Monday, November 16, 2009

Blogger Blasts British in Cultural, Contextual Clash

Sorry for being totally absent's been a busy few weeks: I started a new job full time at the library, just in time to help out with the logistics of a conference hosted there. To make up for it, this will be more-than-just-your-average post. Indeed, it's perhaps my most "meta" post yet, featuring my response to an email about a blog post about an advice column (whew!)

It all started last Friday, when I got a message from AR over at the Undomestic Goddess asking, "What do you think of this?"

This turned out to be a blog post by Amanda Hess of The Sexist: Sex and Gender in the District. The post was a scathing indictment (to take a phrase from my undergraduate English department) of Daily Telegraph advice columnist Lesley Garner. The post's title tells you basically all you need to know about Hess's take on the column, if not what Garner actually said: "Advice Columnist Tells Victim She Wasn’t Actually Raped, And Should Have Aborted Her Not-Rape Baby."

What do I think? I guess I think it's too bad that
Hess felt the need to trash--and misrepresent--Garner, because in the end, they're on the same side. They want the same result, but they're just focusing on different things. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We need to start with the original letter:

Dear Lesley,

I am going to write down some facts about my situation but I'm not sure if I will have a question to ask at the end. I was with my husband for four years. I came home from a work trip abroad and told him that I had been raped but that I didn't want to report the incident because of the disruption it would bring into our lives. I liked my job, and my husband was in the middle of building a business. I wasn't going to tell him at all, but he noticed my strange mood.

After a difficult two months of medical tests and all-night talks, I told him I was pregnant from the rape and wanted an abortion. He drove me to a clinic for a consultation and waited outside in the car because he "didn't want to hear me talk about conception dates". Then we had to wait a couple more weeks for my appointment for surgery. During that time I changed my mind, and my whole world fell apart.

My baby was born healthy despite all the stress, and my decree nisi came through a few months later. That was seven years ago, and now I have a beautiful boy who surprises me every day with his curiosity and intelligence. But I am so lonely. I have changed jobs many times and I miss my ex-husband terribly. His business finished, and I know he is alone like me. I text him occasionally and he always replies. We've talked about meeting, and we almost did in January this year.

He has kept the same mobile number all these years. Is there a chance, even a small chance, that we could get back together? I know my boy would melt his heart if they met but could so much hurt ever be completely healed?

It seems like it all happened in a previous life, but we were so good together. I've never been happier than I was with him. My boy needs a father, and I have dated a few guys but none has worked out.

Why is my ex still alone? Is he waiting for me to make the first move? I'm sure we could be happy again. He and my son have so much in common. They are both geeks who like sports. They could watch rugby and Dr Who together. He can play chess – my ex would love that.

If we do meet, and if he wants to talk about what happened, should I keep to my old story or should I tell him the truth? What happened on that trip wasn't quite rape but I wasn't exactly willing either. The man was my boss and he was very drunk and forceful. I tried to push him away without upsetting him, but he was too strong and I didn't fight him. Maybe it is too late and too complicated.


Oy. There's a lot here for anyone to wrap their head around, and it doesn't help that "Eva" isn't being particularly consistent or straightforward.

Hess, as is her right (perhaps even her duty, as a politically minded gender blogger), wants to focus on Eva's inability to admit that what happened to her was rape. That is a serious problem, one worthy of discussion, and indeed perhaps indicative of unacceptable cultural norms at work. This is a legitimate issue to for Hess to bring to the attention of her audience: look, this problem is still not solved! Look what happens when we aren't able to call a spade a spade and a rape a rape!

But she (unnecessarily, in my opinion) absolutely blasts Garner for not taking the exact same approach--and I think that in doing so, she misreads what Garner is trying to say. Sigh...I'm trying to make this not too wordy and she-said, she-saidy, and I just can't. So bear with me.

Hess accuses Garner of saying that Eva's story about being raped "wasn't even true" and that by choosing not to have an abortion, she wasn't considering her husband's feelings.

But I don't read this as Garner's comment on the rape itself, or on what Eva should or shouldn't have done seven years ago. Garner is instead addressing the question Eva asked, which is, essentially, how can I get back together with my ex-husband--the one who left me after I was raped and impregnated by my boss?

Garner isn't saying, as Hess suggests, "this wasn't a rape, but a 'situation' that was entirely your own fault" She's saying, "Listen to yourself. Wake up. You think that if you tell your ex, who left you when he thought you were raped, that in fact you weren't raped after all, and that you want him to come back and raise your boss's cute child, he will. You're crazy for believing this, and you're wrong for making this your goal."

To be fair, I don't think Garner wrote this very clearly. She does (as Hess points out) say that Eva isn't considering her husband's feelings, and that she's focusing only on her own needs. But in fact, this is true--we just first have to strip the terms "feelings" and "needs" of the baggage we often assign to them.

What I mean is, Hess (understandably) reads this as Garner sympathizing with the husband and accusing Eva of being selfish. But, in fact, we know that the ex has feelings about this situation: he wants nothing to do with it. And, indeed, Eva's need for companionship is clouding her ability to consider these feelings. It's not about Garner being sympathetic to the ex, it's about Eva being oblivious to reality.

Garner is not saying that Eva should have had an abortion to keep her husband. She's saying, this guy already proved that he can't and won't be at your side through this, and that he does not want to raise this child. You're deluding yourself and asking for heartbreak to expect otherwise.

Hess writes, "Perhaps we just gently tell Eva that, really, the problem is not in her decision to carry a pregnancy to term, but rather the decision to continue to allow this fucking guy to have any sway over her child, her happiness, or her life."

Correct if I'm wrong but in a (perhaps roundabout, very English) way, that's precisely what Garner did.

I wonder how much of this is about subtle cultural differences. The British advice columnist says, basically, this guy can never make you or your son happy. Focus on moving forward and seeking stability and happiness on your own terms, rather than rationalizing and fantasizing about the past. The American blogger won't be satisfied until the rape--and don't get me wrong, I agree that it was--has been acknowledged, announced, processed, and named as such.

The British columnist suggests that any normal man would find it incredibly difficult to lovingly raise the child of his wife's rapist as his own. The American blogger insists that this makes such a man a "dickwad." As a hot-blooded American woman, my gut reaction is to agree with her....but I also think that Garner's rational and realistic admission is probably pretty accurate.

In the end, Hess and Garner agree that Eva needs to let go of this guy and focus on her own health, and on providing a stable and loving environment for her son. The rest of what they have to say depends on their goals and audience (giving one woman concrete advice, or rallying a generation of feminists?) and their respective personal and cultural values (charismatic activist, or stiff upper lip?)

In any case, I think it's too bad that Hess felt the need to paint Garner as her enemy...since in general women hating on women is the last thing we need more of.


The Sexist said...

I think it's very odd that you view our differences as a symptom of our nationalities!

Becky said...

You're right, it may not be national...of course not all Americans would agree with you, nor would all Brits agree with her. So maybe it's the difference in your personalities, priorities, or audiences. But I do think that a) both of you were making basically the same recommendation to Eva and b) probably due to Garner's sometimes clumsy phrasing, you misread her, and then misrepresented her.

Anonymous said...

There is one aspect of The Sexist article that I do agree with...that there was not enough attention paid to what is clearly a life-altering situation for this woman. The fact that she still had trouble calling this a rape, possibly shows that she has suppressed/not dealt with the trauma of that situation, and I think that needed to be addressed in the columnist's response.

However, I very much disagree with assertions that the columnist was not calling this what it was. She referred to it as a "situation" one time. In two paragraphs immediately following that, she refers to it as a "rape" 4-5 times in 4 sentences.

My thought is the columnist (in an ultimately clumsy way) was commenting on the fact that this woman herself seemed unsure of how she could explain this situation to her husband. If the woman is telling herself (in her own words) that it may not have been a rape, clearly there are issues that she has to work out before she could even consider going back to her husband to talk more about him being back in her/her child's life.

Anonymous said...

Additionally, I feel (as a man) that it was unnecessary for The Sexist to refer to the husband in such harsh terms. The fact that the rape could have an affect on him, though clearly not as big of an affect as it did on the woman, should not be discarded.

The fact that he has remained in contact with the woman should also not go unnoticed. If she can find support from friends (and possibly professionals) and come to grips with her situation for what it was, a rape, she would be in a better situation to approach her husband and talk about it again, now that more time has passed.

I agree with the columnist's assertion that, it would certainly be a blow to find out that the situation "wasn't really a rape," but I think what the columnist was trying to convey was that she may not have to say that to her husband. If the woman can come to grips to the fact that it was, indeed, a "rape," she could be in a position to reconnect with her husband to talk about the situation again, in the same terms that she had before, without introducing the issue of a "situation" that wasn't a rape.

Certainly a lot to talk about for a letter that said it may not have any questions!