You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.
—Adrienne Rich, “Rape”
In mid October, a Los Angeles–based screenwriter named Kathryn Borel, widely known as the former CBC employee who came forward with a sexual-assault charge against disgraced Q host Jian Ghomeshi, published a post on her Facebook page. “I want to join the chorus of women sharing their experiences with sexual assault,” she wrote, proceeding to note, with harrowing matter-of-factness, that she had been “raped and sodomized” by a stranger four years earlier. Borel had alluded to the incident in an interview with Maclean’s magazine after Ghomeshi publicly apologized to her as part of his court-ordered peace bond. But in the post, which referenced a speech she had given at a recent fundraising brunch for the UCLA Rape Treatment Center, she gave details of the attack, and thanked the series of women who had helped her—from the petite early-morning jogger who scared off her assailant to the counsellor who helped her find words to articulate what had happened to her.
“This is not my ‘story’…” Borel wrote. “These are facts, and what happened to me was a crime.” Later, acknowledging the people who helped her find clarity in the fragmented aftermath, she wrote: “speaking about rape is a collaboration.”
Borel’s post was published nearly a week after a tape surfaced featuring Donald Trump’s boasts about grabbing female acquaintances’ genitals. As the scope of the presidential candidate’s sexual impropriety was revealed, essayist Kelly Oxford encouraged survivors to come forward. “Women,” she wrote on October 8, 2016, “tweet me your first assaults. They aren’t just stats.” Over the course of a single evening, she later reported, she received more than a million anecdotes, representing a grotesquely wide spectrum of personal violation.
It has been two years since the high-profile allegations against Jian Ghomeshi sparked a national conversation about sexual assault, a year and a half since New York magazine ran a cover story featuring the accounts of 35 women who described having been assaulted by Bill Cosby. The treatment, inside and outside the courtroom, of the women who made these allegations was a neat illustration of that “institutional conspiracy” (in Borel’s words) to solicit silence. In response, survivors of sexual assault raised their voices. In the past year, a torrent of unflinching first-person narratives has swept through social media, news publications and popular culture.
In Jane Doe January: My Twenty-Year Search for Truth and Justice and I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her, both published earlier this year, two writers (crime novelist Emily Winslow and journalist Joanna Connors, respectively) desperately seek justice for their rapes, which happened two decades prior. This past spring saw the release of Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution, in which Vancouver playwright Carmen Aguirre confronts the gruesome assault she endured in her teens. Public figures—Amy Schumer, Gretchen Carlson, Lena Dunham—have used their own memoirs to ruminate on past rapes and instances of harassment. This past summer, Toronto journalist Lauren McKeon wrote an essay for Toronto Life about why she never reported any of the three rapes she suffered; bestselling novelist Jessica Knoll recounted being raped in her teens for Dunham’s Lenny Letter.
In June, Buzzfeed published a victim-impact statement written by “Emily Doe,” the woman who was raped by a Stanford athlete named Brock Turner (who attributed his actions to “drunken promiscuity”). Honest, unflinching and profoundly insightful, the statement went viral. First-person accounts of sexual assault have since appeared in publications including Self, Cosmopolitan and The Daily Beast, some of those prompted by the recent allegations about Donald Trump and by his reaction to them. In the past several weeks, a wealth of firsthand responses could be found everywhere from People (where a reporter recounted her own Trump allegations) to Business Insider (where a male survivor recounted his assault) to the college-journalism outlet Tab (where a woman recounted having been raped in her teens by two male friends).
All these stories—or rather, as Borel aptly notes, each factual report of a crime—are heartbreaking and repellent. And yet, this time around, not one feels like something you have never read before. All fit into a form that has started to feel unsettlingly familiar.
There have been earlier personal reflections of sexual assault: Alice Sebold’s memoir, Lucky, or Nancy Venable Raine’s After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back, both published in 1999. But the recent accounts are distinguished in part by their number, which marks the emergence of a literary genre that seems very much in demand.
For survivors, the echoes in the stories can be comforting: here is solidarity; here is proof that someone else has been through this unfathomable experience. For the wider community, the articles mark a certain kind of progress: the shroud of stigma has lifted enough to encourage victims to come forward with their stories. And yet, two years after that watershed moment, many of the women—it is still mostly women—are delivering their testimonies in magazines, rather than in the courts.
Even as sexual assault memoirs proliferate, the system that fails survivors remains broken. Judges (like Robin Camp, who infamously asked the victim of a violent assault why she did not “keep [her] knees together” to prevent her rape) continue to perpetuate myths about rape. Attackers (like Brock Turner) walk away with a slap on the wrist. By now, these institutional failings are well known and widely publicized. According to statistics published by YWCA Canada in 2015, of every 1,000 sexual assaults that occur annually, twelve have charges laid, nine are prosecuted and only three lead to conviction. An Ipsos Reid poll commissioned by Global TV in 2015 revealed that, of women who report their assaults to police, 72 percent describe that experience as “negative,” and nearly 40 percent of respondents come away “devastated.” In her Toronto Life essay, McKeon points to this emotional horror show as a reason for why she declined to go to the police: “The legal system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I’d behaved in ways that didn’t make sense … Facing the antagonism of an interrogation hardly seemed worth it.”
In this context, memoir can be a formidable, even necessary, recourse. The legal system may reject anything outside of black-and-white certitudes, but personal narrative allows a writer to revel in these grey areas, to explore the things that do not “make sense.” In a paper published by the Journal of Feminist Scholarship last fall, Tara Roeder, a professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, examined “rape and the politics of storytelling.” As she writes, “memoirs of sexual assault become a different kind of evidence than courtroom testimony. They allow victims to … explore the complex truths of rape without altering their narratives to fit seamlessly into culturally sanctioned scripts.” That demand for the “perfect” story was one of the things the Ghomeshi trial laid bare: one by one, his accusers were discredited by inconsistencies in their accounts—inconsistencies that were wholly consistent with the undermining effects of trauma on the brain—and subjected to a kind of public humiliation.
First-person narratives have created a countervailing effect, a virtual community for survivors. Hashtags such as #beenrapednevereported have turned Twitter into a de facto support network. “When I realized that … he did this to many, many women,” Cosby victim Linda Brown told New York Magazine, “I felt the need to come forward and help report them because there is strength in numbers.”
But often, that impulse toward comradeship is tinged with ambivalence. In a Buzzfeed essay about her own decision to talk about a rape that occurred years earlier, Lena Dunham writes: “Survivors are so often re-victimized by a system that demands they prove their purity and innocence … They are isolated and betrayed by people close to them who doubt their reality or are frustrated by their inability to move on. Their most intimate experiences are made public property.” Writing on the evolving meaning of the word “survivor” in the New York Times Magazine in May, Parul Sehgal homes in on this impulse: “In Japanese, the word ‘trauma’ is expressed with a combination of two characters: ‘outside’ and ‘injury.’ Trauma is a visible wound—suffering we can see—but it is also suffering made public, calcified into identity and, inevitably, simplified.”
Memoir bears both the risk of entrenching that calcified identity and, as for writers like Carmen Aguirre, the promise of liberation. In 1981, while walking with her twelve-year-old cousin, Macarena, near the University of British Columbia campus, Aguirre was raped at gunpoint. She was 13; she was wearing a brand-new wraparound skirt; she was eager to watch the soccer game that had started in a field not far from the trails. Her attacker threatened to kill both girls if Aguirre refused to acquiesce to the rape; she told him to shoot. As time passed—as his threats became increasingly graphic and gruesome—Macarena, terrified, begged her for mercy. At that point, Aguirre recalls, “my surrender was absolute.” Training his gun on her temple, the rapist demanded that she cover her eyes with her blouse. “Don’t move. Don’t speak. Don’t breathe,” he instructed. “And then,” Aguirre writes, “he sliced me clean in two.”
She is speaking literally here, describing the physical violation of that 13-year-old body, an experience that felt like a hot knife slicing her viscera, again and again. But that line, which comes nearly two thirds of the way through Mexican Hooker #1, carries the weight of metaphor: there is a cleaving between the person she was prior to the attack, and the compartmentalized self she became in its aftermath. When she reflects back on that spring day, she evokes an out-of-body experience, a soul soaring overhead, communing with an eagle. That division took hold even though Aguirre, the daughter of Chilean revolutionaries, was already inured to trauma (as a very young child, for instance, she stood, trembling, in the yard in front of her house, as Pinochet’s soldiers pointed guns at her and her little sister). It took hold even though she promptly told family members and law enforcement officials who believed and supported her; it took hold even though the serial rapist who terrorized her and other girls and women in Vancouver for eight years was brought to justice within a half decade.
Mexican Hooker #1 is not exclusively—or even predominantly—about rape. Intended as a complement to her first memoir, Something Fierce, an incisive account of her time in the Chilean radical left, the book takes stock of Aguirre’s “other roles since the revolution”—roles that include theatre artist, self-described “basketball wife” (to a flashy player on a team in Argentina), displaced Latina in lily-white Vancouver and, yes, survivor. But the shadow of sexual assault is long and insidious, and Aguirre deftly illuminates the ways in which it permeates every part she plays. The kinetic energy of her efforts to repress—and then contend with—the attack (and her attacker) drives her fierce, funny narrative.
Although Aguirre spent years trying to actively live in the portion of her psyche that remained untainted by her attacker—it was, she believed, the only way to resist letting him take over—she never managed to extricate herself fully from the story of what had happened to her. “He was always present in my bedrooms of love and sex, in the four chambers of my heart, my guts, my womb, in the childhood forest I hadn’t returned to since the rape, present in the booming recital hall of my skull,” she writes. Her life is, effectively, a kind of palimpsest—until a flashback during acting class in her early twenties becomes a catalyst for therapy, self-searching and emotional collapse. Eventually, more than a decade later, that narrative coalesced into a powerful work of autobiography.
For Emily Winslow, now based in England and separated from her rape by an ocean, two decades, a marriage and two kids, returning to an attack that occurred in her final year of university amounts to excavating a dormant self. And yet returning to that time, revisiting the minutiae, playing the current court case over in detail, becomes essential when, thanks to an absurd legal loophole, the Supreme Court rules that the statute of limitations has indeed run out, and her rapist—whose DNA is an unequivocal match to the traces found in her rape kit—walks free. Jane Doe January becomes a vehicle for her rage, and an effort to find some form of justness when true justice proves elusive.
If memoir is therapeutic, allowing individual writers to grapple with their own trauma, it is not an effective universal solution, or an enduring one. For one thing, it is available mostly to the sorts of people who can write engaging personal accounts and have them published in media outlets: educated, middle class and, more often than not, white writers, academics, actors and others in the creative class. But a myriad women are affected by sexual assault whose lives unfold far beyond those circles. The form of justice accessible to most is the deeply flawed one offered by the court system.
Even for authors, writing about it remains an imperfect answer. Social lift may have drawn attention to rape culture, but it is an arbitrary, and fleeting, phenomenon. Becoming a product means being tied to the rules of the market, which makes sexual assault stories subject to the kind of evaluations that accompany any story: Is it fresh? What’s the angle? For those in the business of publishing sexual assault memoirs, the goal is rarely the empowerment of the writer. The first-person economy, Laura Bennett wrote in a 2015 article for Slate, “incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.” “It’s harder than ever to weigh the ethics of publishing these pieces against the market forces that demand them,” she wrote. (She was not talking about first-person accounts of rape, but she could have been.) There is a hunger for these stories right now. But at some point, that unsettling sense of familiarity will start to feel more rehashed than resonant; the clicks will ebb and the gatekeepers will lose interest. Sadly, that point is likely to come long before the legal system is fixed.
In the meantime, there may be a danger in providing an informal forum that embraces complexities and shades of grey even while we have a legal system that penalizes nuances. As the complainants in the Ghomeshi trial learned, the wellspring of support that bolsters survivors—Twitter hashtags, virtual bathroom walls where names are named—can be turned against women in the courtroom if they do choose to report. There is also another side to lionizing those who come forward. For McKeon, the chatter that swelled during the Ghomeshi trial itself was a double-edged sword: “I couldn’t help thinking that the conversation I was hearing tended to erase the flesh-and-blood women who’d been raped. It transformed my personal experiences into a political rallying cry.” She struggled with the sense that, as a feminist, she needed to speak out. “The thought of admitting it, even in a hashtag, was suffocating.”
It is a Catch-22, as University of Guelph professor Karyn Freedman explains in an interview about her 2014 book, One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, which combines reflections on her own rape years earlier with illuminating philosophical theory on the nature of trauma. On the one hand, she affirms that women should not be pressured into coming forward, and addresses her own professional and personal privilege. But on the other hand, she insists, “I have a certain responsibility. When women don’t come forward, we end up seeing rape as a series of isolated events as opposed to a systemic problem that faces women and children worldwide.”
As it stands, survivors bear an unfair burden when it comes to fixing a broken system. “After being sexually assaulted last year, I wrote a letter to my attacker that made headlines,” wrote Ione Wells in The Independent last June. “I was glad that my voice was being heard, but there was also something fundamentally depressing about it being ‘news.’ Why does society still wait for victims to be attacked and then speak out before its interest in rape and sexual assault is captured? Why should the onus lie with them?”
Then there are the consumers of these accounts—the readers who are not themselves survivors. What does reading five, or ten, or 15 of these memoirs illuminate for them? Is a commitment to taking in the horrific details sometimes tinged by a prurient curiosity? And is bearing witness enough?
Sharing stories—but especially these stories, as Borel suggested—involves an intimate relationship between speaker and listener. Readers and publishers have a responsibility to the person telling the story, although it is not always clear what those obligations entail. Protest marches are not for everyone. Roeder argues that “such texts shed light on the backdrop of sexual violence against which women live their lives, serving as invitations to their audiences to begin to rethink rape and its effects simply by the act of listening.” But that view (optimistically) assumes an audience that is eager to be enlightened.
For Aguirre, memoir provided one of several opportunities to address her assault publicly; she also tackled the subject in a play, which provided a different (and possibly more direct) form of audience engagement. Mexican Hooker #1 concludes on a high note: years after reconnecting with her trauma, Aguirre, now a bestselling author and playwright who has transformed the horror of her attack into a stirring play, The Trigger, goes face to face with her rapist—long imprisoned and repeatedly denied parole—in a restorative justice process. As she confronts her assailant, she feels her heart expand in her chest; “I want to thank you,” she says, “for teaching me compassion.” It is a beautiful depiction of a kind of liberation that so many survivors seek, and that most are denied. Lest it leave the impression that a more profound justice does indeed prevail, Aguirre follows up the scene with the revelation that her rape kit, preserved decades earlier, was never tested.
Kathryn Borel may have been thinking similar things as she stood on the steps of the courthouse in downtown Toronto, facing the blank eyes of a cabal of cameras on May 11, 2016. Her sexual assault suit against Ghomeshi was slated to go forward; bolstered by the rueful savvy of a woman who has seen her rapist get put behind bars, she was prepared for trial. Until she decided not to proceed. It was Ghomeshi’s team that offered her the option of a peace bond—a chance to avoid an inevitable courtroom evisceration—but it was Borel who demanded a full apology. And she did so with the aim of sharing her own masterful, beautifully articulated account of his transgressions on the steps outside the courtroom. “When it was presented to me that the defence would be offering us an apology,” she said, “I was prepared to forego the trial. It seemed like the clearest path to the truth. A trial would have maintained his lie, the lie that he was not guilty and it would have further subjected me to the very same pattern of abuse that I am currently trying to stop.” Her words resonated with survivors around the world. It was the purest example of narrative justice standing in for criminal justice served.