Joyce Carol Oates: “I expose the added horror of the rape of the victim by the public”

The crudeness of rape —and especially all its consequences— has been a generally lopsided theme in the world of art, screens and culture in general, for choosing a verb capable of containing several options: sometimes frivolous; generally marked by stereotypes; and sometimes omitted as a concept, like those paintings by Titian or Rubens in which the satyrs “possess” Diana and her nymphs when they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves much. Various series and books such as Believe Me, The Handmaid’s Tale, Laëtitia or the End of Men either anatomy of a scandal have successfully renewed the representation of rape in the wake of the Me Too movement, but there is a pioneer that deserves a stop along the way.

It is Joyce Carol Oates, the veteran author born in Lockport, New York, 83 years ago, whose book Violation. A love story (Password) arrives in Spain like a knock on the door of these times when herds are growing and the act of consent must be protected by law from those who still have doubts. But, attention, Violation… It is not a book written in the heat of MeToo and a new environmental sensitivity, but in 2004, when the receptivity was surely different or less. Joyce Carol Oates responds by email to EL PAÍS.

When a community turns against the victim and public opinion sides with the rapists, the situation becomes especially tragic.

Joyce Carol Oates

— He wrote it long before MeToo. Have we finally learned to talk about abuse and violations?

— We have learned, but only up to a certain point. In the US there are many reactionary forces that want to curtail women’s rights and would like to take us back to the 1950s.

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In fact, the author had addressed this very topic in Whatever Happened to the Mulvaneys Y I’ll take you there, but until Violation… had not treated “that traumatic experience in such a direct way, focusing the novel from the very scene of the aggression, with its innumerable consequences not only for the victim, but also for her daughter and those around her.” “When a community turns against the victim and public opinion sides with the rapists, the situation becomes especially tragic.”

Katie Douglas is the protagonist of 'Believe Me', inspired by the story of Lisa McVey.
Katie Douglas is the protagonist of ‘Believe Me’, inspired by the story of Lisa McVey.

That is precisely the value of this novella whose first chapter is precisely entitled: “He deserved it.” A young, beautiful and estranged mother decides to take a shortcut back home after celebrating the 4th of July and heads with her daughter down the lake road. The savage assault of a local gang on the woman until leaving her in pieces, the experience of the girl hidden among the boats and the following voices that try to blame her for being drunk, for being attractive, for being alone, for pagers and so many things that sound familiar to us become, in the hands of Oates, a distillation of the worst face that society can adopt in the face of the suffering of a victim. “It’s still quite common for the victim to be blamed for the crime he suffered,” says Oates. “If society finds a way to blame her, it will blame her, because it costs a lot to waste certain emotions like sympathy and pity. Even today, in 2022, a rape victim in the US is reluctant to come forward for fear of recrimination. There are shocking stories of rape in the military and of women being severely punished for speaking out.” That is why in this book he has wanted to “expose the added horror: the violation of the victim by the public.

— And what does this book mean to you, personally?

— All my fiction literature has a personal and private connection that is embodied in the story at close range. There are many forms of violation, including that of the soul.

Carol Oates’s book lands at a time when rape has found a new way of narrating itself in the audiovisual universe, analyzes Fátima Arranz, sociologist and professor at the Complutense University, author of an exhaustive report, Stereotypes and gender relations in national series. “Today we see a breakthrough, there are international series working on these issues with a different treatment of women in the face of violence,” he says, in which “real women finally appear and not stupid and stereotyped, and rape is drawn as what it is, without trivializing it as if it were a visit to the doctor”.

Pioneers and innovative stories

Arranz does not forget for example Talk to her, by Pedro Almodóvar, “in which the director derives the rebirth of a woman” from a rape. Actually, the director from La Mancha has been recurrent in the use of rape in films such as Pepi, Luci, Bom and other girls from the bunch, Kika either The Skin I Live In with a look that today would hardly resist standing. On her day, but on another plane, she scandalized Irreversible, Gaspar Noé, in which the public left the room in which it was projected in Cannes, unable to resist the nine minutes that Monica Bellucci’s rape lasted. Isabelle Huppert also recounts a traumatic experience in she (Paul Verhoeven), as before straw dogs (Sam Peckimpah) clockwork orange (Kubrick) either Frenzy (Hitchcock). Not forgetting the use of butter that Bertolucci and Marlon Brando agreed to without Maria Schneider’s knowledge in The last Tango in Paris, an event that already belongs to the harsh reality of the filming and not to fiction.

The expert sociologist mentions series such as The Handmaid’s Tale either believe me as innovators and capable of including reality from a woman’s point of view. she does too downton abbey in some season, when the maid is assaulted in the kitchens by one of the guests at the mansion. And essential to remember the movie Thelma and Louise, perhaps a pioneer in the escape and freedom that is expressed in her after a rape that cuts short the lives of these two women who only really wanted to have fun, and not as the assailant assumes when he pleads: “We were just having a little fun.”

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, in an image from 'Thelma and Louise'.
Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, in an image from ‘Thelma and Louise’.

On a literary level, the myth of female revenge as a rebellion against male violence that Thelma and Louise was updated by Virginie Despentes on fuck me But in literature, the infamy was consecrated above all by Pablo Neruda, who narrated the rape that he himself perpetrated on a hotel maid in Ceylon: “One morning, determined to do anything, I grabbed her tightly by the wrist and looked her in the face. There was no language in which she could speak to him. She allowed herself to be led by me without a smile and soon she was naked on my bed (…) The encounter was that of a man with a statue. He remained the whole time with his eyes open, impassive. He was right to despise me, ”says the Nobel in I confess that I have lived (1974). From the opposite plane, books like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or Laëtitia and the end of men by Ivan Jablonka, origin of the aforementioned series, have narrated experiences from the point of view of the woman and the perpetual consequences that she will suffer, in the style of Oates.

In Joyce Carol Oates’ book, the word “rape” is not in the vocabulary of the girl, who, however, is going to change her life.

— Is it a term that we should use more often and louder in the face of silence?

— The MeToo has been brave and revolutionary. Let’s hope his idealism isn’t spoiled by misogynist political leaders. It is very difficult to speak clearly to men with power. In the US, women and girls are learning the sad lesson that each generation has to completely define itself anew, because their rights are not permanent, as many had assumed.

The author refers to the Supreme Court, which is preparing a sentence against the right to abortion “that will inaugurate a new era of hostility and divisive politics.” The victim of her book, she concludes, “she has to fight for her identity and weigh whether it is worth proving that she has been a victim and not a person who has brought her misfortune on her own” .

“Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith that American courts will do justice to women and be impartial; there are many prejudices”.

Violation… complete its title with the words “a love story” because, ultimately, “in addition to being a tragedy, it is a triumph: individuals can help each other in times of great crisis. In personal trauma there is also the possibility of selfless love. And that selfless love is the finishing touch to a hard, enveloping and necessary book.

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