Monday, October 22, 2012

The Narrative of a Victim.

The idea of 'victim' is definitely one of my absolute favorite topics.

Recently circulating around the internet is "An Account of Sexual Assault At Amherst College." It is incredible. The bravery and commitment to truth therein is something that is awe-inspiring. Author (is that the right word for a personal account?) Angie Epifano tackles one of the more shocking truths of college life, universities' frequent preference for reputation over the well-being of its students.

To that end, there are some really fascinating things going on in this account, and I wanted to take a brief moment to dissect some of them:


"An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College"
by Angie Epifano

When you’re being raped time does not stop. Time does not speed up and jump ahead like it does when you are with friends. Instead, time becomes your nemesis; it slows to such an excruciating pace that every second becomes an hour, every minute a year, and the rape becomes a lifetime.
On May 25, 2011, I was raped by an acquaintance in Crossett Dormitory on Amherst College campus.
Some nights I can still hear the sounds of his roommates on the other side of the door, unknowingly talking and joking as I was held down; it is far from a pleasant wakeup call.
I had always fancied myself a strong, no-nonsense woman, whose intense independence was cultivated by seventeen harrowing years of emotional abuse in my backwoods home. May 25th temporarily shattered that self-image and left me feeling like the broken victim that I had never wanted to be.
Everything I had believed myself to be was gone in 30 minutes.
I did not report the rape after it occurred. Almost immediately after the rape I flew off to California, got lost in the beauty of the redwoods, the phenomenal art, and meeting the most unique people I’d ever beheld.
I blocked the rape from my mind and tried to convince myself that it hadn’t happened; that it couldn’t have happened. But there was no denying the facts.
One week before I was supposed to fly back East, everything rushed over and consumed me. My memory had been restored and I wasn’t sure how I would be able to hold myself together for that year, let alone for the upcoming three years.
When I returned to Amherst for my sophomore year, I designed a simple plan of attack for surviving: Business as usual combined with a new mantra I will NOT cry.
First semester passed relatively well, there were rocky times, but I kept it together. I masked fear with smiles. I mastered the art of avoiding prying questions. I drowned myself in work and extracurricular activities in order to hide my personal pain. I was unnervingly good at playing the role of well-adjusted sophomore.
It was inevitable though that this masquerade would become too overwhelming and that my fa├žade would shatter.
In February twisted fate decided that I had to work with him on a fundraiser. E-mails. Stopping me in the gym and at the dining hall. Smirks. Winks. Pats on my back. It was all too much.
My masquerade was over.
I broke down and for the next several months, he won.
[edited for space: Epifano discusses her emotional breakdown and forced committal to a mental hospital by Amherst. She is then released but is prevented from going abroad and denied requests to be moved on campus]
....but being forced to stay on campus in a dorm populated with men I did not know, that was the real psychological issue. Every time I told my dean that I didn’t feel safe on campus, that I wanted to be allowed to leave , or at least be put in a different dorm, I received the same unhelpful responses that I had received in February. They told me: You were lucky to be given a room here this summer in the first place, housing is tight right now and you really shouldn’t complain. All of your fear is ungrounded, Amherst is one of the safest places imaginable…If we let you leave campus we won’t know what mental and emotional place you’ll exist in when you return in September; you could become completely unstable!
I felt like a prisoner, or, more accurately, like a harem girl. My jail was luxurious and openair, I was free to move about, the ruling power judged my worth on a weekly basis, and I was constantly reminded how lucky I was to be there.
[edited for space: Epifano goes on to talk about her horrendous treatment by administrators and counselors at Amherst and resolves to take a stance against silence and decides to leave the University. She concludes with a quote that another patient had told her in the mental hospital...]
“Silence has the rusty taste of shame.”
There is no reason shame should be a school’s policy.
I encourage you to read the full story here.
What interests me about these passages is how Epifano narrativizes (EnglishMajorSpeak for "translating an experience into a story," e.g. "I rode my bike a grueling three miles to school" vs. "I rode my bike a quick three miles to school." Those are two different ways to narrativize the same event.) her own injury in this account and what that tells us about rape, gender, and the narrativization of victimhood.
What immediately strikes me is that this piece and such pieces are, in and of themselves, about narrativization. The basic story is "I was a victim; I am now a survivor," promoting the relabeling of oneself. "Don't let yourself be a victim; don't be silent" is the frequent message of such accounts, especially in a situation like this, where the paper is meant to be read by a more general audience (perhaps there is a degree to which it is intentionally didactic?).
What else is immediately striking to me about this is how almost none of the story is about the rape itself. Surely, there is a degree to which this is a traumatic incident that one would not want to launch into with full detail, but she manages to make her way through so much trauma that I have a hard time believing squeamishness is her barrier. Furthermore, she may have been limited by the audience and squeamishness of her audience, but, once again, I don't see an Amherst College student newspaper as the root of censorship. I may be wrong.
So, what is she so worked up about?
It seems to me that her trauma, at every moment, is about the quality of victimhood. In her brief description of the rape itself, she talks about the quality of time. She describes time as her "nemesis," immediately characterizing the incident as conflict, one that she was incapable of winning. She concludes with an incredible statement, "...and the rape becomes a lifetime," an unfathomably powerful elucidation of how the incident expands past itself and becomes not just about the rape itself, but the lingering scars and life events surrounding it.
She goes on to talk about the sounds of the roommates outside the door, unknowing, as she was "held down" on the other side of the door. I'm immediately reminded of the quote from Alien, "In space, no one can hear you scream," and we are immediately placed with a sense of helplessness, that she was rendered without voice and, as such, was unable to protect herself. This silence becomes the characterization of her helplessness and victimhood.
She declares this so with a most definitive, "On May 25, 2011, I was raped by an acquaintance in Crossett Dormitory on Amherst College campus." The formal sentence structure and details let us know that this is irrefutable fact, and I have no reason not to believe her. It denies the experiential quality of rape and instead places it into the realm of the absolute. Surely, she was held down and forced to have sex, a most heinous crime, at the time and place, but when was she actually raped? I think this is a question worth exploring, and it involves a deeper understanding of what that word might mean.
I'm interested by the fact that she speaks in a passive voice, "I was raped." I believe (I don't know how I would support this statement) that the passive voice is frequently used in reference to rape, in that we much more frequently hear, "She was raped," as opposed to, "He raped her." (Forgive my sexist examples). What does it mean to be raped, relative to what it means to rape? Are these, relative to the partner, the same? I might argue not.
I am immediately reminded of a story I just read in my junior seminar (thanks, Professor Anderson) from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the story of Philomela, who is raped and has her tongue cut off, so that she cannot report the crime. Philomela is able to defeat her captor by communicating by means of a weaving, and so speaks her crime.
In Ovid, we see a woman who is rendered speechless, as a result of the a crime committed against her, and the same thing is happening here. Epifano is rendered speechless, at first by her own repressive memory, then by the administrators of her school, and is rendered unable to articulate the crime committed against her, and she is marked with the "shame" of "silence," as beautifully articulated by another mental health patient.
However, in the Metamorphoses, Philomela's silence is physical. She is rendered unable to speak because she literally has no tongue, but Epifano is not. She physically can speak. She physically is able to go to the police, tell her friends, or take any number of measures, yet she is, all the same, rendered silent, and it is in this way that she becomes a victim.
What silences Epifano? The simple answer seems to be shame. She speaks at length about feeling "dirty" and "unclean," and it is this sense of anxiety that compels her not to name her attacker, but why? Why should she feel shame about something that she didn't do?
In response to this question, I am drawn immediately to the anxiety that affected her living situation afterward, "...but being forced to stay on campus in a dorm populated with men I did not know, that was the real psychological issue." Why men? Sure, the person who raped her was a man, but she doesn't feel the need to be afraid of people who share the same hair color, ethnicity, academic major, or any number of qualities that one might share with her assailant. Instead, she focuses on his quality of being a male. She feels that she is at risk from men; it would then be the next step to say that she is at risk as a woman.
Let's return back to what exactly happened during the moment of the rape. The assailant, a man, held down and overcame, sexually and physically, a woman. It seems to me that the act of rape itself then becomes narrativized as the victimization of men over women. This is perhaps an answer to why we, as a culture, have actively denied the rape of men by women, despite accounts and statistics. We understand rape as an act of victimization of women by men.
How does this help us understand why rape should inspire such shame in women that it silences them? When a woman is raped, she becomes Woman, with a capital 'W.' All of our cultural anxieties about the helplessness and voicelessness of women is called into play, and we are challenged with one of our primal fears, inherent inferiority, in this case, as a woman under man. We see a similar anxiety and narrative of victimization appear when we discuss domestic violence against women. However, the idea of rape is particularly defiling to a woman, in a culture that still values sexual purity among women, both illicitly and implicitly. This fits in with her understanding of herself as "dirty," a word that might be associated with sexual promiscuity. We can even look toward the word 'rape,' itself, which classically means 'to steal' and corresponds with the idea of rape as, 'to steal one's virtue.' In this way, rape not only invokes an anxiety of inferiority among women, but also sullies them with a tarnished sexual record. What a thing to be ashamed of.
I ultimately land on one question: what's the big deal about rape? Surely, a violent attack is more physically threatening. Theft could be more economically devastating, but a rape seems to be the epitome of mental terrorism. Epifano so well articulates the destruction that rape brings upon an individual, but I suppose my question becomes who actually does the most harm? I would argue that Epifano answers that question herself, by spending the bulk of her account describing those who, for months, did brutally silence her from speaking her peace. We, as a society that propagates the anxiety of women as inferiors and forces women to feel shame over themselves as sexual beings, are at the greatest fault. Let me make this clear: rape is a terrible crime, and I, with every bit of Catholic in me, hope that her attacker gets his due justice, but there is also a degree to which we have to understand that we, just like those administrators, are the ones who bring about the silence.
What would it mean to live in a world without shame? Surely, rape could still happen, but would it really be rape? Without all of the shame and silence and mental destruction, would it be something else? Would we need a new word for it? "Forced sex," to be uncreative, might suffice. To some degree, it's worth exploring how we as individuals, in every aspect of our lives, can choose to live without the shame that our society has unduly marked us with, and, I believe, that is what Epifano would like us to take away from her incredible story.
Once again, my deepest respect and admiration for Angie. I wish her a lifetime of peace and happiness.


  1. I am intrigued by some of your...analysis, however I think a lot of your article is dripping with male privelege and a certain naivete that made me incredibly "victim is definitely one of my absolute favorite topics" ...perhaps these sentences were an attempt to make it more artistically appealing as an essay and I do appreciate the way you are trying to understand this article...But you may want to re-read the entire piece and find those sections that are questionable and re-write them in a way that is more humbling, objective, respectful. It feels a bit as if you are making her experience a "case", something to be observed and critiqued and judged according to your sentiments of how interesting and exciting this was, as if she were some sort of a subject...which takes away from her personhood. Perhaps if you separated Elferino out of your analysis and stuck to her exact words in the essay, you could begin to say something more impactful about what you've learned about rape and rape culture. This is not an essay on have to think of the actual living person behind the words you are writing when it comes to issues on social justice. As it stands, this essay is too personal, insulting, and awkward bcause of its style and subject matter... for example the fact you even wrote "what's the big deal about rape?" before you answer that question effectually weakens any strength your subsequent analysis has (and I do think it has strength), so you would do well to re-phrase.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I have a strict no proofreading/rewriting policy because, if I could, I would spend all my time writing and rewriting posts, and then I'd never get any of my actual work done. However, if I ever tackle another topic like this (you can see that the rest of my posts are about less controversial topics like the pitfalls of belting), I'll continue to try to make appropriate, intelligent, and palatable arguments. I am a young puppy of a writer, excited about each new thought, and I mean no offense when I pee on the carpet of other people's feelings.

    I am certainly writing from a place of privilege and naivety (though I do take some issue with the phrase 'male privilege'), but I might argue that such an argument, that the offense of rape is socially constructed and that rape is experiential, is an argument that could only come from such an unaffected, naive, yet inquisitive, soul. Your visceral response to 'what's the big deal about rape?' proves that it's a question worth asking, and my point in its phrasing is to create that cognitive dissonance between having such a reaction and simultaneously not having a clear answer. It was my goal in this essay to force us to address these 'most obvious' responses to rape and challenge them.

    Our hesitancy to ask and answer this question in an open and insensitive way is a perfect example of the silencing (or, rather, muffling) about which I'm writing. To treat this any different than any other first-hand account is to attach a taboo to it that only reinforces a culture of shame.

    Once again, comments are greatly appreciated, as they help me figure out what I actually think.

  3. I am a bit repelled by the structure of your text and distasteful use of words. Nonetheless lets not begin to argue the physical.
    First I'd like to say that I agree with you on many terms that rapes is of course over-exaggerated but still a crime that stabs into the privacy and freedom of individuals. The biggest issue plaguing Feminism is the paradox that women are free but yet women are not free. Feminists argue that men are impeding on women through use of educative measures and indoctrinating them into believing the ideals of men. As that comes to table, why is sexual promiscuity seen negatively among both men and feminists? Sexual promiscuity as explored throughout the centuries remains to be men always wanted a virgin so it is more of a man idea than it is of women.