From the site of the act of rape, consternation spreads outwardly in concentric circles. – Eldridge Cleaver
This has got to be the worst crime that leaves the victim alive, I think every time I’m faced with the fact of rape. It’s the worst non-fatal crime. (But it does kill, it is fatal. How many dead spirits are strewn behind it?) Rape is an atrocious Eros. The world-/history-wide crime strikes me with both rage and grief, so Dustin Brookshire’s debut chapbook, To the One Who Raped Me (2012, Sibling Rivalry Press) touched me instantly. I’m not a fan of most “activist” art, but I’m impressed by Dustin’s incisive poetizing of this joyless topic. Though I hesitate to use the term “economy” in regard to poetry, Dustin has it. He makes measured but powerful statements on both the rape he suffered and the fallout. The following exchange with the author is meant to inform, disturb and offer guidance at the same time. – David Herrle
DAVID: Dustin, you were raped by a former boyfriend, which supports the fact that so many rapists are ex-intimates, relatives or friends of victims. A passage in The Truth About Rape said it best: “Violating trust is a form of aggression.” Tell us about the shock of being brutalized by a person who you once trusted, desired and welcomed sexually – who took care of you after you’d been in a car accident only a week earlier. Why and when did you decide to write the book?
DUSTIN: I recently watched Tyler Perry’s movie For Colored Girls. There is a rape scene in the movie, and the scene is horrific through its well-thought cinematography. The perpetrator, someone the victim had just been on a date with, holds her down and rapes her while she stares at a clock. The camera focuses on her face, her tears, her watching the clock and how much time is passing. She’s lifeless in disbelief that she is being violated. Lifelessness is a common theme among rape scenes in movies. Maybe the lifelessness is a product of the victim’s disbelief, or because the victim is moving herself beyond what is happening. I say “she” because I can’t recall a movie that depicts male-on-male rape in this fashion. However, that’s how it was for me. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I was in shock.
I wrote poems about the rape because I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to anyone about it, and I didn’t start the cathartic process until six months after it happened. Poetry has always served many purposes for me, one of those being a place of comfort. Since one of the cardinal rules of poetry is to never assume that the writer is the speaker of the poem, it felt somewhat easier to put my thoughts, emotions and the experience on the page.
In her autobiography Zora Neale Hurston writes: “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” I couldn’t keep the agony inside me. That’s how the poems were born. At the time I wasn’t even thinking about a book; I was trying to find a way to heal.
DAVID: In the opening poem, “I Don’t Like to Say the Word Rape”, the final stanza is chillingly brief: “There was No./Silence./Him coming inside.” In the next poem, “Soap,” you describe a solemn but desperate act that has become the staple of rape-aftermath scenes: the shower that never quite cleanses. “The feeling of him still clings,” you write later on. Rape has a long reach, doesn’t it? Even “I don’t like to say the word rape” includes the word “rape.” Is the problem less about cleansing yourself and more about wishing to cleanse the aggressor of his behavior? After all, in “To the One Who Raped Me” you reveal an impossible desire: “[T]o erase the moment after,/when you looked at me and smiled.”
DUSTIN: The initial problem, for me, had nothing to do with wanting to cleanse my rapist of his behavior. All of the emotions were centered on me. I felt dirty. I felt robbed. I felt wrong. I felt violated. You think of an adjective with a negative connotation and there was probably some point that I felt it. I wanted to rid myself of these feelings. I was robbed and violated, but logically I knew that I wasn’t dirty or wrong. I couldn’t stop feeling the way I did. I can’t speak for all rape victims, but from the people I have spoken with and research I’ve conducted, I feel I can say this is commonality we share.
For so long I wanted that moment after erased. I had trouble reconciling how someone I once loved could hurt me in this manner and then smile at me after. Now I no longer waste my energy on wanting to change what happened or that moment after. Don’t get me wrong – I wish it hadn’t happened. But I’ve accepted that it happened and that I can’t change the past. I do control how I let the past affect me, and I won’t allow the rape to waste any of my energy or happiness.
DAVID: In “No Comedy in Tragedy” you describe your physical reaction to the rape scene in The Hills Have Eyes 2: “I twist. Heart races. Mouth goes dry…” The description is more explicit in the title poem:
I cringe now when there’s a rape scene in a movie. My stomach cramps like a bully has hit me. I turn cold. Beads of sweat form a crown of shame across my forehead.
Doesn’t rape need to be depicted explicitly in order to make a truly sympathetic impact? Some films come to mind instantly: Boorman’s Deliverance, Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Mia Goldman’s Open Window, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. Your intense physical reactions aside, are you ultimately for or against rape scenes?
DUSTIN: Am I for or against rape scenes? This question is packed more than one of Dolly Parton’s bras, but I’m going to keep it simple. My personal opinion is that rape is still too often a taboo topic for discussion, probably because it makes people uncomfortable. People need to be reminded that it rape is not fiction. Rape happens. If a rape scene in a movie keeps people from forgetting that rape is still a problem that we’re dealing with, then I’m for rape scenes in movies. However, I don’t watch rape scenes. I still have a physical reaction to them, though my reaction is not as bad as it was the year following the rape.
DAVID: Rape as weapon: the record rapes per hour in eastern Congo, mass rapes during the Bosnian War, the Rwanda holocaust’s obliteration of Tutsi women, the violation and mutilation of German females by French and Russian troops in WWII, the Japanese reign of terror at Nanking, etc. Then there’s race-based rape, such as the infamous sexual savaging of Betty Jean Owens (a black woman) by four white savages in 1959 and Eldridge Cleaver’s raping of white women as “an insurrectionary act” before his radical reformation. In prison he realized he’d dehumanized himself, and – like you – he began to write to save himself. Share your thoughts on rape’s atrocious, terroristic aspect.
DUSTIN: Even though I have accepted the past, I can’t escape it. Rape haunts, and one who has experienced it must learn how to deal with it. I know what my triggers are for negative emotions and deal with those triggers accordingly. As odd as it might sound, it is a liberating moment when you realize this.
DAVID: Therapist Eugene Porter says that “there is no arena in which rape takes place between men and women that it does not take place between men and men,” and clinical psychologist David Lisak claims that “we have a cultural blind spot about this.” Male-on-male rape is an underestimated crime in both seriousness and frequency. This is especially true in prisons. If you’re a new inmate who’s young, passive, diminutive and/or effeminate, you’re a prime target. Another big rape-resume item in prison is being openly gay. In “How Can I Tell Them” you write that your father taught you “to be a man’s man,” implying that he wouldn’t have shown much sympathy for what happened to you. Does your being gay factor into this implied disconnection? What dynamic does homosexuality play in rape?
DUSTIN: My father is in his early 60s. I didn’t think my father would have sympathy for me, and I thought he wouldn’t be able to understand how I was raped. I feared he would place the blame of the incident on me. I didn’t give my father enough credit. After Sibling Rivalry Press accepted my chapbook I had a family meeting with my mother and father to tell them what had happened to me because I didn’t want them to come across my book by accident and be hurt that I didn’t tell them in person. Telling my parents was such a liberating moment for me. My parents were amazing. Even though he was trying to hide it, I could tell my father was angry that someone had hurt me. My mother looked at me and asked, “You never told us because you were hurt and ashamed, even though you did nothing to be ashamed of?” They’ll never know how perfectly that uncomfortable conversation went and how much I needed that from them.
For the longest time I felt that my father was disappointed that I am gay. I based this feeling on conversations I overheard as a child and other events. After I came out he never treated me any differently than he had before I came out. I think I strained our relationship by feeling uncomfortable around my father because I worried how he felt about me being gay. Rape is about control, violation, and domination. I’m not sure being gay has much of dynamic in rape other than the fact that a gay man or lesbian is most likely going to rape a person who is the same sex.
DAVID: Here’s a clip from your “Law & Order: SVU”: “I imagine what isn’t: The rapist victimized in prison. His breakdown. A suicide attempt. A life without redemption.” Another poem, “Living Vicariously Through Extremities,” cheers on the vengeful action of the protagonist in Extremities, a 1986 film starring Farrah Fawcett: “The embers of revenge in her eyes. The loss of power through his hands Like water through a sieve.”
Fawcett’s character prevents rape with her aggression, but anyone who has seen the original or remake of I Spit on Your Grave, which involves a sickening gang rape, knows the guilty but cathartic thrill of seeing an actual victim eventually strike back in “creative” ways. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo protagonist Lisbeth is raped by her legal guardian. Eventually she tases and sodomizes the creep, then tattoos “I AM A SADIST, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST” on his belly. “Godammit, why didn’t you fight?” you ask yourself in “The Flowerbed of Regret,” and you admit in the book’s title poem that “I often think of ways you could die.” However, you acknowledge that the perp’s “suffering won’t bring me happiness.” Are vengeful fantasies therapeutic at least? Can two wrongs balance the scales? Is there redemption for a rapist?
DUSTIN: In the months after the rape, vengeful fantasies were therapeutic. Simply put, they made me feel good. I eventually realized, though, that these negative thoughts were a Band-Aid that wasn’t allowing my wound to heal. Even though I enjoyed Lisbeth tattooing her rapist, in real life I don’t think two wrongs balance the scales. We have a judicial system in the United States that is meant to balance the scales, and if we feel the system isn’t working, then we need to take action to correct it.
I was raised to believe that we are supposed to forgive anyone who wrongs us because it is what Christ wants us to do. I did forgive my rapist, but it had nothing to do with any Christian values. To forgive is to give up resentment. I gave up that resentment when I accepted that I had been raped and that being a rape survivor would always be part of me. I did this for me – it wasn’t for the rapist. I would never tell a rape victim that he/she has to forgive his/her rapist; however, I would the victim he/she has to accept that it happened and talk to at least one person about it. A silent path isn’t a path to healing and recovery.
DAVID: I think rape of children is the worst kind. It shatters the runner’s legs before he or she can start the race. Anyone who watches A&E’s Intervention knows that the majority of addicts suffer from childhood sexual abuse. And, sadly, most of the parents mishandle, bury or deny what happened. But, as you write, “when it is done, it isn’t done.” Do you think that child rape does more damage? Considering the cover-ups of boy rape by clergy and scum such as Jerry Sandusky (not to mention the rampant forced prostitution in places such as India and Thailand), why is there such a wall of silence in underage-rape cases that involve boys in particular?
DUSTIN: I knew someone in high school who was sexually abused by her brother when she was a child. Her brother was also a child at the time. I couldn’t comprehend why she allowed her brother to be in her life. Then it came out that he reenacted what a neighbor had done to him, and it was the fact that he reenacted his abuse on his sister that their parents found out about his abuse.
Instead of seeking out a therapist for them, their parents pulled a Prince of Tides: acted like it never happened. The brother ended up with a drinking problem, and the girl tried to commit suicide twice. I think life would have been different for them both if their parents hadn’t ignored what happened.
I think the rape of a child has the potential to do more damage because children are still developing psychologically. Such an act arrests their development. I don’t know why there is a wall of silence in underage rape cases involving boys. As I said earlier, the topic of rape is still often taboo, and this is very much the case for same-sex rape. I don’t know if parents think they are protecting the victims by embracing silence and honestly believe healing will occur with the silence. I don’t know if parents are selfish and believe people will think they are bad parents because the incidence occurred.
DAVID: In the early 1990s, Camille Paglia wrote that “rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized society,” but she also made comments that many folks considered offensive. “A woman going to a fraternity party is walking into Testosterone Flats, full of prickly cacti and blazing guns,” she said in an interview. “A girl who goes upstairs alone with a brother at a fraternity party is an idiot. Feminists call this ‘blaming the victim.’ I call it common sense.” In The Accused, a film you reference in the book, Jodie Foster’s character is gang-raped in a bar – but her well-known promiscuity clouds where the blame lies. While vulnerable folks should be more vigilant (because “tempting fate” can result in horrors) I insist that all legal and moral force must crash down on the rapist(s) alone. What are your thoughts on the facts-of-life angle?
DUSTIN: I worried about what others would think when I started being open about being raped because I have never been an angel. I love sex, and I was never shy about taking an attractive guy to my bed. I was so worried that someone was going to try to use this fact against me. Earlier on in my healing process, I wouldn’t have been able to handle that kind of comment. Now, well, bring it. I’d chew someone up and spit them out in five seconds if he/she dared tried to use my consensual decisions against me. The bottom line is that no means no. Wearing a short skirt isn’t asking for it. Wearing tight clothes is not asking for it. Being promiscuous does not mean that a person loses a right to decide who he/she has sex with.
Many people do not know that The Accused is based on actual events. On March 6, 1983, a woman entered Big Dan’s, a sports bar in Bedford, Massachusetts, for a drink and pack of cigarettes. She was gang raped by six men while others watched and did nothing. Some cheered the rapists on. No person, male or female, should have to fear living his/her life for any reason. We shouldn’t have to think in terms of what we can do to protect ourselves around every corner, but the sad fact is that we should think in these terms to a certain level. I would never say a girl who goes to a man’s bedroom at a fraternity party is an idiot. My best friend of over 10 years is a heterosexual male who was a member of fraternity. Any girl would have been safe when alone with him. That being said, I think erring on the side of caution is never a bad life tactic. RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) has seven categories of Ways to Reduce your Risk of Sexual Assault. Check the tips out. Share them with friends. People have to talk about it.
DAVID: Would you want the one who raped you to read To the One Who Raped Me? After all, the very title sounds like a dedication. Having known him once, how do you think (or wish) the book would strike him?
DUSTIN: The book is dedicated to the one who raped me. It’s my way of saying fuck you. I used to think he would realize the book was dedicated to him and burn him with embarrassment. The rape was about control. I broke up with him, and he took what he wanted to end it in control. A year after the rape he sent me an email that read: “Hey. You were on my mind. How are you?” Do you think he would have checked in on me if he felt that he had done anything wrong?
DUSTIN: I have always felt the need to pay a penance for not pressing charges. This penance took the form of doing good, and I wanted my chapbook to do good in my community. I knew about the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center because they are known in the metro Atlanta area for their amazing work. I reached out to the DRCC’s executive director, Phyllis Miller, to confirm that the DRCC would accept donations from the purchase of my chapbook. I’ll never forget the phone call with Phyllis. I was so nervous, but it all melted away because Phyllis was a delight. She was thrilled that I thought of them. I met her for a tour of the facility and to have an in-depth in-person conversation with her.
Even though it was evident on their website that the DRCC provides services to all people – no matter their sexual orientation or gender – Phyllis reaffirmed that the DRCC operates on the premise that rape is a human problem, not just a women’s issue. Phyllis and her team do such great work. I hope people will consider donating to the DRCC or their nearest rape crisis center.
DAVID: You’ve said that “silence won’t change the world,” and I admire your brave voice, Dustin. Now that you’ve slain the dragon with To the One Who Raped Me, what’s the plan for your next work? Any closing words?
DUSTIN: I have another chapbook entitled I Should Write Soap Operas that I am going to be sending out this year in the hopes of finding it a home, and I’m putting the finishing touches on my first full-length manuscript.
Thank you, David, for giving me this space in SubtleTea. And I need to say thank you for giving me what I consider my first real publishing credit back in 2005. To anyone who was raped and is living in silence, tell one person that you trust about what happened to you. You will be amazed at the relief you’ll experience.
Buy the book here.
Read some poems here.
RAINN: Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network http://www.rainn.org/