We Can’t Believe Survivors’ Stories If We Never Hear Them
Our ideas about which narratives are important, sane, or credible depend on what we see reflected in culture
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When we started sheltering in place at the beginning of the pandemic, in a burst of energy and optimism I haven’t experienced since, I started a social distance book club. I selected Lara Williams’s debut novel Supper Club, which I’d recently read, because I thought a book that centered on women gathering in person would offer some vicarious comfort in a time of so much loneliness and uncertainty. The novel is about Roberta, a young and somewhat lost woman who forms an intense friendship with a woman named Stevie, a quirky artist who is everything Roberta is not—brash, self-assured, magnetic. Together, they form a supper club, a space for women to eat as much as they desire. “What could violate social convention more than women coming together to indulge their hunger and take up space?” Roberta muses.
Over the course of the novel, the reader gets glimpses into Roberta’s backstory: her father left when she was young, she was raped by an acquaintance at university, and she was in a relationship with an emotionally and psychologically manipulative older man named Arnold. What seems, on premise, like an almost indulgent tale of food, friendship, and female debauchery, is in fact a story of women convening in the wake of trauma to create a safe space.
Toward the end of the novel, years after her breakup with Arnold, Roberta agrees to meet him for lunch. In a cafe, in a particularly characteristic move, Arnold mansplains the dangers of using the label “feminist.” When the server arrives with their food—a watercress soup for Roberta and a bánh mì for Arnold—something shifts. “Can I have that?” Roberta asks. “Your sandwich. Can we switch please? I don’t want this soup. I don’t know why I asked for it.” Williams elaborates:
I lifted up my bowl and handed it over. Arnold received it because he had no choice and watched as I lifted up his bánh mì and deposited it in front of myself. I wrapped both hands around it and took a large bite before he could protest. I felt the tiny slices of chili deliciously tingle my lips. I made a full-bodied sound to demonstrate my pleasure. Then, with my mouth full, I began to speak.
“You must be really embarrassed,” I said. “You must be really embarrassed you just explained feminism to me.”
Roberta has not avenged her rape—nor is there any way to undo the toll that such a violation wreaks on victims—but she has regained power, even if only by taking a sandwich that wasn’t hers to take. Though I didn’t realize it during book club, stories of women reckoning with their experiences of rape would feature prominently in my pandemic-induced year of rest and relaxation.
“No one likes a mad woman,” Taylor Swift croons in a song she released during the pandemic. “What a shame she went mad.” In this song, titled “mad woman,” Swift explores the concept of “madness” in both its gendered definitions of “angry” and “crazy.” Audre Lorde, Brittney Cooper, and Rebecca Traister, to name a few, have explored the power of women’s anger, and countless others have documented the historical tradition of dismissing women as “hysterical.” This sort of labeling is nothing new, and one of my friends and I refer to “crazy” as the “c-word,” a particularly offensive insult when it comes from a man. Yet it’s more than just offensive; it’s dangerous, as it discounts women’s credibility.
Cassie, the protagonist in Emerald Fennell’s recent film Promising Young Woman, spends her weekends pretending to be drunk, going home with men, and surprising them with her sobriety and a stern talking-to—and sometimes more than just a talking-to—all as part of a vendetta to avenge her best friend’s rape and subsequent death. Much like Supper Club, Promising Young Woman is a story of trauma that could be misread because of its candy coating and playful premise.
Juxtaposed with the film’s hyper-saturated hues—a neon-signed coffee shop and an old-school diner, Cassie’s painted fingernails, rows of brightly-colored pastries—and a saccharine soundtrack that includes Paris Hilton’s Stars are Blind, we see a barrage of misogyny from men and women alike. Cassie is constantly dismissed as crazy. She’s called psycho. She’s called a sociopath. She’s called “a crazy fuckin’ bitch.” In response to being called insane, Cassie replies, “I honestly don’t think I am.” It’s in this place of mistaking one type of madness—anger—for the other—insanity—that we further endanger women. If they’re crazy, we don’t have to believe them.
Male vengeance, on the contrary, is the stuff of superheroes, something with a rich history and a mega-industry of its own. How many people wear a bat cape while they seek revenge? a friend recently asked, and it’s a great question. Men seek vengeance, while women are perceived as suffering from a bad case of PMS. Though we frequently see women’s rape and bodily harm on screen and in literature, what we don’t often see is women’s anger in response to such violations. And this erasure of rage can paint both the trauma and the victim’s reactions as “unbelievable.”
When we discussed Supper Club’s bánh mì scene in the social distance book club, a cis-hetero man in the group comented that this scene in particular—but also the entire novel—read like a woman’s revenge fantasy. He said this like it was a bad thing, as if it was so unbelievable that women would gather to eat like this. As if it was so unbelievable that Roberta would take Arnold’s sandwich. As if any of this was less believable than, say, a man developing superpowers after being bitten by a spider. Perhaps Supper Club might seem more believable if we were not desensitized to women’s anger in the wake of gendered violence. I imagine that the rarity of such moments explains why the man in our book club was dubious, and why everyone else enjoyed the novel. For the rest of us, Supper Club satisfied our desire to see angry women reclaim their power. Though her rapist is never punished, Roberta takes back agency by flipping the “make me a sandwich” script.
Now, when I think about the reactions of the various members of the book club, I consider WHO statistics about the prevalence of rape. If the global average (more than one in three women) were to apply to a book club of ten women, I wouldn’t be the only victim of sexual assault in the Zoom room. But as we discussed Supper Club last April, I wasn’t considering myself a victim of sexual assault. Instead, I was merely a reader who was buoyed by Roberta’s newfound agency, even if it took the form of a stolen bánh mì.
About a month ago, I watched Michaela Coel’s limited series, I May Destroy You. Days before my weekend binge-watch, I’d signed a contract with a literary agent, a milestone I’d been envisioning for years, and I wanted to spend the weekend catching up on good TV. AlI I knew about I May Destroy You was that it was about the aftermath of a rape, and it came to me highly recommended by a friend.
In the first episode, Arabella, a young Black British writer, realizes that she’s been raped at a bar, but she isn’t sure by whom because she was drugged. Arabella grapples with the emotional, personal, and professional fallout she experiences in the wake of being raped. There’s an investigation, there are horrific flashbacks, and as a Black woman, Arabella faces the intersecting forces of sexism and racism.
A few episodes in, when Arabella has sex with a new partner—already difficult for her in the aftermath of her rape—her partner, Zain, removes the condom during intercourse. I thought you could feel it, he tells her when she learns he’d removed it. That condom, he tells her, it was just so uncomfortable.
The next episode opens with Arabella in Zain’s bed, suggesting that the two have begun seeing each other regularly. Moments later, while Zain showers, Arabella tunes into a podcast and hears a story about another woman’s experience with non-consensual condom removal (also known as “stealthing,” the victims of which can be people of all genders). In that moment, Arabella understands: Zain has sexually assaulted her. She immediately leaves Zain’s flat, and it isn’t until she’s back in the police station following up on her earlier report of rape that she learns that Zain’s actions qualify as rape not only morally, but legally. At a writing summit that night, where Zain, also a writer, is present, Arabella acts on her anger and announces:
Zain Sareen is a rapist. He took a condom off in the middle of having sex with me. He placated my shock and gaslighted me with such intention that I didn’t have a second to understand the heinous crime that had occurred. I believe he is a predator… He is a rapist, not rape-adjacent, or a bit rapey, he’s a rapist under U.K. law.
Though this moment seems like a win for Arabella and other victims, it’s a moment of false victory. Over the next few episodes, Zain is “cancelled,” but then his book is published under a female pseudonym. Meanwhile, Arabella’s life continues to unravel. After all, she has been raped not once but twice. In the words of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently described the way the insurrection on the Capitol triggered her past trauma from being sexually assaulted, Arabella’s trauma “compounds.” On top of the horrific violations Arabella has experienced at the hands of men, she struggles with writer’s block. She loses her agent. She loses her book deal. She is consumed by social media, by her newfound role as a victims’ advocate.
Though I May Destroy You already felt relatable to me as an aspiring female writer, it wasn’t until I watched this show that I understood that a violation I’d experienced in my early twenties is, in other countries, considered rape. It was not just an isolated event that felt unsavory. It was a violation to be angry about, a violation that I could hypothetically avenge.
When I was 20, I briefly dated a man who was, by anyone’s definition, a real asshole. (A different asshole than the one who assaulted me, I’ll add, for what it’s worth.) One evening after dinner, as we sat on the piece of Foamiture that adorned my student apartment, he made a reference to a “classic” novel I’d never read. It might have been Don Quixote; I honestly don’t remember, and I probably still haven’t read it. Instead of pretending to understand the reference, I asked him about it. He looked at me dumbfounded.
“Do you read?” he asked scornfully.
I told him he was being rude, but what I didn’t yet understand was that if I had drawn a Venn diagram of books we’d both read, our circles might not have even been touching. They might have looked like planets in different universes. And that’s the problem with those lists of books you “must read” before you die; they favor dead white men, not women, particularly not women like Arabella: women of color who are dealing with the aftermath of a rape. For many men, these sorts of stories don’t even count as “reading,” let alone literature. If a story is so far outside some readers’ experience, the story need not even be considered, let alone believed.
In a recent critique of the documentary, Framing Britney Spears, writer Tavi Gevinson points out the fallacy of the film’s suggestion that a teenage Spears ever had true agency over her own sexuality. Gevinson explores issues of grooming and power imbalances in her own intimate relationships, particularly in an experience she had when she was eighteen. Gevinson writes of how she, now 24, understands her response to her own experience of sexual abuse:
I live with a low-simmering rage, accompanied by the knowledge that he could not possibly think about these encounters as much as I do, then wondering if my occasional wishes for vengeance or punishment — mere thoughts in my head — compromise my respectability, and therefore my believability, until I have convinced myself that nothing really happened, based more on how I might read as a victim (vindictive, heartbroken, always-knew-what-she-was-doing) rather than on the actions of another person (the whole reason we are here to begin with).
I wonder if Gevinson’s shame around experiencing rage and imagining a revenge fantasy, as well as her concern that such feelings minimize her believability, stem in part from this lack of visibility around experiencing such feelings in the wake of trauma.
I feel for men who want to look away from stories about rape, stories that do not mirror their own experiences, stories in which they more closely resemble, statistically speaking, the perpetrator than the victim. But I don’t feel for men nearly as much as I feel for those who (statistically speaking, primarily women) have experienced sexual violence. In her memoir Know My Name, Chanel Miller encourages all readers to engage with stories about rape. She writes:
Denying darkness does not bring anyone closer to the light. When you hear a story about rape, all the graphic and unsettling details, resist the instinct to turn away; instead look closer, because beneath the gore and the police reports is a whole, beautiful person, looking for ways to be in the world again.
The need to embrace the uncomfortable is not merely an exercise in empathy; it’s a way of expanding the realm of believability, a way of discerning anger from the other kind of madness. For the 35 percent of us—and this is one of the first times I’ve ever written myself into the “us” of an us vs. them binary—who have experienced sexual assault, watching or reading these stories impacts us on a visceral level. This is not an abstract concept. We are back in the room where we were violated; we are waking up the next morning confused and ashamed and angry at the men who’ve hurt us and the systems that have failed us.
In Know My Name, Miller reflects on the importance of imagination as a tool for recovering from depression in the wake of her rape and intense high profile rape case. “When I felt depressed,” she writes, “I wrote and imagined my future….The need for it to come true according to plan was not important. The act of imagining was.”
The act of imagining must not be underestimated. If I hadn’t watched I May Destroy You, I might never have come to terms with my own trauma. I’m not sure that listening to a podcast like the one Arabella listens to would have had the same impact on me as watching the scene of Arabella listening to the podcast, watching her react to the news, watching her seek revenge on Zain. By watching her react, I had to use my imagination and extend the empathy I extended to Arabella to myself.
Of course, the scene of Arabella calling Zain out was believable to me based on my lived experience, but I found the bánh mì exchange in Supper Club, as well as Cassie’s weekend hobby in Promising Young Woman believable, too, because after reading and watching stories that depict women acting out of anger, their anger has become normalized to me. It’s not shocking; it’s not the behavior of someone who’s unstable. And though I’d like to believe that knowing this is enough—that convincing cis men of such believability is beside the point—I know that there are tactical reasons to want to win them over, such as the gender breakdown of judges and legislators in America (spoiler alert: majority male).
Though California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia has been working on the issue of “stealthing” since 2017, she recently introduced “Assembly Bill 453 on Nonconsensual Condom Removal/Stealthing,” which would include stealthing in the California Civil Code. In the press release, Garcia writes,
I won’t stop until there is some accountability for those who perpetrate the act. Sexual assaults, especially those on women of color, are perpetually swept under the rug. So much stigma is attached to this issue, that even after every critic lauded Micheala Coel’s, I May Destroy [You] for its compelling depiction of the horrors of sexual abuse including of ‘stealthing,’ it got zero Golden Globe nominations. That doesn’t seem like an accident or coincidence to me.
Though I, like many others, suspect that I May Destroy You’s Golden Globe snubbing had more to do with racism than a cultural misunderstanding around stealthing, both reasons may be in play. Yet through this proposed legislation, Coel’s impact can be seen and felt with greater reverberations than those achieved by an award nomination. I May Destroy You created visibility for an issue, it showed rage in the wake of rape, and its existence makes room for other stories to do the same. And, as always, thanks are due to the women of color who lead the charge to make meaningful changes in our imagination, like Coel, and legislation, like Garcia.
Regardless of the modality—be it a violent tale of rape revenge, the story of a woman simply imagining vengeance, or that of a survivor regaining agency in her life in seemingly small ways—stories of coming to terms with rape are tools for inciting personal and cultural changes.
A few weeks ago, I watched the Instagram Live in which Representative Ocasio-Cortez said publicly that she was a survivor of sexual assault. As I listened to her speak about the way that the insurrection on the Capitol brought up her past trauma, I wondered if we were entering a new era, an era in which sharing these sorts of stories is not only accepted but praised. An era in which bravery looks like a politician making her trauma visible, rather than a masked hero fighting off villains. But then came the detractors, the deniers, the doubters, and as I read the responses, I couldn’t help wondering, Do you read?—as in, do any of you people making snide remarks regularly engage with the stories of survivors? If not, I’d be happy to share my reading list, though you might be surprised to discover that beneath that happiness I’m actually quite mad.