I Write #MeToo Stories Because Talking About Them Doesn’t Work

September 6, 2018 § 10 Comments


By Katie Simon

When asked what my memoir-in-progress is about, I sometimes say, “I’m writing about the year I was raped as a teenager.”

It’s a great way to shut down a conversation.

My description is almost always met with awkward silences, lost eye contact, mumbled “I’m sorry’s.” Then I change the subject so they don’t up and leave.

I’m frustrated by this reaction—about 1 in 6 women will be raped, which means 1 in 6 women that you know. My experience isn’t particularly unusual, and recently, reading and writing about it isn’t that unusual, either. It seems that when it comes to talking about writing about it, though, we’re not quite there yet.

At times I don’t mind the awkward responses—in fact, they serve a purpose. It’s healthy to make people face what I have experienced, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. But overall, I find fielding their discomfort exhausting. And there’s only so big an impact that a sentence-long conversation can make.

But being a writer is not only part of who I am, it’s also my job. I like talking about writing, but even if I didn’t, it’s not something I could easily avoid.

Eventually I figured out a workaround: when somebody asks, “What’s your book about?”, I usually mention only its secondary plot.

“I got sick with the plague bacteria while traveling around the world at age 18,” I say. “It’s a pretty weird story.” They nod, enthusiastic, eager, to hear more. They take what I say at face value, satisfied that’s a meaty enough topic for a book-length project, that there’s no second story lurking beneath.

Though this strategy works, I wish I didn’t have to rely on it. I wish I could bring up rape, and writing about rape, in everyday conversations—without ending those conversations. I wish that I didn’t have to hide this central aspect of my identity as a writer in order to fit into social situations. I wish I could talk about the subject of my book as easily as I’ve noticed many other writers talk about theirs.

Recently, there has been an outpouring of books and articles, fiction and nonfiction about sexual violence and rape culture. Authors are incorporating their experiences of violence and harassment into their work—not only including it, but even centering it. These issues come up in writing conference panels and workshops and book reviews. We are talking more—but not enough, and the conversations don’t yet come easily.

Paradoxically, I think the only way to solve this issue is to keep telling my story. For now, that mostly means sharing my story via writing—an option I find far less emotionally draining than facing conversations in person. I’m writing these stories in my memoir, in my personal essays, in my reported articles. But I don’t want to stop having spoken conversations about what my writing is really about—not completely.

What I want is for the responses to improve. I want all of us no matter how difficult it is, to engage with the difficult subject of turning sexual violence into art. Not knowing what to say is not a good enough excuse not to say anything at all—there is always a better alternative than shying away from the conversation. I want the subject I’m writing about to be treated like other books’ subjects: with curiosity, respect, and interest. I want writing and talking about rape to be normalized, because if there’s one thing that feeds rape culture, that allows violence like what I experienced to continue, it’s silence.

So when in doubt, listen. Ask me to tell you more about my book. I hate the initial, awkward moment of telling—I hate not knowing what response I’ll have to handle, I hate the emotional labor involved in “cleaning up” after these conversations—but like many writers, I love to talk about my work: its craft and career challenges and triumphs. And I want the conversation to be about the artistic process of writing about trauma, not about the trauma itself.

As the #MeToo movement grows, as we become more accustomed to hearing stories of violence and harassment, I hope I can answer the question, “what’s your book about?” honestly, without ending the conversation. But until we reach the point where #MeToo stories are more easily accepted in day-to-day conversation—or perhaps, in order to reach that point—I plan to continue writing mine. I hope you’ll join me, whether by listening, asking questions—or writing yours.

___________________________________

Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague bacteria, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution—all while traveling alone as a teenager. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Longreads, The Lily, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Lenny, Entropy, and elsewhere.

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§ 10 Responses to I Write #MeToo Stories Because Talking About Them Doesn’t Work

  • dorothyrice says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this perspective, Katie. I have had the same experience when attempting to describe my memoir in progress, so, like you, I often stick with the other threads.

  • Thank you for this frank introduction to widespread face-to-face silence. I have written briefly about my experiences with men, but mostly I do not talk about them partially for the reasons you mention. It has only been recently that I admitted my experiences to myself. (And I am an old woman.)

    It seems many people, including both men and woman, simultaneously find such transgressive behavior natural to men and unspeakable—people both accept it and are irrationally defensive about it. Since I have known many men who refuse to participate in or excuse rape culture, I have never accepted the popular notion of the “differences between men and women” includes a masculine tendency to brutality and sexual abuse. We each have an obligation to behave decently, and I know men and woman are equally capable.

  • Anna says:

    If I were meeting you in that conversational setting, I might be momentarily speechless, but only for a moment. As a fellow writer I would be eager to ask questions: How are you constructing the narrative? How long did it take you to get up the courage? And to say things like Congratulations! What a timely book! This needs to be discussed!

    That said, I believe you are in a very good position to prepare ahead and help the other person respond without exhausting your own emotional energy. You could follow that first sentence with a second, one that will keep her/him engaged. Something like this: It was hard for me to begin writing about it, but…. Or It’s a real exercise in writing craft…. Or With #MeToo happening now, this seems to be the time….

    Having softened the moment somewhat for the other person, you might even find that the moment is ripe for you to ask What do you think?

  • People will react the way they will react … but do go on to do you … and to write what you need to, what you have to say, what needs to be heard and told. The story of the plague may feel less threatening (paradoxically, perhaps), to people because they don’t see themselves likely to be in that position … while sexual assault is so all-over-the-place (and for many people, whether they admit it or not, to themselves and/or others, a personal reality) that it can feel overwhelming and thus people turn away or shut down or minimize or change the subject. That does not mean to shut up about it, because the only way to eradicate or at least minimize violence, is to not accept it as par for the course.
    I wish you much success with writing and publishing your story. Take good care of you, Na’ama

  • lucindacummingsphd says:

    Katie, thank you for this honest and thought provoking piece. It makes me think of the responses others have when I explain that my memoir-in-progress is partly about the death of my son: silence, discomfort, muttered “I’m so sorry,” change of subject. I understand how exhausting it can be to deal with this, and sometimes maddening because we might feel we should not have to educate the world about how to respond to sexual assault stories, grief stories, or other important topics that make people uncomfortable. I understand the impulse to go with the plague story line instead. Kudos to you for continuing your sacred and important writing in the face of all this. Be well.

  • Laura V. says:

    I’m glad you called out the awkwardness that sometimes arises when you share a truth as opposed to socially accepted small talk. It’s a delicate line the writer walks! Your bravery is going to have a payoff for a lot of people.

  • lbenton80 says:

    Thank you, thank you. Now people will know it’s okay to ask questions and show interest in your experience and how you write about it.

  • Very good point of view on this topic. I get that it is crucial to bring the reality into the more mainstream consciousness, and it’s now happening more 60 years after my own suffering and recovery began. I agree speaking truth is essential in breaking down the barriers so that others realize they are not alone and have a greater understanding and become motivated to change such skewed social mores that ignore or even support rape. But people–women and men–will continue to shy away from the topic since it is painful, it may come too close to their own fears or experience, and they may not have the words to speak more of it with you and others. It is an ultimate vulnerability even while we try hard to protect ourselves in this world emotionally and physically and spiritually–and, for so many, there is failure to stay safe. I am sure, then, many may still turn away–even as a topic of discussion re: artistic endeavors, writers’ goals and, of course, personal politics.

    I have over many years informed mostly female doctors about my history of sexual traumas to promote awareness of the reality of my sensitivity–and a general awareness, as well. I am 68. Telling a gynecologist of 40, even 50 or 60, this essential fact charges the room with tension, then quiet avoidance. They react the same way most would, though it is important to know regarding patient medical needs/doctor response/treatment modes.
    I mean to say this: sometimes speaking up or even writing does not do what we need and want it to do. But we keep putting into words what is necessary for us as authentic creators of humanness and its permutations. We keep telling truths as best we can.

    Best regards for your memoir and your life.

  • I think its great you are willingly to share your story! So many of us are not. I wish you the best of luck and hope that maybe one day there won’t be such an issue with people talking about these things

  • I get the awkward silence. My second novel (in progress) is about a sixth-grade girl who loves dogs, is a talented artist, and has been incested by her stepfather, and about the adults who are slowly coming to suspect that something is wrong. It’s not autobiographical, though I did grow up in an alcoholic, sporadically violent family. I know so many people who have managed to survive incest, abuse, and family dysfunction, but my imagination recoiled whenever it tried to create a character who was still stuck in a very bad situation — kids are so powerless! So I knew I had to write it. But when people ask what I’m working on and I say “A novel about an 11-year-old who’s been incested by her stepfather,” it’s like they don’t know what to say next.

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