(Content Note for descriptions of rape and sexual violence.)
Only one person has read my most recent book. Two other people began it and stopped. The second chapter is a rape scene. It’s off–putting and uncomfortable, and it’s what drives the entire world, the entire plot. It’s supposed to make you angry. And I’m not sorry at all. I’ve been told I have to make it softer, gentler, more palatable, if I want to sell it, this book of my heart.
And I don’t want to.
Because the secret is this: my interior life has never been soft, gentle, or palatable.
When I was six, I was in my friend’s basement. Her older brother cornered me behind a shelf and told me that if I didn’t touch his body and let him touch mine, he’d kill me and my entire family.
I believed him.
I did what he said.
When I was twelve, I was in a hotel restaurant with my mother, uncle, and aunt. I was wearing my first heels and a pink dress. When I walked through the bar to the bathroom, an old man in a blazer and mock turtleneck grabbed me, pulled me into his arms, and forced a few fumbling dance steps on me, his hips pressed against mine. When I pushed him away, confused and disgusted and blushing, he called me a slut.
I didn’t think I was a slut.
I didn’t wear the heels and pink dress again.
When I was eighteen, I dumped my boyfriend. He was entitled, overbearing, belittling, easy to anger. I didn’t know it, but he stalked me for several weeks before I caught him sitting behind me in a movie theater. He gleefully admitted that it wasn’t the first time. He wanted to talk somewhere private. I never imagined that he would pin me down, rape me, thank me, and leave. A few days later, he sent me a hand–written letter that I still have, explaining that it was my fault and that he had asked Jesus for forgiveness. If I asked Jesus, he said, perhaps I would be forgiven, too.
I did not ask Jesus.
I did not forgive either of them.
This is why my books are violent. This is why my heroines begin as victims of domestic abuse and rape. This is why they try to drink themselves to death. This is why they learn to use guns. This is why they are always looking for threats when they walk in public, why they check under beds and behind curtains in hotels and hold their keys between their white knuckles. All my heroines are me. They don’t know what life is like without violence waiting, just off–camera.
The new book, the book I love, the one people are having trouble reading— it’s uncomfortable. Why? Because I am uncomfortable. Because I’ve never been allowed to feel comfortable in my skin. Because a closed door is never just a closed door. Because an offer of help often comes with a quirked eyebrow that wants something more than a thank you. Because if I show cleavage or too much leg, I’m just as slutty as I was at age twelve, trying to walk to the bathroom in my first heels. Because I’m an object, a thing, a vessel.
This book is about what it means to be a broken vessel that can never be filled.
I rage against books that use rape as a plot device because for me, it wasn’t just a beat, a hatchmark on a timeline. It was one of the most formative moments of my life. It made me what I am—broken and unbreakable and cynical and doubting and paranoid. It wasn’t something that a guy could save me from, could fuck me back from, could use as a bridge to find my tender heart deep under the hard shell I concocted. It wasn’t the instigating factor of the story of my life; it was the moment that one life ended and another life began. Something in me died that day and it’s never coming back. What’s left of me can’t write a story about a woman who’s never been a victim because I can’t remember what it’s like.
So this is why I have a big, beautiful, meaningful book sitting around, doing nothing. Because I’m sick of making my words easy to swallow when reality makes me choke. Because I’m sick of the violence in male–dominated epic fantasy being acceptable and sexy while the desolation a woman feels on the other side of that violence is considered awkward and fragile and unimportant. Because I’m sick of shaving off my adjectives and neutering my dialogue so my readers won’t put down my book and be left with uncomfortable thoughts about what it means to treat women as things. Because we so often focus on the hero with the sword and consider the women around him to be merely set dressing, accessories to the action or collateral damage of the real plot.
Sometimes I wonder if this book is fatally flawed. If the whole point of fantasy is to, in fact, write a fantasy, a pretty illusion and a beautiful escape, then I’ve already failed. But I feel like fantasy can and should be more than perfect people moving through a perfect world. I’d rather see someone flawed and broken picking up their pieces and moving forward to bravely slay dragons. When you’ve already faced the dragons and lost, when you’ve tasted their foul breath up close and worn the scars from their claws, when the dragons nearly ended you… that’s when it means the most to take up the sword and keep fighting.
As for me, I’m no object. And I’ll keep fighting.
© 2017 by Delilah S. Dawson
One Response to “I Have Never Not Been an Object”
“What’s left of me can’t write a story about a woman who’s never been a victim because I can’t remember what it’s like.”
And I’ve just realized why I have so much trouble finishing stories. I’ve been trying to write characters who have their shit together, who didn’t grow up in the type of environment that I did. Perhaps I need to make my writing more cathartic and less of a fantasy escape.