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Op-ed: Elisabeth de Mariaffi

On International Women's Day, Memorial's writer-in-residence asks: Whose story is it, anyway?

By Elisabeth de Mariaffi

In working with students on their fiction projects, one of the things I often begin with is the notion of voice: whose story is it, anyway — and who gets to tell it?

In the unreliable narrator trope — long a mainstay of the suspense genre — the character telling the story cannot quite be trusted. Maybe they have amnesia, or a drinking problem. Maybe they are simply vaguely sociopathic. Regardless.

As readers, we have reason to suspect their version of the truth. The trope has in recent years crossed over into literary novels, and with good reason: if the narrator, the owner of the story, cannot be trusted, then the reader is kept more on their toes.

But aside from being a little done-to-death right now, unreliability can also work as a kind of narrative cheat. A way to cut corners on tight pacing, say, or even logical through-lines. Sometimes it’s just a way to excuse lazy thinking on the part of the writer.

International Women’s Day

In the spirit of International Women’s Day, I ask you to consider the ways our cultural obsession with the unreliable narrator extends far beyond the realm of fiction.

By now, you might guess where I am going with this.

“As a culture, we have clung to the myth that women are not reliable narrators of our own experience.”

I want to talk about #MeToo, about women finding our voice at what I hope is the long, slow beginning to a much bigger process of ending the constant threat of violence against women.

Despite the empirical data to the contrary — statistics show only about 2-3 per cent of accusers are lying about sexual assault, a lower percentage than for other felonies — as a culture, we have clung to the myth that women are not reliable narrators of our own experience.

Here, too, the idea of an unreliable narrator is providing us with a cheat. It’s easier to decide that women are lying than it is to face the harder truth: that men, and in many cases men we know and trust, are capable of assault.

All too familiar stories

It’s been a long hard year for women.

Despite the galvanizing force of the #MeToo movement, for many of us, it’s difficult to face a new stream of stories of sexual assault in our news feed every morning. Often, those stories feel too close: the narratives of sexual harassment, sexual assault and abuse of power are familiar to many women.

In my experience, so many stories play out in similar ways. If you’ve been through it, reading those stories can put you back there in a heartbeat. Also familiar is the chorus of counter-accusation, the wall of authority that is working to shout women down.

When the national news coverage focuses on Tina Fontaine’s blood alcohol level, as though the intoxication of a 15-year-old girl could in any way make her murder more allowable, we have a problem. The problem is that we still don’t want to see who is to blame, when a woman is harmed.

That problem is just as much about lazy thinking on the part of the writer, as it is lazy thinking on the part of the reader.

“In court, defendants are able to call character witnesses; victims are not allowed this privilege.”

Crimes against women are almost always framed in the passive voice. (Something I’m continually warning my students away from by the way. It makes for lousy prose.) Women get assaulted, get raped, get murdered. We talk about the threat of rape as though it is some extraneous force, a miasma descending upon us, rather than human men making a conscious decision to violently harm women.

In court, defendants are able to call character witnesses; victims are not allowed this privilege. Even in private investigations — say, at a university — nondisclosure agreements often mean that a victim is never allowed to speak out on her own behalf.

As Monica Lewinsky wrote last week in Vanity Fair, about the only role she was allowed in the investigation into President Bill Clinton 20 years ago: “We watched the wholesale dissection of a young, unknown woman — me — who, due to legal quarantine, was unable to speak out on her own behalf.”

That story, too, feels familiar.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, our approach is no different, and no better. Women are more likely to experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner in this province than almost anywhere else in Canada.

One in every two women will be assaulted in Newfoundland and Labrador, but only 10 per cent of sexual assault victims will report the crime to police.

Consider voice

There are a lot of things to focus on today, International Women’s Day. We could talk about the fight for pay equity, or a plan for high quality child care, or access to safe abortion across the province.

I’m asking you to consider this one thing: voice.

Who gets to tell the story of women’s experience with sexual assault, harassment, and violence? Whose story is it, anyway?


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