Rosemary McLeod reviews I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her (Fourth Estate, $34.99) by Joanna Connors.
Women used to read romantic fiction, the kind in which everyone lived happily ever after, following tribulations such as which dress to wear, and whether or not to surrender to a masterful smooch. Every book fair and thrift shop is swamped in this fantasy stuff. It overflows landfills.
Mills and Boon still caters for the many women who still enjoy that sort of thing, but there has been an equal and thoroughly opposite reaction. Women readers in their millions now seem to have an insatiable appetite for self help books, tales of feminine triumph over adversity, and tales of very awful experiences with men. Fathers, brothers, uncles, bosses, stepfathers, grandfathers, workmates, priests, husbands and casual acquaintances feature, and, as in the case of I Will Find You, thoroughly nasty strangers.
I cannot make light of the author’s experience. She was raped at knifepoint, and the effect tainted her life for 21 years afterwards. That her rapist was swiftly caught, loitering next day in the same place, with his name – Dave – still tattooed on his arm, was no consolation. The book’s title is what he said to her after the encounter. It haunted her in spite of the long jail sentence that guaranteed he would die in jail. It undermined her faith in the world, and in herself.
Where do you go with an experience like this? Today you can approach Rape Crisis and similar groups, but you have to admit that you need help in the first place. Some women look on that as weakness, as Joanna Connors did. They buy into the fantasy that pretending you’re OK is just as good as really being OK. And underneath their false bravado lurks the unsayable: they are ashamed.
Because Connors is a journalist her newspaper colleagues in Cleveland learn about her rape and no doubt report the trial. But she finds no comfort in their company, and they sound – from her account – embarrassed, unsure of what to do or say. Two women colleagues take her aside, separately, to tell her that they, too, have been raped. They project a grin-and-bear-it attitude that is no comfort, and don’t offer friendship.
It is possible to bury such experiences – rape – deep, but they have a way of surfacing. In Connors’ case her daughter was 16 before she felt the need to confront what happened, using her research skills, and hopefully free herself from the hold her rapist still had over her mind. Realising that he’s had a profound influence on her life she decides to find him, confront him, and learn what shaped him into a hardened criminal. The result was a prizewinning series of articles for her newspaper, now expanded, a little awkwardly, into book form; statistical information and research don’t quite meld with the narrative.
Her rapist, she discovers, has died in jail. That sends Connors on a quest to find his family, again somewhat awkwardly, since she initially gains access to them through deceit. She learns from them what she had reason to suspect: their family life was a nightmare. Dave never stood a chance of being anything other than a criminal. Empathy was trained out of him. His father, a pimp, had modelled violence towards women, and he was a bright student.
Here emerges a theme that runs, again awkwardly, through Connors’ account: race. Her rapist was black and uneducated. Her educated middle-class white guilt led her into his trap because although her instincts warned her of danger, she felt ashamed to heed them. That, she reasoned, would mean she was racist.
Afterwards she was ashamed both that she had walked into Dave’s trap, making it easy for him, and that her white guilt had overpowered her good sense. In that knot of guilt lay years of fearing danger for herself and her children at every turn. Bad judgment had failed her, could fail her again, and because she denied herself the help she needed, she realises she drove her husband out of their marriage.
I wish I could say there is redemption here, but I’m not sure there is. There is certainly courage, but you can’t get back years you spend in denial, and knowing a sadly familiar story about your attacker can’t really take the pain away. Still, Connors finally discovers a good therapist, and is then able to backstory her own rape the way a journalist well might who believed that good would come of it. But hers is a strangely flat story, almost as if she’s a bystander in her own life.
Exploring the past is chasing shadows. You can’t relive it, or reset the clock. A friend wishes she could hunt down the man who violated her when she was a gauche teenager, and shame him, but she knows it won’t happen. I have my demons, as many women do. But we carry on living, and we read depressing books, looking for solace in other people’s pain.
Dead or alive, in the end Dave still haunts Connors, and he will never say he’s sorry.
I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her (Fourth Estate, $34.99) by Joanna Connors is available at Unity Books.