Why I Use Humor When Talking About My Sexual Assault

4 minute read
Gurba is the author of the memoir Mean.

We tell ourselves silly stories in order to laugh.

If you’re a Joan Didion fan, you might recognize that as a bastardization of The White Album’s opening line.

I tell myself silly stories in order to laugh because I’ve been sexually assaulted and sometimes, rape seems like the sickest practical joke ever invented.

The man who played his joke on me is named Tommy Jesse Martinez. He stalked me, crept up behind me, tackled me (remembering the sensation still makes me tense up), yanked up my skirt, grabbed my underwear by its blood-stained crotch and pulled. He proceeded to take things from me that he had no right to. After the assault, I chased him down the street and around the corner, my leopard print wedges going clack clack clack. I wasn’t really dressed for rape.

I chronicled this assault and an earlier instance of sexual molestation in my memoir Mean. When I’ve discussed the book with journalists, students and other writers, the same question repeatedly emerges: Why use humor to write about sexual abuse and violence? The inquiry veils a criticism. It implies that I’ve committed an impropriety by inviting readers to visit the intersection of horror and humor. I’m a cold and tasteless blasphemer for bringing them to this place. They would rather behave as if this intersection doesn’t exist. So much for intersectionality.

Our storytelling habits matter and I’ve listened, with care and concern, as a certain pattern of storytelling has come into vogue. This style saturates stories of sexual assault and violence with piety, banishing irreverence from the narrative. Stories of this sort have formed their own canon and developed their own script. According to it, experiencing sexual violence is the worst moment in a survivor’s life, period. It centers violation as a baptismal experience that defines one’s person and in many ways, all womanhood. Because such experiences are so exceptionally horrific, the tools we use to discuss the everyday, the language we use to talk about human events, fail us. We raid the vocabulary of religion in order to confer solemnity. We “witness” a victim’s pain as they “testify.”

I take exception to this sort of rape exceptionalism, likely because of my temperament. I emerged from the womb a shrieking contrarian and this challenged my Catholic parents. They sent me to catechism and took me to mass and during worship, I came to relish neither scripture nor sermon. Instead, my mind and spirit soared during moments that validated my fallibility, my lack of exceptionalism and our common, grotesque humanity. These moments arrived in the form of mistakes or trespasses, clashes with rules. I felt connected to my fellow parishioners when one fell asleep and his ogre-like snore punctuated the gospel, enlivening everyone, even our anemic priest who couldn’t help himself. The petite Belgian giggled. That inappropriate zzz… mutated the experience. It tickled divinity. It made church finally alive.

Film theorist Carol Clover coined the term final girl to refer to the last female character left to confront a killer in horror movies. She, too, exists according to script, according to formula, and she suffers a static status. Humor, however, disrupts stasis. Humor is a form of action. It requires spontaneity, and that’s what’s missing from the pious scripts about sexual assault that bother me. They don’t allow for survivors to really be alive.

When asked how he knows that a trauma patient has recovered, Dr. Jack Saul, director of the International Trauma Studies Program, answers that a survivor’s ability to exercise spontaneity is his sign. Spontaneity can only happen when avoiding death or injury stops being a survivor’s primary concern. Spontaneity happens when one is able to dwell in a moment for its own sake.

Philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that “laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object… making of it an object of familiar contact.” He identified it as armament, describing it as a lens that helps us to face the world in all its perplexing glory. Arguments against rape culture state that we normalize sexual violence far too much. It exists in a realm that is all too familiar. I disagree. I believe it’s something with which we haven’t become intimate enough.

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