On May 4th, 2018, Zinzi Clemmons, author of What We Lose, tweeted that she had been sexually assaulted by Junot Diaz. “…I refuse to be silent anymore,” she said. Following her statement, other writers confirmed and publicized Diaz’s misogyny. While, it’s not new for women to speak their truth against men in power, the #MeToo movement gives platform and attention to hold these men accountable for their violent, sexual charges. It also gives room for people to listen and no longer deny its existence.
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, collected and edited by Roxane Gay, author of Hunger, is another platform that gives voice to the #MeToo movement. In this anthology, 29 writers tell their stories about the immense number of crimes that terrible people do and how those crimes can perpetually shatter the lives of women, girls, and boys.
While this book has been on the shelf since May 1, 2018, it still deserves praise. It also demands for readers to listen and reexamine and challenge how we think about rape culture.
In the introduction, Roxane Gay writes that when she was twelve years old, she was gang-raped in the woods behind her neighborhood. She writes about this terrible experience, “I was broken. I was changed.”
The writer shifted the blame toward herself and found comfort in believing that what she went through wasn’t ‘that bad.’ “[It] allowed me to break down my trauma into something more manageable, into something I could carry with me instead of allowing the magnitude of it to destroy me,” Gay writes.
This is what we tell women: that it isn’t “that bad,” that they “survived,” and that they are “brave” for telling their story; instead of asking ourselves why this happened in the first place. Most of the people in this anthology didn’t write their story to be brave but found healing in telling their story about the violence against them.
“I don’t want to be told I am brave or strong. I am not right just because he was wrong. I don’t want to be noble. I want someone willing to watch me thrash and crumble because that, too, is the truth, and it needs a witness,” Claire Schwartz, a PhD candidate in African American, American, and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale University, writes in her essay “& The Truth is, I Have No Story.”
These testimonies are about trauma, but they are also about trying to find liberation. “Only the Lonely” by Lisa Mecham recounts that during a Christmas party, her Yankee swap gift was a vibrator. All the presents were meant to be a gag gift, but Mecham remembers how “[she] was drawn to the vibrator. How [she] had this overwhelming impulse to rescue it from public shaming.” She received shame from the other women at the party, when she took the vibrator home. She then talks about how the husband of the woman who owned the house she was at, cornered and molested her. After she went home, she wanted to experiment with the toy and explore her body. However, she felt shameful, thinking about what happened to her and her role as a mother. In the media, people who have been abused, who have had their bodies shifted out of their control, are told to remain celibate, and refuse sex altogether, as if that is the only option.
Every piece in this work is both honest and personal, highlighting different voices such as actors, writers, experts, and artists. xTx, who has been published in literary magazines like PANK, The Rumpus, and the Chicago Review, writes in her piece “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl” about how the lessons that girls go through when they are young will turn into a points system, where neither the girls with the highest score or lowest score wins. In another, “What We Didn’t Say” by Liz Rosema, who wrote the cartoon series Butch Stories for the Toast, she crafts a comic strip of her experience of when she was on the basketball team, her coach sexually assaulted her and other girls on the squad.
These writers show us how society: strangers, friends, family, people we love, who hear these stories, try to diminish these experiences and repeatedly keep it invisible. Sharisse Tracey, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, New York Times, Ebony, and other online work, is the writer of the essay “Picture Perfect,” remembers how, at age thirteen, she wanted professional pictures of herself. Her father, a photographer, took those pictures, but after the photoshoot was over, he raped her. Both Sharisse’s mother and pastor told her to forgive him, to forget about it, like it never happened. As the years went by, her father began to repeatedly rape her. When her father had gotten sick, she was told to forgive him again, and she did, because her pastor told her, “divorce is hard on any family…but it would be a real tragedy for a Black Family to divorce.”
Rape culture is not invisible. This is part of the problem, because it is a culture that allows for rapists and sexual assaulters to continue, to become normalized. It is a culture that tells women and girls to dress and behave a certain way. It is a culture that tells women that suffering is part of sacrificing and that men can have whatever they want, and it is a culture that teaches our daughters to be feminists, when we should also be teaching our sons to embody those same values of feminism.
Not That Bad gives these writers a place to tell their truth, to take back their narratives and their bodies. This anthology is heartbreaking, in the way that tells us and needs us to do better. I hope that the readers who find themselves with this book can sit down with these stories, and see more than a single one, but a complete story of a culture impacted by the justification to excuse the terrible things people do.
Shiane D. Jacocks is the assistant prose editor for Puerto del Sol and a current MFA student at New Mexico State University, studying fiction. She is particularly interested in Afrofuturism, speculative work, and memoir. She has been published in The Pacific Review, The FEM, and Black Voice News. She is currently working on a thesis with short stories.