BY NICOLA MAYE GOLDBERG
1. I was raped when I was eighteen years old. It was my first semester of college, and the man who raped me was my boyfriend. In that haze of pain and humiliation, I promised myself that someday, I would write a book about what he did to me. And now I have. It’s called The Doll Factory, and it will be available from Dancing Girl Press this spring.
2. Once, in a Continental Philosophy course, a classmate remarked with glee that Balibar had “totally raped” his opponent in an essay. My fellow poets love to use rape as a metaphor. This isn’t a question of offense. Rape as metaphor has been part of the western canon since Pope. The question is this: when we use rape in metaphorical language, what language is left to discuss actual rape?
3. Not a lot. As Virginie Despentes remarks in her excellent book, King Kong Theory:
Prison, illness, abuse, drugs, abandonment, deportation; all traumas have their literature. But this crucial and fundamental trauma - the very definition of femininity, “the body that can be taken by force and must remain defenseless” - was not a part of literature. No guide, no companionship. Nothing.
4. That is not to say there is nothing for us. We have Toni Morrison, we have Alice Sebold, we have Natalie Eilbert, Joanna Connors, Alice Walker, Roxane Gay. But still. For an experience so prevalent and so profound, we have very little literature of rape.
5. Why, then, do people get so mad when we dare to make art about it? In the Boston Review, Jessa Crispin lamented that “women writers were being valued for their stories of surviving violence and trauma… Women are repeating this story for a different effect: women are a breed apart—unified in our experience and responses, distinct from those of men.” Of Emma Sulkowicz’s groundbreaking “Carry That Weight” performance, Camille Paglia said, “Perpetually lugging around your bad memories–never evolving or moving on! It’s like a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism. .. If something bad happens, you learn from it. You become stronger and move on.” I’d like to point out, first of all, that “Carry That Weight” was the opposite of “perpetual” – Sulkowicz gave a very concrete date for the end of her project. But Paglia’s point, wrong-headed as it may be, is indicative of a lot of the criticism of women who make art about rape. Why must you keep talking about this? Why can’t you just move on?
6. This isn’t a completely new idea (Paglia has been promoting it for decades) and one good example is an essay by the writer Vanessa Veselka, published in 1998, entitled, “The Collapsible Woman.” I agree, profoundly, with Veselka’s assertion that as a culture, we lack the appropriate narratives about women who are raped. But when she writes: “a violated woman is expected to fall apart, and not just privately, either; she must disintegrate publicly, in front of friends, in front of professionals, in front of Starbucks” I wonder what world she lives in, because it is certainly very different from my own. I have never been afforded any particular respect for crying in public, which is something I have done more often than I’d like. I have been not only the collapsible woman, but the collapsed woman, and it wasn’t fun. At best, I have been publicly ridiculed, at worst, I have been sedated without my consent. The collapsed woman, who Veselka suggests is so glorified, is not so different from the hysteric, the madwoman in the attic, the girl who must be locked away because she makes the rest of us look bad.
7. If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it, wrote Zora Neale Hurston. But if you are not silent, I would add, they will kill you and say you enjoyed the attention.
8. And what about you, dear reader? Aren’t you sick of these stories? Aren’t you bored of Emma Sulkowicz and Aspen Matis and Emily Doe? Aren’t you a little exhausted by all that outrage, all those howls of rage fashioned into performance art or victim impact statements or bestselling memoirs? Don’t you wish women had something else to talk about?
9. What we are seeing now is the filling of a black hole. Rape has been part of –
perhaps the part of – women’s experiences for centuries. It is only recently that we have been allowed to talk about it. So we are not just speaking for ourselves, but for our mothers and grandmothers and dead friends and the girls crying in gas station bathrooms. We are telling stories that have been silenced for so many generations, no wonder it feels like a deluge.
10. The other thing is: if you are really tired of these stories, if you are sick of hearing about women being raped and abused and degraded and murdered, if these narratives depress and irritate you— I would suggest, that you take it up with men.
11. For years, I have wanted to hack away at this black hole with a machete. The Doll Factory is more like a scalpel. I hope that it is useful.