His Greatest Masterpiece

By

Vampires. Zombies. Werewolves. Horror stories are overflowing with monsters whose mere touch presents their victims with a non-choice: become infected by our evil, or die. Transform into one of us, or let us consume you.

You may survive, but you shall not live.

And monsters are outcasts, of course. Civilized society likes to keep itself quarantined from the outbreak of evil. Of course it’s not your fault if you get bitten, they say—but once you have been, can you blame us for not inviting you over our threshold?

These are the people who think that Frankenstein was the name of the creature, not his creator. But that’s how it works sometimes. The banality of evil hides in people, and who they unleash it upon become forever tainted by their names. They become one. Creator and monster. Evil by association.

Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Monster of Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein.

*

In Dublin in 2013, 47-year-old Fiona Doyle took her father to court for a series of horrific rapes and constant sexual abuse. It started when she was four years old, and continued for over a decade. Her mother knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it. Instead she chose to blame Fiona, labeling her pre-pubescent daughter a whore and beating her. When the rest of Fiona’s family moved to England, she was left alone with her father, who moved her into his bedroom. The abuse intensified—and remained ignored. Even when she contracted anal warts. Even when she reported her father to the Gardai. When, twenty years later, her father was finally tried, he was sentenced to three years in prison, nine suspended. He was allowed to leave the court, get a taxi home.

In order to bring attention to Ireland’s horrifically and historically lenient sentences for sex offenders, Fiona Doyle waived her right to anonymity to bring public attention to the situation. Ireland’s media lauded the courage and dignity of Fiona Doyle, and highlighted the importance of her speaking out about her abuse. But Fiona herself felt and understood that individual human reactions can be far less appreciative.

“You feel guilty telling people,” she said during a national interview. “You feel like you’re inflicting something on them, you’re bringing something dirty into their lives.”

The host clumsily tried to assure her that this was not the case, and Doyle merely shook her head. She knew the how myths get simplified, how Frankenstein and his monster become interchangeable. She knew that even when people don’t blame you for being raped, they do resent you for bringing rape into their lives—inviting the monster in.

“How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.” 

–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

*

In James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein, there’s a scene where the creature is playing with a little girl. They throw daisies into a lake and watch them float away. In the director’s cut, the creature, the gentle giant, the Lennie Small, becomes confused and excitedly picks up the little girl. He throws her in the river, thinking that his little flower, his pretty daisy, will also float.

But censors disapproved of subjecting audiences to the image of young girl being killed, even accidentally. They thought the idea disturbing, irresponsible, immoral. So the scene was cut just as the creature reached towards her, his little daisy, by the water. The next time the girl is seen, she is a lifeless body. But the censors hadn’t accounted for the deep fears that lie in audiences’ minds and hearts, and the dark chasm of possibility that the fade to black had opened. Just what had he done to her?

I’m aware these questions will linger with you too if I fade to black just as my attacker closes the bedroom door; I know fear and experience will force your minds to explore their darkest corners, and maybe what you imagine will be worse than what happened. Maybe it’ll be better. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Either way, a little girl died that day.

*

It’s an odd thing to say that you’ve been sexually assaulted. It’s an umbrella term, a vagueness, a whisper. “Not rape; less.” You also get saddled with that first, defining syllable. At least the word “rape” avoids that. There’s no ambiguity to “rape”; it’s violence, non-consensual, no sex attached. But “sexually assaulted.” It’s in there. The implication, the ambivalence, the blame. The phrase itself starts with sex, before turning violent. Did you start with sex? Did it just take a wrong turn? Did you not see this coming? Did you not know this would happen? Did you not know?

Did you really not want this?

Cut to: Scene Before The Bedroom Door.

I was seventeen, and had been in college four hours before I saw him. Tall, blonde, older, a walk that commanded attention. A stare that was penetrating. 

penetrate, verb. definition:

  1. to go through or into something
  2. to see or show the way through something
  3. to succeed in becoming part of something

 

He asked for my number after our first class. I was incredulous—my first week of college, and I had been so anxious, so nervous, so vulnerable—and yet here I was, being chatted up by older men. I felt that, somehow, I had this college thing down.

Of the college woman who are raped, only 25% describe it as rape.
Of the college women who are raped, only 10% report the rape.
College women are most vulnerable to rape and/or sexual assault during the first few weeks of the first and second years.

*

Here’s the bit that’s easy to imagine.

He made me nervous; I became uncomfortable around him, quiet. My mind was blanker, my jokes slower, my conversation duller. He liked that. I was an empty canvas, a projection screen, waiting to be filled with the image he had of himself: his ideas, his insights into pop culture, his reviews of books I hadn’t read, films I hadn’t seen.

MasterpieceParty

 

The projection was mutual. With him, I saw myself as the mysterious, intelligent girl who everyone struggled to figure out. Being with an older man was currency; it made people think you were more interesting, more mature, more worthy. Being with a popular man was further currency; it made you special. It made you the first choice.

I had never been first choice.

The day it happened, we had ice cream and kissed in the Student Center. He tasted of strawberry and I told him. He invited me back to his house to watch a DVD; I imagined we would watch a film, cuddle on the couch. That we would kiss, long and deep and hard. When we arrived at his house, he said we’d have to go to his room; the DVD player downstairs wasn’t working. When we were in his room, he said he had to close to the door; there was a draft. When he closed the door, he said he had to lock it; the latch sometimes blew open. When he took the key from the lock and put it in his pocket, he didn’t say anything.

Let’s see if you can swim, little Daisy.

Let’s see what you are when you emerge.

*

Cut to: Scene After The Bedroom Door.

Here’s the bit you probably didn’t imagine. Here’s the bit they don’t talk about.

I wanted him back. I spent every second of every day after the assault wanting him back. My mind was an endless cycle of desperate prayer, an obsessive constant silent howl into the darkness at a man who wasn’t listening.

hold me kiss me love me fuck me fix me hold me kiss me love me fuck me fix me hold me kiss me love me fuck me fix me hold me kiss me love me fuck me fix me hold me kiss me love me fuck me fix me

Because here’s the thing about being broken, about having your body invaded and your person shattered from the inside, about feeling like you’re not a real person anymore but a porcelain doll filled with sawdust and splinters and dust where a self used to be. You become an amateur diagnostician. “I am broken. I don’t fully understand how, or why. But the who. The who, I know. Go back to the who. The who can undo this. The who can fix you. The who will make you whole again.” You write yourself a prescription, him acting as medicine for all your ailments.

I feel broken.                           Let him fix you.
I feel empty.                            Let him fill you up.
I feel violated.                         Let him fuck you.
I feel like nothing.                   Let him be your everything.
I am unlovable.                      Make him love you.

And so you seek out the man who broke you and build him an altar. You worship him as Shiva, the great destroyer; for you know that with destruction becomes rebirth. You write your own re-creation myth, and you make your abuser God. Your identity will be his to form, your body his to rebuild. He will be your Frankenstein, and you will be his monster.

You will wish be for this. You will beg for this.

You will not get this.

He will not respond to your pleading texts, he will not acknowledge you in the hallways, he will ignore the tears that fall as you sit opposite him in class. He will not hold you. He will not kiss you. He will not love you, fuck you, fix you. He will break you and leave you, and it will take years for you to recover, years for your body to stop flinching from touch, years for the sawdust to form back into a self, years for your identity to become separate from his.

“Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

It will take years more for you to realize that leaving you was the best thing he could have done. You will be grateful, and hate both yourself and him for that gratitude.

You will relearn this lesson over and over with other men. Each time will crack open the same old wounds, but it will never feel the same. Will never feel easy, or obvious, or survivable. And though the wounds will heal, and you’ll become a little stronger every time, you’ll wonder how much healing a person can take before they’re consumed by it. How thick scars can be before they overtake your skin; how many times you can be stitched back together before you’re more stitches than girl.

*

Listowel, Ireland in 2009. Bouncer Danny Foley is found guilty of sexually assaulting a 22-year-old woman in the car park of a nightclub. He denied leading the victim away and stripping her and continued to do so—until proven false by CCTV. His defense team compared the character of victim and perpetrator, judged her for living in a council house, for drinking on the night of the assault. The attacker referred to his victim as “yer wan.” Upon sentencing, fifty people, including the parish priest, walked past the victim, ignoring her. Each person shook Foley’s hand, some hugged him, with tears in their eyes.

In the victim’s impact statement, the victim spoke of the isolation and judgment she now faced on a daily basis in her hometown. “Even though my name has never been mentioned in the press, Listowel is not a big town and everyone knows it’s me. I feel as if people are judging me the whole time. I’ve been asked by people I know if I am sorry for bringing Dan Foley to court… Life in Listowel has been hard. I can’t walk down the street because it’s such a small town. People are staring at me, throwing dirty looks at me. I was refused service at a local shop… I don’t want to be treated any different to anyone else.”

The villagers, for their part, released a statement complaining that their pitchforks were coming under national scrutiny. “The issue has continued to be debated in Listowel, where there is growing resentment at comments made on national media regarding the town, which is more accustomed to accolades from well-known literary and liberal figures who visit for Writers’ Week… It’s very unfair on Listowel.”

*

It is around this time that you become obsessed with your body. It has already been shrunk; years of flirting with your fingers and gag reflex finally transformed into a solid routine of deep-throating toothbrushes, watching in detached disinterest as you bring up bile and blood, looking at your vomit-streaked, tear-stained face in the mirror afterwards. You become enamored with the way your eyes lose color thirty minutes after you’ve purged; how the dehydration and jumping electrolytes make your head turn helium, your eyes turn glass. You look empty. Transparent. Blank.

Blank becomes the dream. You feel separate from your body, which itself feels unconnected to its own parts. This brain of yours does not belong to the mouth that didn’t scream enough, the arms that were too weak to push him off, the hips he grabbed, the pelvis he forced to grind against him, the legs he pushed apart, the opening he forced his fingers into. You look at your own fingers, move them, twitch them, watch the tendons on the backs of your hands play like piano strings, become terrified and cry because you can’t stop them, can’t feel them, can’t touch them, can’t escape them. Can’t separate yourself from these joints and bones that have somehow buried themselves into your skin like scarab beetles, that are moving your body, seemingly at your will, but who knows when they will turn? You wonder if maybe his fingers too were beyond his control. Maybe he too had been stitched together from parts that weren’t his own.

The Creature: What kind of people is it in which I am comprised? Good people? Bad people? 

Frankenstein: Materials. Nothing more.

The Creature: Did you know I knew how to play this? From which part of me did this knowledge reside? From this mind? From these hands? From this heart? And reading and speaking. Not so much things learned but things remembered. 

Victor Frankenstein: Slight trace waves in the brain, perhaps.

The Creature: Did you ever consider the consequences of your action? You made me, and you left me to die. Who am I? 

Victor Frankenstein: You? I don’t know.

Frankenstein, 1994

You cannot hide these imposter limbs, these alien movements, so instead you focus on the smaller signs of your monstrosity; the bumps and scars and scabs and fibers and festerings on the thread that holds you together; the thread they call skin. You spend hours, nights, weeks, obsessively picking, squeezing, scratching, clawing, trying to erase the evidence of pores, of hair, anything that betrays you as real skin, real girl. You don’t feel worthy of this façade of organ and bone and flesh, but maybe at least you could have surface and smoothness and synthetics. Unblemished, unbeating, unreal. Orifice free. Impenetrable. Inhuman.

inhuman, adjective. definition:

  1. lacking qualities of sympathy, pity, warmth, compassion.
  2. not suited for human beings.
  3. not human

 

Your pubic hair will become a particular target. You will suddenly want it gone. You stay silent through conversations about hairless women as a trend; that women are being brainwashed by pornography, that they’re turning themselves into sex objects. This isn’t your reason. The nights spent obsessively plucking out hair by single hair isn’t about sex, is never about sex, just like that day in that room with that man was never about sex. It’s about wanting to return to a time before blood and cum and tongue and fuck. It’s about girlhood. It’s about rewinding. It’s about going back to the beginning. It’s about wanting to erase yourself from the scene. It’s about wanting to erase yourself.

No body, no crime.
No body, no harm.
No body, nobody.

*

This desire to conceal what you are, your fear of speaking your creator’s name, leaves you isolated. You realize that no one will ever know you if they don’t know this; can never understand you if they don’t understand your creation story. But you fear the pitchforks. They’ve already been waved in your direction, albeit from a distance. Whispers of “slut” and “whore” have carried on the wind, even before him, and you’re never sure why. You’ve never had sex before. But you know that as a woman, even the perception of having been a part of, of wanting to be a part of, of being capable of being a part of this act of being human can cause villagers to light torches. What reaction then can be expected, of more monstrous acts?

You finally tell two friends—boys who you’ve grown close to; boys who think you human. One boy grows silent. Later, you seem him talking and laughing with the man. You wonder if the boy is congratulating the man on his creation. You wonder if by uttering his name, you’ve let him sign you, like a sculpture, like a painting. His greatest masterpiece.

You wonder if they think you lifelike.

The other boy takes your hand. He begins to shower you with attention. He’s suddenly attracted to you. He tells you he loves you. He becomes violently jealous when other boys come near you. He tells you he wants to keep you safe, that he understands you. You wonder if he just likes knowing that you’re malleable. That you’re isolated. That because you fear the pitchforks, you’ll take any refuge you can get. That you have been created by men, and so can be controlled by them. You wonder if he just wants to redesign your stitches. Sign you himself.

You leave these boys. You feel like walking away from them is the first thing you’ve done since that day in that room with that man that your body and mind have become one again; that those steps are the first steps you’ve taken back to your life.

But you don’t know where else to go. You don’t know how the story ends.

***

Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.


Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, and sex columnist from Ireland, who writes for Hot Press magazine, the Dublin Inquirer and a number of other publications. In 2014, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to undertake an MA in Sexuality Studies. Her research topic is an exploration of the experiences of Irish women who have travelled to the UK to have abortions. Roe currently lives in San Francisco, where she's working on her first collection of essays, indulging her book-buying addiction, and figuring out where home is. She spends too much tweeting from @roemcdermott. More from this author →