Some Notes To Keep Your Rape Story Relevant
The "sisterhood" editor who wants you to write like Charles Dickens in "Re: Your Rape Story" by Elissa Schappell
INTRODUCTION BY AMANDA UHLE
In a new anthology, Indelible in the Hippocampus, writer and editor Shelly Oria (New York 1, Tel Aviv 0) assembles essays, poems and fiction from twenty-three writers with an aim toward a truly intersectional look at the Me Too movement.
The notion of using fiction to convey women’s very real experiences is bold. As every woman who’s ever spoken out about her own sexual assault or harassment will tell you, managing other people’s reactions, their skepticism in particular, is essentially unavoidable. If we want to set the bar at the perfectly reasonable mark of “Believe women” then why add or invent anything, as a short story must?
Oria will tell you, wisely, that we can only do better at understanding the depth and truth of these stories when we open space for women to tell them in their own way. In Elissa Schappell’s “Re: Your Rape Story,” the author deftly pulls off a virtual high-wire act. It is an epistolary story about a seasoned writer who submits her story of a long-ago assault to a glossy magazine, and the bubbly, flippant magazine editor who is shaping the story into something she thinks her boss and her readers will more easily digest. Schappell only gives us the editor’s side of the email correspondence. The editor’s character emerges in everything from her misogynistic slant on the essay to her wildly annoying email tics: omg that Mount Everest of untested rape kits—soooo grim. We meet and empathize with the character of the seasoned writer, too, in the editor’s reaction to her submerged replies: “I was suggesting maybe you could lighten the mood, that’s all, if it wouldn’t kill you but clearly you think it’s a bad idea.”
Schappell’s fiction delivers a full roar of emotions that are somehow both grievously familiar and rarely discussed. She has said, “As a writer, I couldn’t tell the truth of my experience were I not writing fiction.” In this piece, she asks us to consider what it means to only hear one side of the story. She asks us to consider the cost of speaking out and the courage of all the women who say “Me too.” Schappell’s story is beautiful, unexpected, and telling in a way that only fiction can be.
– Amanda Uhle
Executive Director and Publisher, McSweeney’s
Some Notes To Keep Your Rape Story Relevant
RE: Your Rape Story
by Elissa Schappell
First, I have to say, I love this piece so much!!! If it were up to me, I wouldn’t touch a word. But there are a few little things, questions mostly, totally on me, I’m sure I wasn’t clear at lunch. It was that Condé Nast special—rare burger, no bun, no fries, no fun, and two just-kill-me sodas. Ouch!
Anyway, it was so great talking to you. You were so honest—or maybe it was the tequila talking? (But wait, I don’t speak Spanish! lol.) Which is why I have to say, I’m a little surprised [and a tad bit disappointed] that a lot of the great stuff you told me isn’t in here, because I felt like we really connected.
And how crazy that you grew up just one town over! Some of my friends had older sisters and brothers so it’s totally possible we were at some of the same parties. Small world!
Actually, I used to babysit for a family in your town, maybe you knew them.
Okay—let’s jump right in. I know this deadline is INSANE and I’m sorry, but let me say again how thrilled I am that you’re doing this.
What would you think about rewriting the opening? You get it right? Stats are a total nonstarter. We all know the number of sexual assaults, rapes, nonreported rapes that occur every year is HUGE (omg that Mount Everest of untested rape kits—soooo grim), and that’s the problem, the numbers are so mind-boggling you can’t even wrap your head around them.
It’s incredible. For centuries women don’t want to talk about rape because they’re afraid of being punished, shamed, or having no one believe them, and then one day Harvey Weinstein comes along, drops his bathrobe and boom! It’s like magic. Suddenly everybody has their hand up, Me too! Me too! And a movement is born! Did you see the piece in the NYT about Boomer moms being triggered by classic rock in shopping malls, and what about that little old lady who was goosed by a porter on the Titanic?
You have to wonder if some women aren’t voting twice, jk!
No listen. If I could write this piece I would, in a heartbeat. The exposure you’re going to get!!! Not that you need it, or care, Ms. Army of 2 million Twitter followers. This will be easy money for you. (I know that money is a thing for you right now.) Just tell us what happened to you, and how you got past it. I am not saying the ending has to be uplifting, but you know.
Don’t hate me but I need this ASAP, like our real drop-dead deadline is next Friday.
FYI I wanted to do #MeToo months ago, but the editor in chief (you know him, right?) wouldn’t do it, swore it was a fad, it would never last. Did I mention that we’ve started calling him Oz? As in Wizard of… because he wants to have a hand in everything, total control, unless of course he’s mysteriously disappeared to go hot-air ballooning.
Now he’s freaking out that by the time the issue hits the stands #MeToo will be dead (like he’s been predicting for months), and it will be all about the #Backlash.
He is determined to be ahead of the curve on #Backlash. Seriously, we’re about to have our first meeting, I can’t tell you the number of times he’s said, joking/not joking, “One day this is going to come back and bite women on the ass.”
All my best,
P.S. Attaching that hilarious pic I told you about of the entire editorial staff in our pink pussy hats.
MONDAY, 5:30 p.m.
Oops, spaced on the contract. (If I only had a brain, a heart, some courage…) Sending ASAP and YES we do pay on acceptance not publication. I can expedite if you like. Sisterhood is powerful. Yay us!
WEDNESDAY, 3:33 p.m.
Oh my god, Please believe me, I didn’t mean to rewrite you! You have to believe me, It’s your story not mine. 100% yours.
I only revised that party scene so you’d get an idea of the kinda world-building details we want. See, I didn’t know if you were in college or high school. If it was one guy or two guys, and I don’t know how drunk/stoned you were. What happened? If you told me at lunch I blacked it out. Do you think maybe someone slipped you a roofie? Is it possible this could be a teachable moment?
I could have sworn you told me that you woke up with your underwear on backward. It sounds here like maybe you lost it? Forgot it? Clarify.
I know this is dumb, but what were you wearing? Ugh. I know, but the reader will wonder and it will help them better imagine the scene.
Also, did you report? That will be important to readers. Did you report? And no judgment if you didn’t!
I’d say that publishing your story would more than make up for it.
As a fellow English major, I appreciate that you’re trying to conjure a mood with that “heavy canopy of smoke over the dance floor,” but how about just “smoky”? Not so sure about details like “The slow oscillation of a fan moving the air like hands”? Or the motif of the red camp blanket with the print of hunters and the hound dogs on it. Worship all of it but in the interest of space we will have to lose some of it. I want to hear the throbbing bass of the stereo, smell that smoke—is it pot, hashish??
On another note, Amen to your comment about those privileged “ivory tower feminists with their Harvard degrees and peashooters” attacking women who complain about sexual assault, Grow up! and Stop whining!
I mean, what would THEY do if their boss exposed himself in the break room while they were trying to microwave Cup o’ Noodles? Quit? Slap him with a lawsuit? Slap him? What if he appeared out of nowhere and said it was an accident? Would it matter whether or not you were eating?
Love that you included that taxi ride with the “boy genius” editor (boy genius leaning back hard into his forties) who passed on your book because you wouldn’t let him grope you in the taxi. That line “your cunt is made of ice, frozen and impenetrable as Superman’s Fortress of Solitude” is priceless. Kudos to you for saying what no one else will, but unfortunately, we can’t use it even with ***s. It’s silly but the magazine doesn’t allow offensive language or profanity, even in dialogue.
Re: money. I promise I’m trying to get you $2 a word (times are tough but you deserve it)! You’re an established writer and a vocal feminist, and what a great platform this is for you, right? Just get the piece in—seriously knock it out of the effing park and cross my heart I’ll get you $2.
Also, Oz says feminists have no sense of humor. Maybe you could make this a little funny? Add a few jokes? It might soften him up…
Yours in the struggle,
P.S. I think the pussy hat pic is cute too.
P.P.S. Just sign the contract. Once the piece comes in—and he loves it—we’ll change it from $1 to $2.
P.P.P.S. Mea culpa, I know that joke about women “voting twice” was dumb.
FRIDAY, 5:30 p.m.
Good news, I’m still at the office! I get that you’re stressed. I wasn’t suggesting you “throw in some rape jokes.” I would never do that. I was suggesting maybe you could lighten the mood, that’s all, if it wouldn’t kill you but clearly you think it’s a bad idea.
FRIDAY, 6:00 p.m.
Can I give you some advice? In times like this I always return to the master: Charles Dickens. Dickens says if you want to hook the reader and gain their sympathy you have to tell them a story. I’m not saying you’re Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, but ask yourself, because the reader wants to know: Are you or are you not the hero of your own story?
Screw nuance. It’s black-and-whit. No gray. Gray is for foreign movies with subtitles. You know, woman smoking a cigarette weeps silently at the sight of a bicycle with a flat tire.
Think about it. Anyway, hope this all makes sense. I am happy to talk it through with you. Sorry about the misunderstanding.
Also we should have some art soon, very excited to run it by you!
Yours in Solidarity!
P.S. You got this. Forget about getting that emergency root canal, sister. If you give us the kind of searing realism that gets people talking, Oz will buy you a fur coat. LOL. We will definitely go out and get white girl wasted.
MONDAY, 10:45 a.m.
Yes, confirmed. I got the contract.
Sigh. I see you stetted that “some women, some women” section. I know every woman experiences sexual harassment/sexual assault/rape differently. I know that “it’s personal,” it’s supposed to be a personal piece. Remember? That’s what we agreed on.
So, get personal. Get right to that “elbow-titting” thing those guys did in the halls of your high school. THAT’S GREAT. How did they get away with that? No, I know. It’s that You-should-be-happy-he-hit-you-it-means-he-likes-you thing, am I right? I hate that. Also LOVE the image of trying to dodge the ass-grabbing customers in that beach restaurant being like a game of Whac-A-Mole, the minute you escape one hairy varmint another pops up.
This is what I mean about funny!!! Maybe more humor would be good?
Someone joked the other day that girls who like male attention should wear a cute little button, like a wink emoji or Flirting Zone, to signal that they’re safe to talk to, compliment, hang out with, etc…
Here’s a crazy idea, maybe we should look at this from a service angle? Provide a sort of a visual, a chart (maybe in the shape of dress?) laying out what’s generally considered acceptable behavior and what’s sexual harassment/sexual assault/rape—not from the point of view of the law, but from a woman’s point of view.
Since you’re wed to the “not all women experience sexual harassment the same way” thing, the headline could be something like “Jane says bad behavior, Sally says sexual violation.” Keep it snappy.
At one end you’ve got the 100-year-old grandfather who pats you on the fanny and says, Va va va voom, then whistling construction workers, then strangers looking down your shirt on the bus, followed by coworkers who say, “If I told you that you had a nice body would you hold it against me?” or coworkers who sometimes rub your shoulders, then all the other stuff, you know, groping, date rape, all the way to being raped at knifepoint.
Question: Where on this scale would you put the father who every Saturday night, before he takes the babysitter home, parks his car around the corner from her house so he can feel her up? All through middle school. I can’t write it for you, you’d have to figure it out.
MONDAY, 4:27 p.m.
Hey, did you get my last email?? Are your ears burning?
They should be. We had our first #MeTooBacklash meeting yesterday and your name came up! Oz was not joking about being ahead of the pack here. He also asked me again when he could see your piece. There’s a lot of buzz about it here… I am stalling, but I can’t hold him off much longer. He said, “I want details,” I said he’d have to wait. But seriously, tick tock tick tock. We are running out of time.
We looked at possible cover art for #MeTooBacklash. Hey, can I run something past you? I know you’ve got a great eye. What would you think about either a woman in a neck brace, like “whiplash,” or a woman on a hill waving a white flag in surrender—and the white flag is a white miniskirt? Maybe off-base, just running it up the old flagpole.
(ha ha wink emoji)
Can’t wait to get your reaction to the attached art for your story.
Ugh… I do have some bad news. I’m sorry and I hate this so much, but zero percent chance we’d publish this without your name on it. No initials, no pseudonym. That’s the whole point. It’s you. Also zero percent chance for a kill fee now after all this.
But hey, let’s be positive! Ask yourself, WWGSD? What Would Gloria Steinem Do? Sisterhood is powerful!
TUESDAY, 10:05 a.m.
Wow! Rise and shine girlfriend. Were you really up at 4 a.m.?
I am going to pretend you didn’t just send this back to me—again—without directly addressing my questions. I am going to pretend this didn’t happen.
Also, what about the chart we talked about? Grandfather, construction worker, knifepoint, babysitter being molested in the driveway?
Relax. I spoke to the art department about swapping out the image of Raggedy Ann in the mouth of the dog “wolf ” and they’re fine with it. Who knows where that image even came from, but you have to admit it’s arresting. It catches the eye. Danger!
Tell me the truth—is it the photo, or do you have a problem with Raggedy Ann personally? Personally, I love Raggedy Ann. I mean she’s the all-American “Every Girl” doll, right? Didn’t you have one?
Honestly, we’re all a little surprised at how upset you are by this image. Outside of Raggedy Ann being in a dog’s mouth no one here thinks she looks like “the victim of a violent assault,” or “traumatized… like she’s just going through the motions… putting on a happy face for her friends and family.” I don’t see how button eyes can project a “haunted stare,” but what matters is you do. You see “a mask of pain,” I see a poker face—and if she is putting on a happy face, is that the worst thing?
Don’t forget she’s smiling! 🙂 You can’t deny that big smile. Raggedy Ann is no one’s chew toy. Hell, I can think of a dozen photos of me where I am smiling like that. Of course I’m drunk, and she’s not, she’s a doll, but what matters is she/we are having fun. I think that’s the point. Even in the jaws of a dog Raggedy Ann continues to smile, she never loses her sense of humor.
Jean-Claude Phillipe, you know our art director, yes? He says what else could it be but a reference to Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf ? Is the wolf not the epitome of stranger danger? Danger!
They also say if the issue is the saliva, they can lose it. For the record, nobody here interpreted this as crying wolf = crying rape.
WEDNESDAY, 10:10 a.m.
I just want you to know that of course, the minute you said that, I saw it. I don’t know how I missed it. Crying wolf. At this point I think I’m too close to this piece. I literally broke down crying twice yesterday. I had a dream that I was back in middle school and my mom and dad, and the mom and the kids I used to babysit for (but not the dad, he was somewhere else waiting for me), all morphed into star-nosed moles. I woke up crying and I couldn’t breathe. It felt so real. Now I have a stomachache—maybe I’m getting sick.
THURSDAY, 8:00 a.m.
I was hoping and praying I’d find your revise in my mailbox this morning.
I don’t know what to say. I’ve already lied and told Oz the story was in—and it was great, and I’m on my period so stop bugging me every five minutes.
I know that’s not your problem. That’s mine. If I get fired, that’s on me.
Just let me know? I feel like we’ve really gotten close these last few days, so just friend to friend, be straight with me. Also, just so you know, if you can’t deliver as promised, we’re going to be forced to swap in a photo spread of Woody Allen’s greatest hits—you know, “Can we still love Annie Hall?”
(Btw there’s a target between Mariel Hemingway’s eyes. It’s awful.)
Copyediting needs this by noon tomorrow. Drop-dead. Latest. Seriously. It’s Friday, you know people are heading for the country. I’ll stay as long as it takes—it’s not like I’m dashing off to the Hamptons like everyone else—but I don’t have a time machine.
I can’t do this for you. I mean, if I need to I will—I mean, I can if you want. I can do it. I will write it if you want me to, but I don’t think you want me to.
All I want is this: How old were you? Where were you? What time of day was it? What were you wearing? Skirt? Pants? Shorts? How dark was it? Was it before or after midnight? Were you wearing perfume? If so, what kind? When was the last time you’d showered? Could you smell yourself ? Could anyone else smell you? Was he older than you or the same age? Was he handsome? Did you laugh at his jokes? Was there anything going through your mind? Were you happy for the attention? How did you react? When did you react? Did you react? If not, why not? What were you thinking? Could you think? When did everything change? If you saw yourself, was it like looking through the wrong end of a telescope? If you said anything, what did your voice sound like? Like a cartoon mouse? Is it possible that before you knew what was happening, it was nice? At first was it as unremarkable as bending a straw? Does your life break down into life before and after?
FRIDAY, 9:30 a.m.
We’re almost there! Just one last thing—about the ending. We need some closure. Can you clarify, or simplify it?
You don’t want the people you love, who love you, who are proud of you, to know you were raped, because they will believe it, and they will be heartbroken and they will be angry and full of guilt and helplessness, and they will want to do something, anything, their hands balled up in fists, but what? Hire a hitman? There’s nothing they can do. They know it. And that will make them feel small and pathetic, and that pains you. You hate it. Their impotency embarrasses you. It will remind you of how small and pathetic and full of impotent rage you are. The fact that on top of all this, the people you love, who love you, who are proud of you, will also now feel awkward, possibly uncomfortable around you because you were raped when there’s no reason for them to feel awkward or uncomfortable, after all, this was the whole point of keeping your mouth shut! It will be all the small things. Your mother, your sister, your friend will immediately change the channel when a man threatens a woman on TV, apologizing for not knowing it was coming, as though this were her fault. Your father, your brother, your friend, will hesitate before putting his hand on the small of your back to guide you across a slippery patch of ice, because he is afraid of startling you, of taking some liberty with your body—these men you love, reduced to their gender! This was the whole point of keeping your mouth shut! You didn’t want the burden of their pity, or their guilt, or their sadness, or the burden of having to talk about it, you didn’t want to wonder who among them wondered—full of shame but unable to help themselves, how much of this was your fault. You didn’t want the responsibility of making everyone feel better about what happened to you. If you’re not saying, “I’m fine,” you are saying, “I’m sorry.” You never envisioned this life for yourself. You don’t know where you turned left instead of right, why it happened. All you know is that this is your story, and your story has a happy ending. This is a happy ending.
See what I mean, Kate?
The whole piece has been building to this moment! Come on! Just tell us the truth. Make us believe it.