Back in the day we feminists had a slogan, “The personal is political.” We worked for years to expose rape as a violent crime that needs to be prosecuted in the legal system. We worked to change the system so that victims didn’t have to live in shame and isolation. The work isn’t done, and lately I feel like we’re going backwards.
The New York Times Magazine runs a weekly personal essay in a feature called “Lives”. October 29 was “My Rapist” by Maureen Gibbon. I delayed reading it, knowing it would throw me into a reverie involving creative uses for chainsaws and flamethrowers. But I’m older and less excitable now. Still it’s painful reading. In 1980 Ms. Gibbon was sixteen, working as a waitress, when she accepted a date with a customer. He drove her to a deserted area and violently raped her. She didn’t feel she could tell her parents, she got no real help when she spoke to her teacher and guidance counselor. She kept it all inside, afraid to go out, leaving her home town, never coming back for long. She saw counselors and tarot card readers and talked with friends, trying to process this awful crime, but the essential process– truth, justice and reparation, has yet to happen. All of her feelings about the crime came back to her recently, when she saw his picture in her local newspaper, with an announcement of his upcoming marriage. His fiance has a small child, this man will become a step-father.
When a woman is a victim of sexual assault, there are some things she doesn’t need to hear. Questions like– “Why did you?” or “Why didn’t you…” She doesn’t need to hear what she should do. She doesn’t need to hear what you would have done. She doesn’t need to be told whether, when or how to forgive, or not forgive. She doesn’t need to be told to keep it quiet, or judged for not reporting. Out of respect for Ms. Gibbon’s right to deal with this as she needs to, her right as a survivor who will have to bear the consequences of any action she takes or doesn’t take, I read her essay with gratitude. She spoke out honestly about how she was affected by this crime as a teenager and as an adult. It’s not she who makes me despair, it’s the reader’s response.
This Sunday the letters section had three letters responding to “My Rapist.” One letter-writer says she mailed the essay to her daughter as a warning about the dangers out there. Another talks about what “her rapist” taught her. A third almost seems to blame Gibbon for not warning the fiance of the rapist that she may be putting her child in danger. I so much wanted to hear a word of support for doing something to get justice. It’s not revenge, it’s a just legal penalty for a violent destructive crime. It is not right that a victim has to serve a life sentence while a criminal goes free.
While I again want to say that Maureen Gibbon did a service by writing honestly about the impact of rape on her life, I am frustrated that all these therapists and spiritual people and friends were not able to help her get this man put in jail. Therapy-speak can anesthesize the pain, but that’s not solving the problem. Spiritualizing a crime, or speculating about Karma, or getting cosmic about what you’ve learned is not dealing with the real material situation. The whole feeling I get from the title, “My Rapist” is confusion, a sense of violated boundaries in the writer’s own psyche. We usually want to claim as our own someone we love. But Gibbon is clear and sane about how she feels about this man. She writes, “It’s always incredible to me when I hear people talk about how forgiveness enables a person to move on. Over the years I’ve actually felt the memory of my rape dulling, and for that I am grateful. But forgive? Please.”
She’s wise enough not to blame her teenage self. A lot of women would. Anyone who’s been the victim of a personal crime needs to get their sense of power back, and one way to feel less out of control is to take the blame. If it was all your fault, then you can prevent it from happening again. For some women this is less frightening than the possibility that it could happen again no matter what they do. There are better ways to get your sense of control back, but if you are isolated in a woman-blaming culture then there’s no one to throw you a lifeline. I can’t blame Maureen Gibbon for not reporting . She would have needed psychological, legal and social support and it wasn’t there for her. As a young woman about to leave for college she had a great deal to lose, and I can understand why she would take the opportunity to get far away from the man who terrorized her and all the pain associated with the memory. I can’t say that wasn’t the right decision for her personally at the time, but her community failed her. I say community, not family. One of the saddest lines in the essay is this, “…I was ironing a shirt when my mother asked me what was wrong, because it was apparent something was wrong — but even then I didn’t say anything.” This beautifully understated line hints at the helplessness and anguish of her parents, and my heart goes out to them.
I feel that Maureen Gibbon is still trying to resolve the unfinished business of bringing her attacker to justice. I can think of two examples of victims speaking out to the benefit of everyone, perpetrators included.
A friend told me this story when we were in a women’s spirituality group together. A Buddhist monk she had trusted as a counselor during a difficult time played on her emotional vulnerability to seduce her into sex. She felt horrible, she felt that her trust was violated. She tried various spiritual ways of dealing with the pain but it wouldn’t resolve. Finally she decided to confront the man. She prayed to Kali, the goddess of destruction, to keep her anger alive. Then she told him what he had done to her. When she told him how angry she was, how betrayed she felt, he just kept saying, “thank you.” He acknowledged that he had wronged her and that he knew that what he did was wrong. She was finally able to forgive and move on, because he asked for her forgiveness. I have hope that he was telling her the truth when he said he wouldn’t do anything like that again.
I also thought about a talk I heard by Frank Fitzpatrick, who as a child was molested by a Catholic priest, James Porter. The statute of limitations had long-since run out, but Mr. Fitzpatrick decided to try for what justice he could get. He outed his molester, warned the authorities, recorded a phone call with the priest, now ex and married with children. It emerged that James Porter had victimized children wherever he lived. Porter was charged for more recent offenses, made a plea bargain, and died in prison while serving his sentence. He was believed to have molested hundreds of children, but would never have served a day without Frank Fitzpatrick.
If you think in terms of Karma, you could see it as an act of compassion to let an offender take the consequences in this life. You may save them from being reincarnated as a cockroach. You may be ending the Karmic chain by saving other innocent people from being victimized. The man who raped Maureen Gibbon was violent. He had planned the crime. He fits the profile of a sexual predator. It’s unlikely she was his only victim. He may still be a danger.
I want to believe that people can change, and I do. I believe in redemption. If this man has changed, if he has a conscience, he will be better with a chance to admit the truth and make amends. If he has no conscience, then people should be warned. He’s probably beyond the reach of the law for the crime he committed against Maureen Gibbon, but there could be more recent crimes he hasn’t answered for.
I’m not going to tell Maureen Gibbon what she should do. She bears the consequences of whatever action she takes or doesn’t take, it’s her decision. I thank her for being brave enough to write her essay, she’s helped a lot of women to know they’re not alone. At the same time, I want to exhort her, “He’s not your rapist. He has a name. Don’t keep his secret, don’t bear his burden. He has a name. Someone needs to say it, someone needs to call him out.”