I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again without fearing redundancy: this woman is brilliant. I can do so because each time I say it, I’ve discovered it anew. In this, the eighth story of the collection, Willett tackles a subject both touchy and dangerously close to trite, with delicacy and shattering uniqueness. Now, before I explain this abrasive description (trite) of the story’s topic of choice, rape, I highly suggest you read the story. If you do nothing else in this life, read this story. With statistics like “1 in 6 women – & 1 in 33 men – will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime,” this story is relevant to the majority of people in the world. However, it does not presume to describe the experience for all women, in fact it recoils from the idea that this particular trauma (or any human experience, for that matter) is similar for every person who experiences it. The only real reaction we get from the narrator, in fact, is her strong and violent resistance to this idea and everyone who unwittingly expresses it.
The story begins by stating the facts, “On November 6 of last year, at around 8:15 P.M., I was beaten and raped by a man named Raymond C. Moreau, Jr., who had entered our first-floor apartment through a living room window while I was taking a shower.” It is not the weight of this incident that makes this story powerful, however. The next sentence describes perfectly how Willett proceeds to tell this story: “This is neither the most significant event in my life nor the most interesting, nevertheless it is a fact, around which cluster many other facts, and the truth is always worth telling.”
It took me days to read this story, having to pause after each section. I couldn’t continue. The first section ends with her discussing how she told her husband what happened:
Well, then there was reconciliation, and explanation, and generally the sort of behavior you would expect from lovers to whom such a thing has happened. These events were not extraordinary, except to us, and I shall not record them, here or anywhere else. These are private matters. We are very private people.
In these last two sentences of the first section, Willett manages to say volumes more than if she had actually lain out the situation for us on the page. It is in these moments, these sentences that caught my breath, that I felt I was listening to a real woman talking.
One of the things Moreau says to the narrator, whose name we never receive, is, “You’re all alike. All alike. All alike.” It’s disgusting to read, the repetition defining a certain cadence that implies what he is doing as he says it. Though I was repulsed as I read the details she gives about the “thing,” as she and her husband refer to it, the moments of pure horror happen after the fact, transgressions inflicted by colleagues, close friends, a whiff of dust. During her friend Regina’s outburst concerning the narrator’s lack of reaction or grieving about the situation, she exclaims, “You were violated! Violence was done to you!…And not just to you. To me. To all women.” The narrator’s response that Regina is no different than Raymond Moreau, however uncouth, makes sense in the stupefying ending to this section: “I had meant only, she thought we were all alike, all alike. All alike.”
Believe it or not, this is me refraining from recounting every bit of the story that I loved. These are just the parts that make it, hands down, my favorite story in the collection. I tried to describe it to a guest at the bar the other night, telling him the way that she says so many things by saying so little (articulate, I know). Close to tears, I had to stop. This story, this woman, has mastered subtlety. I can’t say it any other way.
Okay, so I can’t talk about this story without talking about the way that it ends. I don’t want to ruin it, but I can’t leave out this bit of perfection. Earlier in the story, the narrator talks about how she’d always been afraid, before her rape. She says that Moreau took that from her; she is no longer afraid. Before that, however, she would wake up in the middle of the night and stare at her husband, making sure he was still alive. Sometimes if she couldn’t tell that he was breathing, she would move in a way to elicit a response from him, reassuring her that he was still alive. After “The Night of the Thing” (as she and her husband refer to it, “with some humor”), he has taken on this old habit of hers:
But lately, and too often, as we lie in the dark, I curled away from him, peaceful and fearless, he rises, stealthy, gentle, and leans over me, watching my face; I can feel his breath on my cheek; and I must give him a sign, a sigh, a dreamy moan to ease his mind. Just like a robot he must rise, prompted by my old, foolish impulse, unworthy of him, as though by watching he could keep me safe; as though the universe concerned itself with us.
There’s the violation. There’s the damage. There’s the tragedy.
With this, I was left completely deflated. She murdered me with her precision. Throughout these twelve pages, you get to know these people. Their relationships are real; the heartbeat is loud, and when the story ends, you’re just glad it’s still beating.
What I Wish I’d Written: All of it. More specifically, this–
“He never looked me in the eye. But he did not, I think, purposely avoid my eyes. He was not nervous, or ashamed, or fearful. It just never occurred to him to look there.”