On rereading Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and confronting the trauma of sexual assault.
The morning after I was raped, nearly eight years ago, I got in my car and drove home. There, in my teenage bedroom, I took the pair of tights I’d been wearing the night before out of my bag, put them back on, and looked at myself in the mirror. The tights were torn across the crotch: not a ladder, but a gaping, deliberate tear that went across both thighs and between my legs. At the tops of my legs, on the skin exposed by the tear, were bruises. I took the tights off and threw them away, along with the underwear I had been wearing that night. I was due to start my first year of college in a week, and my mind was pushing down the memories of what had happened the night before. Even then, I was already rationalizing the tears and the bruises as something consensual, something I had either invited or agreed to.
The mind has ways of burying what has happened to the body, during and after trauma. If this has not happened to you, it can be difficult to comprehend. Dissociative amnesia is a survival mechanism which represses memories and experiences of trauma so deeply that the conscious mind has no access to it. Throughout my time at university, I dissociated myself from the memory of what had happened just before I moved away from home. I experienced anxiety and depression, developed disordered eating habits and addictive behavior. I had nightmares, dreams of a man standing over me, from which I would wake up screaming so loudly that I would wake my neighbors, but all of this I somehow managed to put down to exam stress, work stress—anything that would allow me to continue denying the fact that I had been raped.
It was not until a year after graduating, more than four years after the assault, that I first acknowledged what had happened to me. Whether it was emotional stability, maturity, or forcible reminders, my mind was ready to present me with those buried memories. And when they came, they came with force. I was suffering daily panic attacks, flashbacks, intense anxiety, and depression. I began treatment, medication courses, therapy, and the soul-destroying work of telling the people I loved most what I had spent all these years hiding. Of the various coping mechanisms I developed, functional and dysfunctional, the one I held on to, the one that gave me the most hope, was writing. It gave me the possibility of a future that wasn’t shaped by trauma, but that I might shape. When I first started showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, it was November 2015. By the end of the year, I had written the short story—a rape, its consequences—on which my first novel would be based.
In 2017, a few days before Christmas, I found myself on a train journey to my parent’s house, back to that same childhood bedroom, with something resembling my novel in my backpack. All this time, I had been working to process my traumatic memories, trying to reduce their charge and assign them to a less dominant, less reactive part of my brain, and the novel was a central part of this journey. But it was not quite finished; there were still some things missing—most significantly, its title.
I worked on the draft over the entire Christmas break. Even on Christmas Day, I sat on the floor of the living room pulling books off of my parents’ shelves, trying to get some distance from the manuscript, trying to gain perspective from the many writers whose work I admired, whose ideas had influenced my own work. One of those writers was Don DeLillo. I found my old, battered college copy of White Noise, and flicked through the pages, marked with annotations and underlinings. I was reminded of the reasons I had chosen DeLillo as the subject of my final-year dissertation. The sense of encroaching dystopia, the stark and sudden violence, and the beauty of the language that flourished in the moments of deepest nihilism, his writing resonated with more force than ever.
What struck me more than any of this, on returning to DeLillo, was how many of his characters existed in prolonged states of either flight or exile. The protagonist of DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, abruptly abandons his advertising job in Manhattan for life on the road. In Mao II, the protagonist completely disappears less than halfway through the novel. In White Noise, an entire town is evacuated following a chemical spill that sends plumes of smoke into the air. These were characters who were lost, exiled, looking to find meaning in the world—through medication, cult-membership, consumerism—and failing.
In one of my favorite DeLillo scenes, Jack Gladney, the protagonist of White Noise, browses his supermarket with an almost religious reverence: “all the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases … not that we would want to, not that any useful purpose would be served.” Later, Gladney experiences a moment of “splendid transcendence,” hearing his sleeping daughter mutter, over and over, the brand name of an automobile. In the world of DeLillo’s novels, what lies beneath or beyond, is too terrifying to contemplate, and so his characters are trapped in a surface world, dense with color and sound and signifiers that, if unravelled, point to nowhere more profound than a supermarket aisle, or the make of a car.
At a glance, none of this has anything to do with rape. Which makes sense, of course. In the time that I was most drawn to DeLillo, my memories of trauma were deeply buried. And whenever they seemed close to surfacing, I deliberately looked away. In the classes where we were assigned texts that included sexual violence, I balked. In seminars on Titus Andronicus and Philomena, I kept my head down, saying little. After reading the plays of Sarah Kane, I stayed in bed for two days straight. Where I had the option to read feminist writings, or where my essays could have included feminist readings, I turned away—it was easier not to engage. Like Jack Gladney, I didn’t see the sense in decoding my experiences, my feelings, even if it meant being entirely alienated from them. I was not looking for meaning. I merely wanted to keep on living.
Sitting on the floor of my parents’ living room, I came across a passage in White Noise I remembered vividly. It is the scene near the end of the novel in which Jack Gladney points a gun at the man who has been sleeping with his wife and pulls the trigger. Gladney watches as his victim’s blood flows from his body: “I knew then what red was, saw it terms on dominant wavelength, luminance, purity.”
Like many of the starkest scenes in DeLillo’s work, it is among the most beautiful. Gladney is hypnotized by the image of blood squirting in a “delicate arc” from Willie Mink’s body, by the intensity of color, the discovery of beauty in another man’s pain. Wanting to relive the experience, Gladney fires the gun again, overawed by his own power. As in the supermarket, Gladney is stunned by the sensory density of his experience. In this moment, his world is entirely calibrated around violence and the power it gives him, the desire to repeat a violent act. In my copy of White Noise, I had underlined the passage, and in the margin, I had written two words: burial / resurfacing.
And that’s the thing: the experience of violence is at the edge of what the human mind can rationalize, and being exposed to it, either as a victim or a perpetrator, can inalterably change a perception of the world. A classic symptom of post-traumatic stress is the compulsion to recreate the traumatic event over and over, whether it is the abuse survivor returning to a violent relationship or the soldier returning to a war zone. The sufferer struggles to function in a world not dominated by violence. Returning to White Noise, I realized that this passage set out the state of existence—a “heightened reality, a density that was also a transparency”—into which I would enter as I myself developed post-traumatic stress, overwhelmed by the compulsion to re-create, over and over, an act of violence that I could not rationalize.
In a post-traumatic state, the sensory signifiers associated with the traumatic event take on a talismanic existence in the mind. Something as simple, as seemingly nonspecific as a sound or a color now has the power to transport a victim not just to the memory of that act, but to the physical experience of it. The body, responding to the signifier, re-enters survival mode: the pupils dilate in an attempt to receive as much light as possible, the breath quickens, pumping oxygen into the brain, the bowels loosen, ready to empty their contents in an attempt to make the victim’s body as unappealing as possible to potential attackers. In White Noise, it is color, specifically the color red, which becomes the portal through which the world is transformed into a place of violence. For Jack Gladney, the proximity of death is galvanizing, even invigorating; he is, after all, the agent of violence rather than its victim. But for me, and for Kate, my own novel’s protagonist, the proximity of death, or at least of violence, is paralyzing.
Reading back through my own, still-untitled novel, it was clear to me that after her assault, Kate existed in a state not dissimilar to Gladney’s heightened reality. In her dissociative state, consumed by images of violence, she is isolated from the world. But what was missing, I realized, was that single thread, that one image or signifier, which would act as the trapdoor to plunge her from the present into the past. When I returned to the rape scene, I gave the rapist a thin red ribbon, stitched into his collar, on which Kate fixates as she is being assaulted. Later, when she experiences her first flashback, it is the same shade of red, the same red stitching on the collar of another man, that triggers her dissociative state: “Time flatlined; she knew then what red was.”
It was this phrase, borrowed from DeLillo, that would become the title of my novel: What Red Was. These three words encapsulate, for me, the devastating recalibration of an entire worldview: one pregnant with danger, the possibility of pain, inescapable violence. It is a filtered world, one-dimensional. This is the world as seen from the perspective of a rape survivor, a perspective I have spent the last five years of my life trying to negotiate.
The man who raped me was also wearing red on the night of the assault. For years, that particular shade, in a particular light, had the power to paralyze me. Red caused me to relive what had been done to me, over and over, in high definition. But today, when I consider what red was, I see that it is only a color, a thread stitched between books.
Rosie Price is a writer. Her first novel, What Red Was, is published by Hogarth in the U.S. and Vintage in the UK. She lives in London.