Just Another Writer–Chapter 3

Chapter Three

I was twenty-four, and Andra was just turned eighteen. I had a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern in philosophy. She had a degree from Metro high school, a Chicago magnet school. We were about to write a book about rape, something that had never been done, with the afore noted academic study, Patterns in Forcible Rape, being the only exception.

Fortunately, we knew, or believed we did, what the book should be. Andra wanted it to be clear enough to be read by the girls she went to high school with, before Metro, back on the southside of Chicago. No abstract philosophizing. I agreed with that. I wanted it to shrink the fear of rape from a looming phantasm to something that, however terrible, could be understood and therefore dealt with. No graphic horror stories. Andra agreed with that.

For research, we had that one academic book by sociologist Menachem Amir, and an article by Susan Griffin, “Rape: The All American Crime.” That was about it. The Griffin article was brilliant and insightful and it became our touchstone. The Amir book was full of statistical material that contradicted all the traditional views of rape, but we had to dig for it because Amir gave the material no social or political context.  Obviously, we needed more.

What we did next was something no sophisticated New York writer would ever think of doing. We drafted a questionnaire to be filled out by women who had been victims of rape. We asked when and where it happened, who the attacker was, what they did afterwards, etc. It was quite a long questionnaire. And then we asked Chicago’s underground newspaper, The Seed, to run it for us, with the address of the bookstore at the bottom. It appeared on a full page of the paper in one issue, and more than one hundred and fifty women took the time to respond. Most filled out the questionnaire. Some wrote long letters. Others scribbled notes to say that they couldn’t fill out the questionnaire, because of the pain, but that they were glad we were writing the book.

It was not a scientific approach, but we weren’t scientists. We did have a statistical analysis of the results done by a friend of Andra’s who had a degree in sociology, but that was later. First, we approached the responses as though they were interviews and our job was to listen to the voices.

When we gathered the questionnaires and letters together and began to read them, we knew that we had embarked on a very personal journey. There would be no hiding behind statistics, no distance or detachment for either one of us. Perhaps because we were breaking new ground, we could not view any of these women as evidence supporting or refuting someone else’s conclusions; we didn’t have anyone else’s conclusions. So we had to deal with each individual story as, well, as the story of an individual.

Some of the stories were horrifying, especially the gang rapes. Amir had discovered that the degree of brutality was higher when there were several attackers, and we explored the reasons for this in the book. We talked about the need to objectify the victim and the effectiveness of physical humiliation as a method for doing that. Behind these conclusions were stories that still make my heart beat faster and my throat constrict as I type these words. It’s more than thirty years later, and I remember specific phrases from a letter I read once. I couldn’t read it more than once.

The name of a town in Minnesota brings back to me, every single time I hear it, one particular story. The last time I heard the name was a few weeks before I wrote this. I was in a parking lot as my partner Michael and I were going into a thrift shop to look for a pink tie for him to wear for a Donald Trump impersonation. The name came on the radio, in a sports report. For a moment, each time, all the horror of that story floods into my mind, but I’ve become fairly good at shaking it off, tuning back in to the sunshine and Michael’s jokes and the quest for the pink tie.

Some of the stories were less sensational. The physical injuries, in these cases, were usually far less than the emotional ones. Betrayal of trust. Loss of innocence. Terrible damage to the sense of self.

And remember, at this time, there were no rape crisis lines, no sensitivity training for police officers and hospital personnel. Most women kept rape as a shameful secret. These women who were telling their stories to us on paper, in anonymity, were often speaking about the rape for the first time since it had happened. We were receiving their confidences, as though we were having coffee with this young mother or sitting beside that teenager in her bedroom listening to her choke out the words. Each piece of paper had an almost sacred meaning, at least to us.

At one point, I remember saying to Andra, “Tell me why I shouldn’t buy a gun, go out onto the street and start randomly shooting men.” I was not being frivolous when I asked that question, and she didn’t take it lightly. She reminded me about James, my brothers, my father, Ralph, Nick, and so forth. It changed the thought. It didn’t change the feeling.

We brought our own experiences to the book as well. I was raped in college. Boy, it’s a shock to put those words down. I’ve talked about it, not only to friends and family, but to audiences in college auditoriums and even on television talk shows, but that’s the first time I’ve written it, as a writer. We never said it in the book.

That rape is one of the reasons I’m so grateful to be a writer. I was able to take it and put it into this book I was writing and use it for something. I used it to understand the women who were willing to relive their own pain in order to help other women. I used it to empathize in a situation where objectivity would have been insulting and useless. As I worked on the book, I wasn’t glad that I had been raped, but I was glad that I could understand. That would happen again and again in my life as a writer. Each time, I was grateful to find a use for pain.

I’m afraid I can’t write any more about the content of the book. Maybe after another thirty years have passed, I’ll feel differently.

Andra and I talked a lot before we wrote anything. I had friends who wondered about my collaboration with this shy teenager, but they weren’t there when her remarkable mind went into action. She had spent her life to that time watching people and figuring out how they worked so that she could survive. I won’t tell her story because it’s not mine to tell, but I can say that she could parse any situation that involved conflict, aggression, or danger like Edmond Newman could parse an English sentence. In fact, she is now a groundbreaking theorist in conflict management.

Sometimes, instead of talking about the subject, she would sit on cushions across the room from me and tell me stories that, because of her shyness about personal revelations, were elliptical and didn’t always make sense to me. I suppressed my linear nature and let them wash over me, gathering bits and pieces of information about her life, getting to know her a little better. Then she would leave. The next time we met, our conversation would be to the point and yield another bit of the outline.

We eventually divided up the chapters. I wrote one and she wrote one. Then we traded and rewrote and traded and rewrote again. I would get back a chapter with a red line through a whole paragraph and a scribble in the margin. “Too much philosophy.” It was usually a paragraph I was particularly proud of, clever and erudite. I’d read through it and realize she was right. We weren’t writing for critics. We were writing for those high school classmates of hers, and mine.

The writing would have gone much more quickly, but each of us had to take time away from it, sometimes weeks, sometimes months. I know now that it was actually too hard for us. We were too young. It should have been written by older women with more wisdom and a greater ability to cope with intense feelings. They would have sustained less damage. But we were too young to know that we were too young. And for some reason, once we started, we thought we had to write it. Maybe it was that contract, maybe those first questionnaires and letters.

Anyway, the chapters went back and forth dozens of times. The outline changed.We talked to more women. A few other articles came out in scholarly journals, and each one was helpful. Each bit of research was also a sign that a few people were beginning to pay attention. At last, we approached what we thought was the end. We even got a friend from the Press, Mary O’Connell, to copyedit the manuscript for us, because we didn’t trust the boys with a dream, our publishers, to have any particular concern about its quality.
And then we got another phone call from them. They were going out of business. Although their belief that books could be marketed like soap would be vindicated in the years to come, they had not been able to pull it off. Sorry and good luck.

It wasn’t the shock you might think. The contract had served the purpose of getting us to write and, by that time, we realized that the book was important. We had a pretty good idea that someone would publish it. Our only problem was to get the book to someone who would actually read it. We didn’t have an agent. We had no knowledge of publishing. How could we get through to what James called “those grey eminences who will decide our fate?”

We went to Ralph, of course. By this time he was an acquisitions editor at the Press. While he didn’t know anybody in trade publishing either, he knew about Literary Market Place, He went through it for us, marking publishers he thought might be interested. Then he helped us put together a query letter, which we sent off with the introduction and the table of contents to some twenty publishers. We received three invitations to send the manuscript. When we wrote back that we would be sending it to three publishers, one of them declined to read it. The other two said to send it along.

The book was being read by Beacon Press and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. We went on with our lives and waited.

Click here for Chapter Four


13 Responses to Just Another Writer–Chapter 3

  1. Christine says:

    Selfishly, I love these installments. Puts me in touch with my own history that I have not thought of in so long and puts it into a wider context for a broader view. I appreciate this very much.

  2. Thank you, Christine. That’s good to hear.

  3. Jan Gleiter says:

    I thought I knew most of this, and I didn’t. Not really. I want to keep reading and reading and reading, and I can’t. It’s all fascinating and so well-done. Keep going, girl.

  4. FormerComposer says:

    Although we’ve known each other for, what, 30 years now?, watching you fill in the details of the very broad strokes I’ve known is fascinating. I’ve often heard the old saw that writers should write about what they know. It’s clear that you’ve always known more than you probably gave yourself credit for; you just needed to find a way to write about it. This saga is a fascinating account of how you found your ways. And now you’re writing about what you know best — yourself. That’s probably a little scary at times but I trust you will battle and outwit your way past those grey ghostly eminences of the psyche that we so often let decide our fates.

  5. I’d like to say something clever and erudite now, but all I can think is “Wow.” This is a powerful post. Thank you.

  6. I am so grateful for these comments that I want to respond to each one. I don’t think I should fill up the blog with thank yous, but you should all know I appreciate your thoughtful responses.

  7. Tom Gould says:

    I enjoyed this chapter more that the last…how soon till the next one??

  8. Very soon. A couple of days.

  9. Tracy Moncure says:

    Ok, I got sucked in too. Keep going, little sister. It’s great!

  10. PJ says:

    “It should have been written by older women with more wisdom and a greater ability to cope with intense feelings.”
    Perhaps, and yet, it never was, and may never have been. It took two very young, reckless, incredibly brave women to do what none before had dared to do, at a cost that can never be repaid except in gratitude from all the people who found comfort, knowledge, and strength in knowing they were no longer alone in the darkness.

  11. stephy says:

    There are days, thirty years later, when I still ask myself the question, “Why don’t we all get guns and start shooting men randomly?” The real answer has always been: We don’t want to be them. Also, Little Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Way too many of us were broken because of that line.
    Women have as much capacity to be violent as men have. In previous decades,the military only took men and taught them to be killing machines. It is in some ways like another real World Changer: Teaching someone to read. Once one has a skill, nobody can really control how one uses that skill.
    Thanks for writing this.

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