After a rather fluffy and upbeat couple of posts last week, we’re going down into the dark today. Trigger warning for sexual assault and spoilers for James Treadwell’s Advent and Anarchy. Also I’m going to slightly spoil my own book, Mother of Creation, because I can and because I feel like I can’t have this conversation without thinking about how it applies to my own work. Please read my book anyway if you can, because I’d like my writing habit to someday become more lucrative.
Sexual assault is something that every woman experiences as an echo in her psyche, I think. It is so pervasive in our media and culture it is hard not to have that echo whispering at you from time to time, catching the edge of your attention. Many of my friends have experienced some type of sexual assault, sometimes violent. I carry their stories. I myself have been blessed enough to experience minor forms – the unwanted touches of older men, the catcalls and implicit threats, the pressure to say yes to intimacy and the uncomfortable knowledge that saying “no” was something being granted when it should have been something that was merely understood.
I remember vividly as a young woman being told by someone I loved and trusted very much that sometimes a man can’t stop, it wasn’t like it was for girls, so it was my obligation not to take it to that point. I carried this misinformation with me for years. It’s an insidious narrative, the idea that men have no choice in rape anymore than women do. That they are gripped by their overwhelming base urges. A rape is like a tree falling in a storm. It is like gravity.
Rape is the nature of man, this narrative says. You can’t blame him.
I encountered this idea very recently in the work of James Treadwell. I will hurry to say that the writing style of Treadwell is beautiful, the narrative pacing solid, the thematic content interesting. Yet I am not sure that I will finish the trilogy that this particular narrative occurred in, despite enjoying many other elements of the story, despite being solidly invested. The narrative arc in question, after all, occurred in the second book of this series, Anarchy. It had been some time since I read Advent, several years in fact, so any warning that this was the direction of the character, Marina’s, plot development had been forgotten. I remember enjoying Advent a great deal. It is, if you want to read it, probably a little bit like The Magicians, a grim approach to magic in the modern world.
Marina is the child of a siren and/or river nymph (the two mythological creatures appear to be confused in the text somewhat, not that they don’t have overlaps) and a human man. She is raised by that man, her father, in isolation. Her understanding of the world is hampered by the way that she is raised and by the fact that she is not entirely human and does not seem to think of things the way humans do. Most importantly, though, Marina is a child. She is fourteen, but seems to think more like a ten-year-old.
Early on in the book Anarchy, Marina is left alone by the men in her life, hidden for her own good, they say. It is established through reflections by other, male characters that she has inherited some supreme charisma or sexual attractiveness from her mother. Despite the fact that she is clearly an adolescent, and despite the fact that she clearly does not understand attraction or present herself in any way sexually, they are overwhelmingly attracted to her. She must therefore be kept shut away.
If you’re already getting skeeved out here, then you can join the club.
Most of the book, however, is not told from these other males’ perspectives. It is told from Marina’s, or from the perspectives of other women. Unsurprisingly, women do not seem to feel this same attraction – though the woman who appoints herself Marina’s guardian, Iseult, obviously senses that it is a possibility. The question of why this would be the case, or why, if Iseult does feel attraction towards Marina, she is able to resist it but men cannot, is never brought up. The most unfortunate part of Iseult and Marina’s interactions, however, is that it makes you feel that Marina might escape the fate the author has clearly planned for her.
She doesn’t, of course.
Why Treadwell felt the need to include the sexual assault of a child in his narrative, whether it contributed to the story, is not something I am interested in analyzing here. What does strike me so violently about Marina’s story, however, is not the rape itself, though that was traumatic enough. It is the way that it is described as natural and inevitable within the narrative. From the start, it is clear that men cannot be trusted with Marina. It takes a heroic effort for them not to assault her, in fact. This narrative so thoroughly parallels the worst and most entrenched ideas of rape culture that it is deeply destabilizing to read. It is even more destabilizing to question why a writer would include a rape in his narrative that was presented in such a way, especially of a child.
I myself have used sexual assault in my stories. I am not innocent of that. Liana’s rape was constructed as an inevitability in some ways as well. I would argue the inevitability was not, however, dependent on her nature, on human nature. Jei has a choice that is very clearly set in front of him. Yes, he is pressured and manipulated by his own power and position, among other things, but the choice always lies with him. It was important for me to explore the ways that power allows grievous crimes to become normalized. I sought to do that while making it clear that what had happened should not be normal. I can’t say whether or not I succeeded in this – I don’t have that distance from my own work.
That was not, to my reading of Marina’s tale, the way her rape was written. That is not the way that rape is often presented in narratives in our culture. It bothers me fundamentally that this is the case – that even in trying to represent sexual assault in story, to understand it, we replicate narratives that normalize it.
I call out Treadwell because his work allowed me to see clearly what bothers me most about depictions of sexual assault. He’s not alone in this, and perhaps I should be critiqued equally. It’s been a long time since I first conceived of Mother of Creation, and I can’t say there aren’t things I would have done differently. But I do know that in the future, I hope to read and create stories where sexual assault is not normalized as an inevitability, where men are decent and where women are not blamed for the happenstance of their bodies. If we don’t start telling that kind of story, we can never hope to live in that kind of world.