- #MeToo and the Memoir BoomThe Year in the US
In October 2017, the massive online sharing of the hashtag #MeToo placed sexual violence at the forefront of a global reckoning with misogyny and the institutions that enable it.1 Tapping into personal and cultural histories of suffering, resistance, and survival, #MeToo offered the promise of identification and affiliation to those entering self-representation through the survivor's signature. As an example of interpellation, #MeToo underscores the importance of an emergent culture of witness in hailing survivors into testimonial agency, rather than shaming and silencing them. As an invitation to take up that agency in life writing, #MeToo opens a new chapter in how writers will expand the archive of self-representation about trauma and how publics will engage this work.2 We cannot fully predict the shape of the writing to come, but memoirs published in 2017–18 promise that sexual violence will be woven into complex narratives that extend the memoir boom's legacy of grappling formally with the representation of trauma. From personal essays, blog posts, and victim impact statements to braided narratives and memoirs, a host of new writing about trauma gives energy to the memoir boom. Less confessional than testimonial, #MeToo provides a vivid example of the autobiographical first-person interrupting dynamics of erasure and silencing.
The memoir boom provides an important context for reading these new narratives. Life writing has proven to be an especially compelling form of testimonial empowerment for those who are marginalized. From accounts of queer culture during the AIDS epidemic like David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives to Cherríe Moraga's bilingual, multi-genre rendering of lesbian feminist Chicana coming-of-age Loving in the War Years that ushered in the memoir boom, fierce voices of rage, love, and resilience particularize social and political movements. They show how lives and life writing are rooted in shared experiences of oppression as well as forms of representational exclusion and silencing that amount to what Kristie Dotson calls "testimonial smothering," when listeners refuse to create conditions in which speakers of risky testimony can be heard.3 #MeToo represents the emergence of [End Page 162] speech in the place where patriarchy has clapped its hand over the mouth of marginalized subjects to keep them from speaking or screaming.
Life writing from the margins, especially by those most vulnerable to sexual violence—women of color, Indigenous women, queer and trans youth—represents the deep and diverse history #MeToo tapped. Indeed, the archive of life writing counters the misleading and presentist claim that the #MeToo movement came out of nowhere. It's not that these stories have not been told; it's that those who have told them have not been credited by male elites (white, cis-het, not disabled, privileged) as valuable, credible, and worthy of attention. As with previous surges in life writing about trauma that coincide with historical events, #MeToo opened the way to longer, specific accounts of sexual violence. Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, an anthology edited by Roxane Gay, is a collection of those accounts. Drawn from a range of authors and speaking to different experiences of sexual violence, the essays document the hold rape culture has on every aspect of life. From childhood and families to school and peer groups, from authority figures and their surrogates to strangers and minor characters, rape culture defines the world in which we live. Gay's choice to collect these accounts as "dispatches" highlights the honor accorded from ancient times to the one who survives the tale and fuses it with journalistic reporting from war zones. In writing that veers from lyric to documentary and from critique to narrative, sometimes in the same piece, this collection demonstrates how important self-representation is to survival in the aftermath of sexual assault.
Not That Bad is representative of the survivors at the center of life writing this year. Through writing, authors transformed experiences of silence and shame, and demonstrated how their craft emerged from the broken places of suffering. Although not focused on sexual violence, Danielle Allen's Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. demonstrates how survivors...