I’ve not been having an easy go of it as of late, friends. I can’t help but laugh, because I started blogging again after finally feeling like I was doing pretty well. But even after six years of chronic pain, sometimes it’s hard to know when a physician (or physical therapist in this case) isn’t doing me any favors. I backslid HARD. Suddenly, I’m cancelling on plans involving $50 comedy tickets and waking my husband up in the middle of the night crying. While I know this flare-up is smaller and more temporary, that my neurologist and I have an appointment this month with a solid plan, I just hate feeling like I’m back at step one.
But. If I most be home. Let me tell you about this book Amber Tamblyn wrote while she also wasn’t having an easy go of it. Mentally she had to wade through the stories of sexual assault to ensure she got it right, and physically she suffered from a nerve injury to her upper extremities while writing. She described pushing through the pain as her body “breaking out of some sort of physical cast” to create such needed, passionate art on this crucial topic. On this I can relate to her more than I’d like.
Full disclosure: I already loved Amber Tamblyn before reading this book. I particularly love watching her embody feminism with close friend America Ferrera, whether it be at The Women’s March, presenting the Feminist AF series, supporting Time’s Up, or just on Lip Sync Battle:
The conventional narrative for a novel about sexual assault focuses on female trauma, but in this book men narrate stories of sexual assault committed against them by an unknown female serial rapist. It matters. For a couple of reasons. The first is the most obvious – sexual assault of men (yes, even by women) is a very real thing that happens. While so many current social movements are rightly pointing out that women’s voices have been ignored for decades (centuries), that doesn’t mean that when we discuss sexual assault we should only allow one gender into the club to fight for change.
But for me, the more important aspect of this approach is that when a man narrates, just as when a man speaks in life, people listen more closely. When I read the descriptions of each male’s experience of sexual assault, all I could think about was how much we minimize these issues when they come from a woman’s voice. Tamblyn has strongly stressed that this book isn’t a revenge fantasy, but rather about evoking empathy; that is, finally understanding what the aftermath of rape truly feels like. We hear a man describe the brutality of the examination after an assault, of the anesthetic poking and prodding without being allowed to clean himself, violated all over again. We hear a man describe the agony of not being believed, or of being questioned by both himself and others as to what he did to make his assailant believe he deserved it. However much we’d like to believe otherwise, we are living in a time when the male voice simply carries more weight. Why do you think we needed a movement to carry women’s voices to begin with? One of Tamblyn’s narrators reflects, “Tell me how you prove coercion? How you prove the difference between being hit on and hunted? How you prove your arms were held down? Your body was touched? Your life was threatened if you ever told anyone? For people who have suffered violent sexual crimes, proof—the very act of proving—is more than just a burden. It is boundless bearing. An eternity of futility.” When I heard men (even fictional ones) recounting these tales, I couldn’t help but think, “Would hearing this from a man help other men understand what women experience on such a regular basis?”
The female assailant serves an interesting purpose as well. Tamblyn shirks aside gendered assumptions, demonstrating that these social movements happening around us are not designed simply to hold women up as infallible as women can be, just as all humans can be, deeply unlikable products of their culture. Her characters reflect on what to feel about this woman, with one questioning, “How can you forgive the person . . . the woman who raped you, who has no face to forgive, who has no intention to understand, who is nowhere forever and everywhere inside you for eternity? How can you forgive yourself? How can you enjoy the trees and not plead continuous fucking guilt to them? How can you end your own suffering, without ending completely? How can you accept touch? Or walk through your life, a lived wound, forever avoiding some terrible, inevitable wind.” As Tamblyn told the Washington Post, “[T]he ultimate intent of her character and her mythology in the book is that it aims to start feeling less like an actual person that has been assaulting people and more like a culture that’s been doing it.” The female assailant is so unlikeable, so unforgivable, so irredeemable – this is not only a statement on how women can embody these characteristics, but on how our culture can as well. We are all entrenched in a toxic rape culture, and Tamblyn uses an unexpected gender narrative to demonstrate that we’re all coming up in this same culture with the same teachings and expectations. No individual is immune from either being impacted by the culture or of actually becoming a product of it.
Tamblyn further shines a light on the media, which does not simply discuss or report toxic aspects of our culture but in so many cases perpetuates it. She utilizes characters who host a talk show to explain the various ways we debate sexual assault as if it isn’t a real violation of real people. And then after, the way we click click click along social media without feeling the true weight of that experience. She writes, “My heart breaks for the #MaudeToPenetrate victims and their families, sending so much love & prayers & strength. -Taylor Swift. 685 comments. 56k retweets. 742k likes. Conflicted about #MaudeToPenetrate – why was this married father of two drinking with a random woman in the first place? – Meghan McCain. 229 comments. 676 retweets. 2.5k likes. Moment of silence for victims of #MaudeToPenetrate tonight at my MSG show. I am here, and will fight for you. You are not alone. Be strong. -Lady Gaga. 1,001 comments. 31k retweets. 990k likes.” We like and retweet and post photos of our pink hats. Are we helping solve the problem or just not realizing we’re caught up in the machine? Could it be both? Maybe there’s not a clear answer, but there is clearly, in the reflection upon these fake tweets by real humans who have made such similar statements in real life, a sentiment that perhaps we have too much removal from one another in this social media culture. We’ve forgotten the personal nature of what we’re fighting for, and we must be actively conscientious in order to prevent the message from falling through the cracks. I think of moments like the length of time Lady Gaga took to speak out against R. Kelly. DAYS after the documentary went up on Lifetime, not to mention that those days already followed the years of public information available. A performance at the Academy Awards on sexual assault was doable, but fans cried out in fury before Lady Gaga provided a simple statement about a real life human involved in her life and life’s work. Tamblyn is all about bringing us back to the personal. This isn’t just about your likes or retweets or benefit concerts or even the number of rallies you showed up to. It’s about the personal moments and connections in between, and how if you truly want to change the culture, you have to start paying more attention.
Perhaps most importantly, this book is simply imperative for anyone following the #MeToo or #TimesUp movements. I can see the cultural shift happening on larger levels in these movements; we’re seeing companies and high-level individuals being prosecuted, watching organized walk-outs at places like google. But here on the ground floor, where we have to wait for all of it to trickle down, I primarily hear my male peers wondering what all the fuss is about. I hear them wondering if we’ve gone too far, or what the point is. I don’t think this book holds the answers, but I think it accomplishes what Tamblyn needed it to – the emotion behind WHY something like #MeToo exists and isn’t overstepping. This. This experience. This feeling. This violation. This despair. This is why we’re here. This is why we need to unify to fight back against this culture, and when I say unify, I don’t just mean the privileged white women. Tamblyn, more than any trending hashtag on twitter has done, made me feel like perhaps if we all understand the starting point, we can finally get on the same page about how to move forward. That is a monumental accomplishment.
And, at the end of the day, the reality is Tamblyn accomplished all of that by writing what is at its heart simply a “straight-forward thriller in many ways.” Fans of crime, mystery, thrillers, suspense, and true crime alike will be easily intrigued by the mystery of this serial criminal – provided they can wade through the difficult and brutal emotional description to get there. Trust me, it’s worth the wade.
I listened to this on audio and was very impressed, though I’ve read you may have a similarly unique experience if you read the hard copy. Without downplaying the intensity of the subject matter, this is one of the coolest audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. The voice actors are phenomenal, but more interestingly each segment is done as if you are hearing that moment. Voicemails sound like voicemails. Radio shows within the novel have full scale production that sound like radio shows. I rarely recommend anything outside the realm of autobiography that simply should be listened to on audio, but I highly recommend you take a swing at the audiobook with this one.
When prepping for this review, I read a few interviews Tamblyn had given to major publications, and article after article stated you can’t talk about Tamblyn’s book without discussing the recent issues with her husband, David Cross, and his contributions to the very problems that #MeToo and #TimesUp are fighting back against. Personally, I think we could have talked about Tamblyn without discussing Cross – easily. No woman is her husband’s keeper or spokesperson. But as I see so many reporters continue to make that argument, I’ll address my own thoughts on it here. Discussing this problem with NPR, Tamblyn said, “[I]f you care about my voice and what I have to say at all … and you think you know me, then you better assume that I’m having really difficult conversations with my husband about it. Just like all women are.” I know from my own personal experience, while my husband and male friends have a pretty solid grasp on why even Aziz Ansari’s actions are indicative of wider cultural problems (despite not necessarily being criminal), they still sometimes lack a well-rounded understanding and occasionally say some fucked up things. Hell, sometimes I still do because intersectionality is very real and as a middle class white woman I am not immune from being ignorant. My husband, my friends, and I, we discuss it. Luckily, not on a world stage. Nothing is taken away from Tamblyn’s writing or message by anything Cross has done as of late. I trust by watching her actions prior to and since publication of this book that what she preaches in her writing is not simply performance art, but rather the start of everything she wants to do and change in the world.
And she inspires me to do the same.
My real concern with Tamblyn’s work is that those who desperately need to hear its message will never read it. I feel something similar when I watch shows like Dear White People, an excellent dramedy constantly reminding its audience of the implicit racism and colorism all around us, but one that will likely never be watched by the kids in blackface throwing those “gangsta parties.” Will the guy down the road who believes his buddies in a frat could never rape a woman, who thinks women bring those charges just so that they can get money or political gain, who sided with Kavanaugh only because Ford didn’t speak up sooner – is he going to pick up Tamblyn’s book, let alone take the message to heart? Probably not. Or maybe I should just stop worrying about whether he will, and be happy for what she’s given me and the many others who will pick it up.
A final note: please consider this a trigger warning for those of you who have experienced rape or sexual assault or anything remotely similar. This book is brutal. It’s raw and real and portrays exactly what assault feels like. True thanks to Amber Tamblyn for getting it right, but because she got it so right, it may be traumatic for many of you. Take care of yourselves.