Monday, August 6, 2018

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture Review

"It is more like carrying something really heavy, forever. You do not get to put it down: you have to carry it, and so you carry it the way you need to, however it fits best."

I have never written a book review before now. For years my focus has been on the images we see on the screen, whether it be television series or films, but while all of that time was spent on that medium I was still trying to read relatively often (not often enough, my wife would say, although I have taken steps to change that). I've had some very strong reactions to various books, especially recently as I have explored the work of Fredrik Backman, and if you have read Beartown you will likely put two and two together reading this review and recognize why that was his work I connected with the most. Even being deeply moved by other pieces of literature, like Beartown, I never felt compelled to put any words down regarding the experience.

My aforementioned wife? She loves to read. A lot. She will complain how she has barely read at all this year while I am overwhelmingly enthused about the steps I have taken to consistently keep turning the pages, and yet she has read over double what I have. She recently checked a book out of the library called Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture and as soon as I saw the cover I knew I had to read it as well. The book is an anthology of essays written by various people including actors Ally Sheedy and Gabrielle Union along with other very talented writers, with all the essays detailing in some manner a personal connection they unfortunately have with rape and rape culture.

The book is a devastating yet essential read, one of those publications many will likely avoid because it is far easier to escape the world through fiction than face it with hard to swallow facts. Don't avoid this book, read it because these are stories being told by extremely brave survivors of both their specific attacks and the culture that allows this to have happened and continue happening, and every single one of them deserves to be heard. I am always reminded of the Oscar voters who anonymously admitted that while they voted for 12 Years a Slave to win Best Picture, they did so despite never seeing the film because subjecting themselves to two hours of horrors based on what people actually had to endure was not possible for them. Why watch something so topically challenging when you can turn on whatever mindless bullshit and pretend like pain and tragedy aren't a reality to so many, past, present and future?

That's exactly why I do watch those movies or read these books. Because real people had to endure such horrific things, such heartbreak, such pain, such trauma, such tragedy, while I have been privileged enough to face so little over the course of my 34 years on this planet. I watch and read those stories because there are real voices screaming out, begging for someone to listen, and I want to listen. We all need to listen.

"The Life Ruiner alone didn't ruin me. The world that made him did - the place that continues to manufacture replicas of him and continues to create the circumstances in which he and his replicas thrive."

It's difficult to really pin down the first time I was introduced to rape culture, because lord knows I probably was surrounded by it in extremely subtle ways from the moment I was born, but I will always remember the moment I first learned of the shocking, awful crime that happened almost literally right in my backyard. One of my best friends growing up had an elderly couple that lived directly behind them and they maintained a pool in their yard and allowed all of the children in the neighborhood to come over and swim without invitation. My friend had a ladder that stayed in the same spot all summer long so that we could safely climb over and spend all day in that wonderful, refreshingly crisp water. It was a place filled with tremendous joy owned and maintained by seemingly tremendous people who were generous enough to open their home and their pocketbook to kids of no relation to them, always making sure the water was crystal clear and kept at the perfect temperature.

Then one day when I was a teenager, I heard the news: the man with the pool was caught raping his granddaughter. I couldn't comprehend it, not only the act of rape which in itself is incomprehensible but his own granddaughter? How could someone do such a thing? Had he ever hurt anyone else? The part I remember the most was a conversation I overheard between two people in the neighborhood shortly after details of exactly what had happened began to trickle out for public consumption.

"She says it had been happening for years!"

"Why didn't she say something sooner?"

There was something about that question being the instantaneous knee-jerk reaction that I found jarring and extremely troubling, not just the question itself but the tone in which it was asked. It's what, years later, I learned was called "victim blaming", a particularly disgusting and shameful practice in which the first instinctual reaction to any crime sexual in nature is to immediately question what the victim did wrong, what they must have done to deserve it. What was she wearing? What did she say? Did she say no loud enough? Why did she go to his house? She must have known this was going to happen? She was probably asking for it.

I feel sick to my stomach just typing those words.

The answer to any and all of those questions, of course, is it doesn't matter. There is no justifiable reason that excuses an assault, and we need to believe women who say they were assaulted. I found myself deeply immersed in the worst clusters of humanity when a local professional hockey hero was accused of sexual assault a few years ago, and I waded too far into the depths of the ugly side of Twitter and discovered just how many people instantly declared his innocence and felt compelled to viciously attack a woman they didn't know and knew nothing about. This was just a young woman who said she was assaulted and because he is great at a sport and people loved to cheer him on she was a "lying whore". What a deeply disturbing, eye opening experience, to see such vitriol towards a stranger, and I think of it anytime a new story comes out about an assault that took place many years ago and the go to comment from so many is, why didn't she say something sooner? The very same thing I heard a member of my community say about a child victim, assaulted by her own grandfather.

Why say something at all if the natural public reflex is "lying whore"? Why speak out if no one wants to listen?

"As I listened to her, as I watched her be an encourager of other people's storytelling, an independent, smart woman and a survivor of sexual assault, I felt, finally, like maybe my story was worthy of telling, too. And maybe I was worth the telling of it."

The answer is to change our cultural response. The answer is to believe women. Have there been phony rape charges filed before? Obviously. But the vast majority of the accusations from women who do find the courage to speak up are true. I read an estimate that came from study once, and I would love to credit the work if I could remember where I saw it, that somewhere in the range of 2 to 5 percent of all rape and sexual assault accusations were "false" and even those numbers are misleading because some cases were labeled that way even though they merely lacked the evidence needed to prove they were true. Let's just take those numbers on face value though, for the sake of this argument: if 95 to 98 percent of accusations are true, shouldn't we listen? Shouldn't we believe women who say they were assaulted?

Of course, not everyone is going to suddenly shift the way they approach this topic. So many people are set in their ways, and unfortunately those ways include calling victims unspeakably awful things due to an assumption that they are lying. All I can hope is that the majority of people keep an open mind and read an outstanding and important book like Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. Absorb every painful word from each one of these stories and appreciate how brave one must be in order to tell them in the first place. Appreciate that these victims are just asking for someone to listen. Listen to them and believe them so that more victims aren't terrified to speak up in the future. Stop questioning why they are speaking up when they are. Applaud them for having the courage to speak up at all.

"Perhaps the most horrifying thing about non-consensual sex is that, in an instant, it erases you. Your own desires, your safety and well-being, your ownership of the body that may very well have been the only thing you ever felt sure you owned - all of it becomes irrelevant, even nonexistent."

There is no such thing as "not that bad" when it comes to a sexual assault of any kind. Every single one is tragic. Those that want to tell their stories deserve to be heard. We all need to listen.