The Event Vanishes
In most fields, experience means you’re listened to.
I teach innovative and experimental writing to college students. Although I am barely older than some, they ask and seek out my advice—in writing, publishing, performance. Should I write a mythology, what is the best tree to write under, how do I weave this narrative between two different forms of media. I still find it strange when I start speaking and the room becomes silent.
My experience in writing ensures I will be listened to when I talk about writing. Experience usually ensures expert status, or guarantees a trusting or at least respectful audience. This audience-speaker relationship is typically framed by the power dynamics that frame all of our human interactions, but some of that power can be shifted or negated by the range of the speaker’s experience. Education and experience are tools of the powerless.
Unfortunately my experience with violence ensures that I will not be listened to. When I talk about violence. My experience is often doubted, yes— but when I say, I will not be listened to, I also mean, even when my expertise will not necessarily be called into question, it will be used to invalidate my voice. To argue that I am unable to apply my wisdom from my experiences to current situations, that I can’t make logical conclusions and educated projections based on that wisdom. Because if you have experienced violence, to others this does not necessarily mean that you have acquired a specialized set of criteria that will allow you to assess potentially violent situations in the future; this can mean instead that you have been weakened by that violence— not just traumatized but made hysterical. You see potential for violence in non-threatening situations, not because you can identify red flags others don’t see, but because you can’t get over the past. Your judgment cannot be trusted.
You know this to be true. I began writing these thoughts as a personal essay but then decided I did not want to address those who doubt my experience—this essay will not be another recurrence of my attempts to convince the doubtful of my experience’s validity, or of my own resilience. The already unwilling addressee. They will be excluded from this address. And because of our continual failure at successful address and our frequent necessary failure of finding each other, of having a conversation, this personal essay will verge on the epistolary—rather, will open to a room, a space for a conversation that we are often kept from having in other spaces. I will draw the borders of this room by limiting the extension of the pronoun you to address only anyone else whose address has failed. I am talking to others who haven’t been listened to. And I am finding this form does not account for our conversation.
The personal essay requires a set of coping behaviors that ultimately impose their dysfunction on the form. Last month I tried to write a lyric essay on abortion and ended up with a collection of vignettes in which women give each other fruit. To write this particular essay I am watching The Lady Vanishes on repeat. Iris keeps fainting, no one is listening to her. I wonder why she is fainting so much. I type something into the computer, go out of the room, then come back to it after a few minutes or days. Sometimes I forget about it for a week and then a revision suddenly comes to me and I sit arguing with myself over whether that detail makes the logical or ethical appeal I want, or instead the emotional appeal I am trying to domesticate out of myself. Like distancing myself from my own feelings is a code I’m trying to solve in order to gain access to a more secure position amongst my peers. Something I’m trying to beat. I remember he came into the room one night and I was still awake. The slap across the face. I tell myself that revision is recurring and without a deadline it is an absolute nightmare.
There, I meant to type, “I tell my students.”
I brought home packets on essay form, argument, and even syllogism from the university writing center where I also work as a tutor. I borrowed a stack of CDs from the public library so I can turn off the internet and I hear Yoko Ono and Kim Gordon chanting together. I crave this conspiratorial wisdom two women bring to each other. I think I seek a similar kind of wisdom from books. I read books written by those who have received and resisted violence—reading to establish a relationship. Like relationships with others who pass intimacy to us in secret. These peculiar relationships are immediate and intimate and, hence, shock us in a hitherto unfelt region of the body when they reject us. Having my experiences doubted by other women in my family who then blame me.
Yoko Ono is repeating, “I never told you, did I?”
The first time he masturbated in front of me I was 11. I use this as evidence to back up my claim.
In an argumentative or persuasive essay or even a research essay you provide evidence to support your argument, which is held up to the highest scholastic scrutiny. Sometimes through a process of peer review. A similar peer review process accompanies the telling of your experience. There are usually two kinds of review: one rooted in the imagination and the other in language. For instance, the first exposure I had— that many of us have had to disbelief are those who tell you that you imagined it. Like everyone on that train in The Lady Vanishes who insist that there was no lady to vanish in the first place. And, like Iris in the Lady Vanishes, when you don’t have documentary proof of the event (that is, a document in a form other than your own body), you can begin to believe their doubts over your own experience. Unfortunately after being impressed upon in the most violent ways we tell ourselves we will never be impressed upon again but they find new ways to do it.
And then there are the ones who first appear as angels and believe your story. But they soon begin to impress doubt upon you in the form of a question of semantics. This is the review process that’s rooted in language. And then they will impress upon you the urgent fact that what happened did in fact happen but it was not what you think it was. You will doubt that what happened to you was really that bad. You will begin to take on their questions in your own voice to diminish your experience until your language and your body have two different accounts of what was done to you. And this imposed ambivalence will begin to act out so that your body will begin to enact violence upon itself just to prove that the violence is real. Even though the language of the questions you ask yourself proves the violence, too.
Does the tongue count as penetration.
What if you push their hand away from your vagina twice.
But the language of others is powerful and repeats like a song you love that begins to shape your worldview, or like a recurring nightmare.
The best thing you can do is just forget about it.
If a girl did that to a guy he would probably just be grateful.
No, baby. That isn’t what this is. That’s not what I’m doing.
If you’re still a virgin why do you want to get an AIDS test.
Well that’s kind of what you have to expect if you go to a club.
So he didn’t rape rape you.
I’m not surprised.
The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they happened.
To counteract the power of this language you retreat into the realm of the language that holds the most actual power. You remind yourself of law. You read the legal definition of rape or assault before bed. These definitions are reassurances that you haven’t misspoken. That the man who assaulted you when you were an adult actually assaulted you, that you weren’t overreacting because of your experience with sexual assault in adolescence. You tell yourself that the police arrested him of their own volition, you didn’t even call them, someone else did. Still, someone asks, He was arrested for that? And someone else, Are you sure you weren’t just triggered? Your own experience is used to undermine your own experience.
I realize that not only am I using the second person in place of the first person in order to imitate conversation. You shouldn’t use second person to describe something that happened to you directly. But what if it hasn’t happened only to you. I have also, through dialog, allowed this text to take on the voice of those who would have me disbelieve my own experience. Which is what I am telling my own body all the time not to do. Sometimes we do to a text what we want to do to our own bodies. Text is a form of control.
And because language defines our experience, ultimately those who control your language control your experience. Imposing terminology is a form of interpretation; imposing terminology is a way to prove that you have misinterpreted what did actually happen. This is where your experience ensures you are not listened to. This is where it happens. Not only have you been violated in the past but all your present experiences are then measured against it like you were the one doing it. Someone suggests that your past experiences with domestic violence heightened your current situation for you. That your boyfriend wasn’t actually trying to break in to your house, that, in fact, you were being hypersensitive to an upset boyfriend.
According to a mutual friend his knuckles were cut-up and raw the next day.
I shouldn’t have to offer his raw knuckles as proof of this event, but even writing this essay, even to you, I feel as though I have to offer some evidence of the event. Outside of the fact of writing. Because the reader, practicing critical thinking skills, will be skeptical. Even if the reader shares the experience of being violated. Even if the reader shares the experience of being doubted. It’s hard to shift out of courage, back into being rational again. How long ago did this story happen and yet how few people have I told it to, because of the insistence, in the immediate aftermath, that I misinterpreted the event or its significance. Now it’s not just women in my family but people in my field.
I can see both sides.
He’s not that big a guy, you could have taken him.
Yeah but did he hurt you?
I have other evidence but I refuse to enter it here. Because not only are our actions held up to the most public scrutiny but our words are constantly on trial. The form of the essay is proof of that. The sentence is ultimately a site of testimony. And how many testimonies are being doubted, not just in private humiliation and heartbreak, but in public forums. Both the validity of the testimony and the interpretation of the event. You speak up and your character is called into question. The act of testifying, itself, is evidence of your resistance to semantic violence as well as physical. And that resistance makes you inappropriate.
I initially envisioned a different conclusion for this essay, which I started writing almost a year ago. With each edit it has become more timid, for fear that it would veer into the realm of the inappropriate. Mostly the revision process has been an act of erasure: scouring each line to make sure any and all identifying information of every real person I have alluded or referred to has been removed, making sure I only include details that could stand trial. Always keeping a box of proof in the closet. This is a common practice in nonfiction writing and for some people in general when speaking, for instance, women. Paring down my own experience to the essentials out of the fear of being so exposed. Again. Needing to expose the event but knowing that in doing so you expose your own body, and part of you clings to privacy especially since your privacy was one of the things violated during the event. You might find it difficult not to internalize the unwritten law that defines our experience as both the unseeable and the unsayable, and to then perform that regulation in an act of self-censorship. Those omissions become part of the form. Every time you didn’t call the police. Being in the same room with them. The refusal of others to speak out or support you out of delicacy, as if speaking of the event were worse than the event itself. So in the act of telling you do threaten to become inappropriate, impolite, and this resistance is read by the world as dangerous. It derails the form. Insisting that something happened to you and that your experience gives you authority to speak is an impolitical and necessary act. Even if in the telling you become incoherent.
She’s threatening to stop the train.