I appreciate the chance Georges T. Dodds has given me to write a response to his review of my novel, Firethorn. It's rare that a writer gets to respond to a reviewer directly. I understand his concern that rape is too often used as a gratuitous plot device to "draw sympathy to or steel a female character," without showing the consequences to that character. That's one cliché, and one I hoped to avoid. Personally, I'm much more offended by depictions of women enjoying being raped, which were all too common before feminism made them unacceptable. But the fact that rape has been written about badly doesn't mean it shouldn't be written about.
I'm not qualified to make any kind of cross-cultural or cross-historical comparison of the effects of rape. I'm not a psychologist, historian, or anthropologist, I'm a novelist. I set out to write about a character, Firethorn, and to put her into a realistic, albeit imaginary, society. She is of the lower caste of mudfolk, because I wanted to look at that society from the point of view of the least powerful. I drew on many sources. In some ways the culture is more Roman than medieval, because the inhabitants aren't Christian and don't have medieval notions of sin. I also studied accounts from our own (U.S.) history of slavery and the Jim Crow caste system that followed. The more I read, the more it seemed I could not ignore the subject of rape. Rape and the threat of rape have been integral to the violence used to maintain unequal societies and unequal gender roles. Rape often accompanies warfare, sometimes as a deliberate policy, as in the recent wars in Bosnia and Rwanda.
When Firethorn is raped by her new master, she doesn't get sympathy or support or justice. It's an ordinary event -- but to her it's unendurable. She runs away to the woods, leaving a relatively comfortable life as a manor servant. It's a suicidal risk, but she does manage to survive. Her year-long stay in the Kingswood is a time of grieving and slow healing. She leaves the woods with a new name, creating a symbolic break with the person she was before. I was influenced in this by first-person accounts of rape (Lucky, by Alice Sebold, and After Silence, by Nancy Venable Raine). For some people, rape is the death of the person they were before; to go on they must discover and create the person they will be.
Firethorn's life is shaped by violence and the threat of violence. She chooses to become Sire Galan's bedservant, or sheath, and she stays with him even when he is abusive, in part because the liaison offers her some protection. Once she's in the army camp, she finds out how dangerous it is for a woman alone. She knows that if Sire Galan is killed, or if she leaves him, she'll become prey. Like many a servant, slave, or battered woman, for that matter, Firethorn chafes against subservience even as she submits. She reaches for personal power where she can find it, in the realms of religion and magic -- and in her changing bond with Sire Galan. I hoped she wouldn't come across as a modern, emancipated woman, because I didn't conceive of her that way; there have always been people who resisted servitude, who held onto self-respect despite their societies' insistence on their inferiority. I tried to embed Firethorn's reactions to the rape (and the later assault) in her actions and in her character. But she is not defined by or confined to the status of victim.
Whether I successfully portrayed the aftermath of sexual assault must be left to critics and readers. Clearly I did not convince Georges Dodds. That's a matter of opinion. But I think he's factually incorrect in supposing that a woman who suffers more than one assault would necessarily require "superhuman…powers of endurance," in order "to function with no mental breakdown or overt symptoms of abuse." Just as in combat, psychological breakdown frequently occurs, but is not inevitable. Because of the stigma of rape, many women hide what happened to them and go on. Many women have had to survive not one rape, but many. Unfortunately, we often blame victims when they don't conform to our notions of vulnerability and resilience. (See the website of the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for a discussion of the individual differences in response to sexual assault.)
Rape survivors are everywhere in our society -- in all societies, probably -- working, raising families, creating, loving. That so many of them manage to endure and go on to live the best life they can is not superhuman, but human.
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