On storytelling.

On storytelling.

Phagocytosis_--_amoebaWhen an amoeba needs to eat, it hugs food.  This process is called “phagocytosis.”  The amoeba reaches out and merges again behind its meal – creating a bubble of the outer world inside itself.  And here, enswathed, its food is digested.  Like ourselves, amoeba are soft machines converting food into heat, exhaled carbon dioxide, and excrement.

Indeed, our whole planet can be viewed as a whirling machine converting low numbers of inbound high-frequency, low-wavelength photons from the sun into a much larger number of low-frequency, high-wavelength photons.  Our Earth’s carpet of green sucks sunlight; roving animal life grazes and respires, sloughing infrared.


Those animals come in two forms: tubes and bags.  Jellyfish have one opening, a mouth from which they also drool excrement.  Jellyfish are bags.  Most land animals have two openings, a mouth and an anus.  Tubes.

No matter the form, for animals to carry on, they must engulf other life.

But, sometimes, the engulfed live on.

The “power stations” of our cells are called “mitochondria.”  These look like small bacteria, but they have been tamed.  Mitochondria carry some DNA, a fraction of the genes they need, but the rest of their genes are inside our cells’ central nuclei.  Mitochondria were almost surely swimming freely once: now their ancestral selves can be known only by studying the organelles (little organs) inside our cells.

Mitochondria from a mammalian cell.

Stories, too, swallow each other.  At times, we can learn our own history only from stray remnants that linger in the engulfing tales.

From the King James translation of Genesis,

God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

The Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto argued that these lines reveal the presence of another, older myth.  The phrase translated as “great whales” in King James, in the original, might be better rendered into English as “great sea-monsters” or “great sea dragons.”  Which is startling – that dragons, alongside humans and cows, would be one of only three types of animals specifically named in Genesis.  Humans told the story.  Cows were their wealth and livelihood.  Why do dragons merit such importance?

From Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch):

Cassuto argued that the particular identification of the sea dragons in the context of the Creation was polemical in nature.  It was meant, he proposed, to remind the reader that these enormous creatures were created beings like all others: they were not divine, nor were they mythical creatures with powers to challenge God, the Creator.

Marduk_and_the_DragonIn other myths that were widespread at the time Genesis was written, Earth began as a water planet.  Gods lived in the sky, and other gods lived beneath the waves, but there was no land for humans.  Only after an inverse gotterdammerung – a great war between sea & sky gods that marked an end to the deluge – did continents form.  The soil we walk upon is a perhaps a corpse (Marduk, god of heaven, slew Tiamat, goddess of the sea, and made our world by scattering her flesh over the surface of the deep), perhaps a demilitarized zone (after Baal, god of heaven, squelched the uprising of the Prince of the Sea and his dragons, the oceans retreated – shamed, waters allowed themselves to be confined by shores).

Elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh himself is praised for creating the world by pushing back the waters, as in the Babylonian and Ugaritic myths: Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?  Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

This old myth has nearly faded away, but some fragment of it pulses on within the Bible… like the mitochondria preserved by our cells.

Image by bies on Flickr.

In Islam, Jesus son of Mary is incorporated into the tale – he is a prophet, preparing the way for Muhammad.  He ascended bodily into heaven, but will return with armaments for the judgement.  If all Christian texts were lost, we would still have these traces with which to reconstruct the beliefs of Christians.  Although it’s not clear how close we’d come to the New Testament from lines like:

728px-The_Harrowing_of_HellAnd when Jesus, the son of Mary, said “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.”  But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, “This is obvious magic.”

Jesus wrought miracles, and for these was persecuted – that much of the story would remain.

Even now, our stories strive to ingest one another.  It’s like watching a pair of amoeba battle, each struggling to form the outer bubble.  The theory of evolution is uncontroversial when applied to crystals or stars – the idea that what we see now will be those structures that simultaneously optimized persistence and replication in the environments they were presented with is simply thermodynamics and math.

But when applied to animals – to humans, especially – the theory of evolution is seen as an origin myth in competition with all the others: the slain dragons, the sculpted clay, Yahweh conjuring with words.  And so a Christian interpretation proffers that God created humans through evolution – a teleological misconception that’s often touted as “compromise.”

Evolution is not a ‘tree’ growing upward toward ourselves… more like a shrubbery, with everything that has survived to the present on roughly equal footing.

(Teleological misconception: the idea that evolution has a purpose, that humans are “higher” life forms.  Evolution is a random drift, with success defined only by persistence.  Life forms have either made it to the present – in which case, bully for you – or they’ve gone extinct.  They were well-suited for the environs or not, but there isn’t an absolute metric to judge them by.  A variant form of humanity that was less innately bloodthirsty would be, to my eyes, superior to ourselves; if such creatures ever arose, they were surely slaughtered by our own forebears.  Many of our worst traits seem to have helped human ancestors survive and sire children, which is all evolution “wants.”)

And, similarly, scientists attempt to engulf the old
myths within their story.  Evolutionary psychologists pontificate as to the reasons why humans are compelled to invent gods and believe self-sacrificingly in them.  I’ve discussed some of these previously, such as the theory that a belief in watchful gods improves human behavior, boosting interpersonal trust.  People who trust one another can collaborate more easily, which might make a society more successful.

I’m a scientist, but I see no need for the theory of evolution to swallow our myth-making tendencies.  A major virtue of many religious stories is their insistence on behavior that goes against the directives of the natural world.

Though shalt not kill.

For a creature striving to pass along its genes at all costs, this is foolish advice.  Murder provides more to eat, more space to gather berries from, more resources of all kinds.  Many species kill their own kind, to say nothing of the murder of other species.  They have good reason to, from an evolutionary perspective.  Yet, many religions include a prohibition against killing.  In the Bible, humanity’s paradisaical form – to which we’ll return when we have returned the Earth to a state of grace – was vegetarian.

800px-Marten_van_Valckenborch_Tower_of_babel-large.jpgOr, the story of the Tower of Babel?  As a factual account, this is absurd – ancient builders would never reach heaven.  But as a way to communicate an moral precept – that our hubris can be deadly, and that because we can is insufficient rationale to attempt some goals – the story is beautiful.  With sufficient biomedical and / or computational understanding, some day we might be able to live forever… but should we?

To be good stewards of this Earth, at time we must restrain our grand designs.  We could gird the whole planet in steel and concrete.  We could hack down the few remaining forests for farmland.

Robert Bellah gives a lovely summary of these prohibitions in his Religion in Human Evolution:

          The gods had to dig out the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as the irrigation canals, and they found it all too much.  They decided to revolt against Enlil, and having burned their work tools they surrounded his house.  Enlil, frightened and barricaded at home, called on Anu and Enki for advice as to what to do.  He felt like abandoning earth altogether and joining his father in the sky.  But Enki, always the clever one, had a suggestion: why not create men to do the work the lesser gods found so tiresome?  He killed one of the lesser gods, We-e, perhaps the ringleader of the rebellion (could we call it a strike?), and, mixing his blood with clay, fashioned the first human beings.

          Enki’s plan worked almost too well: men took over the work of the gods, but greatly prospered in doing so.  Their growing population became so noisy (“the land bellowed like a bull”), that Enlil could get no sleep.  He sent a plague to wipe the people out, but the wise man Atrahasis consulted Enki who told him to keep the people quieter and give more offerings to the gods, and the plague ceased.  Again the people increased and the noise level rose.  This time Enlil sent a drought, but again Atrahasis persuaded Enki to intervene.  The third time was really too much and Enlil sent a great flood to kill every human being.  Enki, however, was one ahead of him and had Atrahasis construct an unsinkable boat, load it with every kind of animal, and last out the flood.  When Enlil discovered what Enki had done he was furious, but meantime the decimation of the people had left the gods with no offerings, and they were beginning to starve.  Enlil finally realized that humans were indispensable to the gods, and, having arranged several methods of birth control, allowed Atrahasis and his people to resettle the earth.

          One might think, says [Thorkild] Jacobsen, that Enlil cut a rather poor figure with his fear, impulsiveness, and insensitivity, but to the ancients the story illustrates Enlil’s ultimate power, his stunning capacity to create a flood that could potentially destroy every living thing.  Jacobsen concludes: “All the same it is clear that the myth views absolute power as selfish, ruthless, and unsubtle.  But what is, is.  Man’s existence is precarious, his usefulness to the gods will not protect him unless he takes care not to be a nuisance to them, however innocently.  There are, he should know, limits set for his self-expression.”

On killer line breaks.

Tracy K. Smith’s poetry collection Life on Mars is excellent, combining bursts of science-fiction weirdness with totally non-speculative emotional clarity.  If you chance upon a copy, you might try flipping to her poems “The Museum of Obselencence,” or “Sci-Fi,” or “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” particularly the fifth strophe of that last one; those are my favorites, although you could also do pretty well by opening her book at random and reading whatever you find.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any pull quotes that do justice to my favorites from her collection.  So instead I’m stuck writing an essay about a section of the titular poem “Life on Mars.”  And I use the word “stuck” because my lack of experience with poetry will be quite clear here: I picked some lines where Smith reworks quotations from Rush Limbaugh and Senator Norm Coleman about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and, with some killer line breaks, really shifts the meaning.

                                                     The guards
Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.
I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not
What you’d expect from Americans.
Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people
Having a good time, blowing off steam.

9781555975845What she’s doing here is totally unsubtle — if you’re a poetry person, let me reassure you that she employs a much lighter touch in her other pieces.  But, right: I am not a poetry person, so I enjoyed her lack of subtlety here.  To me, this feels almost like going to a martial arts demonstration and seeing someone make a slow, exaggerated motion.  If you’re in the audience you finally get to nod and muse, “Ahhh, so that is how they do it.”  Sure, it’s not real evidence of someone’s prowess, but I think it’s a kindness to sometimes tone down a performance to the point where the untrained eye can appreciate what’s being done.

Here, she plays with a readers eyes.  The line break after “not” pushes you to isolate the phrase “what you’d expect from Americans” from Coleman’s words.  The accusation becomes perfectly clear: this is what Smith would expect from Americans.

There is a lot of debate about whether the United States is a Christian nation, or was meant to be a Christian nation, or the like.  If you’ve ever scrolled through search hits for the topic, I’m sure you’ve already seen numerous screeds written from one side or the other.

To me, it seems compelling that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a plurality of Americans believe their country to be a Christian nation — and the same was probably true earlier, except that fewer people were bothering to ask.  Which I obviously don’t think implies that this country should start drafting laws based on the Bible (although: start?).  I just think it’s important to acknowledge the prevalence of Christianity in American society when trying to ascertain what Americans would or would not do.

Unfortunately, one reason why I think it’s not so surprising that Americans would torture their prisoners is that the Bible takes a pro-torture stance.  Of course, not every Christian sect includes the Book of Revelation in its scripture, but many do.

Capture14:9 And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, if any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand,

The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:

And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

The types of torture described here are very different from what went on at Abu Ghraib, although not so dissimilar from treatment at Guantánamo Bay — including exposure to scorpions, sleep deprivation, extreme heat, extreme cold, pepper spray, all resulting in persons who’d rather die than endure their torments, etc.  (I’ve written a little bit about Guantánamo elsewhere.)  But to me the key point here is that enemies of the regime are tortured at all.  If a soldier used to be a kid wearing a WWJD bracelet, and Revelation makes clear that Jesus would torture his enemies, well…

But then we reach the next fancy line break that Smith uses, the one right after the word “people.”  Here is Smith’s acknowledgement that it isn’t just Americans who are inclined toward evil (not that it’s fair to hold the abuses of a few against the inhabitants of an entire country — although we did bomb the inhabitants of two whole countries after the horrific actions of a few).  Her poem is “only talking about people,” as a reader is forced to consider before finishing the sentence.  As in, it’s all people who are wired to seek retribution after they or their loved ones or their country are harmed.

Which I thought was a clever trick for Smith to pull off, especially since she’s doing this by repurposing the words of others.  She’s even better in several of her other poems, like all the ones she wrote from scratch.  If you’ve got time, you should check out her book.

On redemption and Christianity in The Book of Strange New Things.

9780553418842So, I read a couple reviews that didn’t like Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.  The problem was, in the reviewers’ eyes, that the novel as science fiction was bland (e.g. this piece from NPR).  And I’ll admit, I wasn’t having fun for most of the time I spent reading it.  But at the end of the book, Faber pulled a trick that really altered the way I viewed his work, and I haven’t seen any other reviews that engage with this idea.  I do wish that more of the book was spent on this concept, and that there was less of the tepid sci-fi odyssey and orthological tomfoolery and emailed monologues, but so it goes.  There really is a beautiful idea nestled in his story.

To me, the most interesting facet of The Book of Strange New Things was the way it explored the question, is the possibility of redemption necessary for Christianity to work?  And Faber explores the idea of redemption on many levels: physiological, personal, societal, ecological.  It’s that breadth of engagement with the concept of redemption that made the work for me.  Like, yes, the protagonist is an ex-junkie preacher.  He was bad, turned his life around, found Jesus, is Christian.  Which is fine, but I have Dostoyevsky for that; if Faber offered only that same narrative dressed up in tinfoil on a far-off planet where the water makes you piss green, well, I’d pass.  Why not re-read Crime and Punishment instead?

But I really like that Faber took the idea of redemption further.  There’s a scene in the book where his protagonist is bitten by a wild animal, at which point the natives of that planet give him up for dead.  He assumes the animal is poisonous, that there’ll be no healing from the wound.  But then he gets better.  And it turns out that the alien species lacks wound healing of any kind.  If they become injured, they die.  And that may underlie their fascination with Christianity: in the Bible, physiological redemption isn’t just a metaphor for personal redemption.  Physical healing is made possible through the love of God.  The most important miracles are instances of Jesus as medical doctor.

This point is really underscored by the protagonist’s earlier efforts to translate the Bible into something the aliens would better understand.  He spent a long time thinking about the idea of sheep and shepherds, which aren’t present on their world, and of oceans and fish and fishers of men, likewise absent, but never realized that any reference to Jesus’s doctoring would seem magical to them.  When their bodies are hurt, there is no redemption.

And Faber explored ecological and societal situations that would seem to have no possibility for redemption.  The earth of Faber’s novel has passed an ecological tipping point and is spiraling from one natural disaster to another; messages from the earthbound wife make clear that the planet won’t be habitable for long, and (in another shopworn sci-fi touch, the sort of thing that would make me dislike the book if I were engaging with it as science fiction and not as religious meditation) the reason a human colony was established on the alien world is to serve as refuge for a small population of humans that will be saved.

Society also seems to have descended into irreparable chaos.  The world has become violent and cruel, so much so that the protagonist’s wife finally writes to let him know that she is doomed; he should never return to Earth.  She’ll try to join a band of survivalists and scrape out a meager existence during what little time remains.

He decides to return.  To attempt to find her.  He’ll try for redemption where no redemption seems possible.  And the book ends.

Honestly, it’s not a simple message.  Because there’s a contrast; Christianity is hinted to be a poor fit for people who can’t heal, and yet the protagonist returns to a doomed world.  Which you could perhaps interpret as Faber trying to convey that small-scale personal and physical redemption are more important than anything that happens in society, but I don’t think that’s it.  The message I took away was that Christianity would not work in situations where healing was not a possibility, whether that healing means turning your life around, getting better after an injury, the climate restabilizing under habitable conditions, but that, akin to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, a Christian should be unable to accept the idea that healing isn’t possible.

That’s why, after I’d finished the book, I revised my opinion of it.  I think the ending makes a very interesting theological point, and makes it in a way that really did require an alien species to address.  Although…

Many types of injuries that aren’t problematic now used to be fatal.  Bacterial infection would set in, spread through a body, and kill a person.  That’s why amputation was so common; for much of human history, there was no other way to stop infections.

Then antibiotics were discovered.  Antibiotics are like magic.  They are Jesus’s miracles in pill form.  You get sick, you should die, you swallow one pill a day for a few weeks, you are healed.  You live.  Praise the saviors.

But antibiotics are getting worse.  Or, more specifically, we are putting selective pressure on bacteria to evade or degrade those magical molecules.  The idea of feeding subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to huge numbers of densely-housed animals, year in and year out, seems insane to me.  Honestly, that’s a set-up not so dissimilar from what you might employ in a purposeful gain-of-function directed evolution experiment.  That is, if you wanted to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that’s something you might do.

And if antibiotic resistance arises in one line of bacteria, it’s unlikely to remain isolated to that population for long.  Horizontal gene transfer, including from one species to another, is very common amongst bacteria.

The point being that we are bringing ourselvesintentionally, it would seem like — closer and closer to a post-antibiotic era.  The magic in those pills might soon be gone.  And we’ll be much worse-off than we were pre-antibiotics; the world is different now, including much higher population densities in urban areas.  Quite likely, bacterial infections will spread more voraciously than they did in the pre-antibiotic era.

To me, that increases the resonance of Faber’s work.  Those aliens, groping ineffectually through Christianity because, once harmed, they can not heal?  They could be our future selves.

On violence against women.

On violence against women.

This is the first in a series.  Read the second one here.

Quick caveat: this essay will be unpleasant. Given the title, you can probably guess the nature of the impending unpleasantness. So, if you think that’s a topic you shouldn’t be reading about right now, then you should skip this. IMG_0430

But it’s something I figured that I should eventually write an essay about. Because a major theme of my work is violence against women.  And this is a topic that I can’t easily claim I’m writing about just because it’s important in the Ramayana – my plan from the beginning was to write about violence against women, and a major incentive for me to work with the Ramayana was that it provides a good scaffolding to do so.

And I should also apologize right from the beginning that some of this will sound sacrilegious. Because, yes, the relationship between Rama and Sita is often put forward as the ideal. And it can seem crumby to have aspects of your religion analyzed in a critical light.

But for this project, I am trying to engage with The Ramayana as mythology first, rather than as a religious text. In the same way I’m engaging with The Bible as a collection of stories, and I’ll try to include some of that in this essay too: obviously the text underlying Christianity has many troubling instances of violence against women as well. As a minor justification for this view, I’d like to quote A.K. Ramanujan from his essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” in which he compares and contrasts many of the Ramayana variants that exist throughout South-east Asia.

“Thus, not only do we have one story told by Valmiki in Sanskrit, we have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical differences among them. Let me outline a few of the differences we have not yet encountered. For instance, in Sanskrit and in other Indian languages, there are two endings to the story. One ends with the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, their capital, to be crowned king and queen of the ideal kingdom. In another ending, often considered a later addition in Valmiki and in Kampan, Rama hears Sita slandered as a woman who lived in Ravana’s grove, and in the name of his reputation as a king (we would call it credibility, I suppose) he banishes her to the forest, where she gives birth to twins.”

So, even when considering only the Valmiki Ramayana (the other variant mentioned in the quote above is typically referred to as the Kamba Ramayana, which was written in Tamil much later than the Valmiki Ramayana. I hope to write an essay about south Indian variants soon — other than its engagement with violence against women, the other biggest draw toward working with the Ramayana, for me, is the generally-discredited theory that it reflects historical conquest and was promulgated as a means of subjugating the conquered peoples of south India), there are multiple “texts.” And in some of them, Sita is not treated well. Honestly, my personal belief is that she isn’t treated well in any of them, but there are issues with viewing ancient stories through the lens of modern feminism.

Like, okay, here’s a passage from Sheldon Pollock’s translation of the Ayodhya Kanda (book 2 of the Ramayana), and I don’t think anyone from any culture would still agree that this inequality is something to celebrate:

“[Anasuya], too, felt delight when she saw how illustrious Sita was following the way of righteousness, and she cheered her, exclaiming, “How fortunate you have such high regard for righteousness! How fortunate you should abandon your kinfolk, your pride and wealth, proud Sita, to follow Rama when he was banished to the forest. A woman who holds her husband dear–whether he is in the city or the forest, whether he is good or evil–gains worlds that bring great blessings. To a woman of noble nature her husband is the supreme deity, however bad his character, however licentious or indigent he might be.”

Okay. Well. That was a pretty long preamble. But I think I might finally be ready to start writing this essay.

The basic gist of the Ramayana is that Sita was stolen away and Rama ventured forth to take her back, employing the aid of an army of monkeys. But unlike The Iliad, in which Menelaus was roughly innocent when Helen was stolen away (unless you count being a crumby husband as a valid transgression; in the text, that is not. But it’s probably fair to quote Churchill’s “History is written by the victors,” and point out that Menelaus was on the winning side. So Homer could stuff lines like “Brother-in-law of mine — of the bitch that I am, / a cause of evil, a curse and abomination — / it would have been better that when my mother first bore me / some evil storm wind had suddenly whirled me off / to the mountains or into the swell of the load-roaring sea / where the waves would have swept me away before all this happened.” into Helen’s mouth (this was taken from Stephen Mitchell’s translation — I wasn’t super keen on his rendition of The Odyssey, but his Iliad is fantastic. I think a lot of why I liked his Iliad much better than his Odyssey is that he writes action so well; the Iliad obviously gives him a lot more of that to work with), which does not seem like something she would have said. Equivalently, Rama is the victor in the Ramayana, which I think allows us to view Ravana’s dialogue, and even Sita’s attitude toward Ravana in the myth, with a skeptical eye), Rama and his brother clearly provoked the abduction of Sita.

Rama, his wife, and his favorite brother were living in a forest. Ravana’s sister, a sexually-empowered woman, happened by and thought the brothers were cute. Most variants of The Ramayana feature this woman, Surpanakha, propositioning the brothers in turn. Which obviously had to be punished: it’s unacceptable for women to be so wanton! (I should emphasize that I’ve referred to Supranakha as a woman, and generally refer to Ravana as a person also, even though they are often termed “ogres.” My word usage reflects that same oft-discredited theory that Ravana’s people are stand-ins for the Dravidians of south India, who were conquered by Caucasians from the north at about the same time as The Ramayana was written) Here’s a quote from Bhatti’s poem “The Death of Ravana,” translated by Oliver Fallon:

“He is without a wife; I am married. He will be a more fulfilling husband for you,” said Rama. “Go to him and do not leave him.” She lusted after Lakshmana and came at him again like a cow to a large bull, her mind unbalanced by the flight of Love’s arrows. As she sat splaying herself, Rama drew his sheathed sword ready to slash and rendered her face noseless.

To me, that passage brings to mind Susan Brownmiller’s thesis from her work “Against Our Will.” The idea that violence against women, particularly rape, is used as a tool to keep them from exceeding certain sphere’s of life that’s it’s deemed acceptable for them to participate in. Brownmiller has a lot of astute analysis in her book, along with a number of citations from literature to provide examples for her case; for instance, here’s a quote from “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Nathaniel West’s bleak novel about a newspaper advice columnist in New York, that Brownmiller brought my attention to:

One of them was complaining about the number of female writers.

“And they’ve all got three names,” he said. “Mary Roberts Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Catheter, Ford Mary Rinehart…”

Then someone started a train of stories by suggesting that what they all needed was a good rape.

“I knew a gal who was regular until she fell in with a group and went literary. She began writing for the little magazines about how much Beauty hurt her and ditched the boy friend who set up pins in a bowling alley. The guys on the block got sore and took her into the lots one night. About eight of them. They ganged her proper…”

“That’s like the one they tell about another female writer. When this hard-boiled stuff first came in, she dropped the trick English accent and went in for scram and lam. She got to hanging around with a lot of mugs in a speak, gathering material for a novel. Well, the mugs didn’t know they were picturesque and thought she was regular until the barkeep put them wise. They got her into the back room to teach her a new word and put the boots to her. They didn’t let her out for three days. On the last day they sold tickets to n—–s…”

Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves.

Obviously this is an extreme example. But Brownmiller’s general point is that whenever men feel like the perquisites of their gender are threatened, sexual assault has generally increased. And the strategy often succeeds: a response to the well-publicized cases of sexual assault in India was to curtail the freedoms of women, ostensibly for their own protection. And even more often, women curtail their own freedoms out of fear. In that article, women discuss feeling compelled to dress more conservatively than they’d like. They stay in at night. They curtail other behaviors: Koss & Dinero studied predictors of sexual aggression in college males and found , unsurprisingly, that most sexual assaults were preceded by consensual kissing. As I think most people expect, the biggest dangers for sexual assault against women aren’t from strangers, but from people they know. Which is awful: for instance, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network has tips on reducing your risk of being assaulted, but a major piece of advice is “avoid isolated areas.” That can be tricky on dates. It can be tricky if you’re not safe at home: here’s a passage from the end of dream hampton‘s beautiful, harrowing essay in the volume “Black Cool“.

“Marvel and two other tall boys were yelling through our heavy wooden locked door, through the thunder and rain, for my brother to open up. I told my brother he better not even think of it. My brother looked at me, on the stairs, and then again through the window, where Marvel was threatening his life should he not open the door, and he did something that still makes my heart sink: He opened the door and let the outside in. The three boys, who were all older than sixteen (I’d learn this later, from Friend of the Court documents) pushed my brother aside the moment he cracked the door and chased me upstairs, where I was hoping to lock myself in my room and use the fire escape ladder my dad had bought me to run to my neighbor Ms. Erma’s, across the street. I remember having that plan in my head. But they ran faster than I did. And were stronger. And they threw me on the bed in the playroom, where Bo sat frozen, and pulled off my panties. There was an attempt, many attempts, to pin me down, to keep my legs from kicking, but I would not stop kicking. I kicked and I punched and I screamed and I spat and I squirmed. …. …. I’ve told this story three times. To my two best friends and to a lover I trust. In my sister circle where I sit, or the many friendships where my girlfriends have asked me to witness the telling of their own rape stories, I’ve stayed silent. I always feared my not being raped because I refused to stop fighting would seem an indictment of their stories. But I don’t feel that way. I don’t believe they weren’t strong enough or should have fought if they didn’t or that their rapes were in any way their fault. But I never tell my own story, because of a kind of survivor’s guilt. That, and the deep contempt I hold for Bo and my brother.”

Then, of course, there is the fallout; will a victim of sexual assault have even the minor consolation of seeing her assailant brought to justice? Which obviously has important implications for the safety of others: those who commit sexual assault tend to be very likely to do it again. But reporting sexual assault has been very difficult throughout history, has often resulted in further harm done to the original victim, and rarely results in justice. Here’s a single example to start off with: submitting a rape kit is an arduous process, but some victims go through with it hoping to keep others safe. DNA testing is relatively inexpensive and could identify patterns of repeat assault and in some cases directly identify criminals. Unfortunately, ending sexual assault has not been a high priority for police departments in the United States, judging by their behavior. After women went through the ordeal of submitting a kit, many many kits have gone untested in this country. That is, police put the bagged samples onto a shelf in the back of their evidence room and simply forgot about it.

Or there are the trials themselves, if a sexual assault case even makes it to trial. Which, right, because women have often been considered property and not people in U.S. law, has its own set of peculiarities. Like, if you’re a victim, you don’t get a lawyer. You are simply a witness on behalf of the state: the government charges the perpetrator on your behalf. And there are no rules regarding the sort of personal information that can be raised about witnesses in the courtroom. Witnesses have few protections, any and all personal details about them may be introduced in the courtroom, and in many sexual assault trials they can be sharply berated — while crying — on the witness stand. I discussed some of this for trials with child witnesses in an earlier essay about a similarly horrible topic; you should feel free to read that too if you’re not yet miserable enough. But, right, defendants, i.e. those who commit crimes and then go to trial, have many more protections. For instance, even if a defendant’s past shows behavior that might persuade the jury that this person might be inclined to commit sexual assault — such as past instances in which the person did commit sexual assault — that information is not allowed to be introduced into the courtroom. Despite all the data showing the prevalence of repeat offenders, a jury is not allowed to know whether the accused in fact is a repeat offender.

But the trials are less horrible for victims than they used to be: here is a passage from Martin Van Creveld’s “Wargames“:

The most famous case of this kind unfolded in France in 1385-6 and is known to us from Froissart as well as numerous other sources. The story started when Marguerite, the young and beautiful wife of a Norman nobleman, Jean de Carrouges, told her husband that during his absence from their chateau she had been raped. The perpetrator was one Jacques Le Gris, another nobleman well known to the couple. Though inferior in rank, he was wealthier and well-connected. Carrouges’ first step was to ask for justice at the hands of the local count. Having failed to get it, he went to Paris, consulted a lawyer, and begged the youthful King Charles VI to allow him to confront his enemy in battle. The matter was ferred to Parliament which launched a formal inquest, and after several months’ deliberations granted the request: clearly it was felt that, in the absence of witnesses, combat was the only way to find out the truth. Preparations were made to hold the event at Saint-Martin-des-Champs, a well-known Paris monastery. Its extensive grounds included a large field long used for the purpose and capable of holding as many as 10,000 spectators.

On December 29, 1386 a huge crowd gathered. In attendance were the king, his uncles, members of the high nobility, senior prelates and magistrates, and thousands of others. The most important spectator was Marguerite herself. Dressed in black and seated in a black carriage, she would face immediate execution (by burning) for bringing false accusations if her husband lost his fight.

Right. Let that sink in a moment.

And, here. As a tiny treat — because, look, I realize this essay is unpleasant, but I’m actually showing a good deal of restraint in terms of not citing numerous other unpleasantries — here are a few details about how the above contest would transpire, also from Van Creveld’s work:

“In all this, great care was taken to ensure equity and what today might be called transparency. Each protagonist had to swear a solemn oath that his case was just [which, right… minor note… you noticed, I assume, that it was the victim’s husband who was involved in the “trial” in the preceding passage, right? That’s because his property was damaged. It’d be senseless for the woman to testify on her own behalf because she was an object, owned by her father if unmarried and owned by her husband if married. Widows have often faired ill through history, and had a strong incentive to remarry]. In case he lost, that meant he would automatically be held guilty of perjury as well. Things were so arranged that neither combatant would have the sun in his eyes. The use of concealed weapons was prohibited. So was wearing magic prayers and charms on one’s body; if it is true that the combats were understood as the judgement of God, it is also true that supernatural interference was forbidden and, to the extent possible, prevented.”

Okay. The ancient judicial system strip-searching people for charms to make sure that no angels or demons would interfere with a fight… that’s something I can contentedly ponder. Much happier than thinking about Marguerite having to watch her husband fight her rapist to the death, knowing that if her husband lost people would declare her accusation to be slander and burn her alive.

Which, just in case you were wondering, her husband won. She lived.

But others didn’t.

Of course, in my own work I’ve permitted myself a little fantasy in making my world less bleak than our actual world has been and, in many ways, still is. Because it’s crushing, honestly: so far I’ve managed to type out only about a third of my planned essay on violence against women, and that feels like more than enough for today. So, yes, there’s this horrible stuff in my book, but it’s unrealistic in that it’s not awful enough. I hope that’s okay.