New books — From the April 2016 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 3 )

We all learn to live with our memories, even if the way we live is by forgetting them. What exactly we learn can be difficult to say. Experience is a teacher, but what it teaches can be useless, or worse. “Rape is knowledge,” writes the historian Raymond M. Douglas in ON BEING RAPED (Beacon Press, $20), “but not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better never to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me.” This short and devastating memoir is at once intimate and analytical. The book is the first time he has publicly spoken of his rape, which occurred in Ireland in the 1980s, when he was eighteen years old.

Douglas and his friends had been invited to a small party at the home of a local priest, who became sloppily drunk. The boys, concerned for the priest’s welfare, drew straws to determine who would stick around and put him to bed. Douglas drew short. Around four in the morning, the priest attacked. His pleasures were sadistic; they included beating and berating the young man. (One of Douglas’s “profoundly-true-but-thoroughly-useless” pieces of knowledge: “There are few things on this planet more dangerous than an angry rapist who is having difficulty sustaining an erection.”) Douglas — who had always assumed that, as a man, he would be able to fight off any threat, and was shocked to discover that whether he lived or died was not in his control — believed that he was going to be killed. But suddenly, after an ordeal that lasted four hours, the priest released him.

On Being Raped is eloquent about the nonexistent resources available to male rape victims, a situation that mirrors what female victims faced half a century ago. (According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, between 1995 and 2010, 9 percent of the reported victims of sexual assault in America were men.) But male rape is joked about when it is not outright ignored; only 3 percent of the more than 4,000 NGOs that work on war rape and sexual abuse mention men and boys in their literature. For men who are raped, there is often quite literally nowhere to go; when Douglas was seeking help, things were even worse. He reported his attack to a local Capuchin friar, who offered him absolution. Douglas is still a professing Catholic, but his anger at the Church authorities is righteous, and his faith does not make him unduly merciful. Forgiveness, he writes, is contingent on his attacker’s repentance; it is not his duty to offer pardon unprompted. “Quite the contrary: the debt is owed by the perpetrator to the victim.”

“Expectations have always been high for rape victims,” he notes, “much more so than for those who have attacked them.” Victims are expected to prove that they did not in any way consent, abet, or make their attack easier; to report the rape; to take justice into their own hands when thwarted by the system; to either kill themselves or emerge from the experience healed, healthy, and resilient. They are expected, in other words, to be survivors. That is a burden Douglas refuses. About ten years ago the priest pled guilty to a different rape, but the sentence was suspended because of his frail health. Douglas remains afflicted. “Rape is loss,” he writes. “At present we lack an adequate vocabulary for speaking about loss. . . . We are intensely ill at ease in the presence of anguish that cannot be relieved, and mourning that cannot be assuaged.”

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share

More from Christine Smallwood:

New books From the December 2017 issue

New Books

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2019

Works of Mercy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.