Romance novels need a canon
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats. Read the whole essay.
In an article published in the New Statesman magazine and the Guardian newspaper in June, American radical feminist Andrea Dworkin told a harrowing story. She was, she told her readers, drinking her second kir royale one afternoon in the garden of a European hotel when she became ill (“sickish or weakish or something”). She staggered up to her room and collapsed on the bed. The bartender’s assistant brought up her dinner. “I don’t know how he got inside,” Dworkin wrote, “since the door was dead-bolted. He appeared suddenly, already in.” Then she lost consciousness. When she awoke, it was night, the curtains hadn’t been drawn and she was in pain. “I hurt deep inside my vagina … I went to the toilet and found blood on my right hand, fresh, bright red, not menstrual blood, not clotted blood. I’m past bleeding. I tried to find the source of the blood. My hand got covered in it again.”
In trying to puzzle out how she could have sustained a bloody injury while she was unconscious, Dworkin gradually became convinced she’d been drugged and raped. She speculated in detail about how her attackers might have done the deed: “I couldn’t remember, but I thought they had pulled me down toward the bottom of the bed so that my vagina was near the bed’s edge and my legs were easy to manipulate.” To a woman who had already experienced the full measure of sexual victimization in her life (her Web site autobiography recounts molestation as a child, beatings and torture as a wife, an assault in jail, rape and prostitution), the idea that she had been used sexually while unable to resist was particularly horrifying. “In my own life, I don’t have intercourse. That is my choice, ” Dworkin wrote. “I had decided long ago that no one would ever rape me again; he or they or I would die. But this rape was necrophiliac: they wanted to fuck a dead woman … I thought that being forced and being conscious was better, because then you knew; even if no one ever believed you, you knew.”
Given Dworkin’s particularly visible and strident brand of feminism — highlighted by the argument in her provocative 1987 book “Intercourse” that even consensual sexual penetration is a paradigm of oppression — it’s conceivable that there are men in the world who would consider violating her a good evening’s entertainment. Dworkin seems to think her story should be taken as further evidence of masculine malevolence. There are those who would be willing to accept it as such, of course, if only they felt sure it really happened. Within a week, on the very day that Dworkin’s new book, “Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel and Women’s Liberation,” was published in the U.K., Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett voiced her doubts about the veracity of Dworkin’s story.
In her response to Dworkin’s essay, Bennett first spends several paragraphs paying tribute to Dworkin’s previous reputation for factual precision, noting in particular her Web site’s carefully substantiated statements regarding several Dworkin rumors. But Bennett goes on to question why Dworkin did not seek medical attention for the pain and injuries she described: the unusual bleeding, the “big strange bruise” on one breast, the “huge deep gashes” on her leg. “The reluctance of a rape victim to be further violated by examination and questioning is understood,” Bennett writes, “but if this is what prevented Dworkin from seeking help it does not seem consistent with her current decision to relive the ordeal, in vivid detail, for readers of the New Statesman.” Bennett also wonders why Dworkin, an anti-rape activist who has devoted much time and energy to battling the crime, decided not to inform the police or hotel security when she realized what had happened to her: “Is this bartender, with his accomplice, to be allowed to continue drugging and raping female guests?” Bennett asks.
Once the first doubts had been publicly expressed, an accusatory pile-on ensued in the U.K. press and on the Web. The rape story was dissected — and dissed — by a parade of disdainful commentators. There were nit-picking questions of logistics and logic: Why didn’t the rapists close the curtains; did they want to be seen committing the crime? Why would they have drawn her to the edge of the bed as she surmised; wouldn’t it be inconvenient for a standing man to try to insert his penis into a woman lying at the level of his knees? How was it that both the bartender and his assistant could be absent from their duties in the hotel without incurring questions — and what if they had alibis? And so on.
Others, like “Susan Marie” at MouthOrgan.com, were less concerned with the objective truth of the incident than with other parts of Dworkin’s story. One of the strangest passages in Dworkin’s essay is a descent into mad, despairing, politically incorrect questions about why the rapists might have selected her: “I go down the checklist: no short skirt; it was daylight; I didn’t drink a lot even though it was alcohol and I rarely drink, but so what? It could have been Wild Turkey or coffee. I didn’t drink with a man, I sat alone and read a book, I didn’t go somewhere I shouldn’t have been, wherever that might be when you are 52, I didn’t flirt, I didn’t want it to happen. I wasn’t hungry for a good, hard fuck that would leave me pummelled with pain inside.”
“Susan Marie” was disturbed not by the last statement’s almost sensual preoccupation with the imagery of violent intercourse but by the “checklist” itself, a disquieting mental exercise for a feminist to resort to. To her, it suggested that — contrary to everything a rape expert should know — Dworkin somehow still believes that only young, attractive women, or those who take foolish risks, or those who secretly “want it to happen,” are raped. “It feels,” wrote “Susan Marie,” “as though underneath all of everything she’s said about rape, there’s still the belief that women who are raped had it coming somehow. And that she’s different because she didn’t do anything to bring it on.” At the very least, Dworkin seems to have wanted to absolve herself before her audience, to prove to us that she had done nothing to “deserve” it.
The criticisms of Dworkin’s piece ranged from sorrowful head shakings to bizarre speculations about her sex life. Some even made smug and astonishing statements to the effect that if it was true that she had been raped, it was merely her sexual karma coming home to roost, the result of her jihads against pornography and intercourse. Sexologist Susie Bright, who has had her share of virulent intellectual conflicts with Dworkin’s famous anti-pornography crusade (which resulted in a notorious body of Canadian censorship law), wrote on her Web site, “Plenty of my peers would say that they are utterly cold to any misfortune that might befall [Dworkin]. ‘Just think of all the lives she’s threatened, warped, and terrified,’ they remind me. ‘Canada is still reeling,’ my partner interjects.”
“Poubelle” on the Spies.com board wrote, “And I guess I feel worse for those who Dworkin has hurt than for her.” “REM” at MouthOrgan.com, although subsequently denying harboring any thought of Dworkin “deserving” such a thing, said, “Rape is about violence, and Dworkin makes herself a lightning rod for men with violence on their mind.” Dworkin should, therefore, just accept the universe’s balancing of her accounts, these critics imply, and, above all, shut up about it. “Jane Duvall,” also at MouthOrgan, wrote, “Cases like this do more to damage every credible case out there than anything else. It’s horribly irresponsible, and a disservice to women everywhere.” She echoes Bennett’s observation that the piece doesn’t do Dworkin or us any favors. In other words, she should never have published it.
The vehemence with which Dworkin’s “sins” — past and present — have been illuminated and enumerated by this incident recalls the subject of her new book, which parallels the roles and status of women and Jews as the twin scapegoats of world history. The concept of the scapegoat comes from ancient Jewish rituals enacted on High Holy Days, when two goats would be sacrificed: one slaughtered on the altar of the Temple and the other driven out into the desert, ceremonially laden with the people’s burden of sin. To be a scapegoat, then, is to be a proxy, a living effigy punished to assuage others’ fear, guilt and shame.
“Scapegoat” the book is an alarming, confrontational, full-tilt boogie through the vast catalog of injustices and horrors, individual and institutional, that have been visited on women and Jews through the ages. In a florid, violent and accusatory synthesis of two different strands of classic victimology, Dworkin makes comparisons between phenomena like rape and pogroms, Nazi hate literature and pornography. The parallels she draws are not particularly original, but no one denies the importance of pointing out the way that the often similar persecution of Jews and women illustrates the dark side of human behavior in situations of unequal power. Yet both groups, the heroes of Dworkin’s implied morality play, are analyzed solely as victims — at least until Dworkin comes to the establishment of the state of Israel. For most of history, Dworkin says, women and Jews have had little or no capability or strength of their own, and thus have simply — and nobly, and righteously, and innocently — suffered.
Another of Dworkin’s theses is equally banal and simplistic: Evil begets evil. Those who are persecuted will want to persecute others in their turn. When the downtrodden attain their own ugly measure of power, they will — inevitably, she implies — begin to abuse others, just as “masculinist” Israel now stomps on its own pitiful women and the helpless Palestinians. Women who are co-opted by male supremacy are like wartime collaborators, or the vicious female guards and doctors in the Nazi concentration camps. They will even victimize other women and thus become, in Dworkin’s world, “honorary men.”
Dworkin’s most original and controversial conclusion to all this is that “women need land and guns.” Women must reject pacifism and literally create their own militant, separatist territory (or Lebensraum?). As a practical concept, of course, the idea is nothing short of nuts. But even as an exercise in rhetoric it is unconvincing, mainly because it is unclear why Dworkin believes that Womanland would be immune to the temptations of structural power she has just been at such pains to illustrate. If the Israelis are practicing the sadism they learned from anti-Semites on the Palestinians, won’t women also find their own scapegoats?
Dworkin also does not seem to see the inconsistency between her own blistering, demonizing prose and her condemnations of hate speech and hate literature. “Words make killing easier, legitimate, or inevitable,” she writes. “Words can kill.” Why, then, does Dworkin spew so much intemperate rhetoric herself, rhetoric that overtly justifies violence? Because, it seems, the people she is scapegoating deserve it.
Again, it is easy — perhaps too easy — to see the symbolic connections between the subject of Dworkin’s book and the way she herself has been publicly vilified — and pitied — for her rape story. A common charge is that her essay was just a publicity stunt, that with it Dworkin not only had succeeded in obtaining sympathetic attention for her book but had perhaps deliberately told a questionable story, so that when challenged, she could continue to play the feminist martyr whose agonized cries are never believed. “It reads almost as if Dworkin wants to be doubted,” Bennett wrote.
But most think that idea is far too cynical. Bright wrote a surprisingly sympathetic column on the issue. “I could easily believe she had a black-out, and nasty injuries, from an unexpected dose of alcohol and sunburn,” Bright said. “I would rather have sympathy for that version of events than to believe she is maliciously making the whole thing up.” Bright thinks the truth is probably simpler than that — and sadder: “By the time you finish reading [her story], you know she has finally completely lost her mind.”
Michael Lamport Commons, a researcher with Harvard Medical School’s Program in Psychiatry and Law, also sounds a note of caution: “Lying is a concept of free will,” he told me. People have to know that they are telling untruths in order to be justifiably called liars. He’s not sure that is the case with Dworkin: “While rare, people have dreams of being raped, which appear real to them … Many character disorders, including borderline personality, involve ‘lying’ and not knowing one lies.” Dworkin’s bleak personal history also raises the specter of post-traumatic stress disorder, with its all-too-common dissociative fugues and fragmented flashbacks to earlier scenes of violence.
There is no question that something happened to Dworkin last year, something that has devastated her psychologically, and it seems that the disbelief of even her closest associates has been a significant part of her distress. In her essay, Dworkin writes that she called her feminist gynecologist in New York a few days after the incident. She says the doctor told her that a gynecological exam would prove nothing one way or the other and that being called on a Sunday had made her decide to get an unlisted number. The doctor’s coldheartedness toward a patient she had treated for 10 years is not explained further. Even Dworkin’s “mate,” gay feminist John Stoltenberg, who has made a home with Dworkin for 25 years, did not really believe her. “John looked for any other explanation than rape,” Dworkin writes. “He abandoned me emotionally. Now a year has passed and sometimes he’s with me in his heart and sometimes not.”
To compound her misery — whatever its source — Dworkin writes that she lost her beloved father in December and was herself hospitalized a few weeks later, after she was found wandering and delirious with fever on a New York street, suffering from pneumonia, cellulitis (an infection of the soft tissue of the legs) and blood clots. Immobilized in the hospital for a month, her muscles atrophied and she couldn’t walk. It would take a heart of diamond-bright stone to remain unmoved by her plight.
“I used to worry about taking a Valium or two to fall asleep in strange hotels,” she writes. “Now I take on average 12 pills to sleep and they only work sometimes. How can I close my eyes and voluntarily become unconscious? For the first time in my life I go to shrinks, a lucid one who prescribes drugs and an empathetic one whose specialty is in dealing with people who have been tortured. I have been tortured and this drug-rape runs through it, a river of horror. I’m feeling perpetual terror, they both tell me. I stare blankly or I say some words. I’m ready to die.” All of Dworkin’s symptoms, the depression, the self-doubt, the free-floating anxiety, are classic reactions to major trauma.
“As I read Andrea’s confession, tears came to my eyes,” Bright writes. Her comments on the question of the truth of Dworkin’s accusations are typical of those of more sympathetic observers: “Let’s put the rape story aside — I don’t have to ascertain whether Dworkin has been assaulted on this occasion or not. She is hurting, and something is wrong.” That is one truth in this situation, at least. Pain is pain. Even when it is “deserved” or “self-inflicted” (and we never hesitate to judge about that, even in the absence of definitive evidence), it is still pain.
The real bottom line, though, is that Andrea Dworkin — that ugly, lunatic, “man-hating” feminist — has publicly cried rape without offering sufficient evidence. In the current political climate of this brave new millennium, women have been forced to concede — on perfectly logical grounds, of course — that women do not always tell the truth about rape. So over time the default response to the charge has changed. Now, instead of a tendency toward belief and sympathy when a woman claims she has been raped, there is considerably more caution and doubt.
This may be only right, but there is an ugly lesson in Dworkin’s story that all women should heed. It says that if you aren’t considered a reliable witness to begin with, or if you are already considered a social outrage, the proof that you offer to overcome that tendency toward doubt had better be utterly unassailable in every respect, or the real gangbanging will begin.
Julia Gracen is a writer and "book doctor" from Charleston, S.C.More Julia Gracen.
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
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