The Facts of the Matter

Monday, October 22, 2012

Editors' Note: When we received this anonymous nonfiction submission it caused quite a stir. One staff member insisted we call the New Haven, Ct., police immediately to report the twentieth-century crime it recounts. But first, we figured out by the mailing address that the author was someone whose work had been solicited for TriQuarterly. Other questions remained. What animal was this? A memoir? Essay? Craft essay? Fictional autobiography? Should we publish it with an introduction, a warning—and what should we say? The author later labeled it “meta-nonfiction.” We thought it was worth publishing for the issues it raises. We realize that because the piece refers to sexual assault, it might trigger a trauma reaction in some people, and for that reason certain readers may choose not to continue reading. For others—please do read it all the way through, including the ending note from TriQuarterly and the author. We welcome your thoughtful reactions.

The Facts of the Matter

Here is how it happened: The door to the suite was open that night when I walked past and saw her splayed across a couch, one foot on the floor, one leg hooked over an arm rest. I was coming in from a party. Two a.m., or three. The fabric of her skirt curled around her legs like smoke or like the drapery in Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which I’d seen just the week before in Vince Scully’s art history class. I stepped in—to see if she was all right. That is what I told myself. Her head was canted back at a disturbing angle against the cushion; it looked as if her neck might be snapped. I touched her leg. Said something, maybe asked if she was okay. Got no reply. I set my hand on her calf, intending to wake her, but she didn’t wake, and something about the smooth skin under my palm made me sit down and leave my hand there. And then, because I knew she wouldn’t mind, because I knew she wouldn’t know, I stayed.

These are the facts of the matter: Twenty years ago—because the opportunity arose, because no one would know, not even the girl unconscious on the dorm-room couch—I took advantage of a girl I liked. At the time I didn’t think of it as rape. I thought that things had gotten a little out of hand. There had been a party at the Taft Hotel that night, hosted by a popular history professor, and someone had seriously spiked the punch. We were all pretty smashed, in her case to unconsciousness. She was a gorgeous girl, someone I knew only slightly, from a huge art history lecture course and our residential college. We had not spoken at the party that night, though I’d seen her there; she was the sort of girl you noticed across a room, beautiful that way, what my dad liked to call “a long, tall drink of water.” In the convoluted logic of the drunken and ashamed, the fact that we had not spoken at the party made what happened seem more acceptable because it was more remote, not something I had anticipated or worked to further. The act itself was fast and furtive as porn.

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“Don’t tell me what you feel,” essayist Barbara Hurd has said, “tell me what you think.” So I am thinking about the facts of that night, and whether facts matter to a story such as mine. Were I to tell you details—her hair color, the color of the couch, its texture (which I still recall, as, curiously, I still recall the poster over the couch), would that matter? Were I to tell you that we were both in Davenport College, known at the time for housing wealthy heirs to vacuum and candy fortunes, legacy kids, which I was not, would it change how you’d read this and me? Would this become a “class narrative,” an account of a scholarship kid’s misguided effort to exorcise his rage?

Would it matter to know my name, my race, or hers, or is a piece of nonfiction more potent for not knowing who I am, for not being able to make this personal, singular, my problem, not yours? Is it discretion not to reveal more of the facts, protecting her identity, or am I merely protecting my own? How much telling is a factual tale, and how much telling is too much? (Does it matter that I’ve never told anyone this?)

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Twenty years later, I am a professor at a good writing program in the Midwest, and though I do not often think of it, I do—sometimes—imagine fucking one of my students. It happens only once or twice a year. I consider this a modest achievement. Friends at other universities—GW, Harvard—tell me about wanting to fuck their undergrads all the time. These are guys a decade or two older than I am, in their fifties and sixties, who mistake the innocent flirtation of nubile twenty-year olds for erotic interest. (I have a seventeen-year-old stepdaughter, so I know better. She talks about skanky old guys who hit on her and her friends.)

I feel attracted, sure, but I wouldn’t act on it. It’s not done anymore. But I understand why it once was. These girls are smart and eager, and even if what they are eager for is life, approval, knowledge, not sex, the buzz can feel the same. I know one guy—famous fiction writer—who says that in his day there were certain undergraduates who considered sleeping with a professor part of getting a liberal education. Who am I to disagree? (Though I do note that he was asked to leave his last tenured post on account of having taken one too many students up on this, so perhaps the interest was not always reciprocated.)

I know plenty of smart, well-educated, sensitive guys, good guys, who talk about women as cunts, about booty calls and getting pussy. They are, in all likelihood, overcompensating for having been nerdy skinny guys in high school and college, as I was, but still. These are the facts.

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It’s become fashionable lately to question the importance of facts in works of creative nonfiction. “In our hunger for all things true,” David Shields says in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, “we make facts irrelevant.” Given that any narrative involves a selection of details and thus a distortion of sorts, facts—so the argument goes—aren’t important. As long as an account tells the truth—psychologically, emotionally—facts aren’t required.

The thoughtful, erudite writer Robert Atwan, series editor of the Best American Essays, recently questioned the necessity of facts to creative nonfiction at a conference in Manhattan, where he spoke in praise of “the literary art of fabrication,” noting that great novelists (Maugham and Nabokov among them) have often composed novels in the guise of first-person memoirs, making “us aware of how indistinct the boundaries between the two [forms] can be.”

Atwan asked his audience, “Is it possible that a piece of personal writing can be grounded in fiction and still be considered an essay? If some determined graduate student conclusively discovered that [E .B.] White never owned a pig, should we consider [White’s essay] ‘Death of a Pig’ a short story?. . . Is all that separates an autobiographical essay from a story fidelity to fact?” For many, facts are not crucial to a work of  literary nonfiction: “Even if [the facts are] invented,” Atwan asks, “what difference would it make to the reader?”

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I could lie and tell you that I’m sorry about that night; I could tell you that I think about the girl on the couch with regret, or something like it. Would it matter if it were true? Would it matter if I accurately recalled for you the split-level apartment at the Taft Hotel where the party was held, the enormous arched window that looked out on New Haven green, the Jim Dine painting that hung above a staircase (of a red coat floating eerily on a black background), or the way the early morning air felt against my face and hands as I walked home along Chapel Street, back to our residential college, where I’d find the girl on the couch? Would it matter if the salt tang of the air that morning seemed to contain within it youth with all its promise and untarnished expectation for the future? Would it matter if I saw her the next day at Wawa’s—the corner grocery—but pretended not to? She looked pale in a navy pea coat, and her hands shook when she emptied coins onto the counter, though maybe I misremember this and am conflating someone else’s hands with hers (I couldn’t have been close enough to see her hands—I kept my distance among the racks of chips and candy, the enormous pickle barrel). Maybe the hands I’m remembering are my own.

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Lately I notice my students struggle with certain parts of speech; they have trouble with conjunctions and certain verbs. Not one or two students, but en masse, as if it were a flu going around. A particularly virulent bug.

They have particular difficulty with the verb “to lie,” which confuses them: I lay (past tense); I laid it on the table (transitive); they had lain together (past participle).

They no longer seem to know how to use prepositions, those small but useful parts of speech that clarify the relations among people and things (in, on, between, across). And increasingly, I find myself correcting these in their papers—not just obscure ones (e.g., enamored of, not with) but the more common and obvious and crucial. (A movie marquis in my college town last year advertised Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs showing at Nov. 11”—as if time were a place.) Though small, prepositions matter: to laugh at, as any child knows, is not the same as to laugh with; to experiment with is not the same as to experiment on.

I wonder what it means, if anything, that we’ve lost the knack of prepositions and how to properly employ the verb “to lie.” I wonder about the significance of such lexical slips—what, if anything, it signifies that as a culture we seem collectively to be losing our grasp, losing our footing, to have come unmoored in language.

To say “I lie with you” is not—after all—the same as to say “I lie to you.”

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Here’s the thing about that night: it did not change how I saw myself. (Gordon Lish used to ask his students to describe a moment when their behavior changed who they thought they were; to my surprise, that night did not.) Maybe it should have affected me more, should have been a “decisive moment,” to borrow Cartier-Bresson’s phrase. I do not know how it affected her, the girl on the couch. I rarely saw her and only later heard that she dropped out of Yale at the end of sophomore year; she has become one of those whom even Google cannot recall from obscurity. Perhaps she married, changed her name. I can say—because I can say it anonymously here—that it was a pleasure. Strange. Rare. Like fugu. A risk that leaves the lips tingling.

I have not repeated the experience. Nor would I seek to do. Nor, evidently, am I alone. “In one influential American study,” writes University of London historian Joanna Bourke, “one in every three men attending college reported that they would rape a woman if they were guaranteed that they would not be caught. One in every four admitted to actually having made a forceful attempt at sexual intercourse that caused observable distress (crying, screaming, fighting, or pleading) to a woman.”

I find these statistics disturbing, and comforting.

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If an account purports to be true, does it matter if it is?

It matters to some: In July 2010, the Guardian newspaper reported that a Palestinian man in Israel had been convicted of rape after having had consensual sex with a woman who had believed him to be a fellow Jew. The accused man was sentenced to eighteen months in prison after the court ruled that he was guilty of rape by deception. There was no question that the pair had engaged in consensual sex; the crime was that he had lied to her about who he was and what he wanted. When the two met in Jerusalem in 2008, the man said he was a Jewish bachelor seeking a serious relationship; he turned out to be an Arab from East Jerusalem. When the woman discovered the truth, she filed criminal charges for rape and indecent assault. In a plea bargain, the charge was changed to rape by deception.

A lie can be a violation, a forced entry, a kind of rape.

Of course you could read the story in other ways—politically (as indicative of the oppression of a minority at the hands of a majority), conventionally (as affirming, with a new twist, that old saw “Hell hath no fury like . . .”), or psychologically (was she was angered by his misrepresentation of identity or by his misrepresentation of intention?—he said he wanted a serious relationship).

But what interests me is the larger question the story raises: Does it matter if what gets us into bed (or into a book) is a lie? If the “factual” story we’re being told and sold is not, in truth, fact—but a fiction?

I am struck by the language of Judge Segal in the case, which—if one considers the bond between reader and author to be as intimate as that between lovers—seems relevant to the debate over facts in literary nonfiction as well: “The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims. . . . When the very basis of trust between human beings drops, especially when the matters at hand are so intimate, sensitive and fateful, the court is required to stand firmly at the side of the victims—actual and potential—to protect their well-being. Otherwise, they will be used, manipulated and misled . . .”

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It is interesting that writers of creative nonfiction have become so at ease with lying, so uninterested in truth, at a time when our government is obsessed with obtaining the truth through increased surveillance, interrogation of suspects, data mining. “Credibility assessment” has become a watchword in the paranoiac post-9/11 era, a governmental goal, while artists—at least in the realm of literary nonfiction—seem to be increasingly sanguine about lying. I would like to imagine this is a response to government surveillance, resistance to the loss of privacy, but it seems instead to be a shrug. A capitulation. Truth is left to those who want to make use of it. We are happy to play with our words. Indifferent to the facts of the matter.

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Of course, Robert Atwan is right that we have at our disposal a wide variety of literary forms—the short story, the novel, the yarn, the tale, the sketch—that offer us a chance to represent as fact that which has been imagined. And certainly one may “essay” a subject without recourse to fact, since to essai—to return to the word’s French root—means simply to weigh or test, thus describing an action, a mode of thought, not an obligation to factuality. But when we call a literary work nonfiction, no matter how heavily we lean on that modifying adjective creative, we are trafficking in facts, or claiming to, and to pass off fiction as fact is a lie. I can’t help but wonder who is served by such uncertainty, by flexibility when it comes to the facts.

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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, English novelists often toyed with the boundary between fact and fiction by prefacing their novels with claims about their factuality, asserting that they were only editors of someone else’s papers, journals, or oral histories. It was common to disguise a fantastical account (Gulliver’s Travels, say) as factual. Politically things were dicey. Criticism of those in power could get you thrown in jail or worse, so critiques of the powerful often took fictional form to protect their authors from retribution.

It wasn’t until the revision of the Stamp Act of 1724 that factual news—which was taxable—was officially distinguished from untaxable fiction. I like to think there’s a connection between the growing awareness of the difference between fact and fiction that opened the eighteenth century and the democratic revolutions that closed the same age. I like to think that literature might have that much power, and that a frank naming of the facts proved decisive, a turning point, giving rise to previously unimagined liberty.

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Not long after I graduated from Yale, I moved to New York City, where I attended a show at the Whitney on the subject of rape. I went with my then girlfriend, a woman I wanted badly to marry. One of the young female curators of the show wrote in the exhibit catalogue (in the marvelous mandarin fashionable at the time in literary critical circles) of the trouble of writing subjectively about rape, the danger of sensationalizing one’s story, of reinscribing what she called the “rape-ability of women” by narrating one’s own survival of assault. The curator did not say whether she had herself been raped. Instead she wrote of how the artwork selected for the exhibit allowed women to bear witness to the act of rape without personalizing (potentially trivializing) it. She wrote eloquently of the pieces on display.

But what has stayed with me from that show was a collaborative piece in which viewers were invited to participate by reading and writing—on note cards color-coded for age and gender—their own experience with rape. I wrote on a card and placed it in the Plexiglas box for others to read. Not knowing who, if anyone, would. Then I got up and walked away. I did not look back.

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When reports began filtering out of certain villages in the Congo in early August 2010 of gang rapes of women, girls, and boys by members of the Rwandan rebel group the FDLR—just twenty miles from a UN peacekeeping mission—the stories were hard to believe. “We thought at first he was exaggerating,” the program coordinator for the International Medical Corps in North Kivu Province told the New York Times.

The numbers—some reports claimed 136 raped in a single village—strained credulity. Old women and young boys were said to have been raped; wives were raped in front of their husbands and children. Some victims were raped by six men at once.

Could these really be the facts?

A month later, UN investigators discovered that the incredible stories were true; although the numbers were inaccurate, they were not inflated. The actual tally of rapes in the region appears to have been around 500—some 242 people were raped in a single village in just four days.

Perhaps it is only those who are not subject to the consequences who can afford to say that facts don’t matter.

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I wonder if Shields and Atwan would be so cheerfully flexible about the facts if the nonfictions were of another kind, if it were their doctor’s unfactual diagnosis (appendicitis, say) that led to an unnecessary surgery. Would they be as easygoing were it an unfactual accusation that prompted their incarceration for an indefinite period in an undisclosed location by means of extreme rendition? Or a fanciful assessment of an oil spill, disguising vastly greater damage? How about an insurance adjustment that insouciantly undervalued a home destroyed in an all too factual fire?

And if they would not find such nonfictions acceptable, I wonder why they (and we) tolerate the unfactual passed off as fact in our nonfiction art. Is it because we believe that art—that compass of the culture—doesn’t matter as much as medicine or insurance? Or is it because we—like the powerful in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who couldn’t bear to read a frank assessment of their failings, prompting social critics to couch critiques in fictive terms—cannot bear to face the facts, to look in the literary mirror and behold ourselves honestly, truthfully, portrayed? Has creative nonfiction become a form of cultural cosmetic surgery, helping us hide our flaws from ourselves, convincing us that the facts don’t count?

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Does it matter, in an account such as mine, who was raped, under what circumstances? Does it matter if there was a girl, a couch, if there could have been? Would it change things to know that the girl on that couch got pregnant that night (a fact I would only learn years later from her close friend)? Would it matter if in fact the girl was conscious; if when she woke, he finished and left her there and never spoke of it? Would it matter if I were that girl?

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It seems to me a simple matter, this matter of facts: if we fail to recognize a distinction between fact and fiction at this crucial juncture in our American history, when we are still the most powerful nation ever to have existed on earth (if arguably in decline), if we fail to recognize that there are facts (global warming, extreme rendition, gang rape, torture, “collateral damage,” civilian casualties, “friendly fire”), if instead we capitulate to the logic of the PR man and maintain that a convincing story is as good as fact, that personal or aesthetic truth is equivalent to a factual account, and that facts are (in fact) rather old-fashioned, distastefully earnest (or as David Shields would have it, “irrelevant”), we will be, it seems to me—like that girl unconscious on that couch so very many years ago—fucked.

 

Postscript

This piece was written by a woman. How does that change your reaction, if at all?

The author notes:

The point of the piece is that we should be disturbed by fictions posing as facts in creative nonfiction; we should be horrified by the glibness with which some contemporary creative nonfiction writers are willing to pass off fictions as fact, to fuck over the reader, to seduce with lies; I’m all for lies in literature, but there’s a form for that—fiction. Nonfiction can include invention and imagination as well, of course, but we owe it to the reader to signal where such invention begins, as Maxine Hong Kingston does by using the third-person omniscient point of view in a chapter of her memoir Woman Warrior, or as Lee Martin does in his memoir From Our House, when he says, “I’m free to imagine the day any way I like…”  My piece is meant to be shocking, in hopes that it will shock us into thinking harder about what we’re accepting when we say that facts no longer matter in CNF, or to us.

1. The post-party rape happened to a friend’s sister(s), as did the pregnancy(ies); this happened twice, to two women at two different college parties.

2. I was assaulted, but not in this way; I attended that particular party at Yale, but as a woman, not a man.

3. The comments by male professors are by and large verbatim. Their institutional affiliations have been changed, but are comparable.

4. The museum trip post graduation, the quotes from Shields and Atwan and Hurd, the legal case in Israel, the rapes in the Congo, the history of the Stamp Act, my meditations on slippage in language are all (alas) true, so the body of the piece is fact, but do we care if one part of it is “fiction” for the sake of “art”? I think we do; I think we should. To confuse the reader about the facts in nonfiction is to disorient the reader, unmoor him or her and thus the culture—we lose the ability to meaningfully respond to actual facts if we begin to doubt their veracity. It seems to me no coincidence that this preference for blurring those lines attends the rise of American empire and facts about our democracy that perhaps we’d rather not consider too closely (torture in the name of democracy, for instance).

5. But the narrator is an invention, ventriloquism, a composite, a meta-nonfiction intended to point up the absurdity and real horror of playing with facts in nonfiction; when there are stakes (e.g., rape of a student, rape in the Congo), as there always should be in art, we cannot afford to be glib about claiming fictions are facts, as I fear we too often are now (whether D’Agata, Shields, or Cheney on WMDs in Iraq, etc.).

What do you think, dear reader? Continue the conversation here.

—S. L. Wisenberg, Literary Editor, TriQuarterly

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Update: In May 2012, the same month that this piece was submitted to TriQuarterly, it was also, unbeknownst to us, published in the anthology Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction

The author did not inform TriQuarterly that the piece was published. We learned this on October 23rd, when Metawritings editor Jill Talbot wrote to us. Please note that TriQuarterly does not publish previously published work. This violation of our editorial policy was the result of the author's intent, not our own. We considered removing the essay but we decided to keep it because of the useful controversy it has generated about both anonymity and the boundaries of nonfiction. Talbot spoke about both when Ryan Van Meter interviewed her in Bookslut in July. She explained that in the anthology, the author of the essay is anonymous, yet in the same book she is identified in an interview. Because of the nature and reach of the web, the piece has engendered much comment online, which is another topic in itself.

—S. L. Wisenberg