Amber Tamblyn’s Book About a Female Rapist Is One of the Year’s Most Feminist Novels
“Any Man” cuts through our numbness to sexual assault by focusing on male victims
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When I heard that Amber Tamblyn was writing a novel about a female rapist, I expected a provocation. I was prepared to encounter a lurid revenge fantasy, a la Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth. Instead, Tamblyn has written an earnest and convincing account of the harm of rape to its victims. The unexpected twist — that her victims are men, not women — only makes that harm more striking. And though the book has been billed as being “about” a female rapist, the novel is really about victims of sexual violence, who in this case happen to be men. Tamblyn doesn’t want to focus on the pathology of the rapist, but on the legacy of the violation for the victim.
Ironically, this book about male victims of sexual violence has more to say about what it feels like to be a woman in a sexist culture than many works more explicitly engaged with that question. Tamblyn has vividly conjured the experience of sexual assault, and depicted the commodification of sexual violence in minute detail. One chapter, made up entirely of tweets, shows how quickly our discursive and economic culture can obscure a victim’s experience — so much so, even, that the discussion constitutes a further act of violence against that person. Another depicts an assault victim’s self-harm in his attempts to outrun his trauma. One of the book’s most heart-rending sections offers readers the voice of a man who was raped as a child, who goes on to become a rapist himself. Each man depicted in Any Man is uniquely affected by his victimization; what they all have in common, however, is that they are affected. The book forces readers to viscerally experience the kinds of damage rape produces. Maybe because her victims are men it’s easier to appreciate their pain. Images of violated female bodies are unsurprising: we see them everywhere. Violated men, on the other hand, are striking. Their pain signifies.
One way to read this book is to say that it makes the points about rape that one would expect Amber Tamblyn — a vocal feminist activist — to make. That’s true, but it doesn’t do justice to Tamblyn’s literary accomplishment or the moral ambition of her project. Tamblyn wants readers of Any Man to see beyond themselves. Some readers will find themselves inhabiting male pain and vulnerability in a way that our culture rarely encourages them to do. Others will, for the first time, see rape from the inside, rather than the outside. They’ll imagine in ways they haven’t before what it might be like to worry that the person walking down the street behind them is going to violate them in ways that will change their life forever. Some will find themselves empathizing — perhaps even weeping for — a man who has admitted to a brutal and random sexual crime. Some will surely find themselves reassessing their own sexual histories, wondering if they took their desires too far, or allowed their needs to be overwhelmed by those of another. And this is all part of Tamblyn’s plan, which she has described as being an attempt to “resensitize” the reader to the trauma of rape.
I spoke to Tamblyn by phone while she was on her nationwide book tour promoting Any Man.
Erin Spampinato: For me, one of the most exciting things about your book was that it made something that I thought I understood, something that I spend all day researching, strange and unfamiliar again. Can you talk a little bit about how this book makes rape, a topic we’ve all unfortunately become inured to, new again, and also why you think that’s important? Why is it necessary to make rape unfamiliar to readers, even those who may have intimate knowledge of it in their own experiences or through the culture they’ve been subject to?
Amber Tamblyn: I’ve heard many people talk about how they really get lost in the gender of the story in a good way — meaning that the gender becomes invisible. I think that kind of instantly forces the reader to think objectively — to take a moment to think solely from an empathic point of view… We’ve become so accustomed to violence against physical bodies — and the female body in particular (both those that are assigned [female] at birth and those that aren’t). It’s become something we’ve become numb to…I think when you take [gendered violence] and you put it on a different physical body you’re changing the perspective and forcing people to look at not just sexual violence, but at the bodies involved.
ES: The only character in the novel who doesn’t get to speak firsthand to the reader about his experience is Michael Parker, a man who has recently transitioned when he is attacked. In the chapter that follows that attack, media commentators, public figures, and regular people alike take to Twitter to discuss the crime. In the process, Parker is repeatedly deadnamed and degraded. How does the erasure of Michael Parker’s voice function in the novel? If we’re hypersensitive to the pain of cis men and numb to that of cis women, what happens to trans people?
AT: Knowing who my readers are, who are probably predominantly feminists, and probably white, I wanted to really examine not just the violence of the bodies but also the violence of erasure in storytelling. I wanted to express how well-meaning people could be complicit in erasure. This is especially true on social media — where when we may think we are helping we may actually be hurting by co-opting someone else’s story. I wanted to indict that form of postured political activism, to say that standing as an ally on social media does not mean you’re being an ally (and I myself have been guilty of that). These kinds of conversations are where the growth lies.
I wanted to look at everything from Katy Perry to the Women’s March to the terrible extreme right-wing culture of our society and say, this is how we all participate. Obviously it was very purposeful that Michael Parker doesn’t have a voice, that was a metaphor for that experience of erasure.
ES: Speaking of the tweet chapter: how did you write it? I found it both amazing and horrifying.
AT: Thank you! I didn’t really even study tweets to write that chapter.
ES: Yeah, you didn’t have to, I bet.
AT: Yeah. The ones I studied a little bit were from the alt-right. I had to familiarize myself with some of the voices, like, Michael Cernovich…I knew his name but I didn’t know how he talked so I went and looked at that. But you know, Alex Jones and Gavin McInnes, those type of people were really easy, but also so were my own kind, people that I know and love. Also another conversation I’m having within the tweet chapter is about the amount of retweets, likes, and comments each tweet has. You’ll find layered throughout the chapter that there will be one of a girl saying like, “I was raped outside of my dorm and I have no one to talk to about it.” And there will be like one like, one comment, and zero retweets, right next to a Jim Gaffigan joke about [the book’s serial rapist] Maude, which will have hundreds of thousands of likes. Those tweets, that I layered in there, and that one in particular, are real tweets from Twitter. They are the only real ones that are in there. I don’t know if I’ve ever said that, but I actually went and found them by searching particular terms. I wanted to find women who had actually expressed that.
Those were moments that were [helping me ask]: what is real, what is hyperreal, what is life imitating art, what is art imitating life? It was important for me to say that there’s something real about all this, literally and metaphorically. When it is all on the page it’s a very damning piece of evidence about how we all work together — what our culture is doing right now, and how it is helpful and harmful all at once.
ES: Yes, I like the idea that the chapter is a sort of snapshot of a cultural moment. It also makes me think about the way that tweets can transform what might be testimony — in a court of law, or just necessary personal testimony — into a currency that influences our culture. As you show, Katy Perry can tweet about something and that sentiment has more currency than the testimony of someone who is actually experiencing the thing Perry is advocating for.
AT: Or even just the references to Amanda Palmer writing an album about Maude, and having a Kickstarter page to fund that project. Commodification is really the part that is worrisome. Again, I include myself in these conversations. I think about it constantly. I’ve been writing far longer than the beginning of #metoo, but I’ve been privileged to become a contributing writer for the New York Times and sell a book of essays since the movement started. I’ve been able to do those things because of #metoo. On those backs, on these stories, on these experiences. [I don’t neglect] the question of what active work I’m doing to be a real ally, to really examine what that looks like, to not just be an ally that benefits myself.
ES: Speaking of #metoo, let’s discuss the character of Donald Ellis. He is victim of Maude who then becomes a high-profile advocate for survivors of sexual violence. With his characterization you seem to question the line between testimony and exploitation. There are moments when his advocacy project seems to have gotten beyond itself, where he seems to capitalize on his fame as a victim in order to express his ambitions as an author, for instance. But then there are other moments where it is clear that his ability to advocate for others is crucially necessary to his recovery and survival. What do you think about that?
AT: I think there is some of that and that is sometimes how survivors survive. Taking their pain into their own hands and figuring out the meaning of it.
ES: The book isn’t didactic, but it balances personal responsibility with social responsibility. You seem to want your readers to make contact with their own complicity in the structures that uphold sexual violence, like the commodification of pain for entertainment. Has anyone accused you of turning the torture porn model on men?
AS: No, and in fact I’ve been keeping track of men who’ve been coming to tell me about their sexual assaults. I’ve been keeping a lot of notes on reader responses. Some women have asked, “how does this help us? How does this keep our voices in the conversation?” There’s nothing in me that believes in transferring pain. I think we need to think about expanding our understanding of pain, of who is inflicting and who is afflicted.
ES. You speak in your interviews in a very unapologetic and very confident way. Honestly, it reminds me of the way a lot of male writers talk about their books. And yet you claim your womanhood very forcefully. So…how do you do that?
AT: I spent most of my childhood pleasing men, pleasing the creative visions of men, having ideas and figuring out ways to make them feel like it was their idea, rewriting scripts that had been written by some of the most famous, phenomenal writers, giving them notes, helping them see. And every woman I know has spent time doing at least some of those things. I think something broke in me during the 2016 election. I was working on this book… I was pregnant, I was campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Something broke in me, I think it broke in a lot of people. It changed me on a genetic level. It made me toss everything to the wind and say I’m going to be who I am, I’m going to speak in my body and to my purpose, even though I know that will make a lot of men uncomfortable. And I don’t care if I lose jobs because of that. I don’t think that activism is a choice for women, I think it’s a form of life. It’s a way of living.