Setting: A conference room in a Brooklyn hospital. There is a circle of chairs, but only two have women sitting in them, making introductions. One woman is 31, fat, with an Alternative Lifestyle Haircut, and biracial: Margaret E.I. The other woman is 18, thin, white with bobbed brown hair, and wears a remarkably preserved vintage dress. Also…she seems to be flickering in and out of this plane of reality. She is Francie Nolan of Betty Smith’s classic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Margaret E.I.: [somewhat emotional] Hi, Francie.
Francie Nolan: Hi, Margaret.
MEI: [rushing and stumbling over her words] It’s SUCH an honor to meet you in person. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (ATGIB) every summer (sometimes twice or more!) from ages 12 to 22. I think about your family-system for creating stories for numbers every time I have to write a rent check or figure a tip. Even with all the changes in New York since your book was published in 1943, I still think serene is a great word for Brooklyn. [quieter] Not necessarily my neighborhood, but, y’know…
FN: Why, thank you. I’ll pass that on to Ms. Smith.
MEI: I just… I never imagined meeting you to talk about this. About being survivors. [shifts in seat uncomfortably] Sorry, I just feel weird about that word.
FN: [reaches out to pat MEI’s knee] Is this ok? [MEI nods, FN pats her knee]. That’s fine. Words matter. Language is a living thing and this is a huge and hugely misunderstood topic. One of the more sinister side-effects of rape culture is the way it silences the victims on so many levels, whether in their own minds or even in safe spaces like this one.
MEI: You’ve been reading the other books on my bookshelves, haven’t you?
MEI: I KNOW, right? Maybe if it just had more chapters devoted to obscure whaling techniques [they both HIGH FIVE the awesomeness of Moby Dick.]
So, my hang-up with “survivor” is that technically the rapist is also almost always a survivor of the experience, too (yours included, though just barely thanks to Mama Nolan.) More importantly, to survive an experience implies that there was a threat of murder or grievous physical harm during the interaction(s) which isn’t always true of every experience with a rapist, especially since most victims know their rapists. There are victims that don’t call what happened to them rape because the rapists were such insidious predators that they never had a need to make threats of physical harm.
Of course there are also people (and politicians) who have never been raped and have their own creepy-ass benchmarks for how much violence must be present for an experience to qualify as rape (real answer: none), but those people make me too angry to converse civilly.
FN: Deep breaths.
MEI: [inhales] Thanks. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, specifically, is that your character’s fictional experience of an attack by a rapist (in Chapter 33, Book Three) in many ways conforms to the Idealized Rape Narrative (IRN) promoted by rape culture.
FN: Maybe you can explain what the IRN is?
MEI: Sure. Full disclaimer, it’s a term I made up for myself in the course of trying to figure out why I couldn’t identify with one of my favorite fictional characters in terms of being a rape survivor.
FN: I see. My Aunt Evy liked to make up stories, too. Go ahead.
MEI: [exhales] So. IRNs are an experience of rape as idealized by a culture that doesn’t know how to deal with rape, because Patriarchy. Think: rape myths taken at face value. The purpose of idealizing an experience of rape over others is to use it as an impossible measuring stick for every victim’s experience. This ensures that no person ever feels that their experience matches up to the IRN or at the very least an attempt can always be made to make the victim feel inadequate in comparison to this other, imaginary, idealized victim. Thus, fewer rapes are understood as rapes, so rape is a smaller and smaller problem to the point that we can probably nip it in the bud with some pink rape whistles for the lucky few, right?
Because it is idealized, the IRN often conflicts with real-life rape statistics and facts and is therefore dangerous misinformation for everyone: POLITICIANS, law enforcement, judges, POLITICIANS, teachers, families, colleges/universities, POLITICIANS, religious organizations, workplaces, you name it.
In a culture that reveres IRNs there’s a false and misleading ranking of experiences of rape and assault. By analyzing who the victim and rapist are and certain aspects of the experience itself (before, during, and after the actual violation), rape culture deems some victim’s experiences more valid and therefore more worthy of justice, attention, even abortions than others.
MEI: No, I know.
IRNs also show up A LOT in fiction and it’s handy to be able to recognize them for what they are (often bad writing.)
The IRN manifests in ATGIB in that:
is a young “virgin” (Fun fact! This definition will be determined by the Patriarchy) and likely heterosexual at the time of the attack.
is a cisgender woman.
is not engaged in un-ladylike or frowned-upon activities at the time of the attack (i.e., drinking, drugs, being out too late, etc.)
is not dressed “provocatively.”
does not “act older than she is” (an accusation typically applied to young black women) or have a “bad reputation” (for both, see Fun Fact after “virgin” above)
fights back against the rapist after a few seconds of shock.
is upset immediately after the attack (“I want my leg cut off.”)
While the attacker:
is described in ways that make him sound both unhealthy (sallow, broken teeth)
and noticeably unattractive (low tufts of hair, wet-looking eyes), i.e., unlikely to get sex of his own accord. Rape doesn’t happen because the rapist is sex-starved.
attacks “out of the blue” and only once (i.e., not preying on the same person over and over.)
is an outsider from the community, not a known character/person.
is a stranger to Francie.
is apprehended by the police, convicted in a court of law, and presumably “walks to the electric chair on his own.”
The IRN is subverted in ATGIB when:
The attack happens during the afternoon instead of at night.
The attack happens in Francie’s home (most rapes do happen at a residence, not in dark parking lots or jogging paths.)
The attacker is not a black man (a myth common in white communities, i.e., “black men rape white women.”)
The attack is not a “gang rape.” Gang rapes are part of the IRN in that “ideally” a woman must be overpowered by force during a rape, but the idea that gang rapes are rare is itself a rape myth. (Also not rare: incest.)
Francie has no physical injuries from the attacker. A close call because the attack could be described as “interrupted” by Francie’s mother, but it is entirely possible that even if the attacker had not been interrupted, or interrupted later, that Francie would have no physical marks from her attacker. Physical injuries do not a rape make.
This doesn’t cover all rape myths by a long shot (there’s so much intersectionality stuff when it comes to who is sexually valuable and worth protecting and race and age and class and queerness and religion and being trans and marriage, etc.) Also, this list refers to a fictional experience itself described in ATGIB as “brief” and “a bare three minutes in time.” [Sighs]
FN: That list was hard for you, I can tell. Let’s break for tea.
FN: No, it’s interesting. So much has changed since my day. I suppose they don’t give hypodermics anymore?
MEI: Doctors no longer make house calls and there’s been arguments about the cities and states picking up the tab for things like rape kits.
FN: My. So, getting back to IRNs: do you think ATGIB (or any other cultural product that presents an IRN) is a bad book people shouldn’t read which has nothing truthful to say about the experience of being assaulted and living in a world where rape culture often presides?
MEI: Of course not. I fucking love ATGIB and have for years, both before and since I experienced rape myself. My reading of your novel changed with all my experiences, including getting jobs, moving to New York City, and reading other authors. But I was finally able to find some comfort from ATGIB that specifically applied to my life after experiencing rape.
FN: What’s something in my story that’s helped you since you’ve been recovering from the rape? Oh! Oh! [bounces in her seat] Was it when my mother cold-blooded almost-murdered the murdering rapist?
MEI: No, but that was SO AWESOME (I do not generally condone violence and want to state that the death of a rapist is unlikely to undo all of a victim’s psychic damage, but let’s be real, I’ll happily cheer loudly for the wounding of a fictional rapist by Francie’s indomitable and imperfect mom, yes to that)!? Also, wow, she got away with it (unlikely today, probably?)!?
No, the part I love is the aftermath with the newspapers and the gossip in your neighborhood.
FN: [nodding] A drunken reporter got Mother’s name wrong (O’Leary instead of Nolan) when writing up about the shooting, and when it was picked up again in two other newspapers—
MEI: —so many newspapers back then! Blogs of their day!
FN: I know; I used to work at a clipping agency! Well, the other newspapers got it totally the wrong way ‘round, saying that this “Mrs. O’Leary” had herself been shot by the prowler, if you can believe it.
MEI: And then the neighborhood—
FN: —the neighborhood! This neighborhood that had been wrapped up for more than a month in the rapes and murdering of two of their own children, the neighborhood that came together in the stairwell of my building to LITERALLY rip the pants off of and grind their heels into the already gut-shot rapist! Well! …well here’s a quote:
Eventually, the whole affair faded away into the background. Katie [Francie’s mother] was a neighborhood heroine for awhile but as time passed, the neighborhood forgot the murdering pervert. They remembered only that Katie Nolan had shot a man. And in speaking of her, they said that she’s not one to get into a fight with. Why she’d shoot a person just as soon as look at them.
FN: But tell me, what do you find so empowering about those parts? They’re basically two more examples of rape culture. The newspapers assumed my mother to be the victim rather than a person capable of shooting someone threatening, and my community went from obsessed and panicked at the spectacle of the crimes to forgetting they had ever happened.
MEI: Very true. Yet as someone who was raped, reading those two passages one after the other… they really speak to me.
Your mom—despite shooting the man who had been terrorizing your neighborhood!—is misnamed, then erased by the media. Your community forgets a murdering rapist (and, presumably his previous victims who weren’t as fortunate as you), but they can’t forget that your mom stepped outside of the limiting gender roles assigned to her, and hold it against her.
A world with rape culture sucks and it wants to forget the parts of you and your history that are in its best interest to forget, no matter how obviously badass you are.
I’m sure “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” seems like a bad Aesop, but it was freeing for me. The truth is, even if I’d had a gun the day I was attacked (for a billion and one reasons, I, personally, should never own or touch a gun… maybe not even a hat pin), even if I’d been able to cause grievous harm to the man who hurt me when I was 19, even if I’d been able to get it together enough to go to the police or a doctor, report what had happened, and see the asshole get convicted at trial and go on to the electric chair (or life in prison, as New York state no longer does capital punishment): rape culture would still exist. The newspaper would get my name and important facts wrong. My community would remember me however they wanted to… if they even wanted to.
No one’s story is one hundred percent in their own control all of the time. Heroines and cultural memory often don’t mix.
FN: My book has a whole mess of heroines.
MEI: [Smiles] I know. And I related to different ones at different times in my life. After the rape, I couldn’t relate with most of your experiences with the assault (some were too idealized, some were just out of date), but what happened to your mother afterwards feels timeless to me. Importantly: timeless in a way that makes me want to fight another day, not give up or hide. I’ve always had a soft spot for the heroines with the thankless jobs. That’s where a lot of the important work of any revolution gets done.
In a way, engaging with the text of your novel was one of the first safe spaces I made for myself after I was raped.
FN: I’m so glad you could and did.
MEI: [looks around at the empty chairs] In real life I haven’t been able to make myself go to a rape survivor’s support group yet. I’m afraid of talking about what’s happened to me. I’m afraid the parts of my story that conform to the IRN will make others in the group feel falsely less than and make me look like someone to be pitied. I’m afraid the parts of my story that don’t conform will confirm that I am less than. In that way I’ve let rape culture and the Patriarchy win and stunted my own recovery process, probably. I let myself be silenced.
Rape culture instills the lesson in rape victims that they will be misunderstood and then silenced, but I didn’t realize I’d internalized so much and was doing it to myself, too. It’s a less obvious form of self-destruction in the name of self-preservation, which I understand a lot of survivors deal with and is what these kind of support groups are really about. I think I see why my therapist recommends this whole “communication” thing now. [laughs quietly to self]
But I feel safe with you and I’m glad you felt safe enough to let me dissect your experience in order to think about my own.
FN: [nods] You should try one of these with real live humans.
MEI: I know. I’m working on it. Thanks for being here for me in the meantime.
FN: (begins to flicker more and fade from reality) I’ll always be here for you.
MEI: I know. [exits]