Aftermath: How to tell a good rape story

Suzanne Zaccour, Tracey Houston, Helena Levitt, and John Stoltenberg, at the post-show discussion on opening night, Sept. 17, 2015 (Photograph/Gemma Stevens)
Suzanne Zaccour, Tracey Houston, Helena Levitt, and John Stoltenberg, at the post-show discussion on opening night, Sept. 17, 2015 (Photograph/Gemma Stevens)

At age 52, Andrea Dworkin was drugged and raped in Paris. She published a partial account in New Statesman in 2000, but it wasn’t until after her death (of natural causes) that “Aftermath,” a suicide letter fully detailing the experience, was discovered. Ten years after this amazing feminist writer and activist passed on, the talented actress Helena Levitt brings her story to life in a stage production by the Waterworks Company.

Our stories are not ours to tell. People, institutions, fear, rape culture… Someone or something is always preventing us from creating our own narratives. The enemy, whoever that is, is always rewriting history, interrupting us, changing how we feel, masking how we lived. Over and over again, survivors hear that we don’t have a “good” rape story. What’s that? No one knows exactly. But it doesn’t really matter since it’s an unattainable standard.

For the law and the media, the survivor is never credible enough. “Everytime I hear yet another discussion of a woman’s ‘credibility’ I want to puke everywhere”, yells Levitt. “[A]s if her ‘credibility’ has anything to do with whether she was raped or not; as if rapists have some kind of requirement that they only rape ‘credible’ women.” Censure also happens in the private sphere — Dworkin remembers holding back and using the words that her lover could hear instead of those she wanted to use. “I had to be reasonable.” Between her “female hysterical nature” and the threat she poses to the sacrosanct presumption of innocence, the survivor is left with the impossible task of telling a fair and credible story. But rape is, in itself, incredible. The character struggles to believe that a man would want to “fuck [her] dead.” I sometimes struggle to believe that one in four women will be sexually assaulted, even though that is probably an underestimation. One-fourth of womanhood with a rape story to tell, who could ever believe that this is the world we live in? The statistics are not credible because they are an estimation — these rapes are not reported. It is obviously our fault: we are not telling our story in the right way, to the right people.

But we’re in 2015, now, and we’ve had initiatives like #BeenRapedNeverReported. We explained our silence. Doesn’t it change anything? It doesn’t, as our stories are still not good enough to be believed. Because we remained anonymous. Because we dared to name the rapist. Because we didn’t name him. Because it’s on the Internet. Name it: any argument is a good one as long as it makes us shut up.

Aftermath_rehearsal_27Aug_1
Helena Levitt as Andrea Dworkin (Photograph/Gemma Stevens)

Dworkin knew everything there was to know about rape culture. But this nightmarish “drug rape” was new to her. And don’t you go thinking that “[she was] out during it so how bad could it have been”? She reminds us that “memory is all the rape victim has”, and now the rapist can take that away, too. When you think about it, the rape drug is an old and new way to prevent the survivor from telling her story. Sure, the rapist protects himself from prosecution — not that he really needs it. But it is clear from the play that not being able to remember prevents Dworkin from healing. That’s why she tells the story over and over throughout the play. Hoping to trigger a memory that, as she says, wasn’t taken from her but was simply never there. It is impossible, then, to recover.

Dworkin once said that she carried with her “the rape of all the women” she knew, “piles and piles of bodies.” Rape is both an individual and a collective violence. Maybe that’s why Dworkin always makes me feel like she is telling my story, my friend’s story, our collective herstory. Whether or not you you’ve been raped or drug raped, you relate so much that, apart from the fact that you may not have her tremendous talent, you think, “I could have written that. I could have thought that.” And so you don’t need to have been drug raped to understand why she feels cheated out of her own memories.

Rape culture: even when the woman does remember, she doesn’t remember it right. “She’s not objective enough.” “Are you sure you’re not making this up?” “It’s just her side of the story.” “She’s exaggerating.” “That’s not how it happened.” This gaslighting results in sexual violence not ending with the rape. The victim is stripped of her clothes first, then of her memories. Her body is violated, and then her mind. Until she doesn’t trust herself anymore. How can we tell the good rape story if we know, but at the same time don’t really know, what happened? Again, anything to make us shut up.

Aftermath is about refusing to shut up. This is Andrea Dworkin’s story, but it is also all of ours, all those untold feelings, fears and memories that are too dark to be brought to light. Seeing Aftermath is hearing a text that was not meant to be heard. This is a survivor finally telling her story to herself, for herself. A testimony that does not have to be credible, or made in court, or careful about someone else’s reaction. This is not your typical Hollywood-approved rape drama. It is a heartfelt cry about not being able to survive, interrupted by jokes and childhood anecdotes. It’s the conclusion of the life-time work of an activist who was always so sure, and who finally allows herself to doubt. Because doubt is something we can’t afford in public since our survival depends on convincing others.

Aftermath is about all our contradictions as feminists, and our conflicting feelings as survivors. Wanting him dead but not being able to hurt him. Hating men and blaming women. Working for a future we don’t always believe in. We could say that Aftermath is all of Dworkin’s story — her true story, a testimony that will not be taken from her.

Sure, our stories are not ours to tell. But “impossible” and “forbidden” have never stopped Dworkin. She is not allowed to talk about her rape, yet she writes and speaks and yells. She does it. She tells a good rape story. Because it is the story we’ve all been waiting to hear, but more importantly, the one we’ve always wanted to tell. We all have our note in a bottle, and it was more than time someone let the poison out.

Suzanne Zaccour is a feminist activist and a law student at McGill University. She is the author of the blog, De colère et d’espoir/Of Anger and Hope. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 Suzanne Zaccour (Photo/Gemma Stevens)
Suzanne Zaccour (Photo/Gemma Stevens)
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  • I really hope they consider touring this production across Canada. Starting in St. John’s 🙂 Thanks for the great review!

  • Chantal Therien

    I agree, this is a production of quality, a thoughtful treatment of what it is to be a woman, an individual in an impossible situation, and having to make it into something possible.

  • Lucia Lolita

    Stunning article. Well done.