- A Brutal Reality
Joanna C. Valente, ed.
Civil Coping Mechanisms
364 Pages; Print, $15.95
Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming intensity of the writing in this powerful collection of over fifty diverse writers on the topic of surviving sexual assault. In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn, editor Joanna C. Valente, a New York based poet whose work often grapples with issues surrounding violence and its aftermath, described the project as, “[S]ome of the most important work I’ll ever do. Being able to create a safe space, a space where survivors could share their stories and fight stigma and raise awareness not only on what sexual assault is, but how the aftermath stays with you forever, was paramount to me as a survivor myself.” Indeed, from the opening cluster of three previously published poems by Lynn Melnick—with the lines, “At night I hallucinate the grunting discord / which leapt from a human body as he destroyed mine”—which sets the tone by thrusting the horror of rape directly in the reader’s face, to the final piece by Corinne Manning where she writes, “To heal is to bring into words what once existed as non-verbal,” A Shadow Map never flinches, never backs away, never shies away, never defers. Women get raped repeatedly. Men, too. Trans and nonbinary people, too. And children, so many children raped and left to deal with the aftermath. Incest, pedophilia, torture. It’s brutal and gruesome and unspeakable, but yet, as Manning says, we must bring the unspeakable into the speakable if healing can ever occur. Because these are real people with real stories and our job as the reader must include listening to and believing them.
That said, the overall reading experience for me recalled that memorably uncomfortable scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1972) where the main character is subjected to an aversion therapy tactic called the Ludovico Technique, whereby he’s forced to watch violent images for extended periods of time while his eyes are held open with specula. In fact, I found myself reading a page or two and then hastily putting it down and grasping for something else, anything else, to occupy my attention in order to try and flush the images from my mind, to escape the reality the text presented me. After reading the opening pages I quite honestly did not want to continue reading this book. I did not want to inhabit this world, did not want to confront these true stories of sexual violence and trauma, and instead I wanted to retreat into the privilege of my own experience devoid of sexual harassment and assault. I wanted to look away and pretend these things don’t happen or if they did I wanted to ignore them and presume they happen only rarely and thankfully not to me. And I write this not as a prude, for so easily I confront these issues in fictive narratives: I routinely teach brutal books by Kathy Acker and William Burroughs and Pierre Guyotat, disturbing films by Takashi Miike and Gaspar Noe and other torture porn auteurs, without a blink of the eye. However, the nonfictive quality of the material in this collection demands a different type of engagement. Again I feel compelled to say these writers are real people, not functions of an imagination. Real people who suffered real trauma. For me, this realization made it nearly intolerable to read. I have a four year old son, and all I could think about while reading this text was that although I had somehow made it to my forties without suffering in the ways these writers suffered, he could so easily become a victim. And obviously each of these writers is someone’s child. Even trying to compose this response to the book right now, I’m having a hard time holding back tears.
I share my personal thoughts with you to demonstrate the supremely personal power of this text. I could’ve easily taken a more...