The Science of Difficult Topics

Athena Andreadis has an interesting and useful post about rape over on her blog, which also includes a re-posted Evolutionary Psychology bingo card that I found quite illuminating. I think my favorite one was “Believes women out-talk men but keeps talking nonstop” since I’ve seen that one in action many times before. (I’ve also been guilty of the over-talking myself.)

It’s just the latest post that’s gotten me to thinking about the issue of what we write about and how we write about it. I think every writer takes as a given that the imagination is a fluid and complex thing, and that it feels like we should have the freedom to write about anything. But the fact is, all writers have constraints that we don’t even think about, that we put in place ourselves. One of them for me concerns the issue of rape. I don’t write stories or novels that contain this element, although I have written fiction about the male gaze and about predatory men. But rape itself is really too horrifying for me personally to address in any useful way. In part this is because I truly believe that the writer must understand and inhabit the mindset of even the most heinous characters in their stories—recognize that these characters, like people in the real world, see themselves often as the heroes of their own stories. And I just cannot bring myself to inhabit the mind of such a character. Even as murder doesn’t phase me to that extent…possibly because murder, unlike rape, can have any number of justifications depending on context within a story.

Another way in which rape can come up is in the backstory of a character, and while it’s not out of the question that a future character of mine might be someone who has been raped, this seems to me such an invasion of self that it would have to be integral if brought up—in other words, I’m wary of fiction in which such invasive, violent acts are part of a character’s backstory but seem to be a kind of shorthand or paint-by-numbers way of giving us background on a character without actually giving us an individual.

But, as I say, every writer is different—and it’s important that some writers can deal with the issue in a sensitive and useful way because making it invisible isn’t a good thing, either.

So we all have our own constraints. We all, also, have our own skill-sets and viewpoints, and many times a failure on a sensitive subject occurs because a writer isn’t talented enough, for whatever reason, to tackle that subject. And while not being talented in, say, being able to convey realistic dialogue isn’t likely to result in anything worse than a mediocre book…getting something like this wrong is to my mind catastrophic. Frankly, too, I considered not writing this blog post because I think potentially talking about it in a way that isn’t useful is also horrible.

4 comments on “The Science of Difficult Topics

  1. When I was in law school, and taking the Women and The Law course, I ran into a study (circa 1970) that compared the thought processes of the typical male and the rapist.

    Guess what? No statistically significant differences.

    There may have been subsequent studies demonstrating that there are significant differences, but my personal experience (not with rape, fortunately) has led me to believe that most men have an underlying anger toward women, and that the fact that so few of them act on that anger is a tribute to their humanity.

  2. Sam X says:

    Rape is undoubtedly one of the most complex issues to handle in any setting. My current story is about a place that in many ways I’ve modeled on Chechnya, and I knew early on that I needed to demonstrate the use of rape as a weapon. The immediate event is horrific and terrorizing, but it’s the moments afterwards that I want to convey. Because it stays with you forever and comes up in expected and unexpected ways; it alters you. There’s lingering pain and resolute strength and living that life in a place like Chechnya– I have to tell that story.

    That said, I’m sure there are things I can’t write about. I find it very difficult to write about mass death, like a plague or some such. I find it difficult to watch those movies too.

  3. To Sheryl Dunn: General anger towards women for refusing to be furniture, certainly. Rape genes and rape brain modules, not so much. Which was the point of my blog article: use of “scientific evidence” to support such claims is abuse of science at best. And, frankly, awarding medals to men for deigning not to abuse women is not helpful.

    Also, exactly how did the 1970 study compare thought processes? Which thought processes? Was the study double blinded? Etc. Flawed humans studies vastly outnumber properly designed and interpreted ones by several orders of magnitude.

  4. Sam X says:

    I feel a need to clarify that in my work, “demonstrate the use of rape as a weapon” has been exactly one scene with the attack itself off-camera.

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