Writing About Ugliness…Rape

Writing about ugliness is hard.  At least for me.  I write of life, my own and those I know.  And in the intimate, the personal, there is a microcosm of the larger human experience.  Not the entire human experience.  But our piece of it. I think much of many writers’ work is rooted in what we know of the good, the bad, and the ugly of life.  Rape is ugly. Thank God, it is not a personal experience for me or my own loved ones.  But on a visceral level, to some extent I do, I think most women do, understand the horror of rape. We, as mothers, tell our daughters to be careful, even as we are aware that being careful isn’t always enough.  Because in whispers, women have always spoken of these things sometimes, in private, in secret.  During my lifetime, there has been change, an openness about rape that began decades ago.  Then voices faded from the mainstream, still there, but largely irrelevant to the focus of public conversation, as if in being acknowledged for a while, the issue of rape required little public attention. As if it had almost gone away.  Recently, women, particularly younger women, have raised the issue again in the face of blatant abuses reported publicly, as well as the quiet, secret abuses of themselves or of others they know. There is a culture of rape out there, especially I think in many educational institutions.  I do not know why.  I have tried, but I still cannot fathom how this culture has taken hold among some young men. Among some young men. Some. A minority. Yet in some groups this minority can seem a majority as their attitude toward women has degraded.  How can some young men raised by mothers, with sisters, with girls they’ve known from kindergarten through high school become like this?

Ah, high school.  That’s where I became particularly aware.  Once, in a class discussion, we were talking about violence toward a woman in a novel we were reading.  Somehow we got to rape.  And in one class, one boy began the “some girls are asking for it”, because “lots of girls are sluts.” Dead silence in the classroom. Other students, boys as well as girls, were stunned.  So was I. Then, in front of the class, he and I engaged in a conversation I found baffling. No matter how I approached it, he could not see the wrongness of it, the attitude that it was OK to think of a girl in that way. Short skirts, too much make-up, a series of “relationships.” That made a girl a slut. I could not get through to him. Suddenly, I thought of his girlfriend, a student in one of my other classes.  They had been together a year, and they were seniors. He happened to be an athlete. She happened to be a cheerleader. A nice girl. A nice girl he demonstrated respect for. Like many of her friends, she wore short skirts, too much make-up, and had previous boyfriends. So I asked, “What if a boy said things like this to Lindsay?”  Anger, real anger, “That’s different!”  And then another athlete looked at him, said “No, it’s not.” He shut up, we moved on. Ultimately, did it make a difference?  I don’t know.  For him, I doubt it in the long run. But for others, I like to think so. I do think so. I really do believe it is often in small things, that we can make a difference.  As teachers, yes. But also as writers.

Song lyrics are poetry.  Many writers in this community of writers are songwriters.  Lyrics are powerful. With young people, their influence can be huge. How much responsibility do we as writers have?  I remember vividly the first time I heard Tori Amos’s song, Me and a Gun. It’s shocking, raw, powerful, and I think very important. It broke a taboo.  Spoke the unspeakable.

“These things that go through your head
When there’s a man on your back.”                                 copyright  Tori Amos

It was a young man who brought this in for discussion.

This is a rather long post for me. A reflection of  what has disturbed me this past few months of news coverage of rape, whether there is a culture of rape, and allegations of serial drugged rape by the most unlikely of celebrities.  It resurrected something ugly from my past.  Not my own experience. But the experience of someone I cared about.  The anger I felt when I recalled it was once again there, within me, last night. Vivid, disturbing. Fury.  This girl eventually found her way to healing, thank God.  It  was never reported.

And last night, as I remembered, I dug up and finished a draft I started years ago. It barely resembles the first draft. I posted it right away , unlike my usual habit of prose to poem. I was compelled to post the poem. I really did not think until this morning that I could talk about the poem itself.  I think distance has made the poem better. At least, for  me it has. I was still angry  when I wrote it, but I think by paring it down to the bare bones of her experience, it is stronger. I hope so. Will it ever make a difference? I don’t know.  It depends, of course, on where it lands.

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