Beneath the Surface of Empathy: A Review of Not That Bad, Edited by Roxane Gay / by Peter LaBerge

BY LETICIA URIETA

  Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture , edited by Roxane Gay ( HarperCollins , 2018).

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, 2018).

CONTENT WARNING: RAPE, SEXUAL ASSAULT, HARASSMENT

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The act of beginning this book was an act of facing an experience I knew would be enlightening, painful, stomach churning, powerful and resonant. I was excited by the prospect of being able to read and talk about this book, and yet I kept stopping and starting it out of fear and knowing. I knew that listening to each story had the potential to make me feel empowered and, at the same time, dig into my own traumas and feelings that are still difficult to face.

My experience with this book has been multilayered; I chose to read it and listen to the audiobook in which each author read their essay aloud. I wanted to consider whether there was a certain power that these authors could reclaim by telling their own stories aloud. Even in her introduction to the book, hearing editor Roxane Gay deliberately and clearly reading the names of each contributing author was powerful, like saying their names conjured a protection against an erasure of their stories.

In her introduction to the book, Gay describes the stories we tell ourselves as mechanisms for coping, or simply understanding trauma, even when coping hurts us as survivors. She describes the refrain she has often told herself, that her gang rape and the subsequent assaults and mistreatments were “not that bad,” and how, because of this refrain, “the surfaces of my empathy became calloused.” This feels important to read before spending time with the testimonies of the other contributors, as Gay asks readers to consider how rape culture and misogyny have limited our own sense of empathy for survivors of trauma. To call the authors’ stories ‘testimonies’ feels important too; testimony has a legal context, but many of these authors did not and may never have the opportunity to seek out justice through a system that often dismisses or renders survivors invisible, or else subjects them to extreme scrutiny that prolongs and amplifies trauma-as the country has seen played out during Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. V.L. Seek describes this in her essay, “Utmost Resistance”: “We are trapped in a legal system that has never favored women and has never believed survivors. And we are mired in a circuitous and damning dialogue, so powerful that it invalidates our experiences, our traumas, our truths-a dialogue so powerful that we begin to doubt whether our experience was never there at all.” The act of telling these experiences is an act against erasure and for affirmation that it happened, as memory often fails survivors after traumatic events.

To call the authors’ work ‘testimonies’ is not meant to detract from the fact that each essay is carefully crafted and each one focuses on a different aspect of rape culture that largely impact women and femme peoples, though this collection spans genders and sexualities.

Some of the authors have chosen to tell their stories as linear narratives, while others have chosen to focus on a specific aspect of their experiences or their continuous path towards understanding and healing from these experiences. In Claire Schwartz’s essay, “& The Truth is, I Have No Story,” she grapples with the narratives that people have attempted to use to frame her assault, like “at least you weren’t killed.” By removing her experience from a comforting narrative structure, she disrupts these narratives of “not that bad” when she insists, “I want someone to watch me thrash and crumple because that, too, is the truth.” This is an idea that is echoed throughout the collection—that survivors do not owe the public or those hearing their testimonies a convenient or palatable narrative about their trauma. Sexual assault and harassment are pervasive and healing is work, not something that a survivor can simply achieve and move on from. Another contributor, artist Liz Rosema, has chosen to navigate the collective silence of youth impacted by an inappropriate coach in her comic, “What We Didn’t Say.” Some of the authors confine their stories to themselves, while others employ the direct address of “you” to confront a perpetrator, as AJ McKenna does in “Sixty-Three Days,” or to address other people who might have experienced something similar to their own experiences, like “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl,” by xTx. The diverse ways in which the authors choose to tell their stories speaks to the divergent yet relatable ways that many survivors navigate their traumas and their understanding of what has happened since.

The contributors to this book range from well-known, professional writers to academics to celebrity actors, yet all of their stories are treated with equal respect and care. In fact, it was stories from the writers who were less well-known that I gravitated towards, as they explored important ideas, like how intergenerational trauma begets more trauma and the ways that acts of sexual assault and harassment take away a person’s autonomy over their own body.       

One contributor, Vanessa Martir, an accomplished writer and teacher of creative nonfiction, wrote a piece about her relationship with her mother’s trauma and how it affected her ability to navigate her own in her essay, “What I Told Myself,” which is from her memoir and took seven years to write. When I asked her about her experience of recording herself reading her work, she said, “When I was asked if I wanted to record the essay, my immediate answer was yes. I knew that no one could do my story justice the way I could. To say I was nervous is an understatement, but I certainly walked out of there feeling fierce and unstoppable...and yes, empowered.” Martir’s work as a community educator is to empower others to tell their most necessary and difficult stories, and so her words ring true to others: the act of telling our stories can be a part of the healing process. While the act of listening to her words and to the words of the other contributors can be difficult, it feels to me to be an act necessary to fully experience this book.

Sharisse Tracey, whose essay, “Picture Perfect,” is one of the more graphic and disturbing ones to read, spoke to me about how it felt for her to have her essay included in this collection: “I knew, should my essay be chosen, in what I knew would be thousands of entries—that said to me, you matter. Your story matters and people care. Not only do people care, but they are pissed off, hurt, outraged, angry, horrified and they want to help to secure that these stop at the source and those perpetrators be brought to justice.” Tracey continues to affirm how powerful this experience has been for her when she describes the act of recording her piece, saying how difficult it was and how her voice cracked and she fought back tears. When listening to her audio recording again, she said that, “I braced myself to listen when I first received the audio file. It was painful to hear the story of a twelve-year-old girl being raped by her father. I tried to listen as if it were not me...but that was impossible. Although I’ve lived with the story, hearing it still brought me to tears. I believe the experience of listening to stories can often be more powerful, especially when they are read by the authors. In this case, with Not That Bad, I feel that all of us had to read our own stories. We own those stories. We live and breathe our words daily. Unlike readers, we can’t put the book down when it gets too painful or turn off the volume. Each of us paid for all of our words. Most of us are still paying.”

These stories are for the authors themselves, allowing them to work through their own processes of healing. They are for other survivors who need to read these stories in order to feel seen and to feel less isolated in their own silences.

But the stories of the people in this book are also working to name that which patriarchy and rape culture seeks to make unnamable, because to name an act levies power over it. These stories are directed at a society that is sustained by survivor’s silence and fear in the face of rape culture, and that seems insurmountable. The fact that this book exists speaks to the notion that it contains only a handful of stories among countless others, and that is a statement the book is making too. As Zoe Medeiros writes in her essay, “Why I Stopped,” “The more of us who come out as survivors, the harder it gets to ignore that there is too much to survive, the harder it gets to pretend that this doesn’t happen or it only happens to certain kinds of people.”

It feels too big to assign this book the job of “fixing” something for any of the contributors or for readers. Rather, the book seeks to create a conversation that is too loud to ignore. The subtitle, “Dispatches from Rape Culture,” is very deliberate. Rape culture, as it exists across spaces and cultures, creates a battleground between those fighting to dismantle it, those unwilling to interrogate it and those actively working to uphold it. These are some of the stories from that battleground.

There are times that, as a survivor, it feels difficult to know where to channel my anger and what the next step is within growing movements towards justice like the #MeToo movement. As Lyz Lenz writes in her essay, “All The Angry Women,” “my anger still feels homeless and without a direction forward.” Not That Bad may be a way forward; it draws on the work that activists have done and engages in a conversation that I hope will not soon end.

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Leticia Urieta is a proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.