Remarks at Rape Victim Advocates Benefit, April 21, 2005
This award is, for me, a threefold honor. I am honored by the presence of all of you here tonight. To look out and see so many friends and colleagues and coconspirators in one room is an amazing experience. It gives me the dangerous illusion that my haphazard journey through life may actually make some kind of sense—that somehow it all coheres. Although I know the illusion will pass, this moment is delicious. It is sweetened further by the happy accident that both my mother and my mother-in-law are in town, and by the presence of our son Josh and my brother Michael who rearranged busy lives to attend. Our daughter Betsy could not be here, but she is very much present in spirit.
I am also honored that this award bears the name of Rape Victim Advocates. There are many nonprofit organizations out there appealing for support. Some are worthy, some less so. Only a few, in my view, are absolutely necessary in the sense that they do essential work that won’t get done if they don’t do it. RVA is such an organization.
The other word in the award’s name—Visionary—makes me feel like a bit of an impostor. I have a deep distrust of visionaries and their visions. My own method, as I once described it, is to generate light by collecting fireflies and massing their glow. I do my best thinking close to the ground. So perhaps we can, at least this year, rename the award the RVA Reluctant Visionary Award. In any case, whatever the name, I gratefully accept it.
I am honored, above all, to receive this award from my friend and, as Sunny noted, fellow “guerilla journalist” Studs Terkel. In order to give an account of Studs’ influence on me, I have to excavate down to bedrock. For there is a sense in which I grew up inside his voice. The radio station that was his original and longtime home—WFMT—was always on in my parents’ house. It was the medium through which my brothers, my sister and I moved growing up. And Studs was on the air a lot in those days—at 10:00 am on weekday mornings, and then again on Sunday evening. For me as a child, the sound of his voice conjured the richness of the wide world beyond the household and carried the promise of how much of that richness a single sensibility could absorb without bursting. He was my World Wide Web. Together with my father, Studs dramatized for me the joys and possibilities of conversation. They planted the seeds of the conviction, now central to my understanding of both the First Amendment and my literary vocation, that there is nothing that cannot be talked about.
I was also fatally corrupted, at an impressionable age, by Studs’ sense of style—expressed in the way he signed off at the end of his show. “Take it easy,” he would say, “but take it.” As a kid, I loved that note of nonchalant cockiness. I still do.
When I was perhaps twelve years old, I heard words issuing from the radio that I registered with startled recognition as if they were already written in my soul. The program was “Born To Live,” a marvelous collage of voices created by Studs and his colleague Jim Unrath. The words were spoken by William Sloan Coffin, then the chaplain at Yale University. The occasion was the invocation at a graduation ceremony. It became a WFMT tradition to rebroadcast “Born To Live” on New Year’s Day. Each year the Kalven family would gather in the living room to listen. As Studs’ inspired orchestration of voices and music unfolded—Bertrand Russell yielding to James Baldwin yielding to a Hiroshima survivor to a sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta—I would wait for Coffin’s invocation. It became for me, in the deepest sense, a New Year’s resolution.
I have noticed that Studs in recent years—more than four decades after “Born To Live” first aired—has frequently quoted the Coffin prayer on public occasions. I am not aware that he did so during the intervening decades. After all the words he has taken in and deeply heard, these words seem to resonate for him now with special power and clarity:
Oh Lord, as we leave this university, let these be young men and young women for whom the complexity of issues only served their zeal to deal with them; young men and young women who alleviated pain by sharing it; and young men and young women who were always willing to risk something big for something good. So that we may have in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, a little more beauty than would have been there, had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not but still can be. Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
How it would amuse his old friend Mahalia Jackson to hear Studs in his ninth decade passionately uttering words of prayful invocation. They used to argue about the existence of God. She never succeeded in converting him, though he did concede that her voice raised in song almost made a believer of him.
One need not be conventionally religious to embrace this notion of a lover’s quarrel with the world—with its equal emphasis on passionate love of life and fierce resistance to all that diminishes, wastes and deforms life. Speaking from my dual perspective as writer and activist, I believe that the great challenge we face in building a robust nonviolent movement is, in essential ways, a narrative challenge. We need to evoke with acts as well as words the damage that individual acts of violence do our common life, while at the same time keeping visible the world of mutuality and care that violence eclipses.
When Working With Available Light was published, much was made of the fact that the narrator is a man. Fair enough. But the essence of what I was trying to do as a writer was to give an account of how a single act of violence ramified through time and through a web of human attachments—a marriage, a family, a community. The book is an exploration, illuminated by my wife Patsy’s extraordinary honesty and depth of perception, of the reality that we are members one of another and that violence is a kind of dismemberment—of both the individual victim and of the community.
Tonight we celebrate connections, our membership in one another. I stand before you aware less of myself as a distinct individual than of the ecology in which I am embedded—the relationships and attachments, the shared struggles and strategies of resistance, the conversations and arguments, the questions and mysteries, the affections and loves that, taken together, have come to constitute my identity and that are, for me, so wonderfully manifest here tonight.
It is precisely this sense of embeddedness, of being at home in the world, that terrorizing violence, as I have come to understand it, destroys. Listen to Patsy describe the experience of being assaulted as she ran on the lakefront: “I have an image in my mind of myself running along that day with all of my ties to my life—the kids, you, my schedule, how I was feeling, what the day was like—then all of a sudden they were cut. And I was left there, totally alone, to be killed. . . . It’s as though the moment I was hit, I was cut off from myself. It’s as if all my connections to the world were slashed.”
Again and again, she sought terms and images to describe this harrowing isolation. “That’s what I’m afraid to ever experience again,” she once observed, “to be so utterly alone and still alive.”
To a great degree, our ways of talking about sexual violence, the stories we tell about it, pay tribute to this isolating power. The rape occupies the foreground, and the only characters are the victim and her tormentor. But our identities are constituted of our relations with others. Sexual violence is inflicted on the bodies and souls of individual human beings, but it also happens in the context of friendships and marriages and families and communities and the larger society.
We recognize this immediately in settings like Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Sudan where rape is used systematically to drive people from their homes and their homeland—to destroy the very idea of home. We clearly see such campaigns of sexual terror as an assault on the domestic, on the web of relationships that nurture and support civilized life. This requires no elaborate argument. It is self-evident: these are things we know.
Why then is it so hard for us to see in our own society what we so clearly see in Bosnia and the Sudan: the impact of men’s violence against women and children on our common life? There are obvious differences. The incidence of rape in the United States is not the result of state terror or a strategy in a military campaign waged by an invading army. Yet we know the statistics. According to a credible survey, one in five women reported she had been raped or assaulted in her lifetime. Another survey underscores the vulnerability of young women and girls: of women who reported being raped at some time in their lives 54% were under the age of 18 at the time of the first rape and 83% were under the age of 25.
Imagine the currents of grief and anger and questioning pulsing out from each victim through the net of her relations. Imagine, too, in the many instances in which the victim does not disclose the crime to others, the impact on relationships and institutions and language, when the unspeakable remains unspoken. If we could visualize the ramifications of these patterns of violence over time, as in those medical tests in which dye is injected into the body for diagnostic purposes, what would we learn about the world through which we move?
Human rights activists, working to restore civil society after periods of repression and state terror, speak of the need to move from private knowledge to public acknowledgement. Implicit in this formulation is the realization that knowledge of human rights abuses is present throughout society, but it is isolated and isolating. Those who were abused know. Those who committed the abuses know. So do those who emigrated to a state of denial and live in the twilight between knowing and not knowing.
The movement from private knowledge to public acknowledgement is a matter of necessary stories being told and heard. To open oneself to such difficult stories, I have come to understand, is an act of moral generosity. It is also a practical necessity, for the use we make of our sympathetic imaginations shapes our capacity to act. When this process runs true, individual stories of abuse become stories about the common life of the society. Any act of rape, we come to understand, does not occur in some morally convenient elsewhere but is an assault upon an immeasurable world of human connections and shared meanings that we ourselves inhabit.
The problem nonviolence confronts is not only to give a precise account of the damage caused by violence; it is also to make visible resources for renewal. Resistance to violence is so fundamental, so integral to everyday life, that we do not often see it as such. And so we fail to recognize the power we possess. Our imaginations are shaped around the violent act. We find it much harder to take in the ongoing work of repair and maintenance of the world, all the acts of kindness, civility, and solidarity that make life supportable, all the humane, constructive responses to violence—the everyday resistance to violence—that constitute so much of civilized life. This is a lesson I have learned, above all, among my friends and neighbors at Stateway Gardens.
We do not, I think, talk often enough about the joyful aspects of this work. Nothing good can be said to have come of the crime a faceless man committed against Patsy; it is infinitely regrettable. It has been a window for us on the incalculable costs of violence for individuals, families, society. Yet acknowledging and directly engaging realities of violence has enriched our lives in ways I do not regret. When I imagine our lives without the insights and questions, the friendships and sense of purpose this engagement has yielded, I don’t feel relief. I feel bereft.
Hope is a strenuous discipline. It demands that we grieve over things as they are in order to gain the power to imagine they could be otherwise. To turn away from the realities of violence is also to turn away from massive evidence of our capacity to resist and prevent such violence. It is to turn away from life itself.
No one knows this more deeply than the staff and volunteers of RVA. I am proud to be linked to you by this award. And I look forward to continuing to work with you. So that, in the words of Studs’ prayer, “we might have in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, a little more beauty than would have been there, had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not but still can be.”