The essential dilemma after a date rape is also the essential dilemma before the novelist: Who’s in charge of the narrative, and what is his or her perspective?
My rape was 26 years ago, in 1988, on the eve of my graduation from college. I’ve already written about that rape here, here, and in my memoir. It’s a typical story of acquaintance rape, no more or less interesting than any other. I was advised by a college psychologist whose advice I sought in the immediate aftermath not to press charges because (a) it would be brutal, in terms of name-smearing; and because (b) it would delay my life at the exact moment it was supposed to get started. So I took no action whatsoever. This is also typical. Especially for back then, but still today. Seeking justice in a date rape will always be messy and prolonged, no matter the era, because it will always come down to a question of he said/she said. And we, as a society, are really good at blaming the victim and saying boys will be boys.
A few months ago, after reading this article in The New York Times by Ariel Kaminer, a profile of the classmate whom mattress-carrying Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz has accused of raping her—replete with an unbelievably empathic quote toward the accused by Sulkowicz’s mother as well as self-incriminating quotes by the accused student, now suing Columbia, himself—it suddenly occurred to me that, as empathic as I consider myself to be, I have never tried to stand in the shoes of my rapist. He was always the other, the transgressor, the bad guy, the demon. What would it be like, however, I suddenly wondered, to put myself in the head of my rapist?
As a novelist, it’s never been hard for me to put myself in the heads of others. I invent not only characters and their actions but also their private thoughts. Yes, sometimes these characters are based a little bit on him, her, or you, and all of them, especially the pathetic and needy ones, bear some stamp of me. But most of the time my characters are made-up people who, over the course of writing the novel, become as real to me as my own friends, whose minds I’ve also been known, with often frightening clarity, to read.
Attempting the same empathy with my rapist seemed suddenly imperative after reading that article: a psychologically useful exercise in processing the still noticeable weight of that long-ago night.