What to Read When Everyone Is Talking about Rape
Unsurprisingly, actresses in Hollywood have long known that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator, and have suffered for it. This is not an issue specific to Hollywood, but rather one that pervades every industry, including our own. In publishing, just as in the movie business, there are men we warn women not to work with, not to be alone with, not to send work to. The burden has always been placed on women to keep each other and ourselves safe—men don’t take accountability for their actions, and why should they? After all, they aren’t held accountable for those same actions (but sometimes their victims are). This is called rape culture, and here at The Rumpus we’ve been writing about that culture for years.
There are reasons to be hopeful that the next generation will be more aware, less inclined to overlook the bad behavior of their peers, and more vocal in addressing sexual violence and harassment when confronted with it. But rape culture is pervasive, and it will take time and activism—and the dismantling of a patriarchy that is roaringly loud and proud at this moment in America’s history—to eradicate it. A good start is learning about sexual violence.
To that end, and in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we’ve put together a list of memoirs, fiction, poetry collections, and nonfiction that deal with rape culture, violence against women, and the many ways that rape culture and violence against women have shaped our society and the women and men who live within it.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and A Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, The Fact of a Body is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed, but also about how we grapple with our own personal histories. Along the way, it tackles questions about the nature of forgiveness, and if a single narrative can ever really contain something as definitive as the truth. This groundbreaking work, ten years in the making, shows how the law is more personal than we would like to believe—and the truth more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.
Landscape with Sex and Violence by Lynn Melnick
The poems in Landscape with Sex and Violence explore what it means to exist within a rape culture so entrenched that it can’t be separated from the physical landscapes in which it enacts itself. Lyrically complex and startling—yet forthright and unflinching—these poems address rape, abortion, sex work, and other subjects frequently omitted from male-dominated literary traditions, without forsaking the pleasures of being embodied, or the value of personal freedom, of moonlight, and of hope. Throughout, the topography and mythology of California, as well as the uses and failures of language itself, are players in what it means to be a woman, a sexual being, and a trauma survivor in contemporary America.
Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison
Illustrated with photographs from the author’s personal collection, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure tells the story of the Gibson women—sisters, cousins, daughters, and aunts—and the men who loved them, often abused them, and, nonetheless, shared their destinies. With luminous clarity, Allison explores how desire surprises and what power feels like to a young girl as she confronts abuse. As always, Allison is provocative, confrontational, and brutally honest.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
As a girl, Kingston lives in two confounding worlds: the California to which her parents have immigrated and the China of her mother’s “talk stories.” The fierce and wily women warriors of her mother’s tales clash jarringly with the harsh reality of female oppression out of which they come. Kingston’s sense of self emerges in the mystifying gaps in these stories, which she learns to fill with stories of her own. A warrior of words, she forges fractured myths and memories into an incandescent whole, achieving a new understanding of her family’s past and her own present.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.
The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod
For over a decade, Zoe Zolbrod kept a complicated and troubling secret: Between the ages of four and five, she was routinely molested by her teenaged cousin. When she finally decided to talk about it, she wasn’t sure what to expect, what to say, or who to tell. Through a kaleidoscopic series of experiences, Zolbrod traces the development of her sexuality, her relationships with men, and the cultivation of her motherhood in the shadow of her childhood sexual abuse. Bolstered with research, Zolbrod argues passionately for the empowerment of sexual abuse victims and the courage it takes to talk about it.
I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen
Part 1980s and 1990s nostalgia, part exuberant storytelling, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On turns a sharply humorous magnifying glass onto gendered interactions in daily life, framed primarily by random celebrity encounters in Los Angeles. Far from a narrative of fame-chasing or conceit, however, I’m So Fine breathlessly addresses what it means for a woman to fight for dignity and survival in a hostile environment, to come into her own power as she decides what she wants for herself “& mostly gets its every fineness.”
Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz
Ortiz was an only child and a bookish, insecure girl living with alcoholic parents in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her relationship with a charming and deeply flawed private school teacher fifteen years her senior appeared to give her the kind of power teenagers wish for, regardless of consequences. Her teacher—now a registered sex offender—continually encouraged her passion for writing while making her promise she was not leaving any written record about their dangerous sexual relationship. This conflicted relationship with her teacher may have been just five years long, but would imprint itself on her and her later relationships, queer and straight, for the rest of her life. In Excavation, the black and white of the standard victim/perpetrator stereotype gives way to unsettling grays.
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman
When Trauma and Recovery was first published in 1992, it was hailed as a groundbreaking work. In the intervening years, Herman’s volume has changed the way we think about and treat traumatic events and trauma victims. Trauma and Recovery brings a new level of understanding to a set of problems usually considered individually. Herman draws on her own cutting-edge research in domestic violence as well as on the vast literature of combat veterans and victims of political terror, to show the parallels between private terrors such as rape and public traumas such as terrorism. The book puts individual experience in a broader political frame, arguing that psychological trauma can be understood only in a social context.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. And in the novella “Especially Heinous,” Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgängers, ghosts, and girls-with-bells-for-eyes. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie must learn to navigate those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.
The Blue Hour by Jennifer Whitaker
Fairy tales both familiar and obscure create a threshold, and The Blue Hour pulls us over it. With precise language and rich detail, these poems unflinchingly create an eerie world marked by abuse, asking readers not just to bear witness but to try to understand how we make meaning in the face of the meaningless violence.
My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
In My Body Is a Book of Rules, Elissa Washuta corrals the synaptic gymnastics of her teeming bipolar brain, interweaving pop culture with neurobiology and memories of sexual trauma to tell the story of her fight to calm her aching mind and slip beyond the tormenting cycles of memory. Built on the bones of fundamental identity questions as contorted by a distressed brain, My Body Is a Book of Rules pulls no punches in its self-deprecating and ferocious look at human fallibility.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, The Color Purple story focuses on the life of women of color in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of twenty years of her life, beginning at age fourteen when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self.
Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You by Sue William Silverman
Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You destroys our complacency about who among us can commit unspeakable atrocities, who is subjected to them, and who can stop them. From age four to eighteen, Sue William Silverman was repeatedly sexually abused by her father, an influential government official and successful banker. Through her eyes, we see an outwardly normal family built on a foundation of horrifying secrets that long went unreported, undetected, and unconfessed.
The Lifting Dress by Lauren Berry
Set in a feverish swamp town in Florida, The Lifting Dress enters the life of a teenage girl the day after she has been raped. She refuses to tell anyone what has happened, and moves silently toward adulthood in a community that offers beauty but denies apology. Through lyric narratives, readers watch her shift between mirroring and rejecting the anxious swelter of her world, until she ultimately embraces it with the same violent affection once tendered to her.
Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale by Rachel Lloyd
At thirteen, Rachel Lloyd found herself caught up in a world of pain and abuse, struggling to survive as a child with no responsible adults to support her. Vulnerable yet tough, she eventually ended up a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. It took time and incredible resilience, but finally, she broke free. Three years later, Lloyd arrived in the United States to work with adult women in the sex industry and soon founded her own nonprofit GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. She also earned her GED and won full scholarships to college and a graduate program. Today Lloyd is executive director of GEMS in New York City and has turned it into one of the nation’s most groundbreaking nonprofit organizations.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Lifelong swimmer and Olympic hopeful Lidia Yuknavitch accepts a college swimming scholarship in Texas to escape an abusive father and an alcoholic, suicidal mother. After losing her scholarship to drugs and alcohol, Lidia moves to Eugene and enrolls in the University of Oregon, where she is accepted by Ken Kesey to become one of thirteen graduate students who collaboratively write the novel Caverns with him. Drugs and alcohol continue to flow along with bisexual promiscuity and the discovery of S&M. Ultimately Lidia’s career as a writer and teacher combined with the love of her husband and son replace the earlier chaos that was her life.
A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown
The strange, heart-wrenching, and exhilarating tale of a woman named Cupcake. It begins as the story of a girl orphaned twice over, once by the death of her mother and then again by a child welfare system that separated her from her stepfather and put her into the hands of a sadistic foster parent. But there comes a point in her preteen years—maybe it’s the night she first tries to run away and is exposed to drugs, alcohol, and sex all at once—when Cupcake’s story shifts from a tear-jerking tragedy to a dark comic blues opera. As Cupcake’s troubles grow, so do her voice and spirit. Her gut-punch sense of humor and eye for the absurd, along with her outsized will, carry her through a fateful series of events that could easily have left her dead.
Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma by Jen Cross
One in six women is the victim of sexual assault. Using her own hard-won wisdom, author Jen Cross shows how to heal through journaling and personal writing. Writing Ourselves Whole is a collection of essays and creative writing encouragements for sexual trauma survivors who want to risk writing a different story. Each short chapter offers encouragement, experience, and exercises. Sections focus on writing as a transformative practice, embodying our story, how to write trauma without retraumatization, writing joy and desire, and more.