AN INTRODUCTION BY BELINDA McKEON
When Suzanne Scanlon sent me the first draft of this short story, I sent it back with some notes. Most of the notes consisted of praise, for the portrait she’d built, through angular, unsettling fragments, of a woman, Esther, looking back at the bad relationship she has had with Harold, one of her college professors; Scanlon’s prose ransacks not only Harold’s pretensions — he is a condescending, egocentric baby, a mansplainer extraordinaire — but also Esther’s weaknesses, her poor decisions, her tendency, maybe, to ask the wrong questions. The story jars, in the best sense; it makes reader uneasy, unsure. Should we be reading this? It feels so raw; it feels, in places, too much, as Esther flashes back over the moments of her humiliation, of her supplication, at Harold’s hands, or as she regards, now, his neediness, his paranoia: “I said Hi, and you looked at me like — like I was a piece of excrement.” There is a writer who Esther admires, a writer who writes “sharply, smartly about women doing stupid, dark, destructive things: fucking men they feared or despised, for example.” Scanlon’s story seems at once the ghost and the offspring of the work of Esther’s writer; it’s a disorienting open space of wanting and not wanting, of seeking and of being pushed.
But the notes. The notes — my notes — read, I suppose, like the irritating notes of a creative writing professor (no surprise there), in that they were so hung up on who was speaking. On which piece of dialogue, on which line of text, belonged to which character, or came from which perspective, or should be imagined in which voice: Esther’s or Harold’s (“Maybe we are all misogynists, then”)? Esther’s or that of her female friend (“Today’s modern woman blah blah — “)? Esther’s or that of Brian, the boyfriend she had, back when they were both teenagers and in an asylum, Brian who had visions of saints, mostly male, but also including Dymphna, the patron saint of nervous illness?
Who is speaking? my over-anxious annotations demanded. Who is this? Meant to be kind of unclear?
The manuscript came back. Other small things had been tweaked and changed, but the “kind of unclear” dialogue had not. The voices spilled and pooled into each other. The sense of characters pushing in on, appropriating each other, remained. I thought, how stupid of me to have questioned it, how needy — maybe like Harold. It’s my favorite aspect of the story now. It still niggles, but why on earth shouldn’t a piece of fiction niggle?
More niggling: the writer who writes “sharply, smartly” is the novelist Mary Gaitskill, not named in Scanlon’s story but elsewhere within it quoted at length, for an essay she published in Harper’s in 1994, an essay called “On Not Being A Victim: Sex, Rape and the Trouble with Following Rules,” which is the essay referenced in the story’s title, but never, within the story (Harold foists the essay upon Esther, insisting she read it) given its own name. Esther’s take on the Gaitskill essay is far from uncomplicated; in her description, the essay — which is long and complex, an interrogation of awareness and consent, of want and not-want, and a call for a new paradigm of education — sounds like a quick take, a brisk diagnosis of victimhood; but Esther, of course, has her own reasons for reading an essay — an essay practically forced upon her — this way. Why is Dymphna the patron saint of mental illness? Look her up; it makes no sense, given what her actual story consists of. And yet, she is. “I mean, that’s the irony, right?” as Esther puts it.
Editor, A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance
“The Rape Essay (Or Mutilated Pages)” by Suzanne Scanlon
“Well yes of course I’d read it, but you know it’s hard — ”
“You dated him anyway!”
“I mean how could I — ”
“There’s a blog about that — ”
“Something so cartoonish could not have been real, you know?”
“A Twitter maybe, something.”
“Or very real.”
“Surreal. That way. That he was just what — I mean, worse — than the
men he wrote about.”
“The one who sleeps with the Hippie Chick?”
“Or the two guys having that sick conversation — ”
“Today’s modern woman blah blah — ”
“Something about the way it was like how — women, ha! — were totally hosed, you know, by wanting to be independent and also wanting to be totally overcome and undone and ravished in love, by a man. Like blissed out and destroyed, obliterated.”
“Well that was actually smart. I mean that’s why he gave me it that day, before we — ”
“Do you think — ”
“It’s like this book I’m reading where this — ”
“But regardless, it is condescending for a man to come to such a conclusion — like, he’s trying to undo through intellectual analysis the very women he’s seducing.”
“Where she talks about um how you can’t desire what you have — how it’s like hide and seek and you can’t seek what isn’t hidden — ”
“The most cynical — ”
“But I mean maybe there’s something to it. Also.”
“But smart. Yeah. I know.”
“I know you know. I’m just saying. I’m just saying.”
Maybe the story begins here: Harold just beyond the doorframe; you see him, don’t you? He holds a sweatshirt: grey and torn, with the insignia of a Jesuit boy’s school in the Bronx: XAVIER. Esther’s sweatshirt, a gift from a boy she’d met in asylum. That’s what Harold liked: that it belonged to a boy, a boy from asylum, another boy, and that the boy must have liked Esther very much, to give it to her. And now, he, Harold, is the one who got it, and got her, too.
Not that the boy in asylum ever got Esther, of course. But maybe that was better, leaving it there, in the realm of desire. Or not even desire.
Back to the moment, the beginning: here’s Harold, in the doorway, wearing tennis shorts. His elegant legs, which taper at the knee.
“This is what makes legs sexy,” a girlfriend once advised Esther. They were in high school.
“Without that taper, you have fat legs.”
Esther considered her own legs.
“My mom said these were the legs of an obese person.”
“You can’t have everything,” the friend consoled.
Or was it later, the beginning, or maybe this was the end, that day in class, when Harold held up his copy of the essay, to make his point. With his left hand, gesturing to the page, saying,
“This was originally published alongside a very unattractive photo of the author.”
The beginning might be later, too, like the time Harold took a pair of sweatpants that had been given to her by a boyfriend she’d had when they met.
“I fed them to my dogs,” he told her, of the sweatpants, and it seemed to be a joke, hyperbolic.
Still, Esther loved it, the way Harold wished to possess her, this violence of competition. She’d never been loved that way before, violently, madly; and even though, later, she decided it was not love, she’d never, anyway, had love performed that way before this, which was what mattered sometimes, above all, or in the moment of it: the performance of love.
If Esther were asked now to describe Harold — in one line, retrospectively — she would say: Harold wore shorts. Or: Harold was aware of the beauty of his legs.
“To be concerned with fame is much like a preoccupation with sexual appeal: one day it pleases you, soon enough, it destroys you.”
“You become consumed with trying to keep it. Like everything else, it becomes something to lose. The prospect of losing it terrifies you.”
“So what you have to do is not get attached to anything; it’s all here to be lost, just as we are.”
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.*
Esther holds back the curtain covering the small window at the top of the door. Harold is no longer in shadow; he is complete, in color, lips pursed and head bowed.
“Did you get my email?” Harold asks.
“I don’t want it.”
“My dad would be mad if I lost — ”
“It’s not really me, mine, I don’t care.”
“It’s important to him.”
So a boy named Brian, incidental here but maybe not? had given Esther the Xavier sweatshirt years earlier, just after he was admitted to the adolescent program. This was late in Esther’s stay. Suddenly, there were so many kids on the ward; it changed everything. Brian carried a bible, wrote notes he’d sign with bible verses. St. Francis Xavier School in the Bronx, on Haight Street.
Esther didn’t want to be a mental patient anymore, not this way — not in front of so many children. Little eyes on her: it forced her to grow up. Eyes that did not gaze, but needed. Be not afraid. 1 Peter 3:4 Something had to make her want to leave that place, why not the transformation of long-term asylum into short-term high school respite? Babies are famous to themselves, Harold said. She’d sung the biblical line as a child. The idea of it: Jesus, a Savior, holding you. Nothing to fear. This was how the gaze worked. She became supplicant. She wanted to believe. This, too, was why she loved Harold; he also wanted to believe. He didn’t believe, but he wanted to.
If Brian believed, why was he in a mental hospital?
“Do the Jesuits look askance?” she asked one day, thinking of James Joyce.
“Not at all.”
“I don’t think fervor sits well.”
“They only mind when I speak of the visions.”
“When I’m lucky. Occasionally. I have to prepare, to be ready — ”
“A bird flying over, around and around in circles; he comes closer and closer and then–right into my heart.”
Brian closed his eyes, put his hand to his chest, a lowered salute.
“Another time, spiders, bleeding, but others — Saint Dymphna, for example.”
“The patron saint of nervous illness.”
“She was, in fact, molested,” Esther told Brian; she’d loved Lives of the Saints as a girl. “I mean, that’s the irony, right? She was abused like so many women here on this psych ward but really she’d been raped, desired by her own father, then ran away.”
“I didn’t know.”
“He cut her eyes out.”
Esther’s aunt sent a prayer card of Dymphna to the asylum; Esther threw it in the trash immediately.
“So why is she the saint of mental illness? Why not the saint of women traumatized by wacked-out patriarchal violence?”
Brian listened, nodded, but didn’t register the story as Esther did. He told her it was usually a male saint or apostle appeared to him, anyway. This is where mental illness gets interesting, Esther wanted to say, but stopped herself. She did like Brian, even if he lacked specifics; that fatal flaw of the faithful. He went on about Jesus coming to him, laying hands; treacly imagery from her own, tired girlhood. Next it was Francis of Assisi, a hallmark version of goodness and love.
But back to the real story here, which is about Harold, and now that we’ve discovered where it begins, let’s get to the point. There is a point! I promise. For example, here’s Esther, out of bed now, in jean shorts, no bra, carrying the big book to the door. It’s Harold’s book. Harold won’t walk through the entranceway, she notices, a new boundary. She hates boundaries. Boundaries are for maps, a woman protested, in a play she had seen some weeks earlier. That’s how she felt. Maps. Keep your boundaries for your maps.
But not really. She liked boundaries sometimes. She liked them when Brian was around.
Here’s what Esther wrote of the moment later, in her notebook:
I said fuck you but not out loud and only in retrospect. I wanted to be back in bed. You could see that and yet. You needed it. Something about your father. I said I will give you something. And I got your book, a big book, which I never wanted, with an essay you insisted I read, an essay I of course read, an essay about rape, an essay written by one of my favorite writers ever, a writer you would only call “weird” which fine so what or was it “scary”? No “scary” was how the other prof, my default-prof, described Kathy Acker: “Scary.”
Some background: back when they still liked each other, when boundaries were for maps, maybe, but certainly not for student-professor relationships, Harold appeared at Esther’s door one afternoon; he carried a big book.
“You have to read this,” he told Esther, of the book, but not the book itself but just one particular essay within the book, an essay written by a female writer Esther admired. In the essay, which Harold wanted Esther to read, the writer argued — or so it seemed to Esther — that date rape was a reductive, problematic term; women, the writer suggested, were less often the victims they wished to be considered.
Or so it had been in her experience.
The writer of the rape essay was the first to articulate for Esther what it was to be a woman right now. Not in this rape essay but in her fiction, which Esther admired, where the writer wrote sharply, smartly about women doing stupid, dark, destructive things: fucking men they feared or despised, for example.
Esther sat down to read “The Rape Essay” as she came to call it, though that was not the title. She ignored the implications of Harold gifting her this way, but acknowledged the gesture as ritualized courtship, which Harold took seriously. She hadn’t expected how essential this phase would be for Harold: the opening of car doors, for example.
The problem, the admired writer argued in this essay, was that many women allowed themselves to get to a risky, dangerous place — flirting, drunk, physically involved–because of the erotic charge — and yet, these very women wish to call it “rape” when it ends violently or forcibly or merely regrettably.
Esther and Harold had bonded over asylum stories. “War stories,” he called them, but it was also intellectual inquiry; she found it exciting. Sparring as flirtation.
“It reminds me of, like, Bill Cosby.” She tells him later, by phone.
“Didn’t he like blame black people for not being, you know — ”
“If you think you can compare what it is to be a privileged white woman to what it is to be black in this country, under the hold of systemic racism.”
“That’s not what I — ”
“The juggernaut of 20th-century feminism.”
Esther re-read the essay in bed that night, and again the next: what the woman argued was for a more nuanced understanding of relationships between men and women. Sometimes women got what they wanted but didn’t want. Be careful what you ask for, as a particularly simpering asylum keeper would say to Esther and the others.
Back in the doorway, things are still rising: Harold, esteemed and brilliant, appears helpless, shy; lacks the energy or bravado of his first appearance in her genkan.
It was hard to believe that this was the man she’d been hating with such intense feeling all week. It was easier to hate people who weren’t bodies, who didn’t have faces.
“It’s true that some of us are, well, complicit in ways we don’t want to acknowledge. In our own joy and suffering. It’s not possible not to be.”
“That doesn’t mean that — ”
“Rape still happens.”
“I read the essay — ”
He doesn’t move.
You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.
Q. Why was the t-shirt special?
A. It was from the American Philosophical Association.
Q. What did it say?
A. On the front it read “The statement on the back of this shirt is true.”
Q. And on the back?
A. “The statement on the front of this shirt is false.”
The large book fell open first to another essay in the book, which contained one of Harold’s essays. It fell open to the page, she discovered, where Harold had mutilated some text, taken scissors to pages, cut entire paragraph-sections.
You are like me, but worse, she thought.
You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal.
“Was he a cutter?”
“Not really, but.”
It’s funny how easy it was for her, Esther, to imagine that to be Harold was more satisfying than it actually was. To be Harold was, in fact, excruciating. Or so his mutilated pages revealed.
This could be the climax: a few days after dropping off the book, he invites her to take a ride in his new Volvo. On the way to the Super Kroger, he spoke of his work.
Did he bring it up, or did she?
It’s hard to say. She told him she hadn’t read his big book. Which was true.
Was reading it required?
He said that was good. He said it was a relief. He said he much preferred hanging out with people who hadn’t read his books.
She said, But I loved the others, and that one story.
That was the story of my life! she told him.
Did your family read it? she asked.
My mom and sister I think.
They don’t talk about it.
Why did they speak of it?
She closed her eyes, thought: I want to sleep with you because I want to be you. Or, as the poet wrote: I want to sleep with what I want to become.
That wasn’t it.
He wanted her to know: I am nothing. Nothing. And the fact of you desiring me because I am something has me wishing only to make you feel that nothingness, too, as I do.
She’d read something in the paper.
I don’t read it.
You were mentioned.
I don’t read it. The Japanese woman, she called me a misogynist.
He was parked in front of her house now, just across from a park. He looked at her.
That really hurt.
She didn’t ask.
Why didn’t she ask?
Maybe we are all misogynists, then.
They both knew what the Japanese lady meant.
Esther could no longer say how many men had given her books to read, or told her to see a certain movie or listen to certain music. But how many of those men held the authority of Harold?
Harold did not care for or about her at all. He never had. The simple truth was perhaps obvious to everyone from the beginning — but had not been to Esther.
“It would be, as your professor, an act of love to maintain boundaries,” the doctor asserted. “That’s what parents do, what professionals must do, too. To do otherwise is selfish.”
To his co-professor, to fellow students, to the many other women who had been objects of Harold’s attractions, this was not news.
“It sounds simple but it’s profound: the ability to love in this way, from a distance, through restraint.”
Rang cherries was Harold’s phrase for that shock of recognition. The essay was contained in the large book Harold held in his arms; the book also contained an essay written by Harold, though he did not mention it.
It was funny how you used the word date. We both laughed. It was funny how you opened doors for me. It was funny that when I commented on the insistent opening of doors you said that your mother had taught you. To open doors. It was funny that I knew then that I would teach my son the same thing.
They laughed, Esther thinks now, because they both understood the absurdity of the charade. There is nothing more attractive than shared secret knowledge with another human being–secret knowledge that will lead the two of you to a shared space.
Socrates: the best learning takes place in bed.
Harold’s joke that wasn’t a joke.
“Sometimes,” Esther confides in Harold, “sometimes I need so badly to write the book that is in my body, yet feel unable to write it — and this gap makes me want to die.”
Harold told her she must write, no matter how afraid.
“You write as if saving your life,” he tells her.
“It will kill you but you have no choice.”
“That’s when it matters, when you have no choice.”
The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.
Years later, people say to Esther — You are brave — and it will chafe.
What does it mean to be brave when you don’t have a choice?
The older you get, Harold told her, the more you feel that line of Heidegger — that to be fully alive means to feel yourself in decay, moving toward death.
So, is there a resolution? Maybe it was the night Harold told Esther he admired the rape essay but otherwise found the writer herself scary.
“Just scary. That was my impression.”
In the box with the notebook she’d kept while knowing Harold were papers she’d saved from college. One was a paper she’d written in asylum, in response to an assignment for a course titled Skepticism and Affirmation, taught by Maire Jaanus, the striking Estonian who had been married to Edward Said. This she only learned later, reading Said’s obituary in the New York Times.
“In the future, perhaps we will all attend college while living in a mental hospital,” she joked.
“It made me sad to read of this woman and scholar so essential to my undergraduate education, to my inchoate intellectual identity — now rendered a mere footnote in the obituary of a great man.”
“And later my default prof called Kathy Acker scary.”
“This made an impression on you?”
“It seemed that women could very easily be scary — and these were women I most admired — women I wanted to be.”
“I began to understand how terrified I was of these women, and how I wished to become them — at once.”
“Perhaps it is that some of us need to write and others shouldn’t be writing.”
“The world is divided into two kinds of people.”
Toward the end of The Rape Essay, the writer Harold described as “scary” wrote:
A few years ago I invited to dinner at my home a man I’d known casually for two years. We’d had dinner and comradely drinks a few times. I didn’t have any intention of becoming sexual with him, but after dinner we slowly got drunk and were soon floundering on the couch. I was ambivalent not only because I was drunk but because I realized that although part of me was up for it, the rest of me was not. So I began to say no. He parried each “no” with charming banter and became more aggressive. I went along with it for a time because I was amused and even somewhat seduced by the sweet, junior-high spirit of his manner. But at some point I began to be alarmed, and then he did and said some things that turned my alarm into fright. I don’t remember the exact sequence of words or events, but I do remember taking one of his hands in both of mine, looking him in the eyes, and saying, “If this comes to a fight you would win, but it would be very ugly for both of us. Is that really what you want?”**
She came outside, sat next to him on the porch. He noticed a scar on her thigh, visible in the midday light. From a far off boulevard, she heard the lone squeal of an ambulance.
“You know I wanted to see you because I saw you the other day in Stevenson — ”
“I was getting off the elevator and you were in the — ”
“I didn’t see you.”
“I said Hi, and you looked at me, like — like I was a piece of excrement.”
Esther told Harold she did not recall seeing him that day, but it was possible. They were silent for a while. She found a ladybug on her arm, flicked it away.
“My doctor says it is sexual harassment.”
“Well, I don’t — we could have a fight about it, and I’m not sure who would win.”
She stared ahead.
“Yes, you would win, but it would be very ugly for both of us. Is that really what you want?”
“There’s nothing to win.”
He didn’t say anything, just looked ahead: his lips pursed, eyes narrowed, a long frozen stare of gratitude, sadness, anger or nothing at all.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Suzanne Scanlon.