Do you remember The Rape Joke? Maybe it’s been a while. You should remind yourself of The Rape Joke. I just read it again, and paused when I got to the line “The rape joke is that he kept a diary. I wonder if he wrote about the rape in it.”
Or Beach Week. Or brewskies.
Do you remember the wall of old white men faced by Anita Hill in 1991? Why does a wall of old white men in suits, seated, always look the same? They look like bricks, ancient but solid, not going anywhere and all stuck together. They arrange their faces as though they’re listening, but listening is not what happens when you assemble a wall of old white men in suits. Something is going on behind their pursed mouths and white eyebrows, a kind of slow ticking, but it’s not an intake of information. Even the sympathetic ones seem to be reciting something they practiced into a mirror earlier that day, with a gin and tonic sweating on the bathroom counter. You are grateful for their sympathy even while you know how little it means. There is no sincerity, and the energy is a vacuum.
The women in these rooms are the minority, both literally and figuratively. But besides the few female senators, there are the rows of seated women behind the wall of men, and they look smaller because of the perspective, and they are mostly frowning in disgust. Today, they were either disgusted because they believe that the man accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford is innocent and has been smeared by a left-wing political campaign, or because they are women enduring this period of history who know from experience that Dr. Ford’s testimony is probably factual, or some complicated combination of both. This photo has been misinterpreted by people on both sides in an attempt to distill this moment into something comprehensible. Of course, none of this is comprehensible. We are all disgusted for different reasons, but I believe that there is only one victim in that room, and it is not Brett Kavanaugh.
There is no kind of room in which discussing sexual assault or rape is natural. You could be at a dinner party, everyone enjoying plates of rice and chicken and salad, and after a few glasses of wine the conversation turns to politics and you wonder if you should say something. You look around at people having abstract discussions or alluding to things that have happened to them in broad terms and it is as if you are staring at the most fragile, paper-thin glass snowglobe containing civility that would shatter everywhere if you said, “One time, it was kind of a long time ago now, a friend of mine, or a friend at the time –”. You are aware not only of the mess this would create for you, but the mess it would create for every woman at the table who has had a similar experience. You don’t want everyone to have to eat glass. You can easily imagine how unpleasant that would be.
But possibly a living room. A small gathering. Intimate. Except right now there’s music playing, and it’s so pleasant. Some of them already know. You told them about it when it happened, or shortly thereafter. They are your close friends and they believe you. But why invite the peculiarities into that dimly lit square, into that soft sofa space, including the specific details that always plague stories like this? Boofing. The FFFFFFourth of July. Again from The Rape Joke: “The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really.
Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds.” Even people who commit crimes are human beings who reveal themselves to be human beings – sometimes in the midst of, or directly following, their crimes. You even feel sorry for them. It is possible to feel sorry for them, to still believe that they are not monsters, even while knowing that what they did was monstrous. This feeling is an animal and it looks like a mastodon: why would you try to describe an experience that is extinct, and absurd, and how it gored you, all while seated in a living room?
It’s not that you want him to go to jail. And back then, thirty-six or twenty or thirteen years ago, you told yourself that what happened wasn’t really, you know, that. Because how could it be that if it had happened to so many people you knew? The language was different. Gray rape, date rape, a “bad situation.” The only elements of the story that change, personal account to personal account, are the degrees of injury and those pesky details, the boofing, the instant messenger conversations directly following, the Friendster message to request your home address for a handwritten apology note that never arrived. Those were the things that haunt you later, of course, because they meant that what had happened to you was particular. Every one of these is particular, of course – these are acts defined by intimacy. Somehow it seems as though, if assaults occurred in the same exact way every time, it would be easier. The experience would not belong to you alone. It would be okay to talk about it if you wanted to, because everyone could easily travel back there with you. The same scents and sounds, the familiar map, the corroboration. Instead, you drag the people you love into your own murky tunnel and try to navigate it in the darkness of your memory. You know how unpleasant it is in there. You don’t want to impose this on them.
Sometimes it’s easiest to talk about when you’re outside, where nothing belongs to anyone. No object is poisoned by what happened, the words just kind of float up and away like balloons instead of sticking to curtains and bed-sheets and melamine plates like poisonous gas. Maybe you’re walking through the woods, two weeks later, and your companion stoops to turn over a log and there’s a long pause. Or you could be sitting on a balcony with someone new and you think, I should tell him this, and you look out at a sparkling apartment complex pool and say that you had bruises on your neck the following day. If you are going to summon the mastodon, you need to give it space to clod around. It is humiliatingly large, and you feel responsible for its damage.
When Kavanaugh cried and glugged his tiny water bottles, he was weeping and hydrating because he is terrified of the mastodon. Seeing the mastodon in a room with the Senate Judiciary Committee, chomping through his old yearbook pages and trampling over poster-board print-outs of Maryland country clubs is horribly discordant. How long had it been since he’d last seen it? And why was it here, disturbing the peace in a room filled with scholars of law and wood paneling and carpet? It is such a pesky animal, so unwelcome in every room it enters, and besides, very few people have seen this particular one – only two or three or a handful more, and even they only glimpsed it through a shadow. If you’ve seen one mastodon, you haven’t seen them all. What nerve, on the part of the victim and the party and the supporters, to draw an obscene picture in such an austere place! What nerve to show that graphic illustration to children, to wives, to America.
Never mind how many of them had already tried to describe it themselves, its weight and its footprints and how it nearly toppled their houses. It is huge and invisible. Once you’ve seen it, it sometimes appears behind you as you wash your daughter’s sippy cups. The phone rings and you wonder if it is your mastodon, if it’s finally calling you to whisper that it was real, yes, it was real.
So when you hear Dr. Ford answer the question “How are you so sure that it was he?” regarding Brett Kavanaugh with “The same way that I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now. Just basic memory functions,” you know exactly what she’s talking about. The Rape Joke: “The rape joke is that time is different, becomes more horrible and more
habitable, and accommodates your need to go deeper into it.” It never is extinct.