Ed. note: explicit descriptions of rape and sexual violence
Men are the blank space in every rape story. The rapist can never bear witness to himself, or at least never as a rapist, and so instead the stories men tell about rape involve erasing themselves from someone else’s narrative. Owen Labrie, a New Hampshire prep school student who was put on trial for rape and avoided the most serious charges, testified that he decided not to continue his sexual encounter with a 15-year-old freshman even after having put a condom. He attributed it to “divine inspiration” instead of what prosecutor Catherine Ruffle described as “her physical conduct to let him know this was not okay.” Through this kind of thinking, rape becomes not a victimless crime but a criminal-less one.
In her introduction to Les Sussman’s and Sally Bordwell’s The Rapist File, a collection of interviews with convicted rapists, Ellen Frankfort reported a shock at discovering that “a majority of rapists interviewed here consider their actions neither violent nor extreme.” Many of the interview subjects, including Sal, a 36-year-old serving a 25-year sentence for murder and attempted murder, said they didn’t think of themselves as rapists. “You might say it’s crazy,” Sal said, “but I think of myself as a lover of women.”
The criminal memoir is as popular now as it’s ever been, from Noel “Razor” Smith’s memoir of South London criminal living A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun to Glenn Langhor’s bestselling Caught in The Crossfire: Life in Lockdown, which recounts his work with the Mexican Mafia and Hell’s Angels and his violent years in prison. Yet when the subject is rape, the work of public reckoning is almost always done by the attacked, never the attacker. From Jana Leo’s Rape New York to Ashley Warner’s The Year After: A Memoir, an Amazon search for rape memoir returns hundreds of results but almost none by men who have raped. Should rapists write memoirs too? Are they even capable of it?
There are a few examples we can consider. In 2011, Wannakuwattemitwaduge Lloyd Nirmaleen Fernando published a memoir that recounted his 1996 rape of Dutch woman living in Perth, Australia, a crime for which he was convicted and imprisoned until 2003. The account is an antagonistic exercise in victim-blaming, alleging his target had seduced him on the train where they met and had planned the entire charge around being given criminal compensation from the Australian government. “There is only one victim,” he wrote, “and it is Fernando.” The book was later banned in Australia for violating the country’s laws prohibiting convicted rapists from publicly disclosing the identity of someone who has registered a sex crime complaint without their consent.
William Golding wrote an unpublished memoir late in life in which he admitted to, at age 18, having attempted to rape a 15-year-old girl to whom he gave piano lessons. John Carey found the manuscript in Golding’s personal papers and included parts of it in his biography, William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies. Golding described the girl as “depraved by nature” and “sexy as an ape,” but when he attempted to kiss her she pulled away and soon they were “wrestling like enemies.” Golding bluntly admits he “unhandily tried to rape her,” but the confession is framed as self-deprecating, a punchline about what a bumbling failure of a rapist he’d been.
The most notable is Kenneth Paul Rogers’ For One Sweet Grape, published by Playboy Press in 1974 and now out of print. Twenty-nine-year-old Rogers was arrested in Illinois on Christmas day in 1969 for murdering his wife Wilma Worthen and raping and murdering her friend Barbara Case. Rogers was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of 75 to 100 years, and the following year was given a third sentence when police discovered he’d raped and murdered 13-year-old Lisa Levering the previous summer.
The book is by turns hallucinatory, nauseating, literary and wildly self-indulgent, even its title, taken from Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, is at once erudite and graceless. In a section on his parents, Rogers writes impressionist fragments that read like free association poetry. “Muscles and hair, anger, despair. Daddy had a stick and taught me to need it. Daddy had Mommy and subtly taught me to need her. Daddy died.” Another section describes Rogers’ childhood as a surrealist stageplay. A later section recounts an early date with Wilma and her three-year-old daughter from another relationship as if it were science fiction. “An Angie angel’s arms reach up to me, and my hands enfold her minibody and I lift her from the car machine.”
Rogers had been a serial rapist throughout his life, beginning at 14 when he pressed a nail clipper into the back of a teen girl at a lake and forced her into the bushes. Immediately after, he recounts an inescapable paranoia about other people discovering his crime. “My soul became crud-unto-my-peers. I was a filthy rapist. Fridays were the worst, when eyes stared and voices did whisperings in my direction. Monday mornings they began again, down halls, in classrooms. They knew! Somehow everyone knew!”
Rogers describes his rapes at length and with a one-sided vacuity that can make them seem almost pornographic. “I can smell her, and I can feel her bone upon my erection and her breasts pushing against my chest, and her face close to mine is woman face and I am insane. ‘Kiss me.’” The book is filled with this kind of rhapsodic exuberance, capturing how absent Rogers’ victims are to him. They are never people, but assemblages of hyper-romanticized parts—hands, breasts, pubic hair, mouths, lips, thighs—all of which seem to move independently of one another, like small animals. He calls his targets by dissociative labels—“Perfection,” “Softness,” and “A+” for a college student he briefly dates.
One of the book’s most valuable qualities is its depiction of how the threat of violence is enough to produce a kind of self-protective acquiescence from his victims. “If—you make—one sound, I’ll—kill you. Walk straight ahead,” he tells one woman. Rogers is in most cases aware that this kind of fear response is the opposite of consent, a person so fearful of their attacker they seem to shut down completely, fearing any kind of active engagement might further imperil them. Rogers describes one target, attacked in a field after leaving a public dance together: “She lies alone, looking up at me, watching me. She does not close her legs, nor does she attempt to cover her naked breasts. She watches me dress, hate in her eyes, hate in her eyes, hate in her eyes. Enter—fear! guilt! and panic! Run, boy! Run home! Leave her naked, spread-legged, crotch-bleeding body in the tall weeds in the field, away from the rest of humanity! Hate in her eyes.”
It’s hard to read lines like these without contrasting them to the public numbness of people like Labrie, or most any other man publicly accused of rape. Rogers recognizes his victims should, at the very least, have the right to hate him, and that whatever drives his serial fixation on female anatomy is inseparable from what alienates him from women. Reading it, I kept thinking about my own friends—how all the women I care about who’ve told me stories of having been attacked or raped, and how only one of my male friends has ever even thought about whether they might have been actors in one of these stories.
I’ve started to think that every man I know is probably capable of having raped someone, maybe not in the serially violent ways Rogers describes, but at least having exploited the fog of uncertainty that hangs over sex to take something for themselves from someone else, mentally disengaging from sensitivity to another person’s wishes and feelings in order to “do you.” The measure of rape isn’t dependent on the aggressor having good intentions in the moment—it’s a social rupture driven either by the rapist’s inability to safely recognize the differences between their intentions and another person’s experiences, or a sadism that requires another person’s suffering to defuse itself.
One of the most tragic details in Rogers’ story is that a number of women he raped still seemed open to continuing a relationship with him, seeing his violent outbursts as a part of himself they’d hoped he might one day learn to control. Even after being attacked, they wanted to find value in his humanity. The memoir probably isn’t the ideal form for productively bridging this distance between attacker and attacked, but the paucity of rapist memoirs compared to the overwhelming number of survivor memoirs points to just how much responsibility men continue to duck when someone brings up rape.
In a story about gray-rape cases, Mary Koss, an advocate for the restorative justice approach to treating rape, tells Tove K. Danovich people who’ve been raped “don’t want to ruin a person’s life, but they do want to tell their story. They want to be validated, and believed and seen as legitimate.” There are likely many better ways to accomplish this than to launch a literary sub-genre of rapist memoirs, but few of them can be put into practice without some tradition of men being able to take responsibility for the effects of their actions in public, something that involves not just wallowing in the sentimental shame but actively participating in a process of guilt.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera America, The Washington Post, Guernica and The Paris Review.