parallax background

Memories of Sexual Oppression

 

Joyce Johnson

Art by Cecily Brown

 
 

1946

I’m eleven years old, riding home from school on the Number 5 bus. It’s crowded today, so I’m standing. All of a sudden I feel part of someone’s body pressing into mine from behind, near the area known to me and my mother as my “down below.” Maybe I’m propping up a wobbly old person. I turn my head slightly and see that it’s a man who doesn’t look feeble. His pressing into me continues, harder, as if insisting on something. I don’t like it at all. I feel that it’s wrong, although no one has ever explained such things or told me what to do in these circumstances. My mother’s commandment that I keep my skirt down at all times doesn’t really apply here, though it may have some relationship to what’s happening. I carefully move away a bit, but he starts his pressing all over again. Now I really think this grownup is doing something he shouldn’t be allowed to do. I look around to see whether any of the other adults on the bus have noticed, but no one seems to be looking. Finally, I do the only thing I can think of. At the next stop I call out, “Driver! This man keeps leaning on me!” It’s the magic word “Driver!” that puts an immediate end to the pressing. Heads turn and there is a brief stir of voices, although no one addresses me directly. Shoving other passengers out of his path to the door, the man who was bothering me pushes through the aisle and gets off. When I get home, I don’t tell my mother. She would be very embarrassed to hear such a story.

“We all understand that because society needs to protect us from rape and assault, we are going to be restricted to a very narrow range of experience, which will stunt our imaginations.”


 

1954

I’m in a classroom with ten other young women, English majors at Barnard College. With varying degrees of chutzpah, we all have the outrageous idea of becoming writers. We’re about to take a required course aimed at discouraging us from even trying. We girls won’t be attempting poems, short stories, or essays. Instead we’ll be doing journal writing. Our formidable professor, John Kouwenhoven, a star in the English department because of his recent book on American popular culture, The Beer Can on the Highway, will cast his narrow gray eyes upon what we reveal about ourselves daily in spiral notebooks he can collect without notice.

I wondered, a lifetime later, why Barnard didn’t question the premise of this course. For one thing, who keeps a journal because they’re forced to? For another, isn’t the privacy of the act an essential condition of journal writing? Would Kouwenhoven have offered a patronizing course like this to the young men across the street at Columbia, where he made it clear he would vastly have preferred to teach? But there his hand wouldn’t have strayed to the knees of students having conferences with him.

He makes his attitude known in the very first class. “Who in this room wants to be a writer?” As hands go up, he points out, with chilly amusement, that if we girls were really going to be writers, we wouldn’t even be sitting here waiting to be instructed. We’d be riding the rails, having beer-can-on-the-highway epiphanies, fighting in wars overseas. He doesn’t have to say more. We all understand that because society needs to protect us from rape and assault, we are going to be restricted to a very narrow range of experience, which will stunt our imaginations, prevent us from striking out for independent lives and deprive us of the subject matter male writers call “big.” In other words, there is no hope girls like us will ever produce anything a man like Professor Kouwenhoven would find worthy of attention. Not that he isn’t satisfied with things as they are.

We leave his classroom in cowed silence. We have all grown up cognizant of what women can’t do. Misogyny so permeates the air we breathe that we can hardly identify its manifestations. A day or so later I start thinking. What about George Eliot? What about Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson? Didn’t every one of them manage to write without getting far from home? But when I go back to Professor Kouwenhoven’s next class I don’t raise these questions. If you have subversive thoughts, you keep them to yourself, and yet there in your mind they continue to simmer.

In the comp course I had to take the year before, Professor Smith Palmer Bovie scrawled on one of my assignments: “Quite the little existentialist, aren’t we?”—his response to my description of the bleak furnished room in a nearby residence hotel where my best friend had attempted suicide after a terrible fight with her parents. I’d left out her slashed wrists, since they were none of his business, and instead wrote about the harsh blue walls, the fluorescent lighting, the lurid orchids on the cretonne bedspread. In the bland entries I grind out for Kouwenhoven, I’m careful to leave out most of my own life—the growing rift between me and my over-possessive mother, my crush on the grad student who taught experimental psych, my anxiety about whether or not to lose my virginity and my disappointing discovery during the minutes I was losing it with a boy my own age that the earth did not move as it had in For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’m sure my classmates are similarly reticent.

Toward the end of my junior year my notebook comes back to me with Kouwenhoven’s final dismissive comment, “Oh you girls have such dreary little lives.” “Oh yeah?” I think. One of these days I’m going to write a novel about furnished rooms and sex. But I worry that life may not provide me with enough drama.

 
 

1959

After months of low-paid temping in order to have more time for my novel, I’ve had to take another real job. This one is at Partisan Review, where I finally have a title—Assistant to the Editor—that will look better on my resume than Secretary. My work has nothing to do with editing, which is how I hope to earn my living eventually. Instead I’m in charge of all the things William Phillips doesn’t want to deal with: advertising, production and subscriptions, plus tracking incoming manuscripts, and, of course, doing secretarial work for William.

I have never worked in such a small office—two cluttered, dusty rooms overlooking Union Square, no one here most of the time but William and me. Piles of unsold copies of PR block the access to filing cabinets—rising higher with each new issue. Considering the fact that just a year ago I was Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend and still proudly identify as Beat, it feels weird to have ended up in the bastion of the Literary Establishment.

Shortly after my arrival, PR publishes an attack on Allen Ginsberg by Diana Trilling. In response, Allen sends in a penny postcard addressed to me on which he has written a serene Zenlike putdown: “The universe is a new flower.” Unfortunately, William is the first one to come across this in the morning mail. “What is the meaning of this?” he demands in an agitated voice. “What’s going on here?” I try to assure him that those six words of Allen’s mean no more than what is said. But William tells me he now has reason to fear that PR could be turned into a “beatnik rag” behind his back. Despite William’s absurd suspicions, he seems to like me. In fact, I soon realize he likes me more than an elderly editor should like his twenty-three-year-old assistant.

William wasn’t nearly as elderly as I thought. What must have aged him in my eyes, even more than his grey hair, was his dithery fear of anything new. He’d been an ardent young Trotskyite in 1934, when he and Philip Rahv started the Partisan Review. But the William of the fifties had become a nervous upholder of the status quo, one of those mysteriously funded intellectuals of the period who trotted off to fight the Cold War at cultural congresses abroad (surreptitiously underwritten by the CIA, as I learned years later). Perhaps something vital got lost in the gap between his polarities.

His chronic indecisiveness makes him maddening to work for. Haplessly dangling between either and or, he spends a large part of his day on the phone consulting, consulting, with the opinionated wives of members of his circle. Above my desk hang the clipped-together galleys of works like Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin that William really wanted to say no to, yet set in print, knowing he was unlikely to publish them. When the printer periodically calls to ask when he can melt down the type, I have to tell him Mr. Phillips is not in.

Although this wasn’t spelled out when he hired me, one of my chief responsibilities as William’s office handmaiden is to provide him with my companionship at lunch. At first I’m flattered by his invitations. But then they start coming daily, and I don’t know how to gracefully turn them down. Like any worker, shouldn’t I be entitled to one hour of freedom? Why is it necessary to conduct our discussions of what needs to be done at the office over chicken salad sandwiches at Schrafft’s, the matronly tearoom on lower Fifth Avenue where one would least expect to find a beatnik lunching with an ex-Trotskyite?

But one day William brings up a new topic. “What would your boyfriend do if I seduced you?”

Frozen to the seat of my chair, I absorb this. The possibility of an affair that he might or might not have with me has apparently been wafting before William like those galleys of Eugene Onegin he could publish if he chose. “Seriously,” he asks again.“What would your boyfriend do?”

“Seriously he would come to your door, William, and beat you up.”

The indignation that’s surged through me has swept me across a line. Before this, I would never have dreamed of jeopardizing my job by speaking to William so disrespectfully. He blinks, then laughs as if he enjoys hearing tough talk from a woman. The following day when it’s time for us to go to Schrafft’s, I tell him I have to go to the dentist. But since I can’t keep discovering new cavities, the lunches continue, as well as William’s allusions to the possibility of my seduction, which I try to deflect by pretending he must be joking—an ineffective tactic that only keeps the subject alive. Is there a way to just say “Stop this!” without the risk of getting fired?

The closest I come is my response to the remark William makes loudly in an elevator at Brooks Brothers. (He has dragged me to this masculine precinct because he insists he needs my input on the sports jacket he intends to buy.) I’m the only woman wedged into an elevator packed with men in suits. “Well,” William announces, “everyone here must think you’re my mistress.” “Or your daughter,” I say in an equally loud voice. “Or your editorial assistant.” My face is burning, but if I’ve embarrassed him, he doesn’t show it.

We get out on the third floor, where I have to spend the next hour watching William try on a succession of tweed sports jackets in gray and brown. I stubbornly won’t give him my opinion: “They all look about the same,” I tell him with a shrug. Unable to choose between so many options, he walks out of Brooks Brothers empty-handed and says he’ll have to come back with his wife.

One week I plead flu and write nearly a whole chapter of my novel, staying in from nine to five in case William checks up on me at home. I’ve been determined to remain at PR for at least a year, but I wonder if I can hold out that long. Why feel threatened by this ridiculous situation? I sometimes ask myself sternly. It isn’t that he’ll ever throw me across the neglected mail on his desk and have his way with me. It’s just that my acute resentful awareness of the role I play in his fantasies compromises all our interactions.

I make it till late spring. One Friday, on a rare Williamless lunch hour, as I‘m walking through Union Square with my paycheck in my handbag, I suddenly see no good reason to go back to the Partisan Review. I can temp again if I have to and just leave PR off my resume. A job no worse and maybe better is bound to turn up. As I cross Fourteenth Street, I know I’m walking away, melting into the distance from William that’s opened up ahead of me. He never calls to ask me to explain.

For the next four years I worked as an editorial secretary. In 1962, on the day my first novel was being published, I asked my boss if I could take a longer lunch hour than usual.

“Featureless in the dim light that seeped in from the street, the man who loomed over me was tall and heavyset, wearing some kind of light jacket that bunched at the waist. He held a knife against my throat. 'You be quiet,' he ordered.”

 

1975

When I was forty I got raped on an ill-fated business trip to California only a few hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco. I can still call up the details at will, but I know how lucky I’ve been not to be more haunted by the ordeal. Was that because I’d had practice in getting over devastating things? At 28, after being widowed after one year of marriage, I’d run away to Paris and London, where no one knew me, to see if some sort of a life could be reconstituted from scratch. That was a good idea, even though afterwards I came back and took up with a man who should have remained single. I left him one night abruptly when I was thirty-five, taking along our five-year-old son, whom I’d been raising on my own ever since, often in the Chinese restaurant around the corner.

Ironically, I’d been looking forward to my California trip as a chance to taste a little of the freedom denied to single mothers. I’d flown to the coast to find new writers for the publishing house I worked for, but I had other plans for the final two days—a romantic reunion with a man I’d been breaking up with for the past four years, who was teaching a graduate course in Los Angeles on German Radical Thought. The problem with Arnold was that he seldom passed up an opportunity to sleep with a new woman, but because of his brilliant mind, cheerful disposition, and other irresistible qualities, I hadn’t stopped hoping he’d abandon his search for the ultimate erotic encounter.

I could have checked into a hotel. Instead I’d accepted an invitation from Carla, a journalist I’d met recently whom I’d been urging to write a memoir. Carla knew everyone in Berkeley and had promised to introduce me to her crowd. On the night of my arrival, she’d been invited to a party, but I was too tired to go with her. I was fast asleep on the living-room couch in her ground-floor apartment when a man opened the kitchen window and climbed in.

I woke up in the dark, aware of shuffling movements in the next room. “Carla?” I called out. The movements stopped, then I heard them again. This time they sounded like stealthy footsteps. I tried to ascribe them to Carla’s cat, but knew they were too heavy. I was now excruciatingly awake—as if I were conscious of every cell in my body.

Featureless in the dim light that seeped in from the street, the man who loomed over me was tall and heavyset, wearing some kind of light jacket that bunched at the waist. He held a knife against my throat. “You be quiet,” he ordered. I thought he was going to kill me, but he had other ideas. “Woman,” he said, ludicrously, as if he were following some old script, “I been wanting you a long time.” I made an absurd effort to point out that this wasn’t the case. “No, you haven’t,” I dared to whisper. “I just got here.” Oddly enough, my mind kept churning out logical thoughts. Had he been stalking Carla? Could he have read the article she’d written on one of her own sexual adventures and looked up the address?

He conveyed his need for obedience and silence with added pressure from his knife. With his other hand, he was fumbling with his belt. He yanked the covers off me, pulled up my nightgown and lay down on my body as if it were a mattress. I had the feeling he was practiced in his vocation, getting the moves that were necessary down to the minimum, so that he could do his thing and be on the run in short order. I also sensed that if anything spooked him, the next few minutes could be my last.

My son was only nine. I shut my eyes to say goodbye to him. “Don’t hurt me,” I remember saying to the rapist, trying to keep the terror out of my voice. “I have a little boy at home who needs me.” I don’t know whether my words made any difference. I feel no shame about saying it didn’t occur to me to resist. Within moments, he was finished. If the failed act had been done with my consent, I would have considered it bad sex and probably wouldn’t even have remembered it. But this was different. This botched invasion of my body reduced me to “woman” as zero. Maybe he got his thrills from the preamble, the dangerous breaking-in, the infliction of his will on quivering female body parts found in the dark.

He wanted to know if there was any dope in the apartment. I whispered that I didn’t think so. After threatening to cut my throat if he caught me trying to call the police, he moved off into the kitchen, where I heard things crashing to the floor as he rummaged through Carla’s cabinets. At last I heard nothing. He must have used the window for his exit.

I lay for a long time afraid to move until I was sure he wouldn’t return, My whole body was shaking. Gradually I realized that it was over and that I had survived, and finally let myself burst into tears.

*

“What were you wearing at the time of the rape?” an officer asked me an hour later, as I sat dazed in a police station with a sweater over my nightgown. Questions along the same line followed. But the session was cut short when a call came in that the police were holding a suspect out on Shattuck Avenue. I was rushed into a patrol car and taken to the site.

Bombarded by flashing lights, the suspect had his hands up and was facing a wall. He was a small, slight, bearded man in a raincoat. Apart from being black, he had no resemblance to the rapist. I was horrified that the cops had simply picked up the first black person they’d found. They made him turn and face me. He was wild-eyed with fear. We exchanged a long searching look. “No, he’s not the one,” I said.

“You can go,” was all they said to him. “Move along now.” And we got in the car and left him standing on Shattuck Avenue with his life back in his hands.

It was early morning by the time the cops returned me to the apartment. Carla, who had spent the night with an old boyfriend, had just come in. She told me she’d freaked out the moment she saw the state of the kitchen, where the contents of upended canisters were spilled all over the floor. As I started explaining what had happened, she couldn’t light the cigarette she reached for. She made me go over every detail, then asked me a question I was completely unprepared for: “But you didn’t try to fight him off?” If she had been there, she swore in a trembling voice, he would have been one dead rapist. She walked me into her bedroom and showed me the drawer in her night table where she kept a gun. “I could kick myself for not telling you about this,” she said.

Carla was ten years younger than I was, part of the generation that had occupied campuses in the sixties and rioted at Berkeley over the issue of free speech. Her politics were more radical than mine, her sex life more defiantly free-wheeling. The gun she kept beside her bed seemed in keeping with the larger-than-life image she projected. What astonished me was her apparent belief that it was a fate worse than death for a woman to be defiled. I doubted that she would have been able to get the night table drawer open with a knife to her throat. Even though Carla didn’t say so, she let me know I’d disappointed her.

She thought it would do me good to hold her gun. I told her I’d never wanted to touch one but then with great reluctance I took it. It was a cold repugnant thing, much heavier than it looked. I felt that what I was holding was her terror rather than the talisman of her power.

After I’d lost my first husband, I’d learned that people are likely to behave in bizarre ways around someone who has undergone an extreme experience. Although I’d warned Carla I wasn’t up to meeting anyone, that night friends of hers came over to the apartment. I recall her introducing me as “my editor from New York who got raped last night.” Obviously that was my cue to tell all, but I must have looked dumbstruck, so Carla took charge of the story, which she recounted in a taut, wound-up voice. At one point she took everyone to the kitchen to see the open window through which the rapist had broken in. I remember making efforts to smile gamely.

*

The next day I called a friend in New York. “Get immediately on a plane,” she said, “and I’ll meet you at the airport.” But I did the exact opposite. I was afraid that once I was back, I’d just collapse in my apartment and succumb to the aftermath I’d heard about—the flashbacks, the feelings of worthlessness, the terrible shame that would be with me the rest of my life. I could already feel some of it coming for me, but thought I could outrun it if I just stayed on my feet and kept moving, doing everything I’d planned to do in California. As for the shame, I rejected the possibility that I’d suffer from it. Why would I be ashamed when the rape had nothing to do with me? Why did women have to pay for getting tainted by the sexual depredations of men? What could be more stupid and perverse and primitive than that? Furious and weak, I lasted out my stay in the Bay Area and kept every one of the appointments I’d made. Then I headed to L.A. to be with Arnold. I was counting on his love to cancel out the rape.

My reunion with Arnold was rather flat. Although he seemed affectionate and concerned, the aftermath felt closer now that I was with him. On our second night together, the phone rang just as he took me in his arms. To my surprise, he let go of me and answered it. Someone at the other end of the line was distraught, and I heard him speak in a soothing voice I recognized, using as few words as he could. One of them was Marcuse. I realized he was talking to the graduate student he’d introduced me to earlier that day. But why was she calling her advisor at one am? As I asked myself that question, Arnold and the rapist merged in my mind in a hideous way and I had that woman-as-zero feeling. I jumped out of bed and started searching for my shoes.

*

I was still running when I got back to New York. I went to the office without taking a day off even though I knew I probably needed sick leave. I pretended to my son that Mom was fine. At night the rapist would visit me with his knife and threaten to kill me; it was the totality of the power he’d had over me, rather than the rape, that I could not get out of my brain. I felt depression and shame, but those feelings were mostly about Arnold—the four years I’d wasted on him before becoming middle-aged. Hoping to calm myself with Victorian adulteries, I’d get up and try to read Trollope. Or I’d get on the phone to one of my insomniac friends, who were always willing to hear me out and offer their own outrageous tales of trouble.

My friends, all of them old now, like me—holdovers from the wonderful twentieth century—were the daughters of fearful mothers, who raised us to be reticent and not unduly visible. We never bravely went public the way younger women do today. Some of our vocabulary would now seem quaintly inadequate. The average transgressor was a jerk until progressing to a creep. An unwelcome kiss was a pass rather than an act of aggression, so was a fondled knee or a hand coming to rest on the back of your neck when you were trying to type an invoice. The word pass suggested you’d get over it. Not that you always could. A rapist, however, was a rapist—the way a piano player was a pianist.

We’d all declared our independence early, then gone through the mill: deadbeat husbands, various Arnolds, insulting bosses, threatening landlords, pathetic little paychecks, illegal abortions in Canarsie or a small town in Pennsylvania, babysitters who turned into Scientologists or said they’d be leaving on Tuesday for Alaska, periods of sheer exhaustion. Experiences rained down on us in forms our younger selves could not have imagined. As we struggled through our lives, we shared our bitter laughter. We continued to love men, but at the same time we deplored them. We chipped away at their power by portraying them in the stories we told each other as hopelessly retarded examples of arrested development. Our savage secret mockery would have appalled them.

It was the endless patience and ferocious humor of my women friends that eventually brought me back to myself. Long before I could have done so, they went to work on the rapist. Little by little, they toppled him from his fearsome archetypal status and brought him down to size. Finally one of them renamed him The Premature Ejaculator and even I, his victim, started referring to him that way. His nocturnal visits to me stopped and he never returned. I came to feel I had done pretty well by not perishing at forty. And then I went on with my complicated life.