Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: Rape - A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Rape - A Love story

Written by: Joyce Carol Oates

Published: 2003

Synopsis: Teena Maguire should not have tried to shortcut her way home that Fourth of July. Not after midnight, not through Rocky Point Park. Not the way she was dressed in a tank top, denim cutoffs, and high-heeled sandals. Not with her twelve-year-old daughter Bethie. Not with packs of local guys running loose on hormones, rage, and alcohol. A victim of gang rape, left for dead in the park boathouse, the once vivacious Teena can now only regret that she has survived. At a relentlessly compelling pace punctuated by lonely cries in the night and the whisper of terror in the afternoon, Joyce Carol Oates unfolds the story of Teena and Bethie, their assailants, and their unexpected, silent champion, a man who knows the meaning of justice. And love.

Challenges: RIP VIII

warning: potential rape triggers below.

A month ago I decided to take a trip to my local library for the first time. I usually just go to my university library or the main Brisbane library in the city, but it seemed borderline insane that I hadn't been to my nearest library in the 3 years I've lived in the area. It's a weird (and wonderful) little library, there were three copies of The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass but no other Stephen King books* and the entire collection of Joyce Carol Oates' were on the shelf. And since I had never read a Joyce Carol Oates novel - partly due to fear, partly due to lack of time - and the library was basically pushing them on me by stocking them all, I decided to give the smallest - and therefore least intimidating - one a go.

I've got to give it to Ms Carol Oates (Ms Oates?), the woman knows how to choose a provocative title**. It was the size that first caught my eye (a petite 154 pages) but the title that really pulled me in. And in the month that I had this book floating around my house, at least 4 people commented on it, mostly with an awkward laugh and a look of suspicious horror. And that's absolutely the reaction it's supposed to inspire, because it's what the narrative inspires. It might only be short, but it doesn't hold back or shy from forcing the reader to experience the full gamut of emotions. I swung from horror, to anger, to sympathy and back to anger as I progressed through the story. It was an unpleasant experience, it's a book I'll never read again but I'm still glad I did.

So as the synopsis above describes, the book follows Teena and her daughter Bethie before, during and after the brutal gang rape and assault (of Bethie, she was beaten but not raped) by local boys. While the book is told primarily from Bethie's perspective as she makes sense of the crime, the justice system and her perpetual fear of the rapists who live nearby, it also provides insights into the minds of police officer Dromoor, the rapists, and locals in the small town of Niagara Falls. The most disturbing and fascinating chapters were those that came from the perspectives of the locals hearing or reading about the case. One of the earliest chapters, placed before the horrific rape scene, lists the reactions locals had to Teena's rape, things like "Teena was asking for it" and "who would walk their 12 year old daughter through a dark park" and "I heard she was drunk and on drugs". And that's where this book really excelled, it really ground home how natural victim blaming is and how often we look for any excuse to explain why something this horrible happened***. It can never just be a group of 20-something guys high on meth deciding to force themselves on two females because they can. The woman must have done something, she talked back, she walked through a park, she wore a skirt, she's had plenty of sexual relationships in the past, she was drunk. And it would be bad if this was just a bunch of misguided locals being awful, but these arguments are routinely brought up in tabloids and in court by the defendants. In the case of Rape: A Love Story, rather than make the rapists look like model citizens who would never do such a disgusting crime, the plan is to tear down Teena to make her appear like someone who deserves to be raped and beaten and nearly killed. As you read this book it's not hard to believe that most rapes go unreported, because who wants to have their credibility attacked on every front while they try to repair physically, mentally and emotionally?

Alongside this sick and sad story, however, is a revenge fantasy. Officer Domoor, first on the scene, finds himself caught up with the case and angered by the lack of justice coming Teena's way. After the criminal case begins and the defense state that the men will all be pleading Not Guilty because they were engaging in prostitution not rape (RAGE) Domoor takes the law into his own hands. I won't go any further in describing it because, spoilers, but there is something satisfying about the victims being given the power (even indirectly) against their attackers. So many people don't get any true sense of justice or closure and while I'm not one to condone violence normally, the events of the book made me so mad - especially since they are so typical in the real world - that it was gratifying and cathartic to read about Domoor, Teena and Bethie's revenge.

The book's conclusion comes a little too quickly and neatly. After spending such a large chunk of the book looking at how damaging the criminal system is to the rape victim I wanted to read more about the healing process, if there even is one. However as a small peek into a horrifying and heartbreaking world this book does a fantastic job. Should you read it? On one hand it's a compelling and well written novella, and on the other the subject is hard to read and deeply disturbing. So I guess read it if you think you can handle it, or if you want to get angry about rape culture and need an excuse to write about it on your blog, but don't expect it to be a light read.

*I don't know if that means my area loves King so much he's always booked out, or if they like him so little the library doesn't even bother stocking him.

**My next Joyce Carol Oates will definitely be Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. That title makes me so happy even though I have no idea what the story is about.

***I was horrified last week when I read one of the Dear Prudence columns and a commentor attacked the woman who wrote in and admitted to being raped by her boyfriend's best friend. So much victim blaming, so much anger.


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