A blog about books (both non-fiction and fiction) that address forms of social inequality associated with race, gender, class, or mental health.
I just finished reading Screaming Through the Silence, a short book written by Mary Ann Ricciardi and published late last fall. Several decades ago, when she was a brand new college freshman, Ricciardi met a guy who invited her to a party. Upon arriving, she could not figure out why hardly anyone was there. Instead of finding a party, she discovered that four guys were awaiting her arrival so that they could rape her. Memories of this crime are interwoven throughout the book along with brief narratives provided by other rape victims that Ricciardi has met through the years. She also provides commentaries about the impact of rape and society’s response to it. The book is not written for the purpose of illustrating her own personal story because Ricciardi, who has spent years working with victims of rape, does not consider her story to be unique.
A major theme in the book is the damage that results from the cultural silence surrounding rape. Silence essentially translates into social tolerance. The short narratives from other rape victims collectively emphasize the importance of speaking out. Ricciardi points out that silence creates a vicious cycle: “Society cannot understand because victims do not tell. Victims do not tell because society does not understand” (p. 110). Another central theme in the book is the long-term aftereffects of rape and the profound impact that it has on one’s life. In addition, Ricciardi discusses issues (such as victim-blaming), which essentially serve the purpose of relieving society from having to address the actual underlying causes of this crime.
Ricciardi makes some particularly interesting comments about the language used to talk about rape. For example, she uses the phrase “intimate assault” rather than “sexual assault” because the crime is, in fact, not about sex. She says:
“When we talk about sexual assault, sexual violence, and child sex abuse, we are insinuating that these crimes have something to do with sex. They do not. The language we are using misdirects society to assume, incorrectly, that these crimes are results of behaviors of a sexual nature. The physical crime perhaps mimics the act, but that is as far as the similarity goes…These are crimes of power, control, humiliation, and degradation. The physical assault on a victim’s being is horrendous enough, but ask most survivors of intimate assault where their real pain lies; they will tell you it is deep within the most intimate and fragile part of their shattered spirit. These are intimate assaults” (p. 5-7).
With regard to language, she also discusses references to victims versus survivors. To immediately refer to a victim as a survivor seems misleading and seems to minimize the seriousness of the crime. She says:
“My concern is that society in general will hear ‘survivor’ and assume all is well. The survivor is back to normal and life is as it once was. She has survived. No need for concern. And this is exactly where society has plopped itself for generations…Society does not need any more reasons to bury its head in the sand. The reality, although harsh, is that the victim was traumatized and will rarely bounce right back to the emotional health of a survivor. This takes time, and as uncomfortable as it may be for those surrounding the victim, we must, as a society, begin to pay attention to the emotional effects of these crimes…
I also wonder if we are doing the victim a favor if we refer to her as a survivor when she does not yet feel the strength of a survivor. Will she feel as though she should be stronger and in control of her life when she does not yet feel this way? Will she feel disappointed in herself and wonder why she is not recovering at the pace others feel she should be recovering?” (p. 104-105)
Ricciardi tackles many stereotypes about rape. She points out that it is rarely an impulsive act. Many rapes are premeditated, particularly those involving multiple perpetrators. Perpetrators engage in victim-selection and target particular people who are vulnerable for one reason or another. She also points out that a person’s affect, lack of tears, or lack of hysteria are not evidence of whether that person has been raped. There is no “correct reaction” to being raped.
One of the themes present in the narrative accounts of other rape victims, which are interspersed throughout the book, is the notion of losing a part of one’s self, feeling that a part of one’s self has died, and missing that former self.
One woman says:
“We as victims/survivors lose a part of ourselves that we may never fully get back…It has been twenty-nine years since my rape and often throughout the years it seems as though the assault just happened yesterday. Everything seems to be going good in my life, and the next thing I know, something triggers the memories of the assault, and once again I feel like a prisoner in my own body: afraid of everything and everyone, always questioning other people’s intentions toward me” (p. 64).
“I was robbed of everything I held dear and everything that I took for granted. He stole my soul. He stole my self-respect. He stole my dignity. He stole my sense of safety” (p. 65).
“The physical attack will never compare to the mental havoc” (p. 66).
Another woman mentions a visit to a pastor and says:
“For the first time, I heard someone tell me it was okay to have all the feelings I had been having. To be angry, hurt, sad, and so very scared, and it was even okay for me to feel these feelings toward God. He also proposed the idea that I needed to allow myself time to mourn. The person I was before I was assaulted is not the person I am now, and it was like losing a loved one” (p. 69).
When referring to victims, Ricciardi utilizes “she” and “her” simply out of convenience rather than out of disregard for male victims. One of the narratives in the book says:
“Several years ago, I accompanied a young man to the hospital ER. He had been sexually assaulted, and he needed to be cared for. I remember he was crying, and the hospital staff looked at him with doubt as if to say, ‘We don’t believe you were raped. You couldn’t really have been victimized, because you’re a guy.’ They basically told him to go home, take an aspirin, and sleep it off. They were not at all interested in the emotional trauma this young man just experienced. Not to mention the possibility of physical injury or STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). This was a victim, who was victimized again by their indifference” (p. 32).
Similar to the author of Rape New York who describes her landlord’s defense when she sued him in civil court for failing to provide a secure building, Ricciardi illustrates that it is absurd to expect women to live lifestyles that entail hypervigilance. Instead, society should focus on prevention:
“We have a lot of dos and don’ts when it comes to being a female. Everything from what she should and should not wear to where she can and cannot go. How she must guard her drink as though it was the most valuable piece of property she owns to taking on a most uncomfortable hypervigilance once the sun goes down. These scenarios are routinely familiar to females. But focusing on what a female needs to do not to be the victim of a crime hardly seems to be the solution” (p. 83).
The blending of Ricciardi’s own experiences and her compassionate commentaries on the experiences of other victims results in a very insightful book. The combined narratives serve as a powerful way to overcome the silence.