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Bearing witness.

One Night: Realities of Rape by Cathy Winkler.

Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002, 307 Pp., $24.95 paper.

When Cathy Winkler decided that One Night: Realities of Rape should be "a case study of me--both the person violated and the researcher," she set a formidable goal for herself. The story of Winkler's rape and its aftermath is horrific and, as Winkler warns her readers, the horrors of telling or writing about one's own experience of rape can be "as overwhelming as living through" the rape itself. Turning such an experience into a successful, personal research project would probably defy the best efforts of most of us. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that One Night does not succeed as a meaningful case study. A case study requires a certain distance from the subject, and One Night is anything but a distanced account of rape.

One Night does, however, contain a personal story well worth telling. In its broad outline, Winkler's story is depressingly familiar. It is about Winkler's rape, how the efforts of her well-meaning supporters too frequently replicated the experience of the physical assault, and about the final assault inflicted on her by a seven-year sojourn in the judicial system. One Night separates Winkler's story into three sections, which mirror the now-standard view that rape has personal, social, and legal dimensions.

The unique and most informative aspect of One Night is its account of Winkler's effort to bear personal witness to the truth of a horrifying experience. Bearing witness is an especially heroic--and costly--form of personal activism. It may include serving as a courtroom witness in a criminal prosecution of a rapist, but it is much more than that. One who bears witness will do so even when a search for justice seems futile. Her primary objective is to make the truth of a past injustice present and palpable to the world. Her truth will not be limited to the conventional understandings of rape held by forensic experts, psychologists, or lawyers. Indeed, the poet Emily Dickinson expressed the risks of bearing witness when she wrote:
There is a pain--so utter--
It swallows substance up--
Then coversthe Abyss with
  Trance--
So Memory can step
Around--across--upon it--
As one within a Swoon--
Goes  safely--where an open
  eye--
Would drop Him--Bone by
  Bone.


Winkler is willing to cast "an open eye" on her situation, despite the substantial risk that it will "drop [Her]--Bone by Bone."

Winkler thinks of herself as an activist. She describes herself as a "VIctim as Survivor and Activist," a so-called "VISA," with the emphasis on activist rather than victim. One Night documents the ironic and tragic consequences of Winkler's choice to bear witness to her own rape.

One Night will leave a reader in no doubt, that bearing witness is a heroic and costly way of being an activist. Those "unburdened by memory of any kind" cannot bear witness, said poet Wislawa Szymborska. Thus Winkler made a very dear choice. She chose to remember, with an open eye. She remembered even in the face of pressure from friends, who wanted her to "forget and get on with [her life]," to treat the rape as "just one night." Even during the rape, she desperately tried to commit to memory every conceivable physical detail of her attacker, although "anger screamed out that tried to overtake my memorization task: I hate this man. I don't want to remember the face I hate the most." Winkler chose to remember the physical rape because for her, as for others who bear witness to injustice, forgetting would "dismiss the magnitude and severity of such a heinous crime."

At great physical cost, Winkler also honored her body's instinctive memory of the rape. Winkler's body memory appeared in symptoms of post-rape trauma, like the "adrenaline, attack-like horror" Winkler felt when she was awakened unexpectedly, during the night, by a dog jumping on her bed.

Most of us are probably inclined to classify the symptoms of post-rape trauma as an illness, significant only as something to be cured. But Winkler refused to think of her body's trauma in this way. For Winkler, trauma was not illogical, but rational, positive, a mechanism of control, and a protection. She was determined to "unscrambl[e] the meaning behind" each mainfestation of trauma in which her body bore present witness to the past rape. Winkler valued her "body trauma" -- her physical reaction to being in the presence of the rapist--as evidence of the rapist's identity, which she argued should be as legally valid as a visual memory of the rapist's face.

The irony and tragedy of Winkler's story is that the memories that enabled Winkler to bear witness betrayed her fervent wish not to have the physical rape define her as "rape-traumatized and tattooed emotionally." Winkler desperately wanted to be seen as "still Cathy" despite. the rape. But Winkler's choice to bear witness--to offer up her person as a living and unique embodiment of an injustice so as to bring the memory of the past horror into present time--was necessarily a choice to let the rape define her.

The burden of Winkler's story is not pretty. Those who choose to bear witness live a life that most of us would not live. Their acts of bearing witness are unlikely to make the rest of us feel comfortable. They confront us with difficult truths and test the legitimacy of conventional wisdom. They pay the price for what we gain in knowledge and understanding.

I wish that Winkler's compelling and disturbing story of bearing witness had been told differently. Winkler too frequently lapses into professional jargon and analysis, as when she asserts that "a person's interpretation and set of meanings reinvoke control and recenter a person as an active participant and a cultural negotiator of social interactions." She writes paragraph after paragraph of reconstructed dialogue that is completely flat. When she wants to convey emotion, she employs CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis. Digressions and relentless recountings of multiple missteps by well-meaning people interrupt the flow and structure needed for a forceful story. Winkler, intent on including every detail that might conceivably illustrate her unique perspective and voice, pays insufficient attention to an author's responsibility to establish common ground with her readers. For readers who are newcomers to One Night's subject, Winkler may come across as an odd duck, at the least.

Perhaps a different editor might have helped Winkler turn her lack of distance into a virtue rather than a limitation. But One Night was not edited in that spirit. It does not exploit the powerful activism inherent in bearing personal witness. Instead, One Night's activism consists too frequently of didactic, judgmental, "how-to" and "how-not-to" lectures about all of the ways in which friends, lawyers, or others should behave.

In the writing of One Night, the courageous woman who lived with rape and bore witness for seven long years lost Out to a less heroic, less effective persona, that of the professional anthropologist who "enunciate[s] the meanings of the trauma." Winkler's overly detailed, inelegantly written, and frequently unfocused account unfortunately does not do justice to her fearless, post-rape witnessing.

EMILY CALHOUN is professor of law at the University of Colorado. Her expertise is in civil rights law.
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Title Annotation:One Night: Realities of Rape
Author:Calhoun, Emily
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Words:1208
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