April 12, 2007

Pascale Petit: Writing Poems from Rape and Abuse

Follow-up to The Difficult Task of Telling My Story: Pascale Petit's Poetry from Women Writing Rape: The Blog

The Zoo Father by Pascale Petit

The poet, Pascale Petit, has kindly written a poetic statement for publication on this blog. We want to thank her for allowing us to reproduce it here.

Pascale Petit is a French/Welsh poet whose second and third collections, The Huntress and The Zoo Father, were both shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and were Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement. Pascale has been selected as one of the Next Generation Poets. Les Murray writes of her: “No other British poet I am aware of can match the powerful mythic imagination of Pascale Petit.”

Writing Poems from Rape and Abuse

When writing The Zoo Father I was not interested in just writing about rape or abuse, what I wanted was to make art. Until I could find a way of doing that I couldn’t write. Before I wrote it I had an eight-month block. It was only when I visited the Ménagerie in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes with its Amazonian species that I could see how I could make portraits of my father and myself through those animals. As Sharon Olds has said, I know that no one is interested in what happened to me as a child. What readers might be interested in is how I make art out of such difficult material.

Another difficulty is that this raw material can look dangerously close to bad poetry, to over-written, over-emotional poems about personal experiences, often not rendered freshly. There is a close resemblance between ‘art brut’ on the one hand – and I was interested in making raw art ¬– and a mere outpouring of self-expression. Another barrier is the problem of politeness: it is not considered good manners to write so critically of one’s parents, and is not even polite to talk about these taboo subjects. That’s a lot to go against.

I had different problems when writing about my mother’s abuse, which was mental, though possibly more damaging. This abuse is intangible and therefore harder to write about concretely. Mental rape, the terrorisation or invasion of children’s or vulnerable people’s minds, is a global issue and I hope that my explorations in The Huntress have some relevance, however small, to how the first world terrorises and invades the third world, the tactics it uses to enslave weaker or poorer nations. My central theme in that book is power abuse and terrorisation of one human being by another as well as an in depth exploration of my relationship with my mother. The point Zoe Brigley made about the Lithuanian poet who had suffered at the hands of the KGB was that he told me he found my poem cathartic, even though it was so personal.

In writing The Wounded Deer – Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo I was free from the difficulties of writing autobiography. I sometimes give readings of these poems with projections of the paintings and I don’t feel so exposed afterwards as I do after giving readings from The Zoo Father and The Huntress . I was not writing about myself but the Mexican painter, someone far from my cultural background.

Or was I? Central to that pamphlet – and the full-length collection I am writing now, The Thorn Necklace (with the paintings) – is the trauma when Kahlo was seriously injured as a teenager in a street accident. Her vagina and spine were literally skewered by the handrail of a bus. She was raped by a chance accident, by an object. There are no notions of blame. So I was free to write about its repercussions throughout her life. “Telling it as it is” through a persona reduces the embarrassment factor. However raw or graphic the details of physical or mental distress, they are here under the guise of an icon who has already transmuted her suffering into art. I also write about the abuse of the natural world, and another collection I am working on now has the endangered coast redwoods of California as its focus.


April 11, 2007

Sarah Churchwell: The law on rape remains asinine and archaic

Writing about web page http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article2439494.ece

Dr. Sarah Churchwell has kindly allowed us to reproduce her commentary, ‘The law on rape remains asinine and archaic’, for the benefit of our delegates. It was published on 11th April 2007 in The Independent and we thank her for allowing us to post it here.

The law on rape remains asinine and archaic

In both the UK and the US, the law continues to sympathise with the defendant and slander the victim

One of the most grotesque aspects of rape law on both sides of the Atlantic is how fossilised it remains. Last week a United States congressman debating a bill that would deny paternity rights to rapists whose victims conceive a child quoted Sir Matthew Hale, England’s Chief Justice in the 1670s, who opined: “Rape is an accusation easily to be made, hard to be proved, and harder yet to be defended by the party accused.”

Charged with insensitivity, Congressman Vallario has continued to defend his archaism as a “history lesson”. For victims of rape, history is a nightmare from which society needs to awake; far too many lawmakers appear to have been snoozing peacefully for centuries. (Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that women make up 20 per cent of the UK Commons and 16 per cent of US Congress?)

Rape law in the United States and the United Kingdom continues disproportionately to sympathise with the defendant and to blame, slander, or otherwise discredit the victim. This week’s latest gem, courtesy of the Government’s drug advisers, advises women to avoid going alone to social events in order to protect themselves against rape.

Clearly these people have never seen The Accused : if you’re a woman, there isn’t necessarily safety in numbers. A woman going to a party alone: now there’s some seriously reckless behaviour. If she happens to walk on a street in order to get home, maybe we can call her a streetwalker and absolve ourselves of any collective responsibility for her safety whatsoever (I am thinking in particular of the columnist who wrote after the Ipswich murders that strangulation should be regarded as an “occupational hazard” for these “disgusting, drug-addled street whores”).

These latest recommendations come in the wake of reviews about the role of drink and drugs in prosecuting date rape. Recently, the senior jurist Sir Igor Judge was quoted as explaining that if a woman is incapable of giving consent, then sexual intercourse with her amounts to rape; if she is capable of giving consent and does, sex with her is not rape.

No doubt this point seems uncontroversial, but it raises a big question about the notion of “consent” as some immutable, irreversible permission. Even if she consented when they “started having sex” (whatever that means: kissing? fondling? penetration?) isn’t it possible that before they “finished having sex” (before which one has finished having sex? How do we define finished? ejaculation? orgasm? loss of interest?) she might change her mind in medias res?

The law would seem not to think so. But what if she changes her mind because he started smacking her? Because he wanted to indulge in behaviour that she found uncomfortable, unsavoury, or frightening? If he continues, when she has told him to stop, then surely there is a strong moral argument for saying that he raped her, despite her having initially “given consent”.

But for the moment let’s pretend that a woman “consenting” to sex is like signing up for satellite television, and that she is bound by her decision for a period to be determined by the other party in the transaction. The real problem is what Sir Igor Judge revealed about how consent is legally determined: “If, through drink, or for any other reason, the complainant has temporarily lost her capacity to choose whether to have intercourse, she is not consenting,” he clarified. “Subject to questions about the defendant’s state of mind, if the intercourse takes place this would be rape.”

Subject to questions about the defendant’s state of mind – not the accuser’s. British and American rape law, uniquely in criminal cases, hinge on the asserted state of mind of the alleged criminal, rather than on the perceptions of the alleged victim.

If she has lost her capacity for consent (i.e., she is semi-conscious or unconscious), and he takes that as a lucky break and has sex with her, then the court sets out to determine what his state of mind was. If he could “reasonably” have concluded that consent was given, then he is legally not guilty of rape. Instead of determining whether a defendant committed a crime, the court must determine whether the defendant believes that he committed a crime. Granted that any case of date rape is going to devolve into her word against his (assuming heterosexual rape; there is still precious little attention paid to the very real crime of homosexual rape), the question is not solved by making him the arbiter of her state of mind.

In 1977, according to one report, about a third of all rape cases in the UK ended in conviction. Thirty years later, the conviction rate has dropped to 5.31 per cent, despite the fact that 4,000 more women have reported rape between 2002 and 2005.

A few months ago, British audiences were treated to the spectacle of Michael Portillo, Jeffrey Archer and Stan Collymore pronouncing on a mock rape trial on the BBC’s The Verdict . Portillo asked why a woman would go to a man’s hotel room if she didn’t intend to have sex with him. As if that weren’t asinine enough, Collymore insisted that footballers don’t “need” to rape because they can have sex with any woman they want. The woman’s consent evidently remains a foregone conclusion: obviously, Sir Matthew Hale knew whereof he spoke.

The author is senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia

A NOTE ON EDITORIAL POLICY: ‘Women Writing Rape: Literary and Theoretical Narratives of Sexual Violence’ was set up to discuss literary and theoretical narratives of rape around the world (not just in the UK) and we are looking for responses that comment on rape narratives and their literary constructions or theoretical trajectories. Some of the comments being made here are not focussing on the issues demanded by the blog and any further declamatory comments after no. 25 will be deleted.

Z.B.


Sara Corbett and the Battle of the Sexes

Writing about web page http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article1622986.ece

In Germaine Greer’s article, ‘Rape’ written for The Independent and in Zoë Brigley’s response to that article on the blog for the ‘Women Writing Rape’ Symposium both Greer and Brigley raise crucial questions about what constitutes ‘rape’ and also how rape is perceived in both social and legal spheres.

US ARMY BADGE

Just how relative these questions are is clearly evidenced on the cover of The Sunday Times Magazine ( The Sunday Times, 8th April 2007) where a photograph of a woman in army uniform is coupled with the caption:

Sleeping with the Enemy: One in 10 US soldiers in Iraq is a woman. And insurgents aren’t the only threat. There, ‘you’re either a bitch, a whore or a dyke.’ Seven veterans tell their stories.

Inside the Magazine journalist Sara Corbett, tells of the war in Iraq as experienced by these seven women soldiers in an article titled “Battle of the Sexes”. The ‘enemy’ referred to on the cover of the magazine are not the insurgents, but the women’s colleagues and superiors in the army; men supposedly fighting on the same side as their female counterparts. Whatever your personal feelings about the so-called ‘War on Terror’ are, this article takes an important look at women who are subjected to sexual assault and rape perpetrated by their own colleagues, and in many cases their bosses.

In ‘Battle of the Sexes’, Corbett investigates how prolific rape and sexual abuse are in the army and how many women soldiers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of “sexual assault and combat”. She claims that “[a] report financed by the Department of Defense revealed that nearly one-third of females veterans seeking health care through the VA [Veterans Affairs] said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Of that group 37% said they were raped multiple times, and 14% said they were gang raped.”

As is the case with Greer’s article, Corbett also highlights the startling ineffectiveness of the authorities in dealing with the cases of rape that are reported: “there is a pervasive sense among the victims that reporting a sexual crimes is seldom worthwhile. Department of Defense statistics seem to bear this out: of the 3,038 investigations of military sexual-assault charges completed in 2004 and 2005, only 329 of them resulted in a court martial of the perpetrator. More than half were dismissed for lack of evidence.”

Corbett’s article is important in several ways that are pertinent to the investigations and aims of the ‘Women Writing Rape’ Symposium.

Firstly, she asks questions about the role of women in the military, especially in situations of active combat. Most of the literature on rape and sexual assault in conflict situations focuses on ‘local women’. Corbett draws attention to women on the other side of the conflict who also experience sexual violence, but at the hands of their own colleagues and not the officially demarcated enemy. This issue also extends out of conflict zones to broader questions of sexual assault in the workplace.

Secondly, Corbett also focuses on what does, and what should, constitute ‘rape’. How both victim and perpetrator define and construct rape is an important factor especially as the concept of shame is so closely associated with the victim in rape cases. Take one of the cases highlighted in the article for example: “As is often the case with matters involving sex and power, the lines are blurred. Swift does not say she was raped, exactly, but manipulated, repeatedly, by a man above her in rank – and therefore responsible for her health and safety.”

Intertwined with the questions of what exactly constitutes rape is the failure of the authorities, whether military or civilian, to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual violence and rape. By fostering a culture with such low conviction rates, where the victim is often the one put on trial, are the authorities sending out the message that it is easy to get away with rape and thereby complicit in the systematic rape of women?

S.G.


The Difficult Task of Telling My Story: Pascale Petit's Poetry

Pascale Petit

The Welsh-French poet, Pascale Petit, is frank in interview in discussing the pain and difficulty of her childhood. As a girl, she suffered an abusive father and a mentally ill mother. In interview, Petit writes of the difficulty in writing about personal history: ‘In the UK, very personal intense poetry is treated with suspicion by some. However, I write what I am compelled to write, and hope that explorations of my childhood “private hell” are of relevance to readers.’ Fellow Welsh poet, Deryn Rees-Jones, also recognises the problem of writing confessionally and summarises the politics of it in her recent study, Consorting with Angels :

The woman who confesses is frequently read as testifying only to her anguish and her own “weakness”; she is simply revealing the awfulness of femininity which was known to be there all along, and which, in the most simplistic terms has led to her oppression in the first place. And it is here that we see the exact nature of the problem: for if the woman poet does remain silent, if the awfulness of her confessional truth is such that it will only oppress her further, she is left where she started and cannot speak at all. Alternatively, she can speak a version of self which also confirms a certain kind of femininity – that of beauty passivity, orderliness and self-control – but which nevertheless fails to “tell it like it is”. (Deryn Rees-Jones, 25)

The question is, how is the woman poet to ‘tell it like it is’ as Rees-Jones puts it and yet avoid such negative connotations. Can the woman who suffers rape or abuse manage to tell her own story without being seen as self-indulgent?

Petit answers this problem by moving towards communication, dialogue and knowledge of others. She states: ‘There are entire countries undergoing private hells much worse than mine, but in a first world country this is sometimes forgotten’. Petit continues providing an anecdote about the view of others about her poetry:

I was in Lithuania recently, and someone there at a conference compared my poem ‘My Father’s Body’ (where I shrink him to reduce his power) to a Lithuanian regaining power over a KGB agent. He said the particularity of the content of that poem wasn’t important. What was important was what the poem was doing, and how readers could relate it to injustices in their own lives.

The ‘particularity’ of the poem is transcended here for the Lithuanian, a male subject of an other sex and an other culture, yet it is clear that he understands the injustice described by the poem. This idea of cross-cultural, gender crossing exchanges in Petit’s poetry are integral to the kind of confessions that she presents. Empathy is at the heart of her poetics. Consequently in her recent collections, Petit has identified her experience of sexual abuse as a child not only with the destruction of nature (the Amazon rainforest), but also with the oppression of minor cultures (indigenous tribes in Latin America) and cult figures of suffering (the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo). By adopting the mask of another cultural tradition or another woman’s life, Petit disciplines the emotional content of her poems and she makes her depiction of ‘private wars’ as relevant as public conflicts.

For further information, please see Petit’s website: http://www.pascalepetit.co.uk/
Or see this link for a list of web resources on Petit: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/resources_on_pascale/

Z.B.


April 10, 2007

Germaine Greer on Rape Laws in Britain

Writing about web page http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article355090.ece

Gavel

Although Professor Germaine Greer is not able to attend ‘Women Writing Rape’, she has kindly given us a message of support and permission to distribute her article, ‘Rape’, among the conference delegates. You can find it on The Independent website here

In the article, Greer begins by telling the story of “Alison”, a young mother who is raped by a colleague that she is dating. Greer points to the different attitudes of men and women at Alison’s workplace to the rape, since while men assume that nothing untoward has gone on, the women in the office find it ‘obvious that Alison had not consented to sex’. The story ends with Alison leaving her job and the area with her child. This seems to be the only conclusion possible without the forensic evidence needed to tie the rapist to the crime and Greer rightly notes that the problem is the issue of consent:

There were no witnesses; the child slept through the whole thing. The man would say that she eventually consented; she would say that she eventually submitted. Any halfway decent lawyer could have destroyed her case in cross-examination. She would have had to relive the rape countless times, before different groups of strangers, retelling the humiliating narrative over and over again, only to see her tormentor finally triumph over her, because it was simply his word against hers. All he had to say to escape punishment was that he thought, or believed, that her silence was consent.

Greer believes that the answer to this lies in changing the rape laws. At the moment in Britain, rape, ‘is not committed against the victim, but against the state; the victim is Exhibit A in the case of Regina vs the rapist’. Greer suggests then that the victim of rape becomes ‘a piece of evidence’ to be ‘interrogated and tested in every possible way, because rape is considered to be so grave, second only to murder’.

Greer wonders why rape is seen as such a heinous crime and she suggests that this is the view of men rather than women. She notes how the penis is seen as weapon wreaking devastation and controversially she suggests that, ‘rape is the direct expression of male phallocentricity, which women should know better than to accept’.

Greer proceeds by asserting that all the other unpleasant experiences of abuse (physical and verbal) that accompany rape can be much more disturbing and traumatic than the act itself. Greer seems to think that the notion of rape as an extreme trauma is something of man’s making and she notes: ‘If you allow a man to put his penis into your body because otherwise he will cut your nose off, you clearly feel that having your nose cut off is miles worse, but the asinine law does not agree with you’. She adds: ‘The punishment for cutting your nose off would be less than the punishment for rape, but then you wouldn’t be suspected of having consented to having your nose cut off’.

Thsi point of view is controversial and I would be interested to see how others react. I have a number of questions such as the following:
  • Don’t the unpleasant experiences of abuse that accompany rape in fact constitute rape? Is rape only the act of the penetration or is it also all the other verbal and physical abuses that come with this?
  • Is the notion of rape as devastating and traumatic really something made by men? Could it ever be seen any differently?
  • Is it possible to compare acts of physical violence and acts of rape in order to decide which is worse?

In any case, Greer continues suggesting that rape is a crime that preoccupies men: husbands, fathers and guardians who seek redress for the unauthorised ‘use’ of a woman. Where women are implicated in relations, they are severely punished throughout Western tradition and Greer sees this history emerging from the British law courts and ‘the duty of counsel for the defence to build up a case to incriminate the woman in order to exonerate the man who has abused her’.

As a result of this unfair practice, a fog has fallen over rape cases as the victims retain anonymity, but this is not a bonus according to Greer. Rather anonymity suggests shame at the experience of rape and Greer praises women who try their rapists publicly.

Greer notes that one way for a woman to be exonerated is to fight to the death when confronted with the prospect of rape and this notion of needing to put up a fight is still resonant.

A woman who has no injuries to display and can provide no evidence of a struggle is already in trouble when it comes to seeking redress. The vast majority of raped women never even try. Every day, men rape women who are in bed beside them, with complete impunity, because the withholding of consent cannot be proved. Rape is not an extraordinary crime committed by a few contemptible individuals; it is part of everyday life for huge numbers of women. Being raped by a stranger is like being hit by a runaway bus; your injuries eventually heal. When the person you love and respect most in the world is indifferent to whether you welcome his attentions or not, the psychological consequences are lifelong and devastating.

Greer makes an important point here about the commonness of rape as an everyday act performed not be strangers but by husbands and lovers. Yet this is still not really recognised by the authorities and according to Greer, this proper concern is replaced by a preoccupation with the possibility of false accusations of rape. For Greer, this obsession is completely fatuous as only 5.6 per cent of complaints result in a conviction and most women have to fight their cases courageously in order to show guilt. More and more women are determined not to go to the police.

Greer’s solution offers solid points and more controversial suggestions. Initially she suggests that the crime of rape should be abolished and that instead there should be varying degrees of sexual assault to punish the abuse that accompanies rape as well as the act itself. This seems sensible and fair, but then Greer turns to the story of Alison from the beginning of the essay and she suggests that her case is one of “petty rape”, a term that seems oxymoronic to me. Her suggestion that the rapist in Alison’s case be punished with only 100 hours of community service does not seem like much of a punishment, but I would be interested to see what others think.

Greer adds: ‘To increase the penalties for the unlucky few who get convicted of this very common crime, while the vast majority get off scot-free, is not the way to go’. I understand Greer’s point of view and yet I wonder whether 100 hours of community service for the act of degrading, humiliating, physically and psychologically damaging a woman is adequate.

Greer suggests that if her system was adopted and offences were ‘downgraded’, it would be possible to ‘demand the lessening of the burden of proof’.

No one could take the uncorroborated statement of a complainant as sufficient basis for depriving a man of his liberty for years. But if what is alleged is common assault with a sexual component, and carries a lighter penalty, women’s testimony could safely be given more weight. And we would not all be subjected to the silliness of protracted and hugely expensive trials involving inebriated undergraduates who collapsed in bed together and woke up unable to remember exactly what transpired.

Again I have a number of questions:
  • Perhaps it is unrealistic to suggest that the authorities will ever protect women properly from rape and Greer’s method for improving rape convictions is probably more realisable. How do we feel about this problem?
  • Should we be reducing the seriousness of rape as a crime?

Z.B.


March 06, 2007

About the Artist Sue Williams

Writing about web page http://www.nomorepink.com/

The artist, Sue Williams, has kindly offered the symposium use of her image, Elsewhere, as a kind of emblem for the issues at the heart of the event. Iwan Bala writes of Williams:

The more one looks the less the works seem directed at the viewer – they are certainly not for our titillation – and the more they begin to resemble a diary. A confusing set of events and emotions are being presented, dare we ask more? A private world has somehow escaped, larger than life into the public domain. Is there a traumatic event being dredged up from the memory, partly hidden?”

Sue Williams writes:

The words that come to mind, apart from vulnerability, are sexual awareness, sexual control, provocation, encouragement, naivety, punishment, guilt. My paintings are my diaries, a visual interpretation of the diary. Through the visual image, words included, I relate to personal experiences and thoughts and in doing so I also connect to broader “political” comment.”

Link to a longer article about Sue Williams from The New Welsh Review .

Z.B.


Welcome

Welcome to this blog created to accompany the symposium, Women Writing Rape: Literary and Theoretical Narratives of Sexual Violence . Posts relevant to the issues of the symposium will soon be appearing here regularly from the week beginning the 9th April 2007.

S.G. and Z.B.


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