Out of the darkness

In "Working with Available Light," a husband explores the bond men and women share in the aftermath of rape.

Published May 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Apprehensive and curious, I make my way across town on a Tuesday night in April, heading for the Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul. Jamie Kalven is reading from his new book "Working With Available Light: A Family's World After Violence" about the aftermath of his wife's experience with rape. I gave a reading at the Hungry Mind myself just two months earlier from my own book, "Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery." Here was a colleague, materializing in what had felt like solitary territory during the six years I worked on my book. What would it be like to hear from another writer on a subject virtually missing in our literature? More particularly, from a male writer?

The Hungry Mind is a refuge for those of us who like to pretend that our books and our commerce share no association. It's as affable as a great hardware store or deli. I relax immediately when I walk through the door, hoping to have a moment to browse. But instead I meet a pair of eyes staring at me from behind the reading glasses I am still unaccustomed to seeing on my former husband's face. We offer one another a tight-lipped smile, the only greeting we can manage these days, five years after our divorce, 25 years after our marriage. And then we both shake our heads: Of course you'd be here.

Our own efforts to communicate across the chasm rape creates have ended, but I know why he's here. Eighteen years later, he's still trying to understand what happened to us and hoping to be understood. It touches me to see him, and saddens me in a place I've forgotten I still hurt.

This is a book my former husband longed for, sometimes in anger, as we struggled through the layers of damage and repair following my survival of a violent rape in 1981. We'd been well and happily married for seven years before the man with the knife broke into our apartment while Tim was away and I was asleep. The effort to survive the aftermath of rape got the best of us. The end of our marriage and of a family life with our son is the cruelest of the losses I attribute to that crime. The struggle to "remap" the world after rape, in Kalven's apt phrase, was one which challenged my husband as it did me. But in the self-absorption of trauma I had little ability to understand his struggle. All during Jamie Kalven's reading that night, I was aware of listening for two. How were Kalven's thoughtful, measured lines striking me and how were they striking Tim? Two weeks later, I saw Kalven again at "You Are Not Alone," an event in Los Angeles organized by the Rainbow Sisters Project to honor rape survivors and "those who have given them voice." This day of testimony and pride attracted 400 people, including the authors of four new books about the experience of rape. All published in the last six months, these books constitute what might be called a flowering of a new literature on rape. In addition to Kalven and me, there was Nancy Venable Raine, author of "After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back" and Charlotte Pierce-Baker, who wrote "Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape."

We met one another like shipwrecked sailors staggering out of caves, squinting in the light of recognition. For each of us, the choice to treat the experience of rape as a literary subject was made with the knowledge that such a thing had not been done before. Our meeting was a chance to relax with others who know what it's like to bring a book into a world which is simultaneously starving for the material and trying to ignore it.

But something else happened for me that weekend. I was invigorated by the sense of a movement, a rumbling, a change in the air. I wrote "Telling" hoping to start conversations I believe are the next step in addressing a crime whose existence we accept too easily. That weekend the conversation was erupting all around us. And one of the most telling dimensions of this expanded conversation about rape was the presence of a male voice.

Jamie Kalven's "Working With Available Light" is a pleasure to read -- a literate, thoughtful account of the re-mapping of a world that was destroyed one afternoon in 1988 when a waiting stranger dragged his wife Patsy from the running path on Chicago's lakefront, then beat and raped her while cars roared by on the highway. Kalven writes of the next five years in their family life, of Patsy's struggle to maintain her independent spirit, their daughter's ongoing nightmares and fears, his own attempt to carry on with work and relationships amid the turmoil at home.

As I read, I carry with me an image of Patsy from our meeting in Los Angeles. Tall, lovely, wry, she is a woman who leaves an impression of dignity, strength, and intelligence. This is the woman I picture even as I read of her despair, our shared sentiments all too apparent: I don't think I can do this ... I never imagined it would be like this ... I don't think I'm going to make it ... If I didn't have children, I might kill myself.

At one point Kalven imagines the difference it would make if the effects of sexual violence were visible on the bodies of the victims. "What would it be like to move through a world in which every third or fourth person was missing a limb, was in a wheelchair, or was otherwise disfigured?" It has been said that art's function is to "make the invisible visible," and Kalven's portrayal of Patsy's struggle, weighted with sadness and love, makes it impossible not to see the damage done.

But what is equally important about Kalven's book is that men might actually read it. In one of our culture's most discouraging lies, rape has been consigned to a category of subjects which do not concern men, like menopause and menstruation. It's something, after all, that happens to women. This arrangement conveniently leaves out the fact that men commit the crime of rape (and are sometimes its victims). One of the contributions of Kalven's book is to suggest a reframing of our ideas about rape. He wants it to be considered a form of torture, removing rape from the realm of subjects "too personal" to discuss and placing it where it belongs, in the conversation about human rights and violence.

Recently, a chemical dependency counselor who had read "Telling," a man with full credentials in enlightened empathy, told me with not a little embarrassment, "I had no idea. I just didn't know. I've been in those locker-room conversations where rape is dismissed like it's a form of bad sex. Until I read your book, I didn't realize the consequences." And how would he, if no one ever taught him, if the literature of rape was not required reading in high school? Rape has been kept out of the human conversation for so long that we have no foundation from which to begin the dialog, no way to engage our curiosity. This story of heroic people pushed to extreme circumstances is in truth as common as the weather report.

For this reason, any entrance of the male voice into the conversation about rape is worth celebrating. Kalven's particular voice brings a keen mind, a sensitivity to language, and a desire to explore the impact of our cultural view of rape on our political will to address it. However, his careful stance as reporter, as medium for his wife's story, also leaves a great deal unsaid.

On the one hand, I found myself aching for more of Patsy's perspective, unmediated by Kalven. Despite the commonalties in our trajectories through fear, grief, courage and despair, the particulars of our stories are particular. While he quotes Patsy extensively, the lack of her point of view as primary narrator often left me with more questions than answers. How did she feel going into a police lineup months after she was assaulted? What do you do when your daughter says, "You're such a scaredy-cat. You can't go from the car to the house without calling Daddy on the telephone and having him come get you."

"There is knowing and there is knowing," Patsy says of the burden of knowledge which immediately works to separate the rape survivor from those around her. Kalven is well aware that this limitation of perspective hobbles him as the narrator of Patsy's story. And yet, he is the writer. The impulse to "tell," in this case, was his.

On the other hand, I also wished there was more from Jamie Kalven. He is not, in fact, at the center of the story. What happens to the husband, lover, and life partner of a woman who is suddenly not herself, not the woman he fell in love with years before? "Patsy was inside something I was outside of," says Kalven, capturing the sense of isolation my former husband has also described. The acute aftermath of rape for a survivor is exceedingly long -- a decade or more. How can a partner resist resentment having been spared the primary experience but still suffering its consequences?

I'm deeply interested in the details of the partner's perspective, but it would require of the male writer an airing of complaints, a confession of guilts, a risk of appearing self-absorbed. I'm not sure we're mature enough yet as a culture to hear such a story without killing the messenger. We have come some distance since the 1980s when my husband's call to the rape crisis center for help with his own difficulties was scornfully dismissed: "We don't have enough funding to help all the women who need it." Yet, it is still risky for a man to be the protagonist of a story about the devastation of his wife's rape.

Kalven's book seems written in light of this risk, and in spite of it. It's also possible that such introspection is simply not his interest. It may be that Kalven sees himself as a reporter in the classic mode, thoughtful and analytical but less willing to explore the landscape of the male emotional response to rape.

That said, one of the strengths of Kalven's book is his ability to trace the ways in which Patsy's survival changed him:

From the start, we recognized the force of the process unfolding in Patsy's life. We knew she would necessarily be changed by that process. We recognized, too, the danger that I might remain unchanged, might learn nothing. In a sense, the decision to write this book was an act of companionship -- a way of joining her on this journey.

He recounts traveling to Los Angeles to accept a First Amendment Award from the Playboy Foundation for a book he edited. "I had grown up with Playboy in the family," he says. "I recall the magazine, above all, as a safe place, a refuge." But in light of his wife's experience with sexual violence, he comes to feel that "the adolescent boy leafing through back issues in his parents' attic is being conditioned to associate sexual arousal with the subordination of women."

When a student is raped on the campus of the University of Chicago and the administration suppresses news of the attack, Kalven's outrage is unequivocal, putting him suddenly at odds with people with whom he is used to cooperating.

The men who, as a matter of policy, never find it necessary to use the word "rape," are convinced, I am quite sure, that they are acting with hard-headed realism in defense of a great institution ... But there is another perspective. And from that perspective, they collaborate with the rapist in denying the victim her voice and her story." Such insight is made possible when a human being uses an experience, even a traumatic one, to acquire "another perspective.

I found myself cheered in these moments, hopeful about the possibility of men and women understanding one another across the assumptions that so often divide us.

I haven't spoken with my former husband about his reaction to Kalven's book, but I imagine him possibly frustrated by Kalven's generosity and equilibrium. I imagine him hoping for a validation of his own darker moments, his final inability to sustain the patience and selfless love he offered me through those difficult years. While such moments are rare from Kalven, they contain the seeds of a necessary conversation among men, and between men and women.

I recall the sensations I used to feel in races where I overtook and passed another runner ... the excitement of that moment is carnal. It strikes something deep in the psyche. The animal impulse to bring down from behind. The predator's exuberance ... Can I more easily imagine being the rapist than his victim?

These are lines I simply would never write. Despite numerous similarities in our narrative choices -- the use of the same myths, sources, metaphors -- there are moments like this in Kalven's book that engage me across an enormous gap. When I speculate about the psyche of the rapist, I never imagine this rush of pleasure in aggression and dominance. Instead, I focus on the violence, abuse, or poisoning of class warfare that might lead to such aberrant behavior. This seems an avenue ripe for men to investigate: How can a society manage to intervene on a form of primal satisfaction lethal to half the population? How can men acknowledge the confusion such feelings evoke when the discussion turns to sexual violence?

Kalven describes his wife's sexual grief as leaving him "feeling invisible at the center of my life." Reading this, I recall the profound betrayal my husband felt as a result of my sexual withdrawal. Despite our best efforts, it became personal. It hurt him at his core. I felt powerless to address this collateral damage, and, horribly, I felt responsible for it. Kalven writes:

I try to imagine what it is like to be frightened by the body of one's beloved. Sometimes I wish I could assume another form. Be present but not controlling, enveloping but not oppressive. A source of renewal and delight. I wish I were the pond.

These are deeply affecting and useful bulletins from the other side. Feeling unwanted by virtue of a part of your nature you cannot fully disregard yet have not chosen, is something I understand. Understanding is balm to the wounds both men and women bear in the aftermath of rape.

Eighty percent of marriages don't survive a rape, a counselor told my husband and me. I read the love between the lines in Kalven's book and find myself cheering for these good people. It's foolish to speculate about someone else's marriage, but I wonder if this book is a factor in their favor. It represents Kalven's choice to open himself to change, to allow the knowledge they've been forced to share to register deeply. Writing of a marathon they ran together just months after Patsy was attacked, Kalven says, "She urged me on, and stayed with me as I hobbled the final mile. We finished together."

I'm convinced that our ability to discuss rape, right along with ball games and taxes, AIDS and racism, is essential to our ability to work toward a solution. It's one of the reasons I wrote "Telling," one of the motivations felt by the four of us who published personal accounts this year. If the world is to be any different for our sons and daughters, men must change. That requires knowledge -- self-knowledge and knowledge of the other.

This new conversation that will include men will not require penance, will not begin in anger or assume guilt. Neither will it allow the denial of responsibility. It will simply implore the human family to get busy.

By Patricia Weaver Francisco

Patricia Weaver Francisco is a novelist and author of "Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery," recently released by Cliff Street Books/HarperCollins. She teaches creative writing at Hamline University in St. Paul.

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Violence Against Women