The ultimate violation

Two writers -- a philosopher and a working-class Southern man -- describe the horror of violent rape and their long journeys back from darkness.

By Charles Taylor
May 8, 2002 11:52PM (UTC)
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Of all violent crime, why is it that rape strikes so many of us as particularly horrible? One of the reasons, as Susan J. Brison says in her book "Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self," is that rape is a form of torture. It's a crime whose purpose is always to inflict suffering. And because it's inflicted on parts of our body that we associate with emotional and physical closeness and pleasure it seems especially cruel.

How do people survive a crime that aims to annihilate their identity? Does a person who is trained in logic have an easier time in making sense of that violation? Can you make sense of it at all? For Brison, a Dartmouth philosophy professor, the answer to the second question is no. The answer to the third isn't so clear.


Ten years ago, Brison, a Dartmouth philosophy professor, was attacked while on vacation in France and left for dead: Her attacker strangled her twice and hit her on the forehead with a rock. She survived; her attacker was apprehended almost immediately and convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After struggling with depression, including days spent so shellshocked and/or tranquilized she could barely get out of bed, Brison is living her life with remarkable strength. She has written and lectured on her experiences, gotten involved with anti-rape activism, and she and her husband Tom have had a son.

"Aftermath" is her attempt to write about her experience within her discipline. She intends the book to be both a first-person account of her rape and its aftermath and an investigation into the philosophy of trauma. She sums up the conflict between those aims by quoting Bertrand Russell, who championed "the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter" -- in other words, what Russell saw as the emotional detachment necessary for philosophy.

But to Brison, the idea that you can separate your experience and its effects on your identity from your apprehension of the world is impossible. As a feminist philosopher, she valued the way experience shaped someone's worldview before she was attacked. Her own rape has only intensified that conviction. She sums up her approach by quoting Nietzsche's statement that every great philosophy is "the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir."


She's not wrong. Still, that doesn't save "Aftermath" from being conflicted, from lapses of logic in its arguments. (The weakest point is when Brison claims rape victims share the same status as Holocaust survivors.) And how could it be any other way? If any idea comes through strongly in "Aftermath" it's the subjectivity of trauma. Brison doesn't even have the sliver of comfort available to combat veterans or the survivors of last September's terrorist attacks, that is, the ability to know that someone has shared the exact same event you went through.

However, Brison is wrong when she relates the well-intentioned, ineffectual words of compassion she hears from her family and friends as proof that society doesn't care about victims. The hardest thing to do when someone you love has been traumatized is to express your concern in a way that is adequate to their experience -- without piling your own anguish on top of what the person is already suffering. (It's not a failure of compassion but a limit to our imaginations.)

Perhaps unconsciously, though, Brison's anecdotes get at the gulf that opens between a trauma victim and people she once considered to be her most intimate friends. Who could argue that anyone but Brison (or another survivor of as vicious an attack) could grasp what she went through? In terms of philosophy, however, that subjectivity inadvertently winds up supporting Bertrand Russell's appeal for "abstract and universal knowledge." I'm afraid that the intense personal nature of Brison's suffering doesn't suit the rigorous logic required of philosophy, even philosophy grounded in personal experience.


Though they are often presented in a thicket of academese, there are cogent points to be found in "Aftermath." I was particularly interested in Brison's discussion of posttraumatic stress disorder. Brison notes that some feminist writers have held that a diagnosis of that disorder for rape victims is merely a means of turning a woman into a victim all over again. It suggests, they claim, that there is something wrong with women's responses to rape. Brison disagrees. For her, being able to identify the symptoms of PTSD in herself, and being able to control those symptoms with drugs, meant that the depression and fear and zonked-out feeling that followed her attack were not just "in her head," not something she could shake by bucking up and getting on with life. The implication seems to be that rape victims are still, to some extent, thought of in the way that manic-depressives were thought of not that long ago: as people too weak to deal with their problems. For Brison, PTSD is a "mechanical" problem in that it can be treated.

In contrast to what the feminists Brison takes issue with have claimed about women who accept the diagnosis of PTSD, Brison is clearly someone who has done what she can to reject "victimhood." Not everyone is so strong. There are fragile people who can be destroyed by rape. And it would seem, from Brison's own experience, that the value of rape counselors lies in their ability to recognize what kind of person they are dealing with. In Brison's case, she was fortunate to have a counselor who gave her good, solid advice. "You will never be the same," she was told. "But you can be stronger." Which is substantially different from the stories some rape victims have recounted of being told by counselors, "You'll never get over this," which seems a way of ceding all power over your future to your attacker.


Power is a key issue for Brison. The most surprising admission in the book is that she felt no anger toward her rapist. She was, she explains, too terrified. Brison quotes Aristotle saying "no one grows angry with a person on whom there is no prospect of taking vengeance, and we feel comparatively little anger, or none at all, with those who are much our superior in power." Brison's husband, on the other hand, wanted to kill the guy. And in his memoir "Where the River Bends," Barry Raine writes about the revenge fantasies he indulged in after witnessing a friend's rape. A few years after the attack, Raine was walking with a young woman in Italy when a gang of local toughs surrounded them, calling his companion "putana" (whore). Raine describes the satisfaction he felt when he grabbed one of them by the back of the head and hit him hard in the face.

If rape opens up a gulf between a victim and her loved ones, it also opens a gulf between the victim and her former self (the subtitle of "Aftermath" is "The Remaking of a Self"). Brison, unfortunately, seems to be implying that people who live as if "it can't happen" to them are in a state of foolish denial. How do you live in a world where violence is a real threat? Too often, I got the feeling that Brison thinks "fearfully." She writes of "the potentially lethal lie that if you don't do anything wrong, if you're just careful enough, you'll be safe."

Brison's attack occurred in the daylight, while she was berry-picking in the French countryside. The horror of many violent crimes is that they occur in "safe" settings, and no amount of precaution guarantees safety. But denial is too strong a word for what's a necessary strategy for coping with the world, and also a way of maintaining some basic faith in your fellow human beings.


Brison is, understandably, not interested in people (artists, writers, critics) who attempt to get inside the heads of rapists and batterers. For a rape victim, that attempt at understanding can only intensify feelings of alienation. ("How come you care how he feels about it when you still clearly don't understand how I feel?") It would be wrong to expect Brison, or anyone who's suffered such an attack, to try to understand how someone could do such a thing to them. Which is why the logical shortcomings of "Aftermath" suggest that such work is best left to those of us who haven't experienced an attack. Maybe getting inside the head of rapist (or other violent criminal) requires the ability not to think of yourself as a potential victim. "Aftermath" ends up being, in ways Brison clearly didn't intend, the book she set out not to write: an affirmation of the importance of emotion in conveying what happens to victims of violent crimes.

There is no shortage of emotion -- sometimes choked, inchoate emotion -- in Barry Raine's "Where the River Bends." But while for women rape represents violation, for men, the rape of a woman is likely to stir guilt by implication because it's a perversion of lust, of our own sexual desires. Raine talks about the male guilt over rape not as a perversion of lust but from another perspective: as the failure of chivalry, or at least the failure of some men to protect the women in their lives from assault. In the early '80s, Raine, his brother and some friends were drinking wine in a New Orleans park when they were approached by a black man, obviously high on something, who offered to sell them cocaine and, when they refused, pulled a gun on them and raped their friend Catherine, the only woman present. One friend, a street hustler they knew named Alex, managed to get away and summon the cops. But he was too late for the rape to be prevented.

Raine makes his position very clear: He never compares the guilt he and his brother went through with the experience of Catherine. And though he got her permission before embarking on this memoir, he never presumes to speak for her. What there is of how the rape affected her comes in her own words.


As soon as the rape began, and even more intensely afterward, Raine wondered about how his failure to save Catherine was going to reflect on him. The Raine brothers were lucky to meet a New Orleans cop who, shortly after the attack, told them, "Lemme set you straight on somethin'. Ya'll alive, right? You got away from him. So y'all done the right thing. And you're going to have to remember that every time someone asks you what went on." That's the voice of someone who knows all too well where heroics in the face of violent crime can lead. (In fact, Catherine had a gun, given to her by her father, in her purse that her attacker found. She had been too terrified to make a move for it.) But despite the cop's advice, Raine says, "sitting with my brother and Alex ... I grow more and more convinced that Catherine's father and my father and every other man who will ever hear about this will look at me and my brother and will wonder how we could ever have let this happen."

In fact, Raine did try to intervene to prevent the rape; the attacker kicked him in the balls and then pointed a gun at his head. Had he continued, he would likely have gotten himself or Catherine killed. But he is all too right about the reactions of Catherine's father and his own. Raine's macho, working-class father (a man of whom he was -- often cruelly -- embarrassed) reacted to the news by asking, "How we gonna live this one down?" And Catherine's father, informed of the rape by Raine's mother (who had taken the girl under her wing and spoke for her when she couldn't face her family) asked her "What kind of men are they?" It doesn't help Raine's ego that his assailant is captured later that night by a woman whose apartment he breaks into. (Telling him she's going to get him a beer, the woman takes a can she had left in the freezer and cold cocks him with it.)

There are no conclusions drawn in "Where the River Bends," no theorizing on the causes of violence or the pathology of rape. Raine sticks to the events -- the capture and trial of Catherine's attacker, how memories of the event followed him during his student year in Italy, the strain and eventual healing of his friendship with Catherine. This just-the-facts focus works to give us a larger sense of this event than all of Brison's theorizing can. Raine's writing on Catherine, never pretending to see inside her head, is a fine example of intelligent, sympathetic observation. And his description of her experience being cross-examined is one of the most devastating I've encountered of the indignities rape victims are subjected to on the stand.

Brison (whose own trial experience seems relatively free of that abuse) could use Catherine's experience as an illustration of her contention that rape victims need to be given some special consideration by the law. The rapist's lawyer was a public defender named Alain Dupuy, now a New Orleans criminal-court judge. Maybe it was the mountain of evidence against the accused -- multiple witness identification, not just from the rape but other crimes he committed that night, the fact that he had been caught at the scene of another crime -- that led to Dupuy's desperate tactics.


He began by attacking Raine's brother as a privileged rich kid because he was on a scholarship (that's typical of his "logic") and then set about attacking Catherine, asking why a young woman would be alone in a park with only male friends (i.e., she was asking for it), asking her to describe what sexual positions she was forced into. Most of the questions were interrupted by the D.A.'s sustained objections, but Dupuy was so obviously out to humiliate the woman that it's impossible to read these passages without thinking that the old shibboleths about rape will never go away.

In much of the book, Raine tries to deal with his own prejudices. He had grown up with a mother who resisted and criticized his father's racism. That doesn't keep his hackles from rising when he first sees his black assailant approaching him and his friends in the park. (To be fair to Raine, anyone in the shabby, drugged state this man was in might have set alarm bells ringing.) He is obviously conflicted on questions of class. While he recognizes his prejudices and shame toward his own father, that doesn't prevent those prejudices from coloring his descriptions of the man. And his writing about the feisty, working-class woman who captured his assailant turns her into a trailer-trash caricature (he even includes his brother's description of her court outfits as "tart wear"), though she never shows anything but sympathy for what he and his friends went through.

But "Where the River Bends" also shows an ability to recognize the ways people can grow and change, particularly Catherine's father, who endures his own later encounter with violence. And Raine's final sentence -- "What is written here can never be complete because the mystery at its core can never be explained" -- shows an admirable resistance toward ideology and generalization. Brison, for all her good intentions, writes to shut down the vagaries of experience, to replace them with tinned certainties. It's not a reduction Raine has any use for.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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