The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature


Arts & Culture

Detail from the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony last week opened a desperately needed national conversation about the nature of silence in the aftermath of trauma. Why didn’t Blasey Ford tell her “loving parents,” Donald Trump discharged on Twitter. The hashtag #WhyIDidntReport generated thousands of testimonies about the societal forces that push victims into silence in the aftermath of assault. That silence, unheard by anyone else but shatteringly loud inside one’s head, is an open secret in American life. It is also an open secret in American literature, especially in the works of women writers.

Brett Kavanaugh’s description of his daughter’s prayers at dinner brought to mind the theatrical piety of the Bible salesman in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.” That Bible salesman comes off as earnest—at first—as he scopes out a family’s front parlor and decries the absence of the Bible that “good Chrustians” would certainly display there.

Once he gets beyond the front parlor and has Hulga, the adult daughter of the household, to himself, he doesn’t bring up anything more about “Chrustian service.” Watching Kavanaugh lose control of his “good country folk” performance and become increasingly overcome with rage, I thought of O’Connor’s salesman absurdly repeating the word “Chrustian,” of the terrible theatrics of our politics.

It is not until he and Hulga are in the barn, where there are no witnesses, that the salesman reveals the Bible in his valise is nothing more than a box with a flask inside and a condom. The Bible salesman takes what he wants from Hulga, and steals her artificial leg. As he leaves her there, unable to walk, he boasts that he once stole a woman’s glass eye, too.

Though the story was published over sixty years ago, the sick abuse of power is disturbingly similar to any number of testimonies that have emerged this past year. O’Connor artfully elides what exactly the Bible salesman does, or doesn’t do, to Hulga in the barn. That elision evokes the roaring silence that she will now endure, returning to this horrifying experience within the solitude of her mind.

Instead, the story gives primacy to the sensorial memory that is the legacy of the assault, the images and words that will haunt Hulga the rest of her life: the salesman’s insistence that she take off her wooden leg in front of him because it’s what “makes her different,” how he wields this vulnerability against her as he pushes her down and “with eyes like two steel spikes, would glance behind him where the leg stood.”

In her testimony, Blasey Ford spoke of the details that have remained seared into her memory, the “indelible” laughter, the placement of the bed and the stairwell, and the certainty in her memory of the eyes and face of the boy who clamped his hands over her mouth. Her story uncomfortably evoked so many other stories that have been held like an open secret in this country and the literature it has produced.

My own novel, out next month, is about silenced victims of assault and a powerful politician determined to remain beyond the realm of consequences. In working on it, I thought often of that Bible salesman carrying off parts of women’s bodies like hunting trophies. A wooden leg. A glass eye.

I began the novel four years ago, long before a man who bragged about groping women became president. The image I kept returning to in my mind as I began to write was of a woman heading to work, averting her gaze from the photo on the front page of a newspaper of a senator who had once assaulted her. And now Christine Blasey Ford, on her way to work, was turning her gaze from the photos of Kavanaugh in the paper as that president’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

While writing Those Who Knew, I tried to figure out how to capture the clanging anger that resounds in my character’s head as she turns away from yet another picture of that senator who once left her unconscious on the floor. For this, I returned often to Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman. Early in the novel, Jackson’s teenage protagonist drifts through a party taking place in her father’s house. Her own house, Natalie reminds herself. When a man she doesn’t recognize asks her questions, Natalie politely answers, though an increasing feeling of foreboding nags at her. When she has the audacity to admit she missed some of the pronouncements streaming from the man’s mouth, he grabs her by the arm and pulls her away from crowd and across the grass.

“What have I done?” Natalie asks silently as this guest of her parents’ pulls her farther into the forest. The “I” in her question, the internalized impulse to assume the fault is hers, compels her to keep following him without resistance. Like O’Connor, Jackson gives primacy to what will be violently seared into Natalie’s sensorial memory, “traveling past the locked hands of the trees, past the large nodding implacable heads.”

No explicit mention of the man surfaces in the novel after that. It is a silence that—for the reader attuned to it—becomes a glass-shattering scream. Jackson leaves out whatever unspeakable crime the man commits. What she conjures instead is Natalie’s increasingly agonizing sense of social isolation, the scrutinizing heads turning toward her everywhere she goes.

When Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher blocked Senator Jeff Flake from closing an elevator door on them, the way Flake just stood there—nodding—brought those bobbing heads in Jackson’s story to mind: the party going on in the yard. Meanwhile, the Kavanaughs of this country are knocking back their cocktails and looking for some new woman to isolate—knowing the unlikelihood of any consequences.

The next morning, Natalie wakes feeling sick and dizzy. Although these words were written in 1951, Jackson could be writing about a teenager waking after an assault last week:

She loathed her hands as they came toward her face to cover her eyes. “Nothing happened,” she chanted, “nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened.”

In 1991, the poet June Jordan published an essay about Anita Hill titled “Can I Get a Witness?” Jordan points out that Hill agreed to take a lie-detector test, which determined that her responses were true. Thomas, meanwhile, refused the test, and we all know what happened next.

In Jordan’s enduring “Poem About My Rights,” she evokes all the predictable ways that allegations of sexual assault get dismissed, especially when the victim is a woman of color. Forty years after the poem’s publication in 1980, it is devastating to consider how little has changed:

I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age
the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the
wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic
the wrong sartorial I
I have been the meaning of rape
I have been the problem everyone seeks to
eliminate by forced
penetration with or without the evidence

With the relentless repetition of “wrong” after “wrong,” Jordan captures the pervasive racism and misogyny that lead victims of assault to become resigned to what—to others—presents as silence. Jordan mixes up the tone of the list, moving from “wrong nose” to the mocking courtroom diction of “wrong sartorial.” She evokes the bottomless well of excuses used to shut down an allegation. “If this Government,” Jordan wrote in her essay about Hill, “will not protect and defend her, and all black women, and all women, period … then we will change the Government. We have the numbers to deliver on this warning.”

Twenty-seven years later, we still have the numbers to deliver on that warning in the midterm elections. I fervently hope that this time we will. And perhaps, finally, readers will be able to turn to a classmate in a literature class and say, I hear it. I hear what’s roaring in the silence of this line.


Idra Novey is the author of Those Who Knew, out next month from Viking Books, and Ways to Disappear. She teaches fiction at Princeton University.