“Aftermath”: The Heartbreak of Rape

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

TRIGGER WARNING This article contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Professors Daphne Gilbert and Elizabeth Sheehy

Andrea Dworkin had vowed that she would never be raped again. As a survivor of rape and battering, her life had already been shaped by this crime. As a scholar she had theorized rape. As an activist she had mobilized women and enabled social and legal change in opposition to the impunity rapists, pimps, johns and pornographers enjoy.

She swore she would never be raped again: she would kill her next rapist or die trying. But because her last rapist drugged her, she was denied even that dignity of fighting for her life, her body and soul.

Dworkin wrote about her last rape both publicly and in private papers, turned into a monologue after her death in 2005. Her agonized reflections on that rape are now reproduced as a play called "Aftermath", currently ending its showing in Montreal at the Centre culturel Georges-Vanier. The play is simply staged with a ladder in the centre of the space and piles of feminist books strewn over the floor. The Montreal theatre is small, holding 20-25 audience members, placed close to the stage. The effect is intimate and hushed. One cannot avoid eye contact with the actress (Helena Levitt) who plays Dworkin.

As scholars who have written about sexual assault and as professors who have assigned Andrea Dworkin’s work as required reading to law students in our Sexual Assault course, the play was powerful and raw. Her theoretical work has embodied a systemic response to rape, understanding that rape is not only or even most importantly about the act of forced sex. This crime is of course a deeply personal violation and a terrifying experience for the woman, but it is also perpetrated by men as a crime of power that reenacts dominance and manifests the denigration of women. Theorizing rape helps some women cope with trauma, empowering survivors and supporting them in a web of other women who have been raped. As a raped woman, Andrea Dworkin spoke out about institutions (religions, universities, the military) and our misogynistic culture that glorifies the entwining of violence and sex. Her pain was ever present, but it seemed to us a pain that was wrapped up in the bodies of the hundreds if not thousands of raped women whom she supported in her lifetime.

“Aftermath” was a brutal post-script to all that we know of Andrea Dworkin’s life and work, and yet her reflections continue her theoretical contributions. This rape in Paris in 1999, a drug-induced, bewildering, inexplicable rape, challenged even Dworkin’s sense of context and theory. The confusion of that night is grippingly revealed over the course of the narrative. She was reading a book in the garden of her hotel, drinking a kir royale. She enjoyed reflecting that this was the first time in her life when men left her alone to enjoy a book and a drink in a public space without intruding on her space and contemplation. Or so she thought.

When suddenly she felt unwell, she struggled to the elevator, praying she could just get back to her room. She passed out on her bed. She rose some time later to call for room service. She remembers a young man entering her room with a pass key— she never opened the door. He brought her food. Then nothing. She remembers nothing of what happened next until she awakes in the morning with deep bloody scratches between her legs and a bruise on her left breast. She feels an injury within. She has no memory of how it happened. She suspects the bartender and imagines he was aided by the young man who brought her food, who saw that she was drugged, who knew she would be unable to fight back or complain. 

It is this confusion that overlays the entire play. But her confusion over what happened that night in Paris is the most straight-forward uncertainty. What haunts Dworkin, and her audience, is the bewilderment of “how”. How could she be raped again when she swore she would die or kill first? How could a woman in her 50s, reading a book in a garden in her hotel, wake up with bruises and bloody scratches? And how could a man rape a corpse— a lifeless body with no ability to resist and no awareness to fight. If sex is about power, what is the power in raping a “dead” woman? And how can she recover, contextualize, theorize, a rape she cannot remember; hours lost to a rapist that she can only reconstruct imaginatively, in nightmares?

Worse, perhaps, “how could this have happened to me?”, is her painful refrain. In the trauma of the experience Dworkin loses herself and her own trenchant analysis of rape, obsessively questioning all the ways and reasons why she wasn’t “asking for it.” It’s as if all of her insight was also taken by the amnesic drug her perpetrator used against her. The audience weeps as this rape proves to be the downfall of this magnificent feminist. Dworkin hid from the public for a year, finally writing about this rape only once in 2000 in the New Statesman. She was confronted by fierce criticism, doubt, disbelief. The “how could this happen to me?” became “did this really happen to you?”

Andrea Dworkin wrote her final book, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant, in 2002, then withdrew from public life for the remaining years of her life. She attributed her declining health to the rape in Paris. When she died of acute myocarditis in 2005, her partner understood that she had died of a broken heart. It is so bitterly ironic that rape killed Andrea Dworkin when she swore she would kill her rapist.
Designed by Rachel Gold.