[CN: rape, rape culture, police violence]
In Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes 55 cities he has seen on his journeys to an aging Kublai Khan. His descriptions are lyrical imaginings of cities that are fantastical and impossible.
Late in the book, the Khan points out that the explorer has yet to mention Venice:
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’
And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or, perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.’
Like Marco Polo, I never mention Venice.
And Venice runs beneath everything that I say.
Three days ago, the Associated Press released the results of a year-long investigation of sexual misconduct by US law enforcement. Counting only those who lost their badges (how many did not?), counting only those in states that track it (how many missed from New York and California?), not counting those the states themselves did not count (how many headlines missing from the statistics?), not counting those whose misdeeds were never reported (how many fear reporting police to police?) — in six years, one thousand officers lost their badges.
1,000 officers. Not 1,000 violations.
How many victims does that math work out to?
Do you really want to know?
Two days ago, the trial of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw began. Holtzclaw is charged with rape, sexual battery, and stalking, among other crimes. He faces 36 charges, related to 13 victims. (care to revisit the math above?) When he was initially charged, there were seven identified victims; others came forward after seeing reports on the news. (how many do not watch the news?) The six-month investigation began with only one woman, reporting only one crime. The rest of the case built as police looked for other victims…and found them. (who already knew that ‘one’ always means ‘more’?)
The woman who reported Holtzclaw, a 57yo grandmother identified only as J.L., did not already have a record, as his other victims did. (rape or imprisonment, which do you choose) J.L. did not live in the poor neighborhood he targeted; she was only driving through. (blow job or death, which frightens you more) Holtzclaw is on trial today not because he assaulted women, but because the last woman he assaulted was less vulnerable than the first twelve.
When charges were filed last year, The Guardian reported: “All 13 of the victims are black; Holtzclaw is listed as Asian or Pacific Islander in court records. It’s not clear whether race played a role in the alleged crimes.”
How “clear” does something need to be, before we know what we know?
You knew before you read this far in my story, didn’t you, how likely that Holtzclaw’s perfectly-precarious, vulnerable victims would turn out to be black?
Violence by police against black-bodied people seizes headlines in this long, hot year. People are naming the dead. People are remembering the bodies. Mike Brown, stretched on Ferguson asphalt for four hours.
People march in protest for the dead.
People march for the dead black men and boys.
What of the others. “Were we truly better off dead?” went up a collective outcry from black women, as a contingent addressed the United Nations about the brutality of sexual violence experienced by black women, girls, and LGBTQ people in the US.
Sexual misconduct is the second most common form of criminal behavior by police. Can we even #SayHerName, when she hasn’t yet died?
Holtzclaw’s victims did him one favor. They cleared their own bodies off of the streets after his crime.
Rape victims always clear away the bodies. Or perhaps the rest of us simply do not see the corpses they leave behind, the ones that litter our streets and our homes and our schools. Perhaps we are forever walking past and over and through these remnants of the violated.
Bodies as invisible as Venice, that ubiquitous and impossible city.
I often wonder when I first mentioned Venice.
If I ever mentioned Venice.
Such a literary city! Thomas Mann’s Death in. Shakespeare’s Merchant of. James’ Wings of a Dove. Calvino, of course.
And Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, though that came after.
Did I ever talk about Venice, before I stopped talking about Venice? Did I ever talk to a boy I once knew about having a desire to see Venice?
Or was that a conversation he had with someone else.
By targeting poor black women, many of them sex workers or addicts with prior convictions, Daniel Holtzclaw profiled not just victims unlikely to fight back or report him, but also the people least likely to be believed if they did. Their bodies were vulnerable to his gun and his flesh, their testimony vulnerable to his badge and the state power in it. None of this was by accident.
None of this is ever by accident.
Rape is predation of the weak by the powerful. Rape is predation of the more powerful by those who would prove they are not more weak. Rape is the plunder of one’s body by another, by someone who chooses to ignore that every body is as inspirited and valuable as their own.
You already know this. We all already know this, whether we choose to remember or not.
Rape culture perpetuates itself when we who make up society behave as though we do not know what we all ought to know. When we enact laws, implement policies, produce and consume popular culture, decide when to listen and whom to hear — and do so, as if the processes of plunder are mysterious. Or ever justified.
When we castigate the victim for not being stronger. When we congratulate ourselves on the good sense to never chose weakness. When we penalize the vulnerable for not being us.
There are many ways to be vulnerable.
~ Be one of society’s recognized castoffs: sex worker, addict, convict, immigrant without papers, immigrant without English, mentally ill, disabled, brutally poor.
~ Belong to a group whose voices in the halls of power are few: the very young, the not-white, the not-men, the not-straight, the not-citizens, the not-wealthy, the not-formally-educated.
~ Come from a background of abuse or neglect. Have a desperate hunger to be loved. Struggle to distinguish between ‘being seen’ and ‘being hunted.’
~ Have a gender that slips too easily out of the categories legible to bullies and brutes.
~ Be imperfect: drink too much, trust too much, turn right and not left, drop your guard for a moment, fall asleep in your own room.
Be all of these things, or some of these things, or only one of these things:
Prior victimization significantly increases the odds of future victimization. Most rapists have carved more than one notch into their headboard, or into the grip of their gun — and many victims have had more than one notch carved into them, too.
That’s the thing about vulnerability: it accretes.
I think those of us who live in the invisible cities stay silent, not from fear of losing Venice all at once — but in agony that Venice can never be lost at all.
I only remember one conversation with the boy who several months later becomes Venice. We talked about much. We talked about nothing.
I told him I didn’t think that what happened at night was real.
That I didn’t believe I was the same person in daylight as in darkness.
I said, “I can’t remember each morning what happened the night before.
“Not like I was there.
“Not like that was me.”
We sat on the steps of my parents’ house talking until the small hours, about everything and nothing all at once.
That was the night I first thought: ‘He seems like a nice boy to date.’
Was it that night or was it later, the first time he thought: ‘She seems like an easy girl to rape’?
The week the Cosby story ran on the cover of New York Magazine, news stations fell all over themselves to report on allegations they had ignored for more than a decade. I watched a reporter ask one survivor, again and again, what similarities she had noticed between her experience and those of the other women. He was fishing for a sound bite. He wanted her to sum up what any of us who had followed the stories already knew: that the same details repeated, again and again, in each survivor’s story.
Every time this woman answered by repeating the details of her own assault, he would ask again with different words or emphasis, trying to coax her up Bloom’s taxonomy from simple recall to higher order analysis. As if the problem was in her misunderstanding of the question, and not in the questioner’s misunderstanding of her.
As if a survivor recites her rape for national media the same way a pundit justifies her election predictions on a Sunday morning talk show.
“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Marco Polo tells the emperor. He says he is talking about Venice.
I think he is talking about trauma.
The girl has stopped fighting.
The boy has said, “I am going to do this to you now.”
The thing the boy knows about virgins — other than ‘can’t count the cherry as popped until it’s actually a fuck,’ that is — the thing the boy knows: virgins buck. They bleed. They hurt.
Gotta give ’em a distraction to think about, like a metaphoric strap of leather to bite down on. Or that stick-in-the-mouth that gunshot victims always get in movies and TV shows, right before their buddy cuts out the bullet without anesthesia.
Her face is turned towards the wall. He presses close and huffs in her ear: “Think about Venice. Think about gondolas in Venice.”
And she tries.
She stares at the wall and wonders, “Why Venice? Is Venice a city we have ever talked about? Is Venice a thing I have ever mentioned?
When the pain is hot and stabbing, she can only manage one word: “GONDOLAS.”
Are you too wondering, ‘why Venice?’
To this day, I do not know.
But perhaps, if I speak of other cities, little by little — if I speak of culture and discourse and headlines, if I too am an explorer and am brave — perhaps someday I can lose this invisible, invincible city.
Perhaps someday we can all lose Venice.