Essential reading

The title of Karyn L. Freedman’s One Hour in Paris: a True Story of Rape and Recovery is ironic. In the time it takes to watch an episode of Madmen or dry a load of laundry, the twenty-two year old Freedman’s life was changed, brutally, and against her will. The attack which — by the clock’s measure — lasted one hour has remained with her ever since. Freedman is unequivocal when she states, “trauma is permanent.” After that hour in Paris, it became a lifetime’s task for Freedman not only to live in the world with her trauma, but to decide how, when, and to whom to tell her story.

Not the least of her challenges as a rape survivor has been living at odds with the sense of safety most of us are schooled to take for granted. Writes Freedman,

Although this picture is slowly changing, historically, at least in the West, girls have been taught from a young age that the world is basically a safe place and that so long as you are sufficiently careful and intelligent, you can protect yourself from any serious harm. … So how does the rape survivor reconcile this dominant worldview with what has happened to her? After all, it cannot be true both that the world is a safe place and that you were raped unless, of course, the rape was your fault. The other alternative is to reject the dominant worldview, but this means accepting the fact that we live in a world where women, by virtue of being women, are at risk. For a variety of reasons, it can be easier and less painful to believe instead that being raped was a result of your own poor choices. (73)

I found it — I’m grasping for the right word here – Satisfying? Nourishing? … Essential! — to have it affirmed that the world is not really a benign place for women; we are at best undervalued, at worst, the targets of a merciless and systematic campaign of subjugation. It’s uncomfortable to talk about it, yet I think we all – on some level – feel it.

I’m not  – thank goodness – a victim of rape and hesitate even to write this for fear of diminishing the experience of anyone who has been through it. A vague sense of threat is not the same as full-on trauma. Freedman describes her panic attacks, her catastrophic fears. She has been robbed of the ability to be at ease in her body.

Yet all of us live with whatever attitudes, beliefs and habits of thought make rape such a common occurrence. Dissociation, cognitive distortion, simple abuses of power hurt us all. And the victims of rape include our friends, teachers, colleagues, daughters, and mothers. In her introduction, Freedman dedicates the book to rape survivors, and tells her own story with an unflinching intimacy, yet there is also a sense of universality.

“[Rape is] a problem that is the result of the way that societies are structured and resources and power distributed. The fact that rape is a social problem can be hard to remember, because rape is also intensely personal and deeply isolating.”

The book is less than 200 pages long, progressing from a detailed and frank account of the rape itself, through Freedman’s oh-so-understandable – though ultimately failed — attempts to minimize her trauma. Then comes the story of the tough and courageous work she did in therapy to first (as the title of one of chapter puts it) live in it, then live with what she uncovers. She goes on to write about how her world eventually expanded from the narrow horizon rape imposed on her. She has traveled to Africa, (ground zero — as she puts it — in the war against women), formed a healthy, loving relationship and even revisited the scene of her rape.

This process has not been a straight line. As that hour in Paris moved further and further into the past, Freedman’s understanding of it became increasingly nuanced. There were also excruciating, infuriating moments where the rapist’s violent actions continued to reverberate through her life.

The book is written in accessible, matter-of-fact language; still, beneath the surface we can discern a framework of questions that Freedman, a professor of philosophy, must regularly address, questions of what we know and how we know it, of the relationship between body and mind, of subjectivity, objectivity and intersubjectivity, of what language can and can’t do.

Her inquiry into how society has historically constructed trauma is utterly fascinating. I found myself wishing for more of this sort of discussion, informed by philosophical rigour and grounded in personal experience. I would have loved to hear more of Freedman’s thoughts on Africa, where sexual assault is so widespread, and resources so limited, and about how, as Freedman herself wonders, the women find it possible to survive.

At the prospect of publishing her book, Freedman writes that she “stopped breathing.” Grappling with a fresh outcropping of panic, she felt her rapist’s knife against her throat. During her ordeal, he told her to shut up, and now here she was, committing the ultimate act of rebellion against his threats. (Actually, the section made me think of a wonderful article by Stacy May Fowles — not about her rape experience — but about the anxiety of the first-time novelist.) I would like to hear more about Freedman’s process of freeing herself from this panic, and her interpretation of what all this means.

But I respect Freedman’s choice  – and clearly it was a choice – to keep this book short and to the point. It has integrity in this form. And even though I wanted to hear more, I would not wish the pain of revisiting the experience on anyone. Better still, I wish no one had a rape story to tell.

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