The Problem is, We Forget

By Alison Balaskovits

You know this by now: Tao Lin, Stephen Tully Dierks, Ed Champion, and Kirk Nesset have made headlines for abusing women, for running misogynistic campaigns to silence their voices, or collecting images of abused children numbering the obscene on their hard drive. It is shocking, devastating, an acknowledgement of madness. Worse, perhaps, because we mau know the person who committed these acts. They were one of us and, even if we didn’t know them personally, they were names within our insular community.

Judging from the reaction of my friends and colleagues on Facebook, this revelation has caused an instant revulsion and disquiet. As one person in my feed expressed with all dismay: “Apparently, I know a lot of rapists and child pornographers.”

However, it’s not only that you and I know rapists and those who perpetuate the victimization of children, though that does engender that painful reminder that we don’t always know the people we interact with, not intimately, not with a full picture of the depth of their personalities. What we often forget, when these stories break, is that we also know too many men and women who have been the victims of rape, the victims of abuse, and the victims of exploitation. RAINN’s statistics cite 1 in every 6 women, and 1 in every 33 men, of being subject to an attempted or completed rape in the United States. This is a reality of numbers, a depressing addition of faulty reporting (the actual number, we must assume, is much larger).

But still: disbelief.

Once, I had a student write an essay in my composition class about abortion, as they often do. She was very adamantly pro-life, and the assignment was to explore the other side of the issue. She met with me one on one, eighteen years old and flustered, because what she had researched dealt with women seeking that procedure because they had been raped. This was not, she told me, something she thought happened in real life. That was an Event for books or movies or art, but not something that happened in reality, and, in turn, it was something she was safe from, like monsters under the bed or Jabberwocky’s or talking animals, all make believe.

She stared at me in a way that made me think she wanted nothing more than for me to tell her it was a nightmare that couldn’t touch her outside of her unconsciousness, and the narratives she read were just words on a page, not the lives of women, and men, who experience. It was kinder to not lie to her, and though I wanted to comfort her, I nodded and said yes, this happens. To a lot of us.

When these stories break, there’s a little bit of our collective protective shield that gets cracked apart, and we have to re-evaluate our relationships with people we thought we knew. We think of people as having a cohesive identity: Man or Woman. Writer or Reader. Consumer or Consumed. Monster or Victim. Yet those identities blur, morph, shift, or fade away, and no matter how many descriptors we come up with, it is not always readily apparent who it is that we are looking at, who we are talking to, whose words we enjoy or are terrorized by when we read them. Our identities are deeply complex, and to the multitude of victims or survivors of these monstrous acts, it is almost impossible to tell them apart from anyone else. That identity gets carved on your bone, hidden away, but hurts every so often, like the elderly feel before it storms.

Believe it.

This is what the wreckage of this storm will look like: a frenzy of distancing ourselves from the men who committed these acts, a re-evaluation of our complacency in allowing, that which we did allow, these acts to go on for far too long, the unfortunate call for compassion for those who perpetuate, with little compassion for those who experience and, with all hope, that it is addressed at AWP out in the open, and not just in whispers in corners of the hallway or in digital spaces. But the frenzy often forgets the people who are hurt by this: the narrative is always dedicated to and driven by those who harm, the final act of ownership and control. And those who carry it in their bones become numbers or boogeyvictims of their own.

Please don’t forget that you know them, too.

Follow Alison on Twitter: @AABalaskovits