Why give a rapist a voice? | Daily News


Why give a rapist a voice?

On writing the character of the abuser

I tried to hate him, thought I should hate him, but I didn’t hate him—and I wanted to understand why. Throughout high school and into college, we’d been close friends. Then, at a small party during winter break of sophomore year, he carried me, passed out, into his basement room and raped me.

The next day, or maybe a few days later, he apologized. I said it was okay. I wanted us to be okay. We faked our friendship a few more times, talking around—but never about—what happened. And then we stopped talking. Over the years, I’d hear about him—how he’d dropped out of college, moved back in with his parents, started seeing a therapist, became a mechanic. I didn’t wish him a bad life, but I can’t say I cared either way. Maybe I hated him and didn’t know it. So in January of 2018, 14 years after our friendship ended, I started to write about it for a project that would become a memoir.

Cafeteria table

I could easily list my favorite memories of us: battling an alien race from our computers at 2 am while gulping Mountain Dew and complaining about our conservative government teacher; sharing a cafeteria table, speaking only in lines from Office Space and The Simpsons; trying to act brave in a supposedly haunted forest and then jumping at the sound of twigs breaking; talking on the phone for several hours, several times a week, in the months after my dad died.

To describe my rape with emotional accuracy beyond I felt betrayed and sad and confused (and angry?), I tried to avoid rendering this former friend as two-dimensional—because that’s not how I’d viewed him. I wanted to understand what he’d been thinking; to know how someone I’d thought of as such a good person could do what he did. This meant I’d need to talk with him, interrogate him, and hopefully confirm that he felt terrible—because if he did feel terrible, then our friendship had mattered to him. (Though if it had mattered, why did he rape me?) I didn’t want the specifics of my experience transformed into some accepted theory in sociology or psychology. I wanted his explanation.

But I didn’t know if I should, or even could, interview him. Would he consent? Would it matter? Should it matter? Why did I even think his voice mattered? He raped me when we were 19 years old. We were now in our thirties. Did he even think about it anymore? I could say that I wanted to hurt him by reminding him of what he did, but more than that—and this part I hate to admit—I wanted to hear his voice. I missed our friendship, and the memoir was an excuse to talk to him again.

But the writer and feminist in me questioned the ethics, especially when it came to characterization. I wondered how much empathy I could, or should, invest in his character, and to what degree his character could be complex on the page. I worried that empathy or complexity—or just the act of including his words, by way of transcribed interviews—could sound like exoneration or excuse. I thought about the ways we’re advised not to give attention to those with problematic viewpoints. I expect some readers will oppose my book on principle: Why give a rapist a voice?

Dominant cultural perception

Here’s one reason: if readers consume only stereotypes of rapists, readers risk ignoring the fact that some guy in an Elizabeth Warren shirt could have raped someone, or would rape someone if given the chance. My former friend didn’t match the dominant cultural perception of a “standard” rapist. He didn’t resemble somebody you’d see listed in movie credits as Stranger in the Bushes or Drunk Frat Boy 1. He’d been a teenage progressive. (Though back then, any guy who didn’t rank girls on a scale of one to ten seemed progressive.) I had never expected him to do what he did. As a writer, I’m interested in exploring contradictions and assumptions. And while I may be a memoirist, I want to convince the reader that my characters are real—without depending on the “memoir” label. According to E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, a character—to seem real, or believable—needs to be “capable of surprising in a convincing way.”

And my former friend did shock me “in a convincing way.” I’d believed we were friends, and that’s why the rape seemed so unbelievable while it happened—yet it’s also why, from a craft perspective, his character on the page could be believable. As someone who’d been raped, I didn’t know how I felt about that, which seemed all the more reason to explore it in writing. It also seemed all the more reason to interview him.

Three characters

When he agreed to answer my questions, I wasn’t surprised. I remembered the good friend he’d been before he raped me, and I wanted to trust him again, even though I knew I shouldn’t. But to demonstrate to readers why I felt so much internal conflict, I’d need to reflect on the friendship. So I thought of him as three characters: the close high school friend of five years; the college sophomore who carried me, passed-out, into his basement room and raped me; and the repentant 34-year-old who agreed to be interviewed for my memoir, saying, “It’s the least I can do.”

I began interviewing him by way of phone calls and emails. “I’m interested in writing about us,” I said. “I want to understand, I want to believe, that it’s possible to be a good person, a really good person, who makes a mistake.” Grateful that he’d consented, I started to process anything he said as useful to the book—and this is where the greatest risk of exoneration entered. But when I shared the phone transcripts with my friends, they found him obnoxious. They viewed him as a rapist. I viewed him as a character developing on the page. Crafting his character felt methodical, meditative, safe—much safer than my memories of him that night. When he talked about his thoughts and feelings surrounding the rape, I told myself the rapist was an entirely different character from the one I was interviewing. That made it possible for me to listen. But I still felt like I was 19—as if my character was stuck there, and still telling him it was okay, that I was okay, that everything would be okay. I’d been so focused on him as a character, I forgot to think about myself. At most, I felt like two characters: the teenage girl who trusted him, and then the woman who stopped trusting men. I still wonder when meeting a man, any man, Has this guy sexually assaulted someone?

I want to have this conversation.

- Lit Hub

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