Still with the Scarlet Letters

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Last week journalist Mac McClelland wrote a brutal, exceptional essay for Good where she plainly discussed her experience with PTSD and her desire for violent sex as one means of coping with the atrocities she had witnessed as a human rights reporter. Early in the essay, McClelland writes about being in Haiti. As a Haitian American, I immediately tensed and worried about what she might say. All too often, when people write about Haiti, they portray the country in really incomplete, troubling ways. There is no easy way to write about Haiti because the country is so complicated that almost any approach will sound wrong. How do you write about the beauty and the strength and the poverty and violence of that island? I don’t know if it is possible. Haiti is a country, I often feel, that exists beyond the realm of understanding.

I write about Haiti sometimes, mostly as I try to understand a place that cannot be understood. I don’t know if I get Haiti right because I only know Haiti as a Haitian American who goes to Haiti and sees the best parts up close and the worst parts from a safe distance. This means I know very little. I fill in what I don’t know with my imagination, which I can do because I am a fiction writer. My family is there though and so I hear, regularly, about what life is like there now, in this new after—after the earthquake, after the election, after the hurricane. In Haiti, there is always an after. My father and youngest brother work in Port au Prince. They are engineers, hell bent on rebuilding. My father is ardent in his love for his country. His faith is unwavering and incorruptible. They commute between there and South Florida, going for a week at a time, maybe two weeks, then they return here for a few days of quiet and calm before heading back. Sometimes my mother joins them. More and more she does not for reasons that are her own. My family has the luxury of escape. Too many others do not.

In her essay, McClelland wrote about a man in Haiti who persistently propositioned her for sex. She wrote about how in Haiti there are many, many guns. She wrote about a wealthy man who started stalking her even though, in his words, he wasn’t a rapist. She wrote about a very traumatized rape victim who had an ugly breakdown when the victim saw her rapist while they were driving through the city. After I read the essay, I called my mother who is always concerned about how Haiti is represented inaccurately and read her the parts of the essay about Haiti. My mother said, wearily, “There are a lot of guns in Haiti. These things are true.” Like McClelland, my mother only speaks to her own experience but I am comfortable in believing McClelland’s experience was not imagined or sensationalized as has been suggested in other quarters. More importantly, Haiti is not the point of this essay. I don’t understand how people can’t see that.

McClelland also writes about trying to deal with the effects of PTSD and the feelings of doubt she experienced because the traumas affecting her weren’t explicitly her traumas. She writes about meeting up with a friend in San Francisco who would satisfy her need for violent sex and how he helped her and then held her. She writes about how she is getting better and reporting on sexual violence in other parts of the world. Rape is, after all, everywhere. The entire essay is worth reading. Few pieces of writing have moved me more. I related to nearly everything she wrote, for different reasons, certainly, but I related. I understood exactly what she was saying and appreciated how well she articulated the desire and need for violent sex to deal with violent issues. It was refreshing to see someone approach this topic unapologetically, without pathologizing it.

I have been surprised and disappointed to see fingers pointing at how McClelland has represented Haiti. If she had written about a man in New York who persistently propositioned her for sex (the website Hollaback exists, by the way), if she had written about a gang rape victim in Cincinnati, if she had written about a grabby rich guy, no one would have said anything because these things happen every day in every city in every country around the world. Men pursue women. Men don’t take the first or second or tenth “No” for an answer. This happens whether the men are American or Haitian or Canadian or Thai or Australian. McClelland wasn’t making a grand pronouncement about Haiti or the country’s men. She was talking about a particular kind of a man and a specific set of experiences in a specific place at a specific time. It does no good to assume some kind of nefarious agenda lurks between her words.

Those who object to McClelland’s essay are, in many ways, the ones who are showing their racism and narrow understanding of Haiti. They are deciding McClelland is painting all Haitian men as savage black beasts, as I saw someone somewhere, say, because that is an idea embedded somewhere in their own psyches. I believe shrinks call that projection. Perhaps it is that, as my friend Rion Scott said when we briefly discussed this matter, we are “so used to white writers using their pens to exploit and be condescending toward ‘other-folk’ that people reflexively act like every instance of a white writer writing about experiences in another culture is an example of ugly Americanism,” even when such is not the case. McClelland is talking about a handful of men, who also happen to be Haitian. Bad people are everywhere and a marginalized status does not exempt one from reproach. If you read McClelland’s piece and somehow think it makes Haiti looks bad, it would probably be better for you to examine your internalized issues about Haiti because it’s a real stretch to go from what she wrote to, “That white woman is telling lies about those poor, poor Haitians.”

I talk a lot about Chimimanda Adichie’s TED talk where she discusses the danger of a single story because her words are so critical to how we talk about the world beyond America’s borders. There is, indeed, a real danger in telling a single story. I, like many Haitians, am completely burnt out on the phrase, “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” because that is the dominant, single story about Haiti. When I see that phrase, I want to punch something because Haiti is not only her poverty.

There is so much more to Haiti I wish people knew more about, that I wish journalists shared more about. The water holding that island in the ocean, the clear blueness of it is unparalleled. The faith and pride of the Haitian people are profound even in the face of tragedy upon tragedy. You should know about Tabou Combo. When I was young, my father played their records and I thought I was listening to the most perfect sound. My opinion hasn’t changed. Haitian art is probably the best kept secret in the world.  The paintings are bright, colors so crisp they draw you in and keep you entranced. There is sculpture, abstract metal bodies, gleaming in the sun, carved wooden masks, the curve of a woman’s body cut from cherry. The food is so good my mother can’t stand going to restaurants anymore. There are nightclubs where you can dance all night to the same music we dance to here. The women are breathtakingly beautiful and fierce as hell. Haitian humor is sharp and hilarious. There are beach resorts where you can sit beneath an umbrella and enjoy fruity drinks. There are boutiques where you can buy the latest fashions for exorbitant prices. There are landmarks like La Citadelle, high in the mountains. At the top of La Citadelle, you can look out and feel like you’re seeing the whole of the country. If you ever have the chance, do not hesitate. See the country for yourself. You’d be surprised by how many Americans visit Haiti and never leave.

Haiti is wonderful but there is a single story about the Haitian elite, that they are uncaring, that they only seek to continue to oppress the poor, that they are cruel, blind to the realities around them as if such a thing were possible. There is a single story about the lawlessness in Haiti, that the country is overrun by gangs and corruption. There is a single story about the pervasive poverty, the sexual violence, AIDS, and on and on. I understand why many people fail to see beyond these single but incomplete stories because Haiti’s problems are as overwhelming as the country’s beauty, strength, and vitality. However, it would be just as dangerous to imply Haiti is an idyllic country free of strife as to imply Haiti is strictly a hellhole. The defensiveness many of us who love Haiti feel is natural but sometimes, that defensiveness is misplaced. In this instance, the defensiveness is misplaced. The truth, at times, it hurts but it must still be told.

Certainly, McClelland told only one story about Haiti. In the Good essay, though, she wasn’t reporting on Haiti. She wasn’t writing a bucolic travel piece for a magazine. She wasn’t reporting at all. She wrote about her personal experience in a personal essay so her only responsibility was to tell her story, to tell it true, to tell it well and that’s what she did.

A group of journalists and others who know and work in Haiti responded to McClelland’s essay in a letter published on Jezebel. They wrote how they had experienced relative safety in Haiti  (relative to what, one wonders) in one breath while detailing the tragically high threat of sexual violence in the next (a contradiction). The open letter suggests that its signatories’ experiences could, and worse, should negate McClelland’s experiences. We could do this all day, this countering of experiences, this volleying of our understandings of Haiti. We could all point and say, “That’s not my experience,” and “That’s not my Haiti.” Those narratives would probably all be true but those narratives shouldn’t be pitted against each other. They should work in concert to present a more accurate view of one part of the world.

The writers of the open letter said McClelland’s piece lacked context, one of the more ironic things I have ever read given how they read the essay completely devoid of an understanding of context. McClelland also talks about working in the Gulf, here in the United States. She talks about Oklahoma City. She talks about living in New Orleans before Katrina. She explains, though perhaps not in so many words, that Haiti was the breaking point after months and months of reporting on trauma around the world. By doing these things, she provides a context for her experiences in Haiti. She provides an explanation for why it was sitting next to a screaming gang rape victim that became the straw breaking the camel’s back. For critics to read the essay so myopically as to not see the context is irresponsible. The expectation that McClelland address the entirety of the Haitian experience in a personal essay is unreasonable.

Other critics have even gone so far as to chastise McClelland for writing about sex that isn’t vanilla or neatly packaged in the missionary position. These critics suggest that the frank way in which McClelland writes about her desire for violent sex encourages rapists to think all women want to be raped. Forgive my ineloquence but that is the stupidest, laziest thinking. That kind of thinking is as careless as it is offensive. Whenever a woman chooses to offer a counter narrative to commonly accepted narratives about sex and violence, others are quick to shame her into silence. It frustrates me to see that happening here and in such condescending ways.

It is already known that female journalists are hesitant to discuss the personal experiences they have with sexual violence while on the job. The disheartening responses to McClelland’s essay only work to further silence these women. These responses tell female journalists that they are right to keep quiet because they will be judged, harshly, for telling their truths. It is such a shame.

To suggest women should not write about desire, in all its complexities, for fear that a rapist will somehow extrapolate a justification for violation is the same as telling a woman not to wear short skirts and revealing blouses or drink too much so she doesn’t get raped. It is absurd to imply that there’s a man out there who is sitting on the fence about committing rape but will be pushed over the edge by reading McClelland’s essay because he finds permissiveness in her words. She is writing about consensual, violent sex. How that can be read as an apologia for rape is astounding. At some point in our human evolution, we have to get a place where the sole person responsible for the act of rape is the rapist, without exception. I am baffled as to how we have not yet reached that place. Until we get there, the least we can do is to stop slut shaming, and to stop surrendering to rape culture by policing what women say, wear, write, or do. We need to stop stripping responsibility from rapists and placing that burden on women. That is so unfair.

Perhaps it is uncomfortable to hear a woman who has witnessed the atrocious after effects of rape say she wants to be thrown around and overpowered and fucked at gunpoint, maybe hit a little or a lot. Perhaps it is uncomfortable because this is not the story we normally hear about women and sexual desire and sexual violence. Perhaps we are uncomfortable seeing how PTSD can affect not only the victims of violence but those who report on violence because that makes us more vulnerable. I have tried to understand some of the negative reactions to this essay but I can’t. Maybe I see too much of myself in the essay, but I think it’s more than that.

Just as there cannot be a single story about any country, there cannot be a single story about women and desire and sexual violence and how those things knot themselves together. One woman saying she wants or needs violent sex does not negate another woman’s disgust at the idea of violent sex but it is damaging to try and silence either of those perspectives. It is damaging to try and silence the many, complex stories rising out of Haiti. It is damaging to see demons where there are none. No one is obligated to like or agree with what McClelland wrote but there are better ways to express dissent than public shaming, cries of racism, and scarlet letters.

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Mac McClelland is a friend of the Rumpus and yes, that is our managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald mentioned at the end of the Good article discussed in this piece, a reality we acknowledge with no intentions of informing Roxane’s piece.


Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com. More from this author →