The Violence of Women: Talking with Amber Tamblyn
Amber Tamblyn’s new book Any Man imagines a vicious upside down world, where men are preyed upon by a female serial rapist. But the book transcends the gimmick of the experiment and digs deeper into our social psyche, cultural biases, and dark obsessions.
Its characters are bizarro versions of real-life counterparts—a Nancy Grace-like talk show host shames male victims. One chapter follows the Twitter wars over the case, quoting celebrities and journalists as they join in the myth-making of the female rapist and judge the men. The books plays with genre and form, giving it a breathless, reckless feeling—a commentary on our culture of pain, violence, rape, and obsession with crime.
Any Man isn’t Tamblyn’s first journey into darkness. Her poetry collection Dark Sparkler examines the lives and tragic deaths of actresses. Tamblyn also works with Time’s Up, a legal defense fund for victims of sexual assault, and is a vocal advocate for victims of rape and assault.
I spoke with Tamblyn about the new book, cultural myths, obsessions, and crime.
The Rumpus: I’d love to hear about the genesis of this book.
Amber Tamblyn: The genesis began with the idea of the perspective of female voices feeling very marginalized and not really explored. And so it started with this small inkling of what would a female protagonist who is extremely violent look like, whose violence is not coming from a place of retribution or revenge, as most depictions are—think of the movie Monster—women getting back at their Johns or retaliation of that nature. And I was trying to think of the last time I’d seen a story about the pathology of a woman that just felt truly, truly dangerous and almost sociopathic.
And so that’s really where it began. And then, as I think with most of the work that I like to do, I try to create empathy in spaces where I don’t think it exists or where empathetic subject matter has been desensitized. So the ultimate objective of the book then started to turn into how to sensitize a topic that has otherwise been desensitized and sort of become taboo in a certain way, sadly.
Rumpus: You’re talking about male rape victims, then, specifically.
Tamblyn: I’m talking about sexual assault and rape culture in general. The conversations around it are desensitized.
Rumpus: It is interesting that you talked about wanting a truly violent, sociopathic female character because Maude, the rapist, is so present in the book, but she doesn’t really have a voice until the very, very end (which was terrifying, by the way). How did you decide to use male voices to narrate the book?
Tamblyn: The book, for me, was a multi-question narrative, so it had multiple questions it posed, or is attempting to pose—many thoughts and ideas and questions all at once. And, while the book is about really hearing the subject matter and the personal sides of stories of sexual assault and those experiences, it is also very much about the objectification of those stories. And so, in that way, I think it was really important to make a lot of the chapters extremely polarizing from each other so that one minute you’re inside someone’s head in the most intimate, difficult space they occupy and then the next moment you’re completely outside of them, never even getting to know who they are. Or only learning who they are through the media, through this sort of veracious, crazy, wild, manipulative media.
Another aspect of it is just I really wanted to explore the mythologizing of women. And the only way to mythologize Maude was to make her untouchable, to make her exist only in the minds of everyone but her. So that it was suddenly not even really about who this woman was anymore, but really it just becomes about what everyone thinks of her and what everyone turns her into, virtually anthropomorphizing her in a certain way.
Rumpus: I read your book right after reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and afterward, I was listening to the audiobook, and while listening to the audiobook, the police caught the Golden State Killer. So I was reading your book, while watching, in tandem, the mythologizing of this murderer.
The juxtaposition of how you write about Maude and how the media was covering the Golden State Killer was eerie. In your book Maude gets the male treatment, almost. She gets that mythology where nobody can chalk it up to her having postpartum depression or to her sad abused life. Women so rarely get to be monsters.
Tamblyn: I think that’s the parallel for women when we’re not their murderers. I think that that, to me, is the statement. But that is kind of an amazing thing to be able to be reading those books back to back and see those two parallels.
It is true. We mythologize.
That’s what was so interesting to me about Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents’ dinner. I think to everybody else, she really just called the monster for what it was, which was everyone who was sitting in front of her. And she was saying, “This guy sells your book. This guy makes you great. Makes you get good ratings. Don’t act like you don’t like him.” And I just think that that was the harder thing to do in the room, and she fucking did it, which was pretty powerful.
Rumpus: You have sections in you book like that, where you call out our culture for benefiting from the pain of others. It made me wonder about this kind of interplay with violence in American culture and darkness. We feed off of it. It pays our bills. I’ve written about female violence. I got paid for it.
So there is this kind of like parasitic culture of it, which you call out so well, but there’s also like… We are also deeply fascinated. You’ve written about violence before, in Dark Sparkler, where you looked at the lives of actresses who died tragically. So, I wondered, what draws you to violence as a topic?
Tamblyn: Well, I think violence is antithetical to the mainstream narrative of womanhood, which is that we are nurturing, all of us, and as if being a nurturer is not one of the most inherently violent experiences you can have, as if childbirth is not one of the most inherently violent experience any woman will have. And the feelings that come with that, the hormones, the sense of the wildness that it places you in.
I think there are different types of violence that are explored throughout many of my narratives, but I just, for me I always just look at how, no matter how far we go with being able to expand our truth about our experiences, they always seem to be reclaimed—or not reclaimed, but just claimed by anyone but us. Whether that’s from a reviewer badly reviewing a film about a woman, directed by a woman, anything to do with the creative arts, all the way over to books by women, all the way over to suddenly all the media now wants to talk about backlashes and witch hunts and how it’s gone too far. Even that is its own form of oppression.
And those are people who were just banging our doors down, chomping at the bit to get any kind of information that they can about the men who have destroyed our lives, and I see all of it.
Rumpus: You see it from a unique perspective, I think, because you’ve worked in so many art forms—acting, and you’ve written plays, poetry, fiction—and you also do a lot of activism. So you’re seeing this violence and rape culture from so many perspectives, and because of your acting you’ve also been the object of the media monster. And so you’ve been in it, you’ve seen it up close.
Tamblyn: The more macro message of the book is just that we have to look at it whether it’s our job or not, whether we’re reporters, whether we work at universities where sexual assault happens, whether we are, ourselves, survivors. We have to look at how we contribute, both proactively and passively, to rape culture. And it really has become a culture, and I myself am guilty of it. I mean, that’s part of it. It’s like sometimes that’s all people know how to do, is just tweet about how angry they are, and they actually don’t know how to do anything else. It feels like such a big problem that it seems almost untouchable and that’s really scary.
But you know, some of these narratives that I took, that I shaped for the different men in the book, were literally ripped out of the headlines of stories you hear all the time. Like the main character, Donald, wakes up behind a dumpster, and his story’s very similar to Jane Doe in the Brock Turner case.
I remember when my husband read the book, and he’s like, “There’s just one part that seems really not believable to me,” and I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “It’s the section about show when the commentators are saying all this crazy stuff about the male victims making better choices. About them being drunk, and how this is about the bad decisions people make.” And I told him, I said, “I pulled that almost verbatim off of a Nancy Grace segment.”
I just switched the genders, the pronouns.
Rumpus: I have watched a lot of Nancy Grace, so I recognized it when I read that section. But to see it written out made it so much more painful. So much more bizarre. Just the flip of genre from TV to prose heightened the absurdity.
Tamblyn: For my husband, I had to tell him that this is actually our experience on the regular. And he couldn’t believe that.
For me at least, this is not a book about taking away the pains and the experiences of women. This is about re-understanding what it means to be any gender, to be anyone, to identify as anything, and to have struggled through sexual abuse. Period. And that we must find broader ways to understand each other and have the difficult conversations in order to set real lasting and larger change, and sometimes that comes in the form of hearing old stories in new ways.
Rumpus: This is an old story told in a new way. And part of the new way is the structure of the book, which plays with form and genre. Some parts feel like poetry; others are tweets. Did being a poet play a part in your thinking about the structure of the book?
Tamblyn: I think so. I wrote the first couple chapters a year ago when I was first thinking about it, and in a more narrative fiction way, and I was bored as a writer. And my editor at that time, who was so wonderful, sort of planted the seed in my head—Calvert Morgan, who published Dark Sparkler. Cal came to me and said, “You need to write a novel.” And I had never thought about it before that moment.
And you know, and he was the one that said to me—I’ll never forget it—over lunch, he said, “If you’re bored while you’re writing it, then believe me, we’re bored reading it.” And I just thought that was such a great way to think about it, and he’s like, “You need to just write what you are and experience that, because a lot of people don’t have that poetic voice, and so just use it.” And I really went back and I just started to write the way I actually wanted to write, and that’s sort of how Any Man was born. I didn’t ask myself what I thought a novel should sound like.
Author photograph © Katie Jacobs.