“For of course that’s what happened; you’ve known that all along; even if you don’t read the papers, you know what the world’s like, and the minute you heard my voice you knew I was going to tell a story you’ve heard a thousand times before. You duck your head and turn your collar up to deafen my voice. That’s all right; I’ll raise my voice.”
–Molly Giles, “Talking to Strangers”
A girl. Lying in a field. Should we write it? Should we? She was murdered. Of course she was, she’s in a field. Should we tell how? Goes without saying she was raped. How close should we zoom in? What little details blur? What others tell?
It’s a question for all writers, especially right now. And perhaps a particularly urgent one for women, when a man has just been slow-walked out of the West Wing (oh, so slowly) for (maybe, cautions Trump, remember, he says he’s innocent) giving one of his ex-wives a black eye.
It’s always a good day when someone comments thoughtfully on something I’ve written. Even when the comments are critical. Maybe especially then—careful, attentive reading earns you the right to tell me why you think I’m wrong. One particular set of comments, submitted to the Birds of Wonder Goodreads page by a reader named Allison, threw down a sort of back-handed gauntlet of a compliment—as well as you write, Cynthia, as good an observer as you are, Cynthia, did it have to be a girl in a field?
Allison has a point. A very good one. Her comments have made me think, a lot, about what writers do when we write about violence against women.
It’s a trope, I fully admit—the lifeless body of a beautiful young woman, naked, in a field. Many more novels, much more famous than Birds of Wonder will ever be, have opened, if not in exactly the same way, in a similar one. And countless others compel the reader to consider similar scenarios somewhere along the narrative thread; indeed, some of the most chilling depictions of lifeless and/or violated female bodies in recent literature were written by women.
Take Molly Giles’ gripping story, “Talking to Strangers,” in which the dismembered victim speaks, not to the stranger who opened up her skull, coconut-style, and peeled back her sternum like the roll-top on a can of sardines, but to us. We, who have been so immunized by our own media landscape against murdered-girl stories that we turn away rather than subject ourselves to yet another one. In a slightly different vein, Joyce Carol Oates has, for decades, been a steady churner-out of anti-heroines just silly enough to be deserving of their grisly fates; of recent note, Black Dahlia, though the one that will stick with me until my own final breath is young Connie, denying, desperate, and finally doomed, from “Where Are You Going, Where have You Been.” Alice Sebold’s Susie Salmon, sliced by her forcible deflowerer into pieces so small some disappear into the grass as her blood soaks the ground, will haunt us forever. As she should.
But should we, Allison asks, as women, (continue to) write (yet more of) these stories?
My answer to this question, it turns out, is a very personal one: I had to. I may never do it again, but this time I had to.
Like Maggie O’Farrell, whose haunting memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am, has just hit the shelves, I harbor a certain amount of survivor’s guilt concerning a young woman who didn’t live to tell about a disastrous encounter with a stranger: that young woman might just as easily have been me. In O’Farrell’s case a man who’d followed her along a deserted hiking trail later did to another what he’d almost done to her. In my life, a girl only a few years older than I, with hair the same shade of auburn as mine, was found naked, raped, and dead in a field beside a church only blocks from my house, by a woman walking her dog. In a nice little Southern town where Things Like That Don’t Happen. Until they do.
I was an obsessive, anorexic runner in high school. I’d run laps around that field for years, in the earliest of early morning hours, alone.
For a very long time, as I wrote Birds of Wonder, I believed I was writing that guilt away—that other girl, her life cut brutally short, while mine was fully lived. I was also aware that my rolling ball of narrative twine was accruing other bits of gender-exploitative detritus—sexual tourism, porn addiction, pedophilia—gleaned both from encounters in my own life (some merely glancing, others less so) and those of women who are, or have at some time been, close to me.
Only at a very late stage in the writing process did it dawn on me that at the novel’s literal and figurative core was a reckoning so brutal it’s a little bit amazing I didn’t see it coming. One afternoon at my desk I was assaulted by an unstoppable slide show of things I wish I’d never seen, let alone lived—my rape, my very own, reaching across nearly thirty years of assiduous forgetting, grabbing me from behind and knocking the breath out of me. Forcing me to face up to, to come to up-close-and-personal terms with, a violent sexual assault in my own past that I had buried so deep I’d been able to function, for decades, at least on the surface, as though it had never happened. At least not to me.
Unlike Alice Sebold, I didn’t begin with exorcism-through-memoir and then fictionalize toward the monstrous, which is of course much more reflective of the true nature of rape than the details—mundane in any other context—one tells the police. In fact, I never told the police anything. I never went to therapy. I was living in Egypt at the time, though the rape occurred somewhere else: a world away from a world away. I survived on a steady supply of vodka (thank God for my roommate’s embassy contacts), and prayed I wasn’t pregnant. Or venereally diseased.
And I was very good at forgetting. Just as in the novel, I boxed my rape up in unlabeled cardboard, pushing it so far into the black depths of oblivion that when it surprised me one day like a sharp slap in the face, demanding to be written about, I wasn’t even 100% sure it was mine.
In statistical terms, of course, my rape is just one more. One among the hundreds of thousands of such incidents that have occurred to hundreds of thousands of women across this country (let alone the rest of the world), many of whom aren’t yet shouting #metoo. They’re still whispering those words, if they’re saying them at all. Glad they’re alive, that they, like me, didn’t become bodies in fields. Shying away from the brush of memory if it dares come to close. Getting on with lives and marriages and children and the grocery store and their iPhones as best they can, on some days pretty well.
In 1996, Molly Giles dedicated the collection containing “Talking to Strangers” to her three daughters. With love. There are monsters out there, my darlings. You should know this, and walk always aware. My final answer to Allison—did it have to be a girl in a field?—would have to be yes. And until there are no more girls in fields, I’m afraid we’ll have to keep writing about them, at least some of us, at least some of the time, if only so that they may be seen.