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American Literary History 16.2 (2004) 329-349

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Anatomies of Rape

Dana Heller

Literary Trauma: Sadism, Memory, and Sexual Violence in American Women's Fiction. By Deborah Horvitz. State University of New York Press, 2000
Telling Incest: Narratives of Dangerous Remembering from Stein to Sapphire. By Janice Doane and Devon Hodges. University of Michigan Press, 2001
Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990. By Sabine Sielke. Princeton University Press, 2002

The story has an all-too-familiar ring: On the evening of 19 April 1989, an unidentified 28-year-old white female jogger was brutally raped, beaten, sodomized, and bludgeoned in New York City's Central Park. When her near-lifeless body was discovered approximately four hours after the attack, police and doctors at Metropolitan Hospital doubted that she would survive. As she lay in a coma in intensive care, pieces of her identity were slowly assembled: corporate finance specialist at Salomon Brothers; Ivy League graduate; marathon runner; and victim of a seemingly spontaneous assault, one of several carried out in the park that night by a loosely assembled gang of African-American and Hispanic teenagers. Their videotaped confessions, in combination with public outrage and pressure to bring the assailants to justice, resulted in the arrests and convictions of five of the teenagers. In 2002, after serving out their sentences of 6 to 13 years, the so-called jogger five were exonerated after a controversial investigation in which Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, admitted that he had attacked the Central Park Jogger by himself, a confession that DNA evidence supported.

Fourteen years later, on the evening of 6 April 2003, in the midst of an American-led invasion of Iraq that dominated television airwaves with around-the-clock coverage of "shock and awe" missiles and "bunker-buster" bombs, the woman known for years only as the "Central Park Jogger" came forward to reveal her identity and share her story of recovery with Katie Couric, host of NBC's Dateline Sunday. NBC's interview with the jogger, whose actual name is Trisha Meili, was only part of the media coverage promoting the release of Meili's new book, I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility. In it, Meili tells the story of her physical and psychological "journey," her lifelong struggles with perfectionism, and her acceptance of the fact that just as she would never completely recover her former physical and mental agility, she would never recover her memory of the actual rape. When Couric asked Meili what she remembers about the attack, Meili's response was unhesitating and ingenuous: "Absolutely nothing," she said, "I remember nothing. And it's never changed" ("The Central Park Jogger"). [End Page 329]

Although Meili's personal memory of rape has remained unchanged—a blank—popular memory of the Central Park Jogger rape case has changed and evolved to become part of our cultural mythology of sexual trauma and healing. Meili's story, like so many others that circulate through American literature and mass media, has assumed a significant place in a long history of cultural practice. According to Sabine Sielke, author of Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990, these practices tend to reveal more about our national preoccupation with the ongoing cultural work of sexual violence—its function as both an aesthetic and political trope—than they do about the crime of rape itself. Moreover, these representations are never solely concerned with matters of sexual violence, but with the evolving definition of cultural anxieties about race and gender, class and desire, identity and difference. Sielke's analysis thus proceeds from the provocative assumption that "the rhetoric of rape conduces not to rape but to readings, interpretations, a cultural literacy concerning matters of rape" (11).

As I watched the Dateline interview, it occurred to me that Sielke could be right in more ways than one. The Central Park Jogger's story, while never fully recoverable as her story, had become our story, time and again, at virtually...


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