Michelle Bowdler doesn’t want you to call her a rape “survivor”. “I don’t love the word ‘victim’ but I disdain the word ‘survivor’,” she tells me over Zoom, sitting in her red-walled study. She thinks the word survivor implies resolution to an event whose repercussions are in fact often lifelong, and that the use of “survivor” rather than “victim” tends to obscure a woman’s pain in favor of pat triumph. Survivor is a word that often seems aimed more towards honoring other people’s feelings than a woman’s dignity. “I do feel strongly that people use it to make their own discomfort go away,” she says.
Bowdler’s new book, Is Rape A Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation and a Manifesto, is an invitation to dwell in the discomfort that rape stories cause us. She proceeds from her experience of being raped by two armed strangers who broke into her Boston apartment one summer night in 1984. The book follows her in the aftermath, winding through the unfeeling bureaucracies of the hospital and the police and the claustrophobic, torturous experience of PTSD. Bowdler dwells on the continued indignity of rape victims’ status as objects of moral curiosity, alternately rendered invisible or tainted as damaged and pathetic. When, after decades of keeping her rapes mostly to herself, she began disclosing them, the looks of concern and worry on people’s faces “felt intolerable to me”, she says. “But I did it anyway. I felt like it was important to name it.”
With a wealth of research and measuredly rageful social commentary woven through the story of her own experience, Is Rape A Crime? functions as a memoir and as a polemic without falling into the pitfalls of either genre. Perhaps this is because Bowdler’s experience provides ample evidence for the book’s central argument: that the criminal justice system, and especially police, are negligent, insensitive and ineffectual in their handling of sexual cases, and that reporting experiences often do a victim more harm than good.
In the aftermath of her rapes, Bowdler is homeless, crashing temporarily in a friend’s apartment, and left to navigate psychological distress that is worsened by the indifference and incompetence of the authorities. In her only conversation with the detectives assigned to her case, they dangle a knife in her face. They found it in her bedroom, they say; they want to know if she recognizes it, and if it might be the one used by her rapists. She is only days removed from the attack, and now a weapon is once again brandished in her face. A detective downplays what happened to her, saying she is “lucky” that she was only raped and not also killed.
When she returns to work a week after, her boss, fully aware of what she endured, expresses annoyance that she took time off
This is about the best treatment she gets from the police. A few months after the rapes, when she calls the precinct to ask about her case, an annoyed cop brushes her off. She is summoned to the police station exactly once, to give fingerprints. While she’s there, a police dog won’t stop barking; the officer taking her fingerprints jokes of the animal: “Just like a woman, can’t keep her mouth shut.” “I am now certain they will never find the men who raped me,” Bowdler writes of this moment. “They probably won’t even look.” Years later she learns that her rape kit was never tested.
The book serves as a catalog of the callousness and disrespect with which Bowdler’s rapes were treated by those in power. When she returns to work a week after, her boss, fully aware of what she endured, expresses annoyance that she took time off.
The tangle of public and private aid programs for rape victims turns out to be something she, traumatized and disoriented, does not always have the wherewithal to navigate, even when she meets the overly stringent qualification requirements. She feels purposeless, alienated from her former self, and unable to concentrate. With no one to tell her that these are common responses to sexual violence, she sees her malaise as a personal failure. “I didn’t blame the rapists or the police for my unrecognizable life,” she writes. “I blamed myself.”
For about four years she drifts, crippled by PTSD and overwhelmed by simple tasks. She can’t work much, so she takes a series of low-responsibility gigs. “I worked temp jobs so that I had enough money to pay my rent and buy myself food and be around my friends,” she says. “I just sort of made time pass.”
Bowdler is acutely aware that her experience was devastating but by no means uncommon. The book catalogs the systemic failures of police to properly investigate rape cases, and the way that the disregard Bowdler experienced compounded her own pain - another injustice and an obstacle to healing. This disparity – between the way the rapes savaged her life, and the almost flippant apathy of law enforcement – is the book’s most haunting message.
Asked what kind of response she would have preferred, Bowdler is equivocal. “I was very clear in the book that I am not pro-carceral; I would be mortified if people didn’t understand that,” she says. What she wants is not necessarily more incarceration for perpetrators as much as seriousness in the police inquiry, and a recognition that government bodies in part “create” rights by whether they enforce them. “Being seen for the severity of what’s happened to you is actually very, very important and helpful to healing,” she says, citing the work of the PTSD researcher Judith Herman.
Bowdler refuses the neat resolutions that others want to place on rape stories
If this sounds like a familiar message, allow me to assure you that Is Rape a Crime? is a unique intervention in the memoir and social justice genres. Bowdler is an uncommonly gifted writer. She is thoughtful even when describing horrible wrongs; lucid and captivating even when describing the sort of psychic pain that typically eludes words.
Is Rape a Crime? is also, in part, a critique of the conventions of the “rape story”. Bowdler does not want her life reduced to her rape – she has since gone on to work in public health, marry a woman she met in the field and raise children, and her life is more expansive and joyful than it was in the aftermath of the attack. But she also refuses the neat resolutions that others want to place on rape stories. As we talk, Bowdler never once raises her voice, or seems to be speaking, as angry people sometimes do, to some other, absent party. But her anger transcends her calm.
As I listened, I realized that there are cultural narratives about rape that I had unthinkingly accepted: that a woman should either be permanently and irreparably damaged by an attack, in order to have the seriousness of what was done to her underscored, or completely emotionally triumphant, so as to have her dignity restored. Bowdler refuses to be either meek victim or feelgood survivor. She insists on having the gravity of rape and the fullness of her self acknowledged.
If that makes people uncomfortable, that might be a good thing. “I’ve gotten reviews that talk about how challenging the book is,” Bowdler says. “I find that interesting. Because being raped is challenging. And then living in a world that is misogynistic and minimizing of sexual violence is challenging. People’s fear about the book is the very reason they should read it.”
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist