CAUTION: If you prefer not to read graphic descriptions of rape, you may not want to continue reading this piece.
Correspondent Mac McClelland offers no such precaution to her readers in the opening sentences of her article in Good (June 27, 2011):
It’s an interesting approach on McClelland’s part, shocking the reader with an immediate brutal image, a literary rape of sorts, and at the same time subverting the violence with a flippantly chick-lit-esque tone.
Author of the 2010 book For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War, McClelland oscillates between the two poles—brutality and cheekiness—throughout the rest of her article. The subject is by no means frivolous. She’s writing about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in journalists, specifically her own. “As a journalist who covers human rights,” she writes, “I spend a lot of time absorbing other people’s trauma.”
After bearing witness to the paroxysmal breakdown of a Haitian rape victim named Sybille, McClelland experiences months of uncontrollable crying and what she calls “rapemares.” Any sexual thought led to violent thought: “I could not process the thought of sex without violence. And it was easier to picture violence I controlled than the abominable nonconsensual things that had happened to Sybille.” Thus the willingness to have sex at gunpoint.
I support every woman’s right to choose what’s right for herself, sexually. If McClelland wants to experience violent sex in the name of self-therapy, that’s her prerogative. Although I don’t buy it, and that’s my prerogative. If I were her friend, I probably would have tried to talk her out of it.
The piece has earned McClelland immediate praise. And perhaps, for her, it did help her overcome her trauma. She doesn’t claim that her article is a handbook to overcoming PTSD. Nor is it a handbook to role play sex (in which case she would surely mention the use of a safeword, for the love of god). McClelland is simply sharing one experience of PTSD, making one more woman’s voice known, and that contains value.
I don’t support the self-indulgent way she writes about it, however. McClelland seems to enjoy unseating her reader too much. As just one example, she did not have sex at gunpoint. She did willingly get pinned down and punched in the face during sex by a trusted ex who “loved and respected” her and with whom she’d “done this sort of thing before.” Which means McClelland opens the essay with an unearned image. Then, after raising some truly compelling issues about the horrors endured and absorbed by journalists, she concludes her piece with a description of the pinning and the punching. The detailed scene of her “willing rape” feels like a gratuitous conclusion to a real issue. By the time I was done reading, I felt brutalized and assaulted. Which may be a clever literary trope, but, hey, I’m not the one looking to feel raped.