Crimes have a tendency to become not just stories but genres, once we get too accustomed to them. As more and more stories of sexual assault have been made public in the last two years, the genre of their telling has exploded. One thing we often do with narratives of sexual assault is sort their respective parties into different temporalities: it seems we are interested in perpetrators’ futures and victims’ pasts. Whatever questions society has about the perpetrators tend to concern their next steps: Will they go to prison? What of their careers? Questions asked about the victims—even at their most charitable (when we aren’t asking, “What was she wearing?”)—seem to focus on the past, sometimes in pursuit of understanding, sometimes in pursuit of certainty and corroboration and painful details.
One result is that we don’t have much of a vocabulary for what happens in a victim’s life after the painful past has been excavated, even when our shared language gestures toward the future, as the term “survivor” does. The victim’s trauma after assault rarely gets the attention that we lavish on the moment of damage that divided the survivor from a less encumbered past. One of the things that Margaret Atwood accomplishes in The Testaments – which recently won the Booker Prize (shared with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) – is enlarging our perspective by focusing on the aftermath of assault. This engaging sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale tempers the first novel’s grim vision by supplying a parallel text that reveals one of its villains, Aunt Lydia, to have been a rebel in waiting.
The Handmaid’s Tail describes its fictional dystopia, Gilead, as a male theocracy with almost perfect powers of surveillance over its female subjects. What The Testaments proves – reassuringly – is that Gilead’s hegemony was not just incomplete but flawed from its inception: someone was always in fact keeping an eye on the Eye. The horror of the Handmaids’ suffering, which in The Handmaid’s Tale was somehow both sanctioned and ignored, is somewhat mitigated by the revelation that it was always being witnessed: strict records of abuses were being compiled. The Testaments is a text that believes, quite strongly, that dossiers showing wrongdoing by the power brokers matter. Its premise is that if the truth is recorded, exposed, and circulated, consequences will be meted out and power will crumble.
This strikes me as an anemic optimism. If Me Too (not to mention impeachment) has taught us anything, it is that testimony does not dislodge power. We careen from outrage to outrage in a rollicking attention-deficit economy that most perpetrators are able to outwait or outshout. And even when they don’t, no one can agree on how revelations about past abuse should affect the offender’s long-term treatment. Soon enough, they return, and rarely are they much resisted. Jeffrey Epstein was entertained by powerful men after his 2008 conviction for “procuring an underage girl for prostitution” and soliciting a prostitute.
Me Too has altered such calculations by amplifying the survivors’ claims, but even now, after the public disgracing of Harvey Weinstein and humiliation of Epstein, the embarrassed professions of regret from Epstein’s powerful associates feel partial and crabbed. Weinstein was recently out at a downtown comedy club. Many of Epstein’s allies resent that their conduct is up for public discussion at all. As for dossiers knocking down corrupt institutions, well, to take one recent example, Ronan Farrow has alleged that NBC withheld the Weinstein story because Weinstein was threatening to expose similar allegations against one of the network’s own stars, Matt Lauer. Rather than expose both abusers, it kept them both safe. We know all this now, and yet no power structures have toppled. The men who decided to protect Weinstein and Lauer still have their jobs and their influence. Several of Weinstein’s accusers are on the brink of signing a settlement in which he will not have to admit fault or pay a dime himself.
Testimony did not seem to bring a revolution. Yet there is something liberating about this: if the legal system is unresponsive, and power is not collapsing, then why should testimonies be restricted to the formats that the law or journalistic standards require? What little public understanding there is of a survivor’s experience labors under a heap of clichés. The expectations we have for how people should act immediately after being attacked are as strict as they are implausible (she should be beside herself, ideally sobbing, and go to the ER at once to get a rape kit done, and deliver a perfect statement to the police while registering suitable pain and panic).
This is why Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, in which she recounts the experience of waking up to medical personnel and police after being raped while unconscious, is as educational as it is literary. In describing the confusion of reaching back to pluck a pine needle out of her hair and being gently told she can’t, because it’s evidence; of reaching for her underwear and not finding it, and blocking out what that means; of not knowing what happened and realizing that no one quite does—in finding a language for bewilderments that few people have put into words—her testimony is crucial. So is her description of what happened after. Our models for the aftermath of a survivor’s journey usually include revenge, despair, or the fantasy that exposing the truth will provide a just outcome. Miller’s account offers no such catharsis or closure; she describes a jumble of conflicting mental states that proceed along parallel tracks and do not resolve.