without taking him, leave him to it. Feels like gang rape. Is my body seen as community property now?
After hours trapped in this, I’m lying bloody and doubled over in pain in a bed, seeing everything in only two dimensions, flat...Easel trees hold a tapestry of leaves...worried that I’ll never be sane again. Like boy king not yet king Arthur, I see the world through bird eyes. Mind ship bound for oblivion. Mine ship bound for oblivion. Oblivion slips on a piece of my mind. The next day (“I fell down the stairs”) I’m somehow back teaching high school. All the women teachers know, can spot it, but none reaches out to me. They avert their eyes, lips tight in what looks like disapproval of me. I take shelter in a caring friend’s house, the one place that I feel safe right now, but when she’s asleep, her husband makes a pass, is surprised when I recoil, refuse. Is my body seen as community property now?
Then the feeling for years that I had failed, not to defend my honor, but to defend myself from their minds’ invasion. For women, age doesn’t matter. Marital status doesn’t matter. Pregnancy doesn’t matter. The next time a guy tried it, I won, but it was a fight that no woman should have had to confront.
She looked so happy.
I was in Orlando, five blocks from our home, a lovely place with a carriage house that we were renting by renovating it for the owner. It was high noon, and I was obviously pregnant, but no one responded to my screams when a man grabbed me from behind. Ripping my blouse open, his hand hit my belly, my baby. I heard a roar like a lion, and only vaguely realized that it had come from me, as I fought him off with a long pointed VW key which he mistook for a knife. I ran home, and in response to my teenage son’s phone call, the police caught the man a few minutes later.
He admitted that he had been ripping my clothes off, “trying to fuck her because she looked so happy and it made me mad.”
He was 6’3”, a foot taller than I am, but the cops let him go, saying that since I’d won the fight, the man had grounds for assault charges. Adding he was “just restless”, they promised to help him get into the Marines. Did they? What did he do to women overseas? The cop who drove me home patted my thigh and said, “The important thing, Honey, is that nothing happened....”
A rapist had happened, empowered and protected by society, and again the cops kept touching me because of it. There were no women police working rape cases yet; we each faced this alone. Because I had scrawled things that first time as they happened, I realized later that I had horribly priceless combat notes -- of what women actually experience, think and feel, not how we process it later, not how others visually hear it. That, tightened down, polished into full sentences with bridges, is what I took to the editor.....
Yes I bet you do
Just as there's reason that the editors of African American magazines should not be white, editors of women's rights magazines should not be men. His heart might have been in the right place but there was much that he couldn’t hear not only in me, but in himself.
Mistaking my first person account of rape for fiction, the male editor of the feminist magazine rejected my piece on two grounds. Phoning me, clearly feeling awkward that we were even discussing such things, he explained, “First, all if this is an internal monologue, Gail, well, a dialog when she echoes what he’s saying. We want to see what’s going on....”
Yes, I bet you do, my mind hissed. My eyes hard with rage, fingers gripping the phone, my thoughts snarled as I listened to him, DAMN you! You didn’t want this from a woman’s perspective. You want to watch, don’t you, to mentally join in. You fucking, fucking bastard! But through the phone my voice was silent in his ear....
Second, he said, he was rejecting my piece because, “Your first person narrator....
You mean me???
“....sounds intelligent, educated, articulate. At one point, she’s cursing like a sailor. Would a woman like that ever use those words?....The section in which she’s fighting for sanity reads like poetry. Gail, in real life, no raped woman would react that way....More importantly, men don’t rape women of that calibre....”
The editor finished, “Why don’t you try it again, Gail, and this time, let us see what’s happening. Better still, write about something else, something that you know....”
I didn’t come out from behind the quotes again for another quarter of a century.
Unless we’ve had a bad day
By 1993, I was a medical-writing corporation president and attended a health conference in Beijing. The simultaneous-translator seamlessly rendered into English the Mandarin of women doctors telling me about Chinese men’s routine rape and beating of their wives. Afterward he said, “They were exaggerating.” I asked him what in his view was true. He responded, “A man can’t rape his wife. She’s his. And Chinese men only beat our wives when we’ve had a bad day. ”
Seeing it as a disastrous attempt at humor, I waited for the chuckle, but he was serious. For billions of little girls and women throughout the world marriage was rape, a daily nightmare and a life sentence, because Chinese men were not alone in imposing that. Marital rape was LEGAL in the U.S. until that year, 1993. One state legislator explained to me, eerily echoing the man on the other side of the world, “If she married him, it’s his. If she doesn’t give it to him, he’s got a right to take it. If she fights him, it’s her fault if she gets hurt.... “And even if these women get this law passed, no judge is going to put that boy in jail.”
Marital rape with someone you love and normally love to make love to is far from being “the easiest to bear.” Internal worlds collide when somebody whom you have loved enough to marry changes after marriage, savages and humiliates you in every way that s/he can find...and society refuses to care.
I write this in response to a post making the rounds this week, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status post, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.“ Even if we wrote “Me too” in comments we’d make a dent, because one in five U.S. women has been raped in her lifetime. Men rape or attempt to rape two million women in the US alone according to the CDC, each year.
Rape moreover is rape. That includes male-on-male prison rape (296,000 a year), and in couples, it includes not only heterosexual but lesbian rape and gay rape. Worst, it includes the endemic rape of children, even of babies. Child rapists are overwhelmingly heterosexual males, but every other form of adult is involved too....
We expose it. We don’t let go. We end this. This stops.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.