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The foghorns are lowing all around us; blue sky above but the Golden Gate is thick and grey. Did you see any fireworks last night? From the little church that sits above our apt building, we could see some from Sausalito as well as the ones over in San Francisco. Sophie wasn’t sure what to do with the loud noises, with the strange noisy mechanical birds that were flying low overhead. Still, though, she was more interested in the dog that another family had brought up with them.
It’s hard for me to take fireworks uncritically anymore — the fact that they’re meant to represent bomb explosions lives in me, and I think about the people who don’t celebrate such explosions, who live in terror of those particular noises. I have never had to experience that terror, which is a tremendous privilege. And so it’s with cognitive dissonance that I watch any fireworks display. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve had lots of experience with cognitive dissonance (as have most Americans, I would hazard, and certainly all survivors of trauma), and so it doesn’t throw me completely: I can appreciate some of the beauty and color, the pyrotechnic work. What sort of study does a person have to undertake to be able to create a firework that explodes into the shape of a heart, or a smiley face?
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Here’s something I wrote last Friday:
What are the stories that we as a society tell ourselves and each other about sexual violence, how we build and undermine the myths around where rape and incest come from? As a culture, we say we don’t support incest, that we don’t support child sexual abuse — don’t condone it. How do we, as a culture, walk with that cognitive dissonance, when we know how many people are sexually violated every day? How do we story that wreckage for ourselves — that our society says it cares for us and wants to protect the children and then turns not a blind eye but a wide open and indifferent eye to the number of children raped in their homes every day.
We give a privileged position in our government and nonprofit industrial complex to an institution like the Catholic Church, which appears to have child sexual abuse integrated into its very fabric, into its institutional structure. How do we reconcile this?
How much storying is layered around these facts, these truths, so that people do not question? What are the stories that cause lies, what are the stories that run us aground, away from the facts? Why do we listen to and integrate some stories and not others?
And how do we, as survivors, as people who have experienced the underside of society’s stories, make sense of our own experience? If one in three women is sexually abused or assaulted in her lifetime and one in six boys/men, can there be anyone in this country not personally affected by sexual violence? Why do we keep pretending like it’s not all around us? Who do we keep believing the stories that it’s about sick or disturbed individuals, that it’s not institutional, that it’s not societal practice?
What are the stories of rape and incest that we as a society prefer, both fiction and nonfiction? We like the ‘true crime’ narratives, the one-at-a-time bad-men-on-parade, the stories of women who triumph, who “move from victim to suvivor, from survivor to thriver!”
What about the stories that show us that this isn’t an issue of badly-behaving individuals? What about the stories of women and men who don’t triumph? What about the stories of survivors who lie, who behave “badly” themselves?
The case against the former head of the IMF is falling apart because the woman who he assaulted bight also be a liar — she might not only associate with honest people. The only people who can be raped, by law, are the unflawed one– only the honest ones, the inhuman ones. Whether or not this woman, in this case, was raped, the fact is that now we’re publicly tarnishing her character. That’s what we do with rape victims, the very people our criminal justice system, out of the same mouth, will say it wants to protect. Maybe this woman came to the country under false pretenses. Does this mean she can’t be assaulted? Maybe after she was assaulted she found a way to grab for some power herself. Does this mean she couldn’t have been raped?
Very possibly, yes, according to the laws of this country, which present themselves as putting women and children first. First in the firing line, maybe. The trouble with using legal means to undermine or eradicate sexual violence is playing out on an international scale: 1) it only happens in the aftermath (legal ramifications don’t prevent the rape in the first place); 2) it requires there to have been a theft, and thus an unflawed landscape/crime scene — the law is primarily focused on protecting property. Rape laws are no different — if what was stolen wasn’t of high value, the crime isn’t so bad. The victim is the property, and is always on trial. We know all this already.
We need to change the story about rape and sexual violence. That’s how we change a culture, a cultural practice — we change the story. We change the stories that people tell their children, that men and women share among one another, that police officers listen for, even. What is the current story about rape, about incest — what’s the story that we can hear? What’s the one that we can’t hear yet? (I’m grateful to Ken Plummer’s Telling Sexual Stories for introducing me to this layer of engagement with stories.)
What’s the story about women’s bodies, children’s bodies, weaker bodies being always accessible to more powerful men and women? What’s the story about class, about power and violence? What are the stories that police tell in court, that rape crisis centers tell their funders, that survivors tell in order to be believed? What are the stories they don’t tell?
How do we learn how we’re supposed to react to rape, once it happens to us? (Which, many of us come to understand, it inevitably will — what stories circulate to ensure that? And what about those of us for whom that’s not true?) How do we change the story about children’s power, women’s power, queerfolks’ power, men’s power? About innocence as something that can be stolen (and thus is property), about violence as power, as good, about the ability to take and do violence as a mark of what — of power? Something to be striven for?
What stories can we unearth, unbury — no, what stories can we keep on telling and louder (these are not hidden stories, they are un-listened-to stories) that undermine the dominant narrative, the easier-to-live-with idea that rape happens because this one guy was a drunk or evil?
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Here’s a write: it’s just for you. This is about stepping out of that cognitive dissonance, and telling our own whole truth. What story aren’t you telling, because you think/know folks’ won’t understand it, won’t listen, won’t hear it right? What piece of your story do you keep on lockdown? What about a part of your character’s story? Take 15 minutes, or 20; go to a quiet place (in real life and/or in you, but definitely in you), and bring your tea or coffee. Write it. Hold it there on the page. Just because it can’t be heard and understood yet doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.
Thank you for the ways you can hold complexity in others, how you work to be present with your own contradictions and complications: they’re all gorgeous, just like you. Thank you for your wisdom, your honesty, your lies, your words.