Joyce Carol Oates: Rape – A Love Story (2003)

Rape: A Love Story begins with what is almost unspeakable. It tells of the brutality and cowardice that overtakes the city of Niagara Falls in the aftermath of an attack on a woman and her young daughter. A diamond-hard dissection of modern mores, it is also the tale of Teena and Bethie’s silent champion – a man who knows the meaning of justice. And love. 

It’s a provocative title, Joyce Carol Oates has chosen for her book: Rape: A Love Story. Maybe it’s because of titles like this that people are divided when it comes to her work. I don’t know. This is maybe the fifth of her books I’ve read so far and every time I read her I think I want to read every thing she has ever written, because even books which are not as good, like The Falls, are still so much superior than most other books. Some like Solstice are of a rare beauty, others like Foxfire and Rape are bound to trigger intense discussions.

Rape tells the story of a bad decision. One single moment which changes a life forever. Because it is a beautiful night, because she comes home from a party and is happy, Teena decides to walk through a park at midnight, together with her 12-year-old daughter. It’s a decision that shouldn’t have any major consequences but it has. She is followed by a group of young men, attacked, raped and almost beaten to death. Her young daughter escapes and gets help. The police officer who finds her is a veteran of the gulf war, a quiet, silent man. He knows the young widow and likes her very much. He is incredibly shocked about what happened to her and the girl. Bethie hasn’t been raped but beaten as well.

This is only the beginning of the story, the first few pages. What follows is maybe less violent, but not less shocking. The town – Niagara Falls – turns against Teena. Rumours start to spread. Was she not too good-looking, too sexy? Did she not like men too much? There is gossip and finally threats. Her prosecutor, a woman, is ridiculed in court, everybody turns against them.

The novel is told in alternating voices, changing points of view. Many of the chapters are second person narratives. A voice seems to be talking to Bethie, the young daughter. I found the novel masterful and impressive. Especially the end. It’s an analysis of violence, guilt, justice and retribution. It doesn’t end like we would expect it will. Of course not, remember, there is the subtitle – A Love Story.… It almost feels as if Joyce Carol Oates wanted to say: “If we cannot have justice in real life, let’s at least have it in our books.”

I found it particularly eerie that Rape had a lot in common with one of the stories in Ferdinand von Schirachs’ second collection Guilt which I just reviewed here. The perpetrators even when they are known are not always brought to justice if evidence is lacking or the defence lawyer is better than he should be.

Another reason why I found the book so good and important is because this is such a universal topic. Something I sometimes fear that will never go away. I have two girl friends who have been raped. None of them reported the crime. One was drunk when she came home, wearing a leather skirt and afraid they would tell her it was her fault. The other one had chosen a way which is known for being a bit dangerous and felt she had deserved it for her stupidity. I have been followed twice and could run away and was once attacked in broad daylight. If my dog hadn’t chased the attacker… I don’t know.  On top of that there has been a series of rapes since a couple of months in the city in which I live. Every weekends since a few months young women are raped on their way home. Sometimes relatively early, around 18.00, sometimes late at night. In many different areas of the city, by one or more men. It’s appalling.

The book captures this and much more so well. One single moment changes everything, a decision that wouldn’t have an impact if we were living in a healthy world, a world in which women and girls would not constantly have to fear being attacked. It manages to say a few powerful things about going to war and being a soldier as well. A short book. But so complex.

These numbers from may be of some interest Facts About Violence. They only look at the US which isn’t even one of the most violent places for women to be.