After Silence

Laura Miller reviews 'After Silence' by Nancy Venable Raine

Published August 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| The word "silence," like the word "community," has been drained of meaning and turned into an empty buzzword by PC ideologues. Seeing it in the title of Nancy Venable Raine's account of the brutal rape she suffered in 1985 sets off alarm bells for any reader who'd prefer to avoid the kind of lifeless, committee-approved prose or incendiary propaganda found in many feminist writings on rape. Rape is, simply, a horror, and while you can't blame feminists too much for wanting to master and contain it with language, what some of them have wound up doing instead is building a cage of dead words while the terrible essence of rape escapes.

But Raine hasn't produced one of those books filled with slogans and bromides. A powerful writer, reflective and inward-looking (to a fault, perhaps), she brings a scrupulously honest attention to the task of describing how it felt to be assaulted, in her own home, during the 39th year of her life, by a stranger whose face she never saw, a man who terrorized her for hours and threatened her with death. Just before the attack, she had heard a bird sing, a sound of "singular joy," and felt "blessed." And she had been, in a way. The child of loving parents, a smart, able woman with plenty of close friends, Raine hadn't lived a life free of grief, but she did come from a world of nice people who behaved properly. "The loss of faith that there is order and continuity in life -- that life is meaningful -- is the most personal of all losses," she writes.

The rape plunged Raine into chaos and fear. Eventually, she married and rebuilt a happy life, but one that felt fissured and artificial until she began, years after the rape, to confront the experience and tell her story. Raine describes herself at dinner parties and other social events, confronted by flustered bourgeois matrons who can't understand how she can write about something "so very personal," and who inform her that "people don't like to read about such terrible things." These moments, and other off-key reactions from friends and relatives, bother her tremendously, which puzzled me until I came to understand that when Raine writes of "the death of the person I had been for thirty-nine years" she means, among other things, the death of a "nice," decorous middle-class lady who needs to see herself reflected in the approving eyes of her peers. Although "After Silence" is the story of a woman who survives a horrendous ordeal, it's also the story of someone slowly and painfully acquiring a genuine identity. That achieving this sometimes results from suffering, or even a harrowing encounter with evil like Raine's, is one of life's strangest ironies.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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