Sarai Walker’s novel Dietland (2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has an unusual way of merging the violent with the mundane. Along with narrator Plum Kettle’s journey to self-acceptance, a second tale unfolds of a feminist vigilante named Jennifer, bent on dispatching rapists and other men who’ve committed crimes against women but who, for whatever reason, have not been held accountable for them. Jennifer, whose identity remains unknown for most of the book, is no Dexter Morgan. She is merely taking action where female characters are often passive, and in so doing, presenting the reader with something atypical: a woman violently standing up for herself and for all women. In the context of this fantasy world, where an unknown woman can subdue a nation of men through precisely orchestrated violence against them, it seems both logical and refreshing to hear the patriarchy compared to terrorism: “‘We’re terrified of being raped, abused, even killed by the bad man, but the problem is, you can’t tell the good ones from the bad ones, so you have to be wary of all of them….The fear of men is ingrained in us from girlhood. Isn’t that a form of terrorism?’” (232)
I’m fascinated by stories like Walker’s, where the women are acting decisively and fiercely, because they serve as catharsis in a society that often expects hostility toward women to be taken with an internalized, turn-the-other-cheek meekness. But such stories are not an easy find. For every Jennifer, you’ll come across far more characters like Bella Swan from Twilight, waiting around for their vampire boyfriends to defend them. The fact that tales like Jennifer’s are rarely told in books and movies or on TV does not reflect my experience of reality, in which every woman I know has grappled with the question of gender-based violence and what it means to their lives. Even if they are lucky enough to have never encountered it personally, they have thought about it because it is an inescapable topic.
Among the women I know, many stories like those that inspired Jennifer’s quest for justice exist. For Jill, an IT recruiter from Chicago, the violence and its ripple effect have been intimate. As a teenager, she was raped at knife point by a man she met at a party, and as an adult, she was in an abusive relationship that consisted of two years of escalating threats and emotional and physical abuse. She says, “Like a frog sitting in a pot of cold water, the changes were subtle enough over a long period of time that I didn’t notice when I was being boiled alive.” When she left for good with her 10-month-old daughter one April day, that act of bravery found support in the love of her family and friends and allowed her to reclaim her life on her own terms, far from her abuser. For Erin, a New York-based writer who has been mugged and dealt with both online harassment and a stalker, these frightening personal experiences have increased her determination to live her everyday life in the way she wants. But they have also changed some of the ways she acts: she now only writes online under a pseudonym and for a long time after the mugging carried pepper spray at the ready when walking home from the train station. She says, “[I was] daring someone to try again. It wasn’t a good head space.” Marie Sola, an entrepreneur from Portland, Maine, has never been attacked, but mistreatment of women is nonetheless the reason behind her new business. “For as long as I can remember, violence against women has pissed me off. Daughters of Change™ is a for-profit with a social mission of inspiring action to create a safe and just world for women. I view Daughters of Change™ as a business that connects people who are on the front lines each day, leading initiatives with their supporters, whether they be individuals or businesses.” Like Jennifer, she has found a purpose in standing up for women, albeit in a completely peaceful way.
These women have responded differently to gender-based violence, but although their reactions don’t have the literal impact of Jennifer dropping a rapist out of a plane without a parachute, none of these responses are passive; they are highly personal modes of survival that were chosen, sometimes after multiple brutal encounters with abuse. Because everyone’s reaction to violence is born of pieces of her personality, her past, her present situation, and her experience of the world, there is no one right way to approach every situation. Unless we have trained ourselves to ignore them, instinct and fear (both necessary components to survival) dictate how we react when confronted with aggression. There are myriad ways to protect yourself, some of which require meeting force with force and some of which involve something quieter, such as the toughness displayed by Celie from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, one of Jill’s favorite movies. “Celie suffers physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of men from childhood through late adulthood. She is silent throughout most of this but also keeps a steady sense of dignity. She fights back in small ways, like spitting into the drink of her awful father-in-law before serving it to him and taking great pleasure watching him drink, until finally leaving and cursing her abusive husband and reuniting with her lost children. This might not seem like the most obvious example…but I think that this is a much more realistic, common example of female strength and fighting back across the world.” Celie serves as an excellent example of a child and then a woman doing the best she can to take care of herself with what she’s got.
Women must frequently make this sort of calculation about how to protect themselves against whatever threats they are most likely to face, even if it’s subconscious. Jill didn’t study martial arts or get any weapons for self-defense after leaving her fiancé, nor did she after her rape; however, as a teen she developed her own contingency plan. “I did this thing for years afterwards where whenever I’d go somewhere, I’d instinctively look around and think, ‘What can I use as a weapon if I’m attacked? What’s my game plan?’ At restaurants I’d think about the glasses, like, I could break this glass and use it to stab [someone]. In rooms I’d look for objects I could grab to beat someone with. This became second nature.” For Erin, the fear of violence is something she always lives with. “[It’s a] low-level hum. I’m so used to it that I just consider that kind of awareness part of my waking life. I fear what men will do to me when I walk home alone in the dark. If I’m wearing a dress. If I look them in the eye or if I avoid their eyes. If I don’t respond to advances. At the same time, and paradoxically, it simply doesn’t stop me from living. Even if the fear is there, it’s my world, too. I get to take up space in it, and I get the right to be safe within it.” Marie attributes her relative lack of fear to the way she was raised. “I try not to waste a lot of time worrying about what might happen. Of course, I was brought up in a relatively non-violent area of the world in a non-violent family. Otherwise I might answer that question differently.”
As children, most boys are taught to prize fearlessness. They are told to stand up for themselves and often shown how by a father or brother teaching them to throw a punch, by parents signing them up for karate lessons, by a “boys will be boys” attitude toward minor fights that still prevails in many places and circumstances. These skills and attitudes do not as frequently apply to girls, and—perhaps consequently—girls don’t tend to fight each other with fists and feet. When I was a kid, all the girls I knew took gymnastics or dance except for one who took karate with her brother. Looking pretty and being graceful seemed more important than self-defense at ages 7 through 12, and this is an attitude that persists for many women as an adult. If you do decide to defend yourself physically, it is—as we have joked in my Krav Maga class—about shock and awe. No attacker would expect any of the women I train with, who vary greatly in age and size and brute strength, to be able to escape a choke hold or throw a solid punch. We can do these things and more, however, because simply being female doesn’t mean you have no recourse if someone goes after you. Whether you protect yourself physically, by complying with the attacker until you can safely escape, or in another way, you should believe that you have the skills and instincts to fight back, to be your own Jennifer.
The truth is that despite the fact that women are arguably safer in the world nowadays than ever before in history, we still need multiple methods to confront violence. And it does us no favors that in our culture, a disinclination to present women as active agents in their own defense persists. As I learned from Susan Schorn’s excellent argument in favor of self-defense training, “Show Us the Money,” one real-world consequence of this is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t consider such training to be effective at preventing assault and thus don’t fund it. They prefer giving cash to bystander intervention programs, community hotlines, and courses for children and teens about healthy relationships. Obviously, these are key pieces of the puzzle that deserve funding. But why isn’t self-defense training a part of the overall picture? As Marie says, “Knowing how to protect yourself can actually help stop you from becoming a victim. It will also give you more confidence….What if young girls were brought up to see themselves as powerful and trust their instincts?” Learning self-defense is safer than carrying a weapon unless you are willing to put in the significant time and effort required to truly learn how to handle that weapon under stress. You also must be prepared to deal with the consequences of pulling it on someone, and some women aren’t willing to take that on. “Once you have a weapon you better be damn sure you can handle it, whether you are a woman or a man,” says Marie, who, although she received a stun gun as a gift, isn’t interested in carrying it. “It’s not anyone’s place to urge someone else to carry weapons.” Nor is it anyone’s place to tell women they must study martial arts. But it is important that fighting back is viewed as an effective option for women because, as Erin puts it, what we’re faced with is a question of idealism versus reality. “Aside from pepper spray, I’ve never carried a weapon….it’s the constant battle between feeling like I have to do something because I’m a woman (or insert any marginalized group here) versus wanting to live in a world where I don’t think that should be the case.” This struggle over how to deal with reality is one that, for Walker’s Jennifer, concludes in vigilantism, and though this takes the idea to an extreme, it is undeniable that, for some women, violence has a place in self-defense.
Once I had a conversation with two men in my Krav Maga class about when and why they carry knives. It turns out that they both frequently have large knives on them. I didn’t mention that I carry a knife, too, a doll-sized Swiss Army knife that I keep in my wallet for cutting the tags off of toys my sons insist on opening the second we’ve bought them. Obviously, it is not capable of inflicting as much harm as my friends’ knives are. They talked about using them as tools but mainly about wanting to be prepared to face any threat at any time. Part of me understood immediately, preparedness being why I study martial arts. The rest of me couldn’t get past the implication that they saw every encounter as a potential threat to the point where they wanted to be armed on an everyday basis. Of course, I don’t know their full histories, what violence may lurk in their pasts, just as no one looking at me would suspect mine. But I was startled that they saw themselves as that vulnerable to attack, and it occurred to me only later that I was surprised because men usually don’t voice these concerns. It is women who do, and they don’t often respond by buying knives.
In my experience, this isn’t because most women are fearless or extremely well prepared in other ways but because many women have to reject the burden of being constantly on guard so that they aren’t too overwhelmed to live their lives. That’s why fighting back, for Erin, is seeking truth with her writing, trying to help create a world where there is no need for fighting at all, while acknowledging that violence may sometimes be necessary. For Marie, it is working to improve the world by connecting with others and building a business around that: “Daughters of Change™ is my way of fighting back. Take your anger, passion, and fear, and channel it in a way that makes things happen.” Jill views it as more of an internal process these days. “For me, ‘fighting back’ means not letting difficult, shitty experiences or environments change me….[T]he best way I can fight back is to not become bitter. To not see all men as enemies. To not stop being open and believing in good.” I study Krav Maga, but I choose not to be armed because I don’t want to walk around knowing I could end someone’s life with an object I hold. For me, having a weapon would be giving in to fear. But I think that even making this choice is unthinkable to someone who hasn’t lived with this fear for a long time, and that’s where I find my kernel of truth in Walker’s quote about the patriarchy and terrorism. I recognize the idea of the “bad man” and the terror it inspires, but I resent it. I try to reject it because to accept it is to give it an outsized space in my life that could stop me from fully living.
For Jill, Walker’s take doesn’t resonate at all. She says that “[t]he idea that men were bad and dangerous was never ‘ingrained in me from girlhood.’ I never felt unsafe or noticed any difference with boys or men until I was maybe in junior high and that stuff was discussed….So when bad things did happen…I thought of it as just that: an individual ‘bad man’ that did it.” For Erin, Walker’s take is more intriguing as a lead-in to discuss violence against women and our culture’s role in it with men. “Is the person who supports a culture of violence (even microaggressions), even if he engages in none of them, a terrorist?…I’ve had conversations with good men who balk at the idea that we would find them dangerous. They’re surprised that we’re taught to fear men from childhood. Some even get angry because they perceive it as criticism of themselves, as if exposing them to the truth of our reality is on par with actually living it. But it’s precisely the good ones who need to know about the bad ones, who need to be on our side. That’s how a system is slowly dismantled; it has to come from the power itself.” While Marie agrees with the patriarchy-as-terrorism in situations such as war, she also thinks it doesn’t tell the whole story. “As women, we are definitely taught to be wary of bad men, and rightly so. However, saying that we don’t have the capacity to tell the good ones from the bad ones and that we are paralyzed by fear is selling ourselves short. We definitely can be victims of circumstance….[but] to throw up our hands and say we are scared, we don’t know how to take care of ourselves, we don’t know good men from bad men, therefore we need to be wary of them all is not the solution. Rather, to me, it implies that we are helpless.”
This is why we need books like Dietland: to reflect for us what many women already know, that we are not helpless. We don’t need to wait for someone else to swoop in and save us. Stories that turn some of the violence that culture so often projects on women back on men, that show that it’s possible for a woman to physically fight back and win, need to exist alongside stories like Celie’s tale of quiet resistance because they show us a wider range of female experiences with abusive behavior. It’s the same reason that we need TV shows like Jessica Jones and The Fall, which feature smart, strong female protagonists who fight against the “bad man” in different ways and who show us the real physical, emotional, and mental costs of those fights from a woman’s perspective. The darkness is there, and it always will be. But there are women in the world who are pushing it back ferociously, and their stories deserve to be told. What we choose to do with them is ultimately up to us.
KATIE DePASQUALE is a writer and editor in the Boston area who likes telling a good story and making sure it’s correctly punctuated. Her essays and fiction have appeared in The Drum, The Toast, Literary Mothers, Midway Journal, Broad!, and Wilderness House Literary Review, among other places, and her fiction was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. She has a master’s in writing and publishing from Emerson College.