Getting It Right: The Problems of Narrative in Sexual Assault Literature
Getting It Right: The Problems of Narrative in Sexual Assault Literature
Note: This is a lecture I gave for the AWP 2019 panel “Healing Harm/Harming Heal: The Power and Pain of Writing Through Trauma.” It repeats one paragraph from another lecture I gave, part of the same series, Poetry Is a Reconstructive Force. If you like what you read and want to throw me a tip, Venmo me @natalie-eilbert.
Years ago, I taught someone who wrote a poem that centered themselves the victim of a paternal rape. It was gut-wrenching, significant. Here I sat, a professor who dared her students to write around subjects that scared them the most. I used to believe in the value of such a pedagogical bathos: Write what scares you. I realize now the hubris in this ask. To ask this of my students, I must first force them to agree with me that I have incubated a “safe space,” a space that warrants heretofore untapped capacities for vulnerability. Sitting at my Ikea table, a bowl of pretzels under the extension leaf, it was a miscalculation that I could possibly define everyone’s notion of safety. And I should know better. It isn’t words like rape and kidnap that set me off. It’s the book cover of A Brave New World, fabric softener, a certain shade of electric blue. Nobody can ever know my special salvo of triggers.
And yet, the students read their poem. People teared up during critique. I white-knuckled my way through critique, digging my thumbnail into each finger until I couldn’t tolerate the pressure. So many girls ago, I was a 16 year old reading Sharon Olds’ Satan Says in a Wendy’s after school. I glued myself to the lines “I am trying to write my way / out of the closed box.” To write out of the closed box, Olds’s speaker must reverse the Crossroads myth, Satan giving her a twisted gift: She must utter untruths about her father and mother in order to be released, to be average, normal, okay.
comes to me in the locked box
and says, I’ll get you out. Say
My father is a shit. I say
my father is a shit and Satan
laughs and says, It’s opening.
Say your mother is a pimp.
My mother is a pimp. Something
opens and breaks when I say that.
We know that to be released is to never feel release again. The closed box is a conceit that engenders truth to knowledge, but truth is not always knowledge. Knowledge is awareness of the state or condition of being; knowledge is not always truth but a means of escape, a trick to accessing some simulacrum of freedom. Truth is not freedom; it is not some boundless arena that dispenses us of atrocity. It is not the transubstantiation of a messiah, some evidence that we can be saved the fury of earth. The truth is not a blue pill or a red pill. Any conviction that the truth opens us up to further growth extends from other manufactured notions of home. Neither truth nor knowledge sets us free because nothing can.
I had prefaced the student’s critique by honoring the strength it required to even begin to voice such violence. Everyone honored their courage with clear, compassionate feedback. At the end of the workshop, when it was their turn to speak, they thanked everyone for their helpful comments. Then, they told us, “This didn’t actually happen to me. My dad never did this to me, I want to be very clear.” They explained that they wanted to write from the point of view of a victim of sexual assault. The experience, they continued, had taught them much.
This was not the first nor would it be the last time I was stunned to silence, in my capacity as a workshop instructor. I barely remember what I said next. I related this to a poem by Anne Sexton about her brother “Johnny Pole” in the poem, “For Johnny Pole on the Forgotten Beach.” It takes two beach scenes, one at 10 and one at 20, one with childhood wonder, and one gunned down in the Vietnam war. To Johnny, she says, “Johnny, your dream moves summers / inside my mind.” In death, “he gave in like a small wave, / a sudden hole in his belly and the years all gone.” Although Anne Sexton writes with a stark sense of loss, Anne Sexton never had a brother. Johnny Pole is not real, not in the sense that he was Anne Sexton’s brother. Surely, there was a sister who grieved somewhere a brother whom she watched on the beach at ten and whom she lost on another beach at twenty. She ends, “I think you die again / and live again.” Such a conclusion is redolent of Plath, who writes in “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” “I think I made you up inside my head,” about her own psychological terror, the stark romance of death. To write about the absence of death is concrete, a concrete tunnel at the bottom of the sea to navigate, death itself ambiguous with universal uncertainty. I don’t remember what else, in the moment, I said. Knowledge is not truth; truth is not knowledge. To survive is to know the truth, a truth that can take a lifetime to reconcile and make clear, but the truth is not necessary to survive. Syllogisms and other philosophical constraints aid us in translating that which has remained incomplete. Death, on the other hand, is a complete transaction. Anne Sexton did not have a brother. She remained lost on earth until she merged completely without earth.
I was angry that my student did this. I wanted to tell them that they had no fucking clue about the pain of writing through trauma. I wanted to say that often, it had diddly squat to do with the event. Rather than drawing from unequivocal cinema, the event is exhaustive for its gray areas, dual narratives, uncertain grasps on memory. Sometimes, victims and survivors must level compassion for their abusers, and this phenomenon is in part due to guilt, grooming, gaslighting, and the rupture of friendship. My cheeks grew red and I had to resist my urges to stand up and shout.
They moved us to tears, we who needed to be moved to tears. What was the difference between writing with the certainty of fiction and writing through a memory that keeps re-puzzling itself to the point of disbelief?
Speaking of Anne Sexton, “I am tired of being brave” has turned into the survivor’s credo. Never mind that the line’s inception comes in the midst of her mother’s funeral. Such an epiphany transcends the context for a daughter’s grief. My student’s father didn’t rape my student, but early in their life, he abandoned them. Are survivors of sexual assault allowed to occupy the space of loss? Is this similar in appropriation to the alternative? We often enlist the work of grief and loss to talk about trauma, but the inverse — to enlist a rape narrative to talk about the loss of a father — seems reductive, irredeemable. I’m tired of being brave. Survivors can still look at the moon and feel considerably far from other life. Alone. Alive.
As a pre-adolescent, I had debilitating panic attacks when adults did not supervise us. I was elated when, one Halloween, a new friend invited me to go trick-or-treating with her friends. She told me (my parents) we would be accompanied by her mother. That, I would learn, was a lie. What child wouldn’t want to be in on such a conspiracy? As we walked down the sidewalk a gaggle of pre-teens, I knew in no uncertain terms that our lives were in jeopardy. The cool air exposed us all to the elements, and every element was an eye. At first, I quelled my panic. Unsupervised. Adults nowhere in sight, we were children left to our own devices. My friend had designs on an independent life early. My independence had been designed without me. Each time we rang someone’s bell, another part of my composure snapped. Dressed in an itchy polyester black dress and covered in waxy green face paint, I was a hiccuping, trembling witch. Unsupervised, I knew we were watched by another. That was my knowledge and it burned me. My friend kept saying, “Natalie, it’s OKAY.” She was annoyed. My limbs numb, my fingers and toes blue. I had never felt more vulnerable, aware that we — any of us — could be taken.
A couple weeks before this, I sat in my neighbor’s back room as my house burned down. They sat me in the room on the opposite end of the house — away from the inferno, away from the certainty that my mother had gotten out of the house safely, away from any knowledge except that the man who had assaulted me at nine shared a wall with me. I made myself small, wondering if he was home, if he would discover me. I sat stunned and unable to breathe. For the first time, I understood that space could burn me. My house had been smoldering for days inside the walls; literally our insolation had turned incendiary. It needed only the catch of oxygen from outside and once it followed a whisper of air, the house burned at such high temperatures — and so quickly — it melted the firefighters’ equipment. The firefighters told us as they entered the house, they heard a waning drone, high-pitched but losing the fight of sound. Our smoke alarms wailed for only a moment, too late to have saved us, had we been sleeping. All the firefighters heard was a screaming sound, bent by heat, and then nothing.
Space could burn me without warning. The warning would come too late. If I moved too much, would I garner his attention? Would he make me lie naked with him in his bed as my house screamed into rubble? I didn’t know. By Halloween, in a group of girls I desperately wanted to befriend, I sobbed off my green makeup. The wax wart melted off my sweating, heaving face. It was shame I felt. Shame inside the house, shame outside the house. Shame for the house burning, shame for the body burning. For years I felt responsible for the house burning down. It was me, I did it through a letting of permission. Trauma psychologist Judith Lewis Herman speaks of this moment of shame in traumatized children: “Shame is a relatively wordless state, in which speech and thought are inhibited. It is also an acutely self-conscious state; the person feels small, ridiculous, and exposed…” One of the early pioneers in the study of shame, shame is “one’s own vicarious experience of the other’s scorn… the self-in-the-eyes-of-the-other is the focus of awareness in shame” (p. 15). In addition, she observed, “the experience of shame often occurs in the form of imagery, of looking or being looked at. Shame may also be played out as an internal colloquy, in which the whole self is condemned by the ‘other’,” (pp. 18–19). Thus, shame represents a complex form of mental representation in which the person imagines “the mind of another.” I was mortified even then about my hysterics but could not compose myself. Didn’t the girls on Halloween know we were in mortal danger? They did not.
In grad school, a workshop professor told me I’d be better off writing an essay about “real shit” like assault. I wondered what the poem was for, if not the “real shit” of assault. Here is the crux of my talk: Poetry is the ideal medium for memory; obfuscation is memory’s territory as it also poetry’s territory. Neither care to set the record straight, assuming that the record is a system for the world, that the record is truly broken. I am a broken record. I am a locked box. I keep telling the story wrong. At 19, I began a poem about my assaults with the line, “I still haven’t gotten it right yet.” The hippocampus has no stakes in narrative economy, chronology, the inciting plot; neither does a poem.
When Indictus came out, I did all I could to not share the book promotion with my family. I lied about the publication date, despite their interest in purchasing the book. I intentionally had my book launch on the most inconvenient day of the week for them to travel to the city. I blocked my abusive ex on social media, the one who told me I made myself a victim for profitable gain. I spent an entire night going through all my social media followers, blocking those whom I couldn’t trust. By the end of the night, I had no idea what sort of trust I was looking for. Every member of my family and extended family, and every friend of the ex, received a block. At the last minute, I wanted to pull my book. I told my editor that I was afraid. I wrote and deleted an email draft asking if they could send me an updated list every day of who was buying my book. As a publisher myself, I knew this was inappropriate. I never sent it. The day my book came out, I stood in a dark room for an hour. I communed, or attempted to commune, with my line of younger selves, every wounded self that was ever forced into bathrooms, sedans, bedrooms, and basements. I had to see myself as a leader of my selves. I had to calm each of them down. Finally, I had to believe them. It occurred to me that not even I believed me, in all that time.
Perhaps this is what unsettled me most about my student’s poem. It was so certain of the events, sure it knew every defining curvature of recall. They used rape as the objective correlative of their loss, as if it was a mask they could easily affix. Theresa Cha tells us in Dictée, “Face to face with memory, the memory misses.” It will never be useful enough. It will never be quite right. We can only rely on partial reconstruction, object by object. It’s okay if you never get it right.