Judith Beheading Her Would-Be Rapist

On women fighting back, in art and life

The first time I fought back against a man, it was a boy. I was twelve. It was snowing.

The boy in question had been trying to force my friend’s face into a snowbank while she wept. I don’t remember his name, or what he looked like, or much about what happened save the rage I felt. One minute we were standing on icy North Carolina streets in oversized ski coats, the next we were in the snowbank and my fist was full of his hair and I was pulling him off her and shoving him face first into the snow. I remember holding his head down as he squirmed and my friend cried and her sister jumped up and down clapping and singing “he’s going to get frostbite, make him get frostbite.”

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1530

This is that frightening wilderness of girlhood. That brazen and ferocious place of the untamed. We are still allowed to be bold.

I let him up when concerned parents came running over at the sound of our fight.

“You could have smothered him, you could have given him frostbite, you could have seriously hurt him.”

Twelve-year-old girls do not respond, “I know. That was the point.”

Nobody asked: but why did you do it? What drove you to it? All they saw was a girl going mad.

Here’s a story:

Holofernes is busy invading the land of the Israelites with the Assyrian army. During this time Judith, a widow, and her maid Salome, infiltrate the Assyrian army with promises to sell out their people.

On the fourth day of the siege Holofernes gives a banquet. He goes to Bagoas, his aide, and says “Go and persuade that Hebrew woman Judith to come and join me. I should be disgraced if I let a woman like her go without seducing her. If I do not seduce her, everyone will laugh at me!”

Bagoas tells Judith Holofernes’ orders and she goes to his tent accordingly. Holofernes, overwhelmed by her beauty, is seized with a violent desire to sleep with her. Indeed, since the first day he saw her, he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her.

Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613

“Drink then!” Holofernes says. “Enjoy yourself!”

Judith replies, “I am delighted to do so, my lord, for since my birth I have never felt my life more worthwhile than today.”

Holofernes is so enchanted with her that he drinks far more wine than he had on any other day in his life. Eventually, it grows late and his staff and officers hurry away to their beds and Judith and Salome are left alone in the tent with Holofernes who has collapsed, wine-sodden, on his bed.

After stationing Salome outside to keep watch and pretend that everything is fine, Judith goes to the bedpost by Holofernes’ head and takes down his scimitar. Coming closer to the bed she grabs his head by his hair and says, “Make me strong today, Lord God of Israel!”

She strikes twice at his neck with all her might and cuts off his head.

Note: It is in the twelfth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign over the Assyrians that the Book of Judith begins.

Later, my mom says that while she is proud I stood up for my friend, I should “make sure to use words next time. Don’t learn to think with fists.”

Never mind that we had shouted at the boy till we were hoarse but he didn’t stop. We flung tears at him, we screamed. He kept going and going. My friend’s sister had pulled at his arm but she was younger and smaller. I was his size, or thereabouts, and so it fell to me to do the defending.

Only later did I wonder where all those protective parents were when we had been wailing. When our words were met with silence, what other weapons did we have?

My mom says that while she is proud I stood up for my friend, I should ‘make sure to use words next time.’

Why is Judith, who disrupted the natural order by taking on the man’s role of defender and soldier, positioned as a hero within the early modern Christian narrative? Indeed, she is so honored she was envisioned, from early 4th-century Church fathers onwards, as a prototype Virgin Mary, a particularly sacred position to occupy in that time.

Here’s the tension: we have Judith as hero and admirable woman who killed her would-be rapist, but women today, stepping forward to name their assaulters are liars, rumor-mongers, sluts. Why this contrast, despite the married themes of resistance?

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–1599

Much of this comes from the structuring of Judith’s story and her character. Within the Book of Judith, accepted into the Christian canon by the aptly named Pope Innocent I, there is delineation of Good and Evil. The Good represented by the Israelites and the Evil by the Assyrians. In the invasion scenario, in which this story operates, there is little to no space for conflicting morality or questioning who is in the right for their actions, no matter how gruesome. The stakes are too high. It is these extremes that allow for Judith’s story to function as a tale of heroics rather than one of “poor choices.”

This complicates Judith’s actions and the reception of her as hero. Judith is a devout woman with phenomenal faith in the Lord, saving the Israelites from a cruel and ruthless invader by ingratiating herself with the Assyrians and eventually beheading their general. In this situation Judith’s story cements the fact that resistance is only acceptable when acted out by certain people, performing in a certain manner, and in a limited set of situations.

Despite these complications, Judith has long been positioned as a hero by Christians. While she always had her admirers, her heyday was predominantly in the early modern period (roughly mid-1400 to late 1700), when some of the most famous imagery of her was produced. The peak was from 1500 to late 1600, most especially in Italy. Much of this has to do with the alignment of Florence with the “underdog” identity. In contrast with the big players on the peninsular stage — the Habsburgs, Rome, Milan — Florence saw itself as David against Goliath, Judith against Holofernes. All of this is to say that during this period there was an escalation in the adoration of Judith and the homage paid to her in prayer and in paintings.

The acceptance of Judith as a hero worthy of commemoration relies on two married aspects of her story and character: religiosity and purity.

The acceptance of Judith as a hero relies on two married aspects of her story and character: religiosity and purity.

Judith exemplifies the ideal religious woman and therefore is permitted to act in traditionally immoral ways. She dines with a man who is not her husband, wears revealing clothing, spends time in a war camp without a male chaperone, and eventually commits murder. While these acts were done in extreme circumstances, and for the sake of saving her people, another woman doing them of less visible devotion to the Lord would have been tainted.

In the end, her actions are permitted not only because she is a religious woman, but also because she remains pure and virtuous. Judith is not raped. There is no taint on her physically or spiritually. Oh, Holofernes wants to, intends to, but he is dead before he can try. Had he succeeded, the Book of Judith would most likely be a very different story.

In the current #MeToo outpourings we see the expectations that Judith lived up to mapped onto the experiences of survivors coming forward.

When a story is told by a survivor it is dissected. Torn apart to see if the woman’s character stands up to the saintly expectations. If the woman was drinking, at a party, has done something wrong in the past, her entire story becomes risible. She is not virtuous enough to believe; not pure enough to mourn the “loss” of.

During trials this becomes especially prescient, although it plays out every day, in one way or another, on social media. In rape and assault trials it is the woman’s character on the stand, not her assailant’s. The moment there is nuance: she was raped but continued on in the relationship; she was coerced; she was drunk; she said “yes, yes, but not that” but he did it anyway, it becomes a requirement to see how worthy the woman is of “forgiveness” for her “mistakes” that clearly lead to this moment.

It is that appalling paradox where the more the woman said no, the more she resisted, the more she is believed. But, the more silenced she was during the assault, the more silenced she is coming forward. The more un-Godly her life, the less important her words. As if the inches of skin shown or drinks had work backwards against the number of words you are allowed to have to make your experience believed.

Many of the stories coming out now, especially those involving powerful men, are further complicated by the positioning of men’s “love” as “God-like” and “desirable,” and so women are supposed to react by feeling “honored” for the supposed “blessing” of this male attention. Men say “I want,” and women say “thank you.”

Judith herself responded to Holofernes with, “I am delighted to do so, my lord, for since my birth I have never felt my life more worthwhile than today.”

Men say ‘I want,’ and women say ‘thank you.’

Judith’s story, if Holofernes had succeeded, would not bear up well under the scrutiny of trial or social media. He was a powerful man deigning to pay attention to this widow. There would be accusations that she lead him on, that she knowingly went to his house, that she drank with him. And, in the end, her words would be thrown back at her: why did you say you felt worthwhile when he asked you to drink? Why didn’t you just say no?

Women’s words are weaponized against them to silence and delegitimize.

Note: If you are virtuous and God-fearing you will not be assaulted. If you are assaulted you are then, necessarily, not virtuous or God-fearing.

It becomes complicated, being taught that you must worship a being that will love you whether you want it or not. A being that will send His spirit to move through you whether you want it or not. A being whose non-consensual love is supposed to keep you safe.

If God’s love is unconditional, without end, and non-consensual, where lies my spiritual virtue? Or is that, like my physical virtue, a conquest to be taken?

When Judith prays to the Lord He answers her. She credits all her strength and success in defeating Holofernes to the Lord and her faith in Him.

The first time I prayed in earnest was after seeing an X-Files episode where the Devil comes out of the closet to impregnate a woman. I was seven and staying at my dad’s house in a bedroom that the previous occupant died in. His clothes were in my closet.

The next time I prayed in earnest was after watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Convinced Dracula was lurking in my closet, I hid beneath sheets and whispered prayers until I fell asleep. I prayed away much of my youth to closets.

At the time, I subscribed my spiritual safety and preservation of holy virtue from blood suckers and demons to this obsessive praying.

However, I lost what minimal faith I had when I learned in Sunday school that my grandpa and cousin were going to hell since they weren’t Christians. I objected that they were the best people I knew. The most moral, kind, brutally truthful and honest people. The youth pastor said, “It doesn’t matter if they haven’t accepted Christ as their savior.”

It becomes complicated, being taught that you must worship a being that will love you whether you want it or not.

At fifteen I began taking a train and bus to school as we lived a town over. On the bus route an older man began talking to me. He must have been in his mid to late 20s. I remember the dirty blond hair, pockmarks, and his penchant for wearing all black and Metallica t-shirts. I was going to a Catholic high school and wore my uniform grey pleated skirt to the knees, polo shirt, cardigan, knee socks, black shoes, hair in a ponytail.

I was doing everything right. I was covered, I didn’t instigate conversation, I had my old Nokia cell phone in hand.

But I was also taught to be polite and that when someone asks you a question you’re supposed to respond. He asked me about Monty Python and the Napoleon biography I carried around. Before long he was buying me gifts and liked to lean across the aisle and touch my shoulder. He invited me to a beach party at the end of the school year. It’d be fun, a bunch of his friends on the beach, a bonfire, some barbecue.

I considered it. I spoke with my friends about it. Constructed lies to tell my mom should she ask. I looked for him in the days following to tell him that I would go even though I felt, rather than knew, something was wrong. I had even figured out the bus route there.

But shortly after that invite, he stopped showing up on the bus. The driver, a gentle, older man, said, “he switched routes.”

I didn’t pray through the entirety of it, even as I became increasingly uncomfortable and aware that something was off. I am no Judith. I find prayer lacks purpose, my words to Him frail, without strength.

I’ve little patience for the supposed protection devotion to the Lord is meant to supply. I long stopped praying to God for safety from closet devils and vampires.

I credit my escape to sheer dumb luck in bus drivers.

Judith’s story can be read as that “ideal” assault we’re taught to expect. A pure, virtuous woman fights off her assaulter and is not “used.” Her resistance is before and during the attack.

This is how we have always been told it’s supposed to be: woman in dark alleyway is attacked by a man, screams, shouts, beats him off, runs. Saves her virtue. She’ll still be shamed for having been in the dark alleyway, for having worn something inviting, but at least she did the right thing of fighting off the assailant. At least she preserved her honor.

Being assaulted only to fight back after is not how the story is supposed to go. Then it’s not self-defense. Then it’s just a ruined woman taking revenge.

“If you were truly scared, truly didn’t want it, why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you run? Why didn’t you fight back?”

Being assaulted only to fight back after is not how the story is supposed to go.

Any positioning of “how assault is supposed to go” ignores the many valid reasons of why people don’t fight back: the power dynamic of the relationship, fear, inability to resist and so on and so forth. These reasons are often also tied to why many don’t report. Such questions also undermine the fact that most assault and abuse situations do not fit one specific narrative, making it more difficult for many survivors not only to articulate their experiences, but also to be believed.

The absence of narrative, of words, is important. A fatigue of language occurs when you do not have adequate means to express your experiences. The way we cross-examine survivors whose assault doesn’t fit the expected narrative — “Why didn’t your assault look like Judith’s? Like that one show? Like we heard about in sex-ed?” — facilitates the fatigue. It seeks to remove words (“assault,” “abuse,” “rape”) from the already-limited vocabulary survivors can use to tell their stories.

On top of that, women fighting back are understood as angry, disruptive and dangerous to the social structures that benefit (predominantly white, straight, cis) men. If we are to fight, we’re only to do it in the strictest of circumstances which have been pre-approved for us: stranger in a dark street. Stranger in a car. Stranger in your home. Stranger.

No one gives you the language for when you know the person and everyone you know knows the person. No one gives you the language for when it’s a small, and already marginalized, community. No one gives you the language for when it’s your friend or partner or parent or teacher.

Judith, to the benefit of her posthumous image, had that “perfect” story. Holofernes was a stranger, the general of an invading army. Judith was a devout woman who performed her religious duties to perfection thus solidifying her credibility within her community. This is not to take away from Judith’s experience, but to position the acceptance of her resistance compared to other women who have resisted now, and throughout time, only to face smear campaigns and violence.

It is impossible for us to live up to the expectations of womanly saintliness thrust upon us when, by our very words, we admit we are no Judith, let alone a Virgin Mary.

By not reaching the sword in time we are become Magdalenes.

Here’s another story:

I was drunk at a party with a guy I’d been on a few dates with who was a friend of a co-worker. We went up to my room. I said “yes, yes, but not that.” He ignored the “not that,” which, in this case, was sex without a condom. I only realized what happened when it was over. He was asleep (curled up, hair on my pillow. I find his briefs under my bed a week later). I washed off and go downstairs crying. He was kicked out by a friend, but somehow came back inside and went up to my room and wanted to touch me, kiss me, his face was pressed between the door and the frame ‘Here’s Johnny’ style and he was saying “but I love you, I love you, I love you” and I was shaking and didn’t want to make a big deal of everything and once he was gone I was fine. Everything was fine. I just had to get the morning after pill and deal with an STI six months later because I was pissing blood and he was violating me all over again.

Afterwards, I don’t know whether my co-workers talked about me behind my back. But I know how they talked about another woman who was assaulted after I left that workplace because a year later a colleague messaged me, “do you want to know the latest drama?”

I said I did. I then heard how they thought she made it up, or exaggerated, or blew the entire situation out of proportion. I know how they said she was “ruining the atmosphere” and how all sides of the story should be heard and if she doesn’t like it here, she should just leave. I know the vicious way they gossiped about her online and how they, like so many, reduced her experience to “drama” and “sex scandal.”

I was drunk and wearing revealing clothing. I had gone on dates with the guy. He was a nice dude with a young son. He was a musician and talented. I don’t know how they talked about me, but I can guess.

I didn’t do anything to stop him because I didn’t have a chance. There wasn’t even a moment for prayer.

Note: A believable woman is pure, devout, sacred, untouched and, above all, rational.

A believable woman is pure, devout, sacred, untouched and, above all, rational.

Note: No woman who is pure, devout, sacred, untouched, and rational should find herself in a situation to be assaulted. If she does, it had better be for a good reason. Like stopping an invading army.

“Drink then!” Holofernes says. “Enjoy yourself!”

Getting a person drunk, the oldest trick in the book. Alcohol is, after all, the original date rape drug.

When I was 19 my first boyfriend, then 24, liked to make date rape jokes. If I called them that he’d become patronizing and say that it’s “just humor. Another glass of madeira, m’dear?” He liked to tell me that I was an old soul; if I was as mature as he thought I was, he said, I’d be interested in the kinds of sex he was proposing. He’d compare me to his ex-girlfriend, saying, “well she liked it when we did this or that, so you should too. Should we have another cider?”

I was roofied at a bar when I was 20. I had gone out with a friend to an event that was supposed to be safe and ended up wandering the streets. I have only two memories from that night: curling up on the ground outside a store front thinking I’ll just sleep there for the night, and two very helpful young men getting me a cab, paying for it and a bottle of water and sending me home. I was extraordinarily lucky, all things considered.

The next morning the friend asked, “but are you sure you were roofied? Are you sure you’re not overreacting? Are you sure? It was a queer event, we were in a safe space. That couldn’t have happened.”

Then there was the girl I dated for a time who liked to make sure we didn’t eat and that I drank a lot so I was too drunk to put up much of a fight when it came to sex. She’d undo my bra strap in public while talking about the need for consent. She had all the right lingo for it, all those good words about boundaries and the importance of enthusiasm.

I am unlearning my inability to say no. My inability to use words to negotiate for myself. When I learned “don’t learn to think with your fists” I also learned that I am to be nice and accommodating and I shouldn’t be a burden. That there was nothing worse than taking up space and being difficult.

At least when Judith went to the Assyrians she knew she was in enemy territory. Especially while the wine flowed. At least Judith knew she would have to go to all lengths to keep herself safe. At least Judith knew how to use a sword on top of how to pray.

Women are taught prayers, words of gentleness, but not how to fight.

When Judith is portrayed in early modern art she is most often shown at the height of her triumph. Her hand in Holofernes’ hair, his own sword through his neck, there is blood, her grim determination contrasted with his pain.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614–18

While in the Biblical story Salome, the maid, is not present during the beheading, I think it important that in the art she is. In Gentileschi’s magnificent Judith Slaying Holofernes, Salome is even holding the man down as Judith cuts. There is as much rage on her face as on Judith’s. It is important to note that these captivating portraits of Judith by Gentileschi are most likely born out of her own experience of rape.

Gentileschi’s story, like many, is not the ideal. She continued the affair with the man who raped her, hoping he would marry her and bestow upon her that respectability necessary for women of her time. Without it, she would be without “honor” and “virtue.” It is no surprise that we can easily trace her face onto Judith’s in all three of the paintings she completed based on this story.

In our current beheading process it is necessary for there to be those who hold down and those who hack the head off. Sometimes, we take turns. Survivors are supporting each other as we each come out of the darkness and behead the monster — in this case, patriarchy, rape culture, toxic masculinity.

The use of intimate space in most paintings of Judith inverts our usual portrayal of assault. It is Holofernes’ bed that is defiled, not Judith’s. It is his tent made uncanny as a result of the repercussions of his violence.

When survivor’s pain is used as a muse it is our blood on the sheets. In these paintings it is Holofernes’ soaking the white linen. It is his bed that becomes un-familiarized by the act of violence rather than the woman’s. It is his tent, his home in foreign land, which becomes horror.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c.1625

The intimate lighting, sumptuous curtains, the details of side tables, used sheets, cushions, pillows all add to the homely nature which is disturbed by the brutal act we are witnessing. But, as much as it is brutal, it is also cleansing.

Holofernes is cast into the dark. With his twisted, grotesque head bundled away in a sack, he is rendered irrelevant. In Gentleschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, it is difficult to even see Holofernes’ head so obscured is it in shadow. It is Judith and Salome in the light.

This is not the painting of modern times. Even now, those coming forward with stories of abuse, assault and rape are met with silence, with accusations against their name, their integrity. Often, it is the survivor who is interpreted as monstrous for wanting justice. It is them pushed into shadows. Even more so when their abuser is popular, powerful, famous, artistic. These people go too far! They’re ruining careers of talented men! (Never mind the careers of talented women who have been silenced and suppressed by these powerful men.) Then, the litany of questions: Why didn’t you say something sooner? What are you getting out of this? What if you’re lying? Where’s the proof?

In our current beheading process it is necessary for there to be those who hold down and those who hack the head off.

While the stories gain a wider audience than anything in Judith’s time (or Gentileschi’s) and, as a result, are able to generate greater conversations about rape culture, feminism, and assault there remains strong backlashes. Women have been hounded off social media after receiving hundreds of rape and death threats. Some women have found themselves black-balled in their chosen occupation either by their assaulters or by their assaulters’ friends.

In some cases, those coming forward risk doxxing, or worse. They risk their homes becoming unsafe, unfamiliar, yet again. Home becoming horror because they resisted. Because they did not act as a proper victim should and play the correct role within that limited script we are given.

It should be the perpetrators of assault experiencing a fatigue of language. It should be their homes becoming uncanny, not their victims and survivors.

Fede Galizia, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1596

Sometimes, I go back through the texts sent to me by Mr. STI. He texted me for more than four months afterwards, cataloguing all the places around town he saw me. “Hey I just saw you at X grocery store” or “I think I saw you at the gym” or “Was that you at the taco place.” I think he thought it romantic. Or flattering. Or he saw Love Actually one too many times.

The first night I met him someone described him as “a hotter, young Johnny Depp” which, as a compliment, has aged badly. Thinking on him now, I think he looked a bit like Holofernes. Longish hair, trimmed beard, tall. The last message he sent me was, “hey, I saw you yesterday in the grocery store at Plaza Bella.” It was sent at 6:38pm.

What draws me to Judith is the part of her that was twelve-year old me. She had that wildness that fought back. Somewhere along the way I lost my ability to grab a man by his hair to stop him from hurting others.

This is, perhaps, why men are so scared of the #MeToo deluge, the lists we make, the whisper networks we create. Because it’s the one space our words do matter and have power — even if they didn’t protect us when we needed them, at least they can protect others.

We are trying to reach up to the scimitar on the bedpost. When we do, the world should be frightened.

Note: When Judith returned with the head of Holofernes she held it up for all her people to see and said, “Look, the head of Holofernes cut off by the hand of a woman.”

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