Content note: this piece discusses the trauma and minimization of sexual misconduct
In the introduction of Not That Bad, Roxane Gay begins, “When I was twelve years old, I was gang-raped in the woods behind my neighborhood by a group of boys with the dangerous intentions of bad men.” This grim proclamation is a fitting opener to a collection of essays written by survivors of rape, victims of sexual assault, and bearers of rape culture’s unyielding weight. From the first page of this collection, we are jarred. Gay confronts readers with the reality of her attack, but also with the truth that her experience is deeply intertwined with the 29 essays that follow. Each essay in Not That Bad helps illuminate the fact that the experience of rape and rape culture is not a rare one. It is sister to many experiences from a diverse range of people who have grappled with the actions of innumerable “bad men.”
In Jill Christman’s essay, “Slaughterhouse Island,” we encounter the sort of bad man who belongs to a fraternity, drives a Porsche, is somehow untouchable even though he touches freely. The author details her rape during her freshman year of college, and though the story incites anger and despair, the emotional intelligence with which the entire situation is written about decades later is striking. Beyond the terrible truth of her assault, Christman gets to the heart of what it means to be a survivor, to struggle with the feeling that one has barely survived. In regards to the self-doubt that often follows assault, Christman writes, “Do you understand yet why we blame ourselves when we are hit, dragging the shame behind us like a twisted rim?” Christman, like many of the writers in this collection, rips the heart out and then holds it up for us to see it—still beating, blue, strangled by “bad men” and, afterwards, by ourselves as we attempt to make sense of what has happened to us, even questioning if it was us who did something wrong.
But not every essay in Not That Bad is a discussion about rape or sexual assault as they’re commonly-defined. In fact, several essays in the collection react to experiences where the authors didn’t say no but either meant no or lacked the awareness and/or education to express such an assertion. Take for instance, Elissa Bassist’s essay, “Why I Didn’t Say No,” which delves into the media-fueled rape culture that shapes anyone who encounters it, from “social dynamics to intimate moments.” In exploring her inability to say no during the course of a sexually abusive relationship, Bassist contextualizes her younger self: “…I was exposed almost exclusively to male narrators and protagonists and found myself in the male mind, championing his desires, aligning with his frustrations.” To say no to painful or unwanted sex would have been to be a bad girlfriend, a bad woman, and a bad consumer of the media that thrives on the persistent sexualization and denigration of women.
Just as Bassist’s essay, “Why I Didn’t Say No,” contributes to the complex discussion of consent, Zoe Medeiros’s essay, “Why I Stopped,” also comes as a provoking and valuable contribution to the collection, and in turn, the #metoo movement as well. While Not That Bad rightfully welcomes survivors’ stories, Medeiros professes that she embraces narrative secrecy, that though it may not be the most healing for everyone, it is the most healing for her. Medeiros details her early experiences talking about her sexual trauma, and how sharing the details of these abuses didn’t ultimately help her. She continues, “Not telling my story doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I don’t have to be open about my experiences, about all of them or even any of them, to be a real survivor. I am a real survivor because I survived, even if some days it feels like I didn’t survive at all.”
It feels strange to say that a collection of essays is simultaneously a pleasure and a displeasure to read. Still, this is the effect that Not That Bad has. Its words churned my mind into a knot of anger, recognition, and affirmation. The writers of these essays represent diverse, powerful, and intelligent voices. Many of these authors aren’t afraid to dredge up the hurtful, the volatile, the shameful. Others are afraid—still afraid to walk alone at night, to be talk to their families about what happened, to have sex—but certainly not afraid to say so. In all cases, readers leave Not That Bad with the sense that it is okay to be either. It is okay to oscillate between brazen and terrified. What is not okay—what is never okay—is to be the one who inflicts such terror.
But beyond that, Not That Bad is also a collective assertion that each experience of sexual abuse is just as credible and worthwhile to listen to as the next. Yes, every violation is actually that bad, despite what our society or our families or our abusers have assured us. Nora Salem taps into this point in her essay, “The Life Ruiner,” when she writes, “I’m writing this so it can be a part of the compendium of other sad and bad stories like these, because maybe the compendium will say something in totality that we cannot say alone. Like all the writers I read, I’m writing to prove that I exist.” This is precisely what Not The Bad proves—that survivors exist and that they deserve to be listened to. Most of all, that they deserve to be believed.
NICOLE RIVAS (www.nicolemrivas.com) teaches writing in Savannah, GA. Her chapbook of flash fiction, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was the winner of the Rose Metal Press 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. Other stories have appeared in Newfound, The Journal, and elsewhere. Follow her @nicolemrivas.