May
26th 2010
Violence, rape, and class

Posted under: American history, art, childhood, class, Gender, Intersectionality, race, unhappy endings, women's history

For those of you following yesterday’s discussion about the so-called “paradox” between class privilege and rage, you might want to check out this week’s New Yorker (May 31, 2010).  Jonathan Franzen has a story, “Agreeable,”about a teen-aged jock in the 1970s who is raped.  In addition to a thoughtful exploration of how the girl would have experienced the rape and its aftermath, it is also a perfect illustration of how class works to suppress the reporting and prosecution of crimes by privileged men.

I will just add that I’m a huge fan of Franzen.  The Corrections is my favorite novel of the past decade.  It was one of those books that my husband and I fought over while we were reading it–one of us was always angling to snatch it out of the other one’s hands so that ze could run off and read it.  Neither of us could refrain from cackles of gleeful recognition while it was in our possession, because we found it so hilarious.  I realize that opinions vary widely on Franzen, especially after the Oprah Winfrey debacle, but I think he captures precisely a particular middle-class experience of adolescence and young adulthood in the last half of the twentieth century.  (And besides:  the hero is a hapless academic who stages his own spectacular career flameout.  Who among you could resist?  What’s not to love?)

12 Comments »

12 Responses to “Violence, rape, and class”

  1. Mariella on 26 May 2010 at 10:30 pm #

    Thank you for posting this. About the Franzen piece: I missed the part about the 1970s– this is all too real an explanation of how things work in Chappaqua, NY and its surrounding wealthy suburbs today. Except the details about the mom’s career: She would probably be either a doctor, lawyer or a financial executive. Also, there would be a nanny involved. And the young woman would, I hate to say it, likely be uncomfortable defending her “virginity.” When all the “cool kids” are doing it, it’s not cool anymore to talk about retaining it. The conversation would turn more to whether or not she really wanted the sex.

  2. Historiann on 27 May 2010 at 7:40 am #

    Mariella–the story doesn’t say explicitly when it was set, but the author makes a passing comment of the mother’s interest in Dem politics being spurred by the election of JFK, and that it served to get her out of the house full of 4 kids. So, that would make Patty, the main character, someone who was born in the late 50s. Franzen usually makes his protagonists born pretty close to his own age (early 50s now, so born in the late 50s).

    But, I wonder if Franzen isn’t explicit because the story he tells about rape could have been set in the 1930s, the 1970s, or today. Sadly, it seems even liklier to happen this way today, given the fact that we now (as a culture) regard the accusation of rape as a bigger crime than rape. Thanks, Kobe Bryant and Pamela Mackey!

  3. truffula on 27 May 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    Thanks for the link, Historiann. It’s a remarkably sensitive portrayal of the additional traumas that can be heaped upon a rape survivor by everybody around her, even those who are well meaning, and of the internal conflict that comes from trying to understand “what to do about it.” I know first hand what that feels like and I appreciate that Franzen wove so many of those threads into the story.

  4. Historiann on 27 May 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    I’m sorry you have familiarity with the issues in Franzen’s story, truffula. I too thought it was well done, and what a surprise to find it in The New Yorker.

  5. I’ve Put This Off for Far Too Long « The Word according to an Acadict on 27 May 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    [...] shall direct you particularly to this post by Historiann which features a piece of short fiction by Jonathan Franzen. Historiann says: In [...]

  6. quixote on 28 May 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    I read the story, which is excellent. It’s heartening that a male writer has enough human feeling to understand the situation so well.

    And yet…. Part of me is heartbroken and furious that the New Yorker couldn’t find it in them to tell a woman’s story in a woman’s voice.

  7. Historiann on 30 May 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    You know, quixote, I had the same thought. It matters to them that it was written by a brand name like Franzen. Everyone else on the masthead for writing features this week is a man, except for Patricia Marx, who writes exclusively about *shopping*. Yes, you read that correctly: shopping.

  8. Mark Hudis on 30 May 2010 at 5:23 pm #

    While it’s true Patricia Marx writes about shopping, as she often does for The New Yorker, she also contributes some of its funniest Shouts & Murmurs pieces and is probably my second favorite female comedy writer, second only to you, Historiann.

  9. Historiann on 30 May 2010 at 6:38 pm #

    Hey, Mark Hudis–where were you this weekend?

    Who told you about this blog?

  10. Gayle Force on 31 May 2010 at 11:00 am #

    I just read the story, and was impressed, because, uh, I usually dislike Jonathan Franzen. But it was thoughtful, and nuanced, and the story never doubted the young woman, which I was afraid it would (Franzen likes to build up characters to then uncomfortably dissect and destroy them – I didn’t like The Corrections, clearly).

    But it was obviously written by a dude. Because if it was set in the 1970′s, there had been no real consciousness-raising around rape. Not the way there has been now (I mean, acquaintance rape? Not usually discussed, then). It is pretty doubtful that the young woman would have immediately identified what happened to her as, “rape.” That word doesn’t spontaneously jump into anyone’s mouth – it’s a hard one to own, usually. Most young women, well, we don’t use the word rape at all after we are, let alone go around telling all the adults we don’t really trust about it.

    I don’t know – that part just wrong kinda false for me. Especially after being raped twice – it just didn’t seem to be true to the character of a 17 year old girl in the ’70′s.

  11. Anon on 31 May 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    Wow. Thanks for sharing. It hit home to me, big time – my father gave me more or less the same advice about a much older man (who was a Lieutenant Commander when I was a Midshipman) repeatedly sexually harassing and assaulting me. Dad told me that if I took it to our superiors within the Navy, it would be his word against mine, and “the fact that you’re female would make you believed over him, but the fact that he outranks you will make him believed over you”. I know the second part of that to be true, so I heeded his advice – these days, I doubt the first part.

    Dad told me that the best thing for me to do would be to avoid him. So I did. Which meant I didn’t go to meals for the rest of that year.

  12. hysperia on 06 Jun 2010 at 12:01 am #

    Here’s a review piece written by Franzen in The New York Times. I heard some interesting echoes in the two pieces of writing:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Franzen-t.html?pagewanted=1&ref=books