Essays, a Memoir, and a Work of New Fiction
On Violence and On Violence Against Women
(The Feminist Press, 2021)
While Justice Sleeps
While many people choose to go for lighter reading during the summer months, some of us use the summer to delve into reading that challenges and informs. In these three disparate books written by women, there are moments that shock and commonalities that illustrate the importance of diverse voices. In her new collection of essays, Jacqueline Rose writes with her usual precision about violence and its deadly grip on modern life. Black Box is the English translation of Shiori Ito’s groundbreaking account of surviving sexual violence in Japan. And in While Justice Sleeps, political powerhouse Stacey Abrams brings us a complex thriller focused on a young mixed-race woman investigating corruption at the highest levels of the US government.
In this collection of nine essays, Jacqueline Rose explores varied causes and forms of gender-based violence in addition to riffing on Freud, Hannah Arendt, modernism, and masculinity. Sexual violence, Rose asserts, arises out of societal structures of masculinity and male fragility. Rose does not make excuses for those who enact violence (nor should she) but also does not simplify sexual violence into rhetoric voiced by some (“All men are rapists”). Instead, she looks to both real life instances of sexual violence (including Harvey Weinstein, Oscar Pistorius) and in fiction. Rose is an academic with a focus on feminism and literature so it’s only natural that she finds material for her explorations in the work of Temsüla Ao, Eimear McBride, and Roxane Gay. She also focuses on South Africa’s high rape and femicide rates and their connection to the legacy of intersectional violence. Throughout the collection she weaves in critique of state oppression and also presents trans voices essential to the broader narrative.
Rose states, “It is a truism to say that everyone knows violence when they see it, but if one thing has become clear over the past decade it is that the most prevalent, insidious forms of violence are those that cannot be seen.” Rose writes about a photograph taken in the Oval Office in January 2017: “A group of identical-looking white men in dark suits are photographed as their president signs an executive order banning US state funding to groups anywhere in the world offering abortion or abortion counselling.” Known as the Global Gag Rule, the signing of this executive order inaugurated the Trump presidency and a return to violence against women on a global level. “The ruling means an increase in deaths by illegal abortion for thousands of women throughout the developing world. Its effects are as cruel as they are precise.” To not see this moment as a form of violence against women is to be willfully blind and violence thrives on “a form of mental blindness … [flourishing] under the heady steam of its own unstoppable conviction.” Rose references a quote from Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights, declaring US policy on abortion as “a form of extremist hate that amounts to the torture of women.” We have failed to call it such, but “this is gender-based violence against women, no question.”
Throughout, Rose presents a varied exploration of the motivations, the enactments, and the repercussions of violence but from the outset she states “This book is not exhaustive. It makes no claim to cover violence in all its forms or violence everywhere.” She admits that gender-based violence is not always initiated by men but her “focus is mainly on male violence.” She is clear, however, to distance herself from what she terms “radical feminism,” citing Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who, Rose claims, see “violence as the unadulterated and never-failing expression of male sexuality and power.” For Rose, violence is instead both a symptom of Arendt’s “impotent bigness” and a form of entitlement that exists as much in the horrific rise in domestic violence brought on by the pandemic lockdowns but also in the narratives of #MeToo, South Africa’s #AmINext?, and in right-wing governments’ repression of gender studies (Brazil), LGBTQI+ rights (Poland, Brazil, the United States, etc.), and cuts in funding for domestic violence shelters (England and the US). For Rose, political and sexual coercion are “intimate companions,” and sexual violence is often a symptom or result of unequal power dynamics. But, Rose claims, it does not serve feminism or the victims of violence to present a litany of crimes, an act that can lead to feeding the voyeurs, “fanning the flames, adding to the spectacle, making the analysis complicit with the crime.” Instead of describing acts of violence in detail, Rose instead urges us to think, to slow down, to acknowledge that, “It is a paradox of human subjectivity that knowing you are capable of violence—recognising it as your problem, instead of blithely assigning it to someone else (race, class, nation or sex)—reduces the chances of making it happen.”
While sharing some common threads with Rose’s work, Shiori Ito’s Black Box is a straightforward and detailed account of her rape and its aftermath. Ito is a professional journalist and largely credited with starting the #MeToo movement in Japan. But her book is less a less a manifesto than the political act of one woman, victimized by a mentor and Japan’s legal system. As she states in her introduction, “On May 29, 2017, I held a press conference at the Tokyo District Court. The purpose of the press conference was to publicize my appeal to the Committee for the Inquest of the Prosecution to reopen the investigation in the report I filed claiming to have been raped, which the Public Prosecutor’s Office had decided to drop.” Throughout the book, Ito is careful to present the facts of her life, the rape, and her work for justice in clear and concise language. She is writing this book not to bring attention to herself but to help others and in response to the man and the system he relied on to erase her and the violence he had enacted on her.
At the time of her initial press conference, an amendment to update the 1907 criminal code regarding rape had been postponed in the Japanese parliament. In a culture that encourages women to be silent, Ito decided to speak up. “I needed to communicate all of this in my own words, with my own voice. If I waited for someone else to speak out, things would never change. I had finally begun to realize that myself.” Presented as a memoir, sections read like a deposition, and this is part of what makes Ito’s narrative so powerful. In 2013 while studying in New York, Ito met Noriyuki Yamaguchi, then Washington Bureau Chief for TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System). An aspiring journalist, Ito was thrilled to meet him. Despite Ito’s spare language, you can feel her excitement at making this important work connection. Yamaguchi urged her to reach out to him and so, in 2015, she follows up with him about a job. He sets up a meeting with her and over the course the evening he wines and dines her, “Then, suddenly, I had a kind of strange feeling … I felt dizzy. I sat down on the toilet with the lid closed and rested my head on the tank. That’s the last thing I remember.” When she regains consciousness, Yamaguchi is raping her. Despite her repeated pleas, he continues. When he is finished, he tells her, “You passed. I want to bring you with me to Washington right away.” Ito continues to carefully detail her reactions, her responses, and the reality of her situation. Yamaguchi is a powerful man, a friend of the prime minister, a leader in Japanese media. “If I went to the police on my own and accused Mr. Yamaguchi, did I really have any reason to think that I’d be able to go on working in the same industry?” It’s a situation that many women have faced.
Ito details her struggle to get help: from a clinic that administers the morning-after pill but fails to question why she needs it; from a nonprofit offering support to victims but refusing to help her over the phone; from unsympathetic and obstructionist law enforcement. Five days after the rape, Ito goes to the police and there begins a two-year long journey of obstruction and victim abuse. According to Ito, in Japan, crime victims are forced to participate in a crime “reenactment.” She describes the horrific process: “Using a life-size doll, in a judo hall filled with only male investigators, I was forced to reenact the circumstances of my rape.” They force her to lie down on the floor, place the large doll on top of her, and question her while rearranging the doll on top of her. Despite repeatedly submitting herself to humiliation by investigators, the prosecutor in charge decides to drop the case. Ito refuses to give up and collects evidence against her attacker. “I kept being told that what happens in a closed room is inaccessible to a third party. The prosecutor described this situation as a black box.” Eventually, the police issue an arrest warrant for her attacker, but it’s canceled at the last minute. The police then try to force Ito to sign an out of court settlement; she refuses finally seeking out two lawyers (both women) who specialize in cases of sexual assault. Despite their efforts, in 2016 the case was dismissed.
Ito goes on to discuss broader issues around the reporting of rape and why in many countries (including the USand Japan) rape is the most underreported serious crime. Ito speaks openly about the difficulty of using #MeToo in Japan, where it became instead #WeToo “to demonstrate that, as members of society, these problems concern all of us … we cannot be passive bystanders.” Rape happens everywhere, “in every institution, in every organization.” Just as Rose details in her work, perpetrators are often in positions of power and protected by that power. Rape is, as Ito says, “a soul-killing experience,” and yet, “Humans are resilient, and there are various ways to heal. For me, the way forward is to seek out the truth, and to make it known to as many people as possible.”
Stacey Abrams is a progressive political powerhouse. She is also a fiction writer and While Justice Sleeps is her first novel using her own name (she’s written romantic thrillers under a pseudonym). While by far the lightest of the three books reviewed here, Abrams’s plot involves ethical questions around gene research, presidential power, and the nature of loyalty. Abrams largely succeeds in presenting a plot-driven page-turner and while her writing falters at times (excessive modifiers, sudden shifts in point-of-view) and some characters are two-dimensional, there are enough plots and subplots to keep readers occupied to the end.
26-year-old multi-racial law clerk Avery Keene discovers she’s been granted power of attorney and guardianship of Supreme Court Justice Howard Wynn who has slipped into a coma. Wynn suffers from fictional Boursin’s syndrome, a degenerative disease, and is also the swing vote on a case involving the merger of two companies involved in gene research: Advar, run by Dr. Indira Srinivasan (who has a shady past), and GenWorks, run by billionaire Nigel Cooper (Indira’s former lover and arch nemesis of US President Stokes). As the complex plot unfolds, we travel from DC to India, from the Oval Office and Bethesda to rural Georgia. Wynn’s estranged son Jared just happens to be ex-intelligence, a top-tier hacker, and handsome. Avery’s mother is a substance abuser whose exploits have drained Avery’s bank account and patience. The Chief Justice is a woman both wise and sympathetic to Avery’s plight. With the fate of Justice Wynn (and perhaps the Free World) in her hands, Avery sets out to solve a mystery Wynn left her involving chess, a global conspiracy, and the balance of power in the US.
As Avery moves forward in her investigation, she teams up with Jared, her medical resident roommate, and Wynn’s estate lawyer. From the outset Wynn and Avery are threatened by President Stokes and his Homeland Security goon Major Vance. There is also a likeable FBI Agent Robert Lee who comes to Avery’s aid eventually. There are also two women, Nurse Jamie Lewis and Dr. Betty Papaleo, who play key roles but are summarily brutally murdered (their deaths either meant as social commentary or simply echoing the way women’s bodies are often mere collateral in thrillers). While much of the plot is textbook, there are deeper ethical themes at work. Wynn has a life-time appointment to the Supreme Court, and despite his comatose state, there are no provisions for incapacitation for SCOTUS justices. The genetic research at the heart of the merger of Advar and GenWorks focuses on curing illnesses like Boursin’s and Parkinson’s but also comes out of genetic warfare research aimed at a specific minority. The rampant abuses enacted by President Stokes and Major Vance highlight the dangers of power that can too easily become absolute. And while Judge Wynn puts his faith in Avery, her treatment by so many in the novel from Wynn’s ex-wife and Major Vance to a scandal-hungry press, shows how difficult it is for women, particularly intelligent multiracial women, to be taken seriously. Throughout, Avery rises above, and in an impossible but climatic ending, solves not only Wynn’s mystery but saves the country; a thrilling read to the last page.