March 23, 2011
News moves fast.Bombs in Libya, radiation in Japanese food, but I’m stuck.Still stuck on that case that broke earlier this month, about the eleven year old girl gang-raped in Texas.
I know, I know: a whole bunch has already been written about that.It’s been reported on all the major news stations.It’s been covered by the New York Times.Then there was all the outrage against the Times’ coverage, including over at The Rumpus, and Zoe Zolbrod’s piece questioning our own complicity here at TNB.
Complicity.Yeah, I want to talk about that.I just don’t know how yet.
See, I can’t get this case out of my mind.For those of you who haven’t followed the fracas, the basics are that an eleven-year-old girl was raped by a large number of men back in October, but the case broke only recently.All the men brought up on charges (who range between age 14-late 20s) are African-American.The victim is Hispanic.Much of the media focus has been on how their town is being torn apart, racially, because of this. Some black activist groups have focused on the fact that black men are more readily and vigorously persecuted for sex crimes than other men, with one leader essentially saying that all men who have sex with children should be sent to prison, but that he doesn’t believe these (black) men were the only men to have sex with this child.Other media focus has centered on the fact that many in the community seem to either feel sorry for the accused boys whose lives could be ruined by the allegation, or to be so focused on blaming the parents of the young girl (for inadequate supervision, etc.) that they almost seem to be excusing the rapists, as in, “Well what did her parents think would happen?”Still others take this a step further and blame the way the eleven-year-old was dressed and claim that she lied about her age.
Needless to say, such coverage has caused a righteous shitstorm of rage among the many who find the victim’s attire, her mother’s parenting skills, or the color of the accused men’s skin entirely beside the point, and who demand to know why nobody seems to be thinking about the victim—the little girl—who was gang raped.Where is she in all this, they ask?
I want to be among these askers.I am among these askers.I agree with every single thing they say, and I have built my adult life largely around wanting to be counted among their feminist, progressive numbers.
And yet there is a small voice inside me that comes from another place and another time.A voice that keeps saying, “Where is she?Well, she’s in the goddamn New York Times, that’s where she is.That’s progress!”
Let me back up here.That may have come out wrong.I mean, I realize that we live in an era where sometimes people get famous because awful shit happens to them (i.e. a man becomes a porn star after his wife cuts off his dick; i.e. James Franco gets an Oscar nomination because some poor guy cut off his arm), but that’s not remotely what I’m talking about here.What I mean isn’t “she’s famous.”
What I mean is, “This crime isn’t invisible.”
I grew up in another world.
Logistically, the world I come from still exists.We were blue collar working poor, as many people are today.Our streets were seeped with gang violence and low-level organized crime, as many neighborhoods still are.Misogyny was open and casual, and many men beat their wives, girlfriends, daughters (and sons), because a man’s family was regarded as his property, and it was bad form to interfere in “family matters.”Many of the mothers in the neighborhood had gotten married and had children when they were as young as fourteen or fifteen, and although marriage at that age was uncommon by the time I was coming of age in the 1980s, sexual relationships between adult men and girls as young as 12 were still common and largely viewed as “affairs” or even “dating,” rather than “statutory rape.”Drug dealing was usually a pretty open matter, and many adults partied with their own kids (or other kids), with older brothers dealing to their kid sisters and moms sharing their stashes with their daughters’ friends.Not only do many neighborhoods like this still exist, but of course many neighborhoods are far worse.We didn’t have homeless people in our neighborhood—everyone had a place to live, even if their apartment was roach infested.Nobody was starving to death, even if most people ate cheap, unhealthy food.The elementary school, while somewhat substandard in that it didn’t actually offer . . . uh, science for example—or have a counselor on the premises to address all the kids who came to school with bruises, though it did have one teacher who infamously chain smoked in his classroom and tended to put kids upside down in the garbage can when they misbehaved—was not a “dangerous” place to be.It did not require a metal detector to enter, as many schools do today.While we had quite a few murders in the neighborhood—from my former classmate who was beaten to death by her downstairs neighbor because she tried to stand up for her disabled brother whom the neighbor was mocking, to gang shootings like the one in which my friend’s pregnant sister was accidentally killed when a bullet went through her gangbanger boyfriend straight into her body—I cannot say that I ever felt my life was “in danger” or that I was unlikely to survive to adulthood, the way many kids in truly hardcore violent neighborhoods do.What I mean to say is that, while we were not middle class or privileged, we were entirely ordinary.Our poverty and violence was in no way Epic.Millions of children in American cities and towns live lives exactly like our lives every single day, right now.
Yet the way in which the world I inhabited no longer exists is this: in 1983, we were invisible to the media.
On the most basic level, whereas some of the Bozo rapists who attacked that eleven-year-old girl in Texas apparently decided to film the gang-bang on their cell phones, such options were not available to the shit-for-brains rapists of my old neighborhood.There was no YouTube.
We were, to put it in contemporary terms, something like Las Vegas, as in, “What happens in the hood stays in the hood.”
1983.I was fifteen and a sophomore at a prestigious high school across the city, to which I rode the bus each day.I was one of very few kids in our neighborhood who had tested into this school, and of the few peers from my old neighborhood with whom I’d started freshman year, one had already OD’d and dropped out, and another—whose father was in prison and whose two brothers would soon be murdered and who would later rape my best friend—had just transferred out, unable to hack the academic load.My longtime best friend and I, though, were holding firm.We had Ambitions.We were busy riding the bus to and from school; we were busy trying to figure out what science was, since we’d never had it in grade school.We were busy trying to reinvent ourselves.
Amidst this, word on the street leaked out that a girl we used to go to elementary school with had just been gang-raped by a bunch of guys we all knew.The girl was fifteen.Some of the alleged rapists were her own age, but several were older—much older—and esteemed members of the community, which in my community meant they had ties to organized crime.The story on the street was that the girl had been lured to the apartment of her “boyfriend,” who was in the local gang.When she arrived, it turned out he had a bunch of friends over who all wanted a piece of the action.When she refused, she was gang raped and beaten with coat hangers.For good measure, when they were finished with her they threw her down a flight of stairs.
I was out of the neighborhood loop at this time, busy thinking I was “too good” and going to my smarty pants high school.By the time I heard the story, it was no doubt already somewhat old.My mother, who is not Italian and wasn’t Catholic and hadn’t grown up in our neighborhood, had an ongoing joke about how we were always the last to know everything.
What I mean is: by the time the story reached me, let’s just say it was safe to assume that the New York Times wasn’t gonna be appearing on the scene anytime soon.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here.I feel like I need to back up.I feel like I’m treading in some kind of dangerous water, where it sounds like I could be trying to make a deranged argument that the little eleven-year-old rape victim in Texas is one lucky stiff to have the NYTimes swoop in to give shitty, biased coverage to her case.How she should feel privileged to have the entire nation arguing over whether or not her outfits, or where her mother was at the time, or the color of her assailants, should be factored in or reported on.I feel like there is a danger, in talking about this case at all, of becoming “part of the problem.”Part of that little girl’s problem, which is already an ocean big enough to drown in.Part of her pain, which is already incomprehensible to most of us, with our normal adult lives, who have never been pinned down by eighteen men larger than ourselves and stabbed and assaulted by their man-sized, vicious dicks, tearing our little girl, private orifices while being threatened that if we resist they will have us beaten up or have our family harmed, and while others merrily film the event on their goddamn cell phones.And what I want to say about that is that I’m not sure I can bear the guilt of being part of that problem.Not only because my own daughters are on the verge of eleven, but because I already have a mountain of guilt upon which I don’t think I can stand to heap one more thing.Because I’ve already been carrying my own guilt since 1983.
After the New York Times failed to come knocking on our neighborhood’s door—after any local news failed to cover the rape allegations and the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune failed to even remember that our neighborhood existed (mobster Joe Lombardo being temporarily in prison at that time, hence the only thing that ever gave us presence on the media stage having been removed from our midst), there was still the small matter of the fact that the rape victim had apparently had the gall to file charges with the police.
The police.You know, those guys who were around before YouTube, before The Rumpus, before cell phones.
She and her family had gone to them, which could not have been any easy decision given that in our neighborhood we were taught not to trust police and to fundamentally think of them as the Enemy.Yet they had gone to the police with her bruises and her list of names, and they had dared to ask for justice.
And so, the police “investigated.”
I was fifteen and busy turning myself into a new, more palatable person.I was losing the blue eyeshadow and the “Italian jacket” with my surname on the back surrounded by stars.I was trading that in for thrift store “alternative” clothing and a new bobbed haircut, for my thick Science textbook and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.What did I know of police investigations?
Word on the street went like this: that every man accused of the rape had produced an alibi instantly.That most of the alibis were women—including some old ladies.The alibis were apparently things like, “Oh no, X couldn’t have been involved with anything like that.He’s such a good boy—at the time of that awful crime, he was helping me build some shelves in my basement.”
The case never went to trial. Soon after, the victim and her family moved out of the neighborhood.
I want to be one of the Righteous ones.I want to be pissed off at the New York Times, because you know what: they did do a shitty job reporting that Texas story.I want, even more, to be outraged at all the victim’s heartless, horrible neighbors, who have blamed her mother, who have blamed her clothing, who have said she lied about her age and that she was always hanging out with older boys.I want to feel outraged and indignant and make the case to the world of how unequivocally wrong that all is, because it is all unequivocally wrong.I want to say that any world other than one in which an eleven year old girl can make stupid mistakes and still not end up gang raped by nearly 20 men is not an acceptable world, and that no blaming the victim or her parents or hypothetical white/Latino men who may have touched this girl before the accused black men did will ever take us any further towards making this world a better place.That only a world in which men are expected to not rape can ever get us anywhere.
But this argument exhausts me.Because we don’t live in a world like that.We live in a world where rape is almost casual.Celebrities rape, as Zolbrod pointed out in her piece.One of my best guy friends from grade school—after the imprisonment of his father, the murder of his brothers—turned out to be a rapist himself.You get a group of women in a room, and it can feel almost impossible that one or more of them haven’t been raped or molested at some point.My mother was molested as a child.Turns out, my mother-in-law may have been too.Sexual violence is a human legacy that plagues almost every family on the planet at some point or another.For years, I was a counselor for battered women and foster girls, who down to every last one had been sexually abused.Some of them had histories that made Precious look like a fucking Disney cartoon, and I can promise that I am not being hyperbolic about that.The thing is, what we pass off as “atrocious” in the media is simply “life” for much of the population.Prostitution, sexual slavery, child porn, incest, date rape, gang rape, rape rooms, domestic violence, child abuse, rape glorified in the “entertainment” of my youth from General Hospital to Flowers in the Attic.The thing is, it almost makes more sense to go up to every man in this world—and there are many; it is almost a miracle how many—who have never raped or hit anyone and study them as the anomalies . . .
But that’s not what I mean to say either.That’s bullshit too, because there are more of them—more of the sane, nonviolent, non-raping men—than there are of the other kind.And that fact is almost enough to make me climb up on the pedestal of Idealism, of human goodness, and extol how we can never demand anything less than perfection.It is almost enough, but not quite.Because I understand a thing or two about complicity.
For a heady while before the rape victim fled our neighborhood, she provided an exciting topic of gossip for everybody.Her misfortune was a break in the usual monotony of places like that, where most everyone figures the life they have to look forward to is exactly like the life they already have, like the lives their mother or father had.Dreams didn’t run terribly large.If you were a teller at a bank or a manager at a grocery store chain, you were a success story.If nobody was beating you up or selling drugs out of your house, you were lucky.There was only so much to talk about.Everyone had known everyone else forever.We were much like a small town that way—much, I imagine, like the small Texas town in which that recent rape occurred.A large, semi-public crime was much fodder for conversation.
Most of the discussion revolved around what a fool and a slut the victim was.What had she been thinking, going over there?Did you know she used to sleep with A and B and C?What a ho!I do not recall any conversation about what Assholes the alleged rapists were, or how other girls should be afraid of them or hate them.I do remember that one of the accused, a guy I’d gone to school with too, had always seemed like such a nice guy, and that there was occasional speculation that he’d been pressured into doing something like that by his older friends, or that he must have really “changed.”That was as close as I recall anyone coming to admitting that the rape was actually something “bad.”
Complicity is a loaded thing.Germans during World War II claimed not to realize that millions of Jews were being executed in the concentration camp down the road.Neighbors in Texas tell reporters with disdain how that little rape victim dressed like a twenty-year-old.They roll their eyes and ask, “Where was her mother?”
And in Chicago, in 1983, my best girlfriend and I took to singing a song about our neighborhood rape victim.It was basically “Keep away from runaround Sue,” only substituting in the victim’s name.We sang this to one another while studying for exams at our prestigious new high school and we got the giggles. I want to stipulate here that if you had asked me, I already would have called myself a “feminist.” I used to argue equal rights with my teachers, my dad–I was a real pain in the ass about it. And yet, I was utterly unaware of any hypocrisy or paradox here. Because you see, my best friend and I were not like the victim.We didn’t sleep with those gangbangers!We didn’t do drugs! We planned to go to college! We were smart girls! We had nothing to fear.
At one point, we’d been in the same classroom as the victim.I remember her telling us, in my basement clubhouse, about the first guy she slept with.I remember her getting her tongue caught on the ice inside her freezer on a dare once at a sleepover.I remember the way the other kids in school made fun of her for being fat, and because I was fat at the time, too, I was always relieved, because she was fatter than I was and it took the heat off me.
She was our peer.We had known her all our lives.And yet the propaganda of Slutdom had infiltrated us like anti-Semitism infiltrated old German women down the goddamn road from Dachau.We stared into our Science textbooks and we forgot we had vaginas too.We forgot that women were human beings.We forgot that our good grades would protect us from nothing.We forgot that we had any responsibility.When the rape victim moved out of the neighborhood, we forgot about her.We went off to college, to our shiny new futures.We felt nothing like shame.
Four years later, my best friend would be raped by our old friend from grade school.She would never even try to bring charges.She blamed herself for going to his house, for being drunk.She gained weight, stopped dating, didn’t answer her phone.
In the late 80s, in a squat in London, I would fend off an Australian man who believed my body my cost of admission if I wanted to sleep on his mattress on the floor instead of in the park all night.I would leave the squat a 5 a.m. and wander around London.I had no money for food, although I do recall managing to buy cigarettes.The next night, I would not go back to that squat, but I would go to another, to another man, and one after that.
A decade after the rape in my old neighborhood, I would watch a circle of girls—my clients at a foster care agency in rural Vermont—hold one another sobbing for the things their fathers had done to them: for the gangbangs at which they’d been offered up when they were six or seven, for the ways their mothers abandoned them and sent them off to live with strangers rather than leaving the men who had harmed them.
Nearly 3 decades after that 1983 rape, my daughters will be thirteen years old, entering a world I cannot control—that I could never control.A world in which I have been complicit in driving a fifteen year old girl from her home because the world—the only world she knew; the only world that gave a shit since the New York Times wasn’t calling—believed she was worthless and deserved what she got.
What if, instead of singing that song, my best friend and I had called her on the phone and said we were sorry for what had happened to her?Sure, that might have changed nothing at all.Probably she didn’t even like us.But we’ll never know now, because it never even crossed our minds to do something like that.
It is interesting to note, too, that none of the dissenters of the New York Times’ coverage seem to be asking how many of those opinionated neighbors, in that dead end Texas town, have been raped themselves, as they stand there idiotically jabbering about the young victim’s outfits.It is interesting to wonder how many of the young rapists in that case watched their own fathers beat their mothers, or how many may have been molested and never told anyone, or if they tried to tell were told that nobody gave a shit.
Sometimes, I don’t believe that we’re all in this together.Some days, I believe that the New York Times reporter and that little girl in Texas have nothing in common, that things are fucked up and always will be because that’s just how they are.But other days, I can feel it in my fingers, the way we are all the same.The New York Times journalist, the writers of The Rumpus, those Texas neighbors, that young rape victim, my old grade school friend who is now raising kids of her own, my daughters.Maybe some rapists are born—a chemical deficit, who knows?But most are made.Most days, I remember that “Rape Culture” refers to the ways in which rape is made possible by a continuum, from those who hold the victim down to those who provide alibis to those who fail to report the story to those who report it irresponsibly to those who feel immune and make up songs to assure ourselves of our safety.
And so, though it is not the popular opinion in my circle, I want to take my hat off to the foremost newspaper in the country for reporting this story, even if they didn’t do it perfectly.I want to bow down and kiss the ground in gratitude that, for all the idiocies of contemporary media, we no longer live in a world defined by silence.I want to thank all the brave feminist writers who have spoken out on how this issue should have been handled better in the news, and for their idealism in fighting to uphold standards of decency that sometimes feel impossibly out of reach.I want to tell that little girl in Texas that no matter what she hears amid this media glut, what happened will never be her fault.I want to slap those neighbors who blame her for her fate–and I want to tell them that I understand, that I too have been complicit.I want to say that they believe there is only one way to see the world but that they’re wrong, and if they care, they can change. That every single thing that matters in this world is riding on them.
I want to say to my grade school friend, twenty-eight years too late: I’m sorry.