Relationships

Andrea Dworkin’s Last Rape

By John Stoltenberg

Soon after Andrea and I met in 1974 she began to let me know about her history of battery and rape. I had never spoken with anyone to whom such things had happened. Or maybe I had, but no one before had trusted me to hear. This new knowledge learned from Andrea shook me to the core. I realised my life had to change. I had to take responsibility for what I now knew.

The public and political form of that responsibility included a dramatic shift in what I wrote and why. Since college I wanted to be a playwright. When Andrea first got to know me, I was working in an experimental theatre company. She and I were introduced by its artistic director, a mutual friend. Impelled by my new knowledge—about men’s rapacious capacity to enact their misogyny through violence against women—I stopped writing plays and started writing non-fiction, to figure out who I was, who I had to become, and what I had to do now that I knew what men as men do to women.

The personal form of that responsibility included Andrea’s and my private life together. A priority was safety and security, at home and wherever she or we went. She was vulnerable as a recognisable public figure who encountered haters because of what she stood for. She was also vulnerable to insults and assaults simply because she was a woman. One day she came home distraught and told me she had just fought off some young men who accosted her as she was walking on a nearby street and tried to force her into a van. A friend at a local rape crisis centre told her later that women had come in reporting having been raped inside such vans, their rapes videotaped. This was not the only near-miss during our life together. I always knew that her terrible history of male-pattern sexual violence—the lived knowledge that she wrote from to help other women—could at any moment resume.

One day it did.

In May 1999 Andrea went to Paris. She had just completed her monumental book Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation. Researching and writing it had consumed her for nine years. The work included immersion in Holocaust literature and had been so draining it caused her health to suffer. She needed a break badly. She wanted to take a vacation in Paris, a city she loved. She wanted to fly first-class and stay in a five-star hotel. I objected because we couldn’t afford it, but she persuaded me: this was what she most wanted to do; this was what she needed to be safe; her life mattered more than money. When I saw her off, I wanted more than anything for her to be okay.

She was. She was happy there; we spoke daily by phone and she told me. She took long walks. She saw art. She began writing a new book. She was resting and replenishing what she had sacrificed for Scapegoat.

Then one day she called in a state of alarm and agitation. She told me she thought she had been raped. In the hotel. While she was blacked out from a drugged drink. She sounded beside herself with confusion and distress. I tried to think fast and calm her. I said she should call her gynaecologist, whose phone number I would get her. She didn’t want to deal with authorities because she didn’t speak French, so I told her she should fly back home immediately on the first flight she could get.

The experience had shattered her. She struggled to recover. She had terrifying nightmares. She consulted two therapists. She went on anti-anxiety meds. Her health declined further.

For Andrea, writing was always a way to understand what she otherwise could not, so I was relieved when soon after the Paris ordeal she told me she had begun to write about it. Months later she showed me a first-person essay she was going to submit to the New Statesman titled “The day I was drugged and raped.” When I read it I was troubled. I recognised the veracity of everything in it, but I was fearful that this pubic disclosure would hurt her. I was uneasy that it said “John looked for any other explanation than rape” (which was true) but did not mention why (because I desperately did not want her to have been raped again), so it seemed to say I did not believe her. But I also recognized this was an instance when the last thing I should do was suggest editorial amendments or be a filter. If only for the sake of her healing process, Andrea needed to speak aloud what she wanted to say, on her own terms. So on June 5, 2000, about a year and one month after she was drug-raped, the piece as she wrote it was published.

Neither Andrea nor I anticipated the disbelieving, dismissive, and derisive attacks that followed—a contemptuous cacophony that accused her of, among other things, concocting the story to get attention. As I knew her to be tormented daily by ongoing and worsening physic and physical symptoms resulting from the trauma, I was shocked and angered by this ridiculing reaction. Not only did it bear no relationship to her reality, it also exacerbated her pain. I thought the attackers – all women – should be ashamed.

In the last years of Andrea’s life, the dark cloud that had hovered since Paris slowly lifted and let in light. Her fighting spirit was reclaimed, our troubled times were behind us, we were closer than ever, and she was working again. She wrote and published Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant. Though she could no longer accept speaking engagements, because she was unable to travel (due to bone disease, as she describes in “Through the pain barrier”), at the time of her death in April 2005 she was deep into researching and writing what would have been her fourteenth book.

It was many months after Andrea died before I felt emotionally ready to look through her computer. There were no surprises, nothing I would not have expected to find, except a manuscript I did not know existed. The text file had last been last closed and date-stamped August 30, 1999—about three months after her drug rape in Paris. I took a look, realised quickly it was about that anguish, saw it was dedicated to J.S. (me) and E.M. (Elaine Markson, her dear friend and agent)—and promptly put it aside. I could not bring myself to read it. I could not bear to revisit that painful time.

As months then years went by and my grief became not so constant, I realised that whatever emotional reaction I was avoiding, I really had a responsibility to read that piece. When I braced myself and finally did, I was overwhelmed and awed. Because what I discovered was a 24,000-word autobiographical essay, composed in twelve impassioned sections, as powerful and beautifully written as anything she ever wrote. It was searingly personal, fierce and irreverent, mordantly witty, emotionally raw. It was also clearly not a draft; it was finished, polished as if for publication. And I understood why she did not show it to me or Elaine. She had to have known it would devastate us. Because she had written it in the form of a suicide note.

Obviously it wasn’t an actual suicide note, or at least didn’t turn out to be. She lived on after completing it, kept to an intense writing schedule, and died in her sleep of what an autopsy determined was heart inflammation. But in choosing to write in that form, she found and released language with which to speak in her emotional extremity that gave utterance to the experience of being a drug-rape survivor as no other major writer has ever done.

Andrea designated me to be her literary executor, a responsibility that now included deciding whether she intended that manuscript to be published. Clearly she wrote it for her own sake, to excavate and exorcise her pain by shaping it into language through the agency of her art. But I honestly did not know whether she meant it to be in the world.

One day when I was rereading it, my theatre background kicked in and something about the writing struck me. I noticed that the text read like an extended dramatic monologue or monodrama, like the script of an indelible solo theatre piece. And I began imagining that a live performance of the work could be a way for Andrea’s words to be heard. By a live audience, aloud on stage. In a way that would fully honor and honestly express the passion from which she wrote.

The process took several years. Finally in early May 2014 the piece, now titled Aftermath, was performed six times in New York City in the Willa Cather Room of the Jefferson Market Library. The text was entirely by Andrea (the original manuscript cut by half to run 90 minutes). The director and dramaturg was Adam Thorburn, a longtime friend and collaborator. The performer was a phenomenally gifted actor, Maria Silverman.

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Maria Silverman in Aftermath by Andrea Dworkin.

Audiences were intensely engaged. Night after night in post-show talkbacks there was overwhelming sentiment that the piece should go on. From those talkbacks it was clear that the performance spoke both to people who knew Andrea (and/or her work) and to people who had never heard of her. A post-performance online survey asked audience members to say what the piece was for them and meant to them. Here are some responses:

“The writing was painful, poetic, incisive. The actress was superb.”

“It was intense, painful, occasionally funny, and incredibly worthwhile.”

“Moving, touching, gut wrenching in the best way, brilliant writing, superlative performance, beautifully directed…wanting more!”

“It blew me away. So full of deep truths, so beautifully written, so powerfully performed. I thought it was fantastic.”

“This was incredibly moving. As honest and powerful as anything I had heard in a long time.”

Aftermath has since been accepted into the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York City, where it will be performed in fall 2014. I am seeking other circumstances in which audiences in the U.S., and someday around the world, can have the powerful experience of Aftermath.

At each step in putting this theater project together, I have wished I could talk with Andrea about it. I would want to tell her how the words she showed no one are now reaching and affecting audiences in live performance.

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After a performance of Aftermath by Andrea Dworkin (from left): John Stoltenberg, Adam Thorburn, Maria Silverman, Gloria Steinem. Photograph by Jackie Rudin.

As an author Andrea was always an artist, and Aftermath as literature is no exception. The writing is stirring throughout and ranges dramatically over many themes—her aspirations when she was young, her erotic and romantic relationships, the marriage in which she was battered, her understanding of the connection between Jews and women, her take on President Clinton’s behavior, her deep commitment to helping women, her critique of women who betray women. The fact that Aftermath is acted means audiences get to hear an emotional dimensionality in Andrea’s voice that in life she shared only with me and her closest friends—trenchant and oracular as the public knew her but also tender, sardonic, sorrowful, vulnerable, funny.

Andrea also always wanted her art to be of use. To matter, to make a difference. So I would want to let her know that through Aftermath her fearless, unfiltered articulation of her solitary anguish in the aftermath of being drug-raped is now touching other survivors of sexual abuse, female and male—helping them come to terms with what is incomprehensible and unspeakable about their own experience, helping them not feel so alone in it.

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To receive updates about Aftermath: The Andrea Dworkin Theater Project, like its Facebook page. For tickets to the United Solo run in New York City, click here. For production inquiries, email media2change@gmail.com.

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John Stoltenberg’s essays include “Living With Andrea Dworkin” (1994) and “Imagining Life Without Andrea” (2005). For Feminist Times’ #GenderWeek, he recently wrote “Andrea Was Not Transphobic.” He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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