The Thread: Forged in Fire

By

I’ve been dreaming of Medusa. Waking and sleeping. Mornings and midday, in the blue light of my monitor screen. Snake haired, cackling. Medusa, the beauty; Medusa, the victim; Medusa, the horror. Medusa, reimagined as the beheader instead of the victim, holding Perseus’s disembodied head grimly aloft in one hand, bloody sword in the other.

Medusa, whose story was taken from her.

To control your story is to own your reality. One of my larger traumas was that my abuser was reported to the police by someone other than me, against my wishes. I was a minor, sixteen years old and legally incapable of consenting to sexual activity or making my own decisions. While I can see, in hindsight, that there is some validity to this (prefrontal cortexes, maturity, wisdom of experience), I maintain—given how horribly the police handled the situation—that I might have been better off, personally, if the criminal justice system were never involved. I don’t know if it would have been the “right” thing, but I imagine it would have been less traumatic than what I ultimately endured: the systematic dismantling of my story; the silencing of my voice. When my abuser pled to criminal charges, I didn’t recognize myself in the facts of the indictment, and I didn’t recognize him, either. The process stole my narrative from me. Without my story, I was unmoored.

Like so many survivors, I was flattened by the Kavanaugh hearings. For me, it was particularly painful watching Dr. Ford’s story spin out of her control, become distorted by a group of people who had their own objectives in mind. The specific details of her assault, including Kavanaugh’s hand over her mouth silencing her. Her testimony about the laughter he shared with a friend at her expense. The phrase: “indelible in the hippocampus.”

“They were having a very good time,” Ford said.

Her testimony about their laughter called to mind the sound of Billy Bush laughing as Donald J. Trump described grabbing women by the pussy in the 2005 Access Hollywood recording. You don’t laugh at someone’s rage or pain if you think that person can hurt you. You don’t laugh at their pain if you respect them, if you have any fear at all of the outcome. You don’t laugh when the blade is two inches from your heart. You don’t laugh unless you think the person in question is helpless.

I admit I feel helpless at moments. It’s easy to believe that we are nothing when we are treated as if we are nothing, as if our pain is irrelevant. It’s easy to believe that our rage is an accessory, a charming bow on our rapeable bodies. She’s adorable when she’s angry. It’s easy to get lost in the despair of our fury not mattering. I get lost there sometimes.

The night of Kavanaugh’s final confirmation vote, I had dinner with my friend, the brilliant healer, Gerri Ravyn Stanfield. We both couldn’t believe how bad we felt, how mad and sad and flat we were. We drank whiskey. We ate curry. And then we talked about our art, our lives, the things that we make, the stories we control. By the end of our dinner, I remembered that an eight-year-old girl had just pulled an ancient sword out of a lake in Sweden, and she’s the second girl in a little over a year to do this. Last year it was a seven-year-old in Cornwall. These stories, I told Ravyn, might be enough to restore my hope, my faith that there was something better than laughter in store for girls and women. Little girls keep pulling swords out of the water, and these horrible white men keep laughing at our pain. Neither of these is a metaphor.

Cameron Esposito has a line in her standup special, Rape Jokes, about how survivors are generally depicted on screen. “She’s assaulted and then she becomes very good at swords,” she says. “That was not my experience. I stayed the same amount good at swords: expert.”

I am a novice with swords. I took fencing in high school, but that was for sport. I have held a fencing rapier in my hand, which I guess makes me somewhat familiar with swords, but certainly I have never used a sword to hurt someone.

I have never used any weapon to hurt someone.

In Tarot, the suit of swords signifies radical change. The cards are all action: rising up, confronting oppression, finding ambition, courage, the use of force in conflict. The swords cards carry messages that play with the double edge: change can be necessary, and for the greater good, while still being painful. Ambition is an important motivation; it helps us get things done, but it can also cause self-doubt, anxiety, and fear. Perhaps this symbolism is subconsciously linked to sexual assault victims’ increased swordsmanship in popular culture. Surviving trauma is a process of transformation. Recovering yourself, your story, is an act of revolution.

In Greek mythology, Medusa was a beautiful virgin priestess in the temple of Athena, dedicated to the goddess. Virgin in those days didn’t mean unpenetrated by a penis. Virgin meant unmarried, unowned by any man. Virgins were women who could speak for themselves, think for themselves, choose for themselves. Virgins were independent women. Medusa was raped by Poseidon, god of the sea, earthquakes, and storms, in Athena’s temple. Athena punished Medusa, cursing her into a snake-headed monster that turned any man who looked at her to stone. Medusa’s body became a monstrous weapon, undefeatable, untouchable. But the curse also made her unrapeable; a permanent virgin in the old sense of the word. Unownable, independent, alone on her island. In this way, Athena’s curse has a double edge: it is punishment, but also protection.

I’ve been thinking about the way the things that harm us can become strengths. Not that we should be harmed in the first place; of course I’d prefer a trauma-free world. But my narrative being taken from me at the age of sixteen is what drove me to write. My first book is a memoir about that experience and, while I’m sure I might have written another story for other reasons without my past, I don’t think I would go back and erase it if I could.

One of my favorite authors, Bonnie Nadzam, wrote an essay called “Experts in the Field” about her relationship with her own abusive teacher. After I read it the first time, I was so moved that I reached out to her. This is how I learned, to my utter amazement, that she’d begun writing it after reading “No, Lolita”, an essay of mine. An essay that I never would have written if I hadn’t been abused. Nadzam told me once I was made of steel, forged in fire. It is one of my favorite compliments not just because of who said it, but because it makes me sound like a badass, and a blade. Sometimes I repeat it to myself like a mantra, and I’ve said it to other survivors, too.

We are made of steel, forged in fire.

In 1910, District of Columbia housewife Jessie Thompson attempted to sue her husband for $70,000 for injuries he inflicted upon her while she was pregnant. She had good reason to think she might win, since DC had joined a number of states in passing the Married Women’s Tort Act, legislation that provided the same legal rights for married women that single women had. Under common law, a married woman’s legal rights, like everything else, belonged to her husband. If someone owed a married woman money, damaged her property, or stole from her, she couldn’t sue on her own behalf; she needed her husband to sue. This was one of the many ways the law treated married women as “belonging to” their husbands. As public opinion shifted, thanks to the Suffragettes and the Temperance movement, states began changing the laws. Women still couldn’t vote, but at least they could have some legal personhood.

Jessie Thompson’s case tested the interpretation of Married Women’s Tort Act. A four-justice majority ruled that the Act was meant to provide married women the ability to sue for property damage, and possibly tort damages by others, but they refused to believe the act gave married women the right to sue their own husbands for personal injuries. They felt that it would go against the public welfare and disrupt “domestic harmony” should spouses sue one another for monetary damages. The three-justice dissent disagreed with the outcome on pure statutory construction grounds. While the Court expressed great care and concern for the institution of marriage, no one on the court expressed a care for Jessie Thompson as a person who had sustained severe injuries.

That seven men in black robes failed to empathize or write compassionately about a woman who had been routinely beaten by her husband should not come as a surprise. Women’s justice rarely comes from the men in the courts, even the highest court in the United States. It almost never has. Women, like other disenfranchised and marginalized groups, have had to make their own justice, protect their own communities.

Have things improved for women in the United States? Yes. But not due to the courts or the congress. The laws changed only after women began organizing on behalf of women. Even before the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Thompson v. Thompson, women were agitating for themselves and their rights.

Nine years after the Supreme Court failed Jesse Thompson, women won the legal right to vote. Forty years later, in what would eventually be called feminism’s second wave, women opened the first rape crisis center in the United States, and two years after that the first battered women’s shelter. On the hard nights, I remember what women have done without legislative, executive, or judicial power: Creating the national sexual assault and domestic violence networks; providing at-home abortions and protocol training; the Black Lives Matter movement; the protests at Standing Rock; the Stonewall Uprising.

I’m a lawyer. I believe in the law as the foundation of our country. But the more I practice, the more I live, the more I listen, the less I believe that there is justice for others in the system built by and for white men. Sometimes I say that the system seems broken, but in another way, it is functioning exactly as it’s supposed to: elevating powerful white men despite their abuses. Punishing others despite their marginalization. Calling this justice is a kind of cultural gaslighting that I have participated in, willingly and knowingly, for most of my life. Even when the justice I was given was hollow. I have never once felt as though my abusers got justice.

In the two years since since the Trumpocalypse, the very systems I learned about so earnestly a decade ago—the Supreme Court, the Constitution, the Congress, the Presidency—have been poisoned from the inside. It is a marker of my privilege that I made it thirty-five years without realizing just how biased, toxic, and supremely unjust these systems already were. They were created by and for wealthy white men. They still serve them.

It’s enough to make me delight in paintings of Judith slaying Holofernes; of gleeful women murdering men. What I mean is, I sometimes imagine violence against the men who have harmed me, who have harmed so many of us. I sometimes imagine a revolution, and what we might create in the ashes. I think of all that we have created with so little.

Medusa was impossible to kill because you couldn’t look at her. So when a king sent Perseus on a quest to kill Medusa, the gods pitched in to help him: winged shoes, magic shield. Athena, Medusa’s creator, would also aid in Medusa’s death.

Perseus slayed Medusa, using his magical reflective shield, his precious advantages. He cut off her head, which retained its terrible power, even in death. Eventually, Perseus gifted the head of Medusa to Athena, who turned it into a shield that struck fear into the hearts of her enemies. That was the story given to Medusa: Raped, cursed, killed, and made into an object of terror and war to be used by the Goddess who cursed her.

Susan Collins, the US Congresswoman from Maine, justified her vote in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation by saying she hopes it inspires more women to report their sexual assaults. It was a baffling and infuriating statement, given that she had just ignored an accusation of attempted sexual assault that was heard around the world. As if the real problem was that Dr. Ford just hadn’t reported at the right time and place.

People are still trying to figure out how to respond in the face of an increasingly fascist government, that shows continuing disregard for human rights and the laws and constitutional norms that have evolved over decades to protect them. Do we burn the whole thing down? Is that the righteous thing to do at this point? Is there another way?

The phrase “double-edged sword” came from Arabic, but wasn’t popularized in Western Europe until the middle ages, when religious wars became common. Jeanne d’Arc famously claimed that God was on her side, that God sanctioned the violence and aggression of war, the decimation of the enemy’s bodies, that the fighting she led was holy. Holy war is a double-edged sword: if one believes in a Divine, surely it is wrong to kill its creations—our fellow human beings. But not if the killing is sanctioned by the Divine. But what kind of God sanctions killing? Is there such a thing as a righteous murder? What is the right response to those that would destroy us? How do we know whose side is sanctioned by God?

Without fire, steel is just iron and carbon, some strong but basic elements. It’s the forging, the crucible, the heat that gives steel its legendary strength. While I don’t believe in silver linings or that everything happens for a reason, it’s true that who I am now is the product of my experiences. Experiences that burned while they forged me into something magnificent. Maybe snake-headed or maybe just deadly sharp, the fire is what made me.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel’s award-winning essays have appeared in The Manifest Station, Under the Gum Tree, Nailed Magazine, and others. She is seeking an agent and publisher for her first book, Played, a memoir of precocity. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler, and writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. More from this author →