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Book Review: Words Can Describe by Abi Grant

July 1, 2010

the cover image of Words Can Describe: a young, slim, presumably white woman sits on a bed with her knees bent and her forehead resting on her knees. Her shoulder-length hair obscures her faceI have mixed feelings about this book, and the way it’s advertised isn’t helping. I found the paperback edition wedged between historical romances at an airport bookshop. The pink text on the front and the quote saying “this is a book all women should read” combine to create a campaign that doesn’t only appeal to women but also actually pushes male readers away by telling them that they are not welcome. (I’m not sure what it says to those who do not identify with either side of the binary.) And that’s a big problem when you’re talking about a memoir that explores the repercussions of sexual assault.

Is it the people who are more likely to be victims, or the people who are more likely to be perpetrators, who  most need to understand how a crime devastates?

Of course, we shouldn’t have to choose. A story like that of Words Can Describe has the potential to make victims and survivors feel less alone as well as to provide some ideas about how to live with what has happened (and how not to), though every individual’s case is different. It’s also the sort of story that, in a society which too often minimises the seriousness of rape makes clear just how devastating that crime can be.

Abi Grant’s tells a story of having her most basic sense of security destroyed, and of how she learned to live after that with a lightness that makes the horrors (of the crime, of the callousness of the police who never ask her permission)  even more horrifying. Her honesty about herself and her position becomes an act, or really several acts, of profound solidarity with other women. She refuses to accept that she was brave for physically fighting back against her attacker.

I have always hated it when people called me brave, partly because I feel it implies women who don’t fight back are somehow cowards, which completely misses the point . . . I still find being called brave hard to handle, just as I dislike the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘not-so-good’ victims. It crops up all the time in debates, where those of us who were attacked by strangers are perceived as greater victims and thus deserving of more respect and sympathy than those attacked by acquaintances, which not only plays us off against one another, but also reduces our experiences to reference points in some greater moral argument.

Where the book loses its pull is also where the author stops telling her story, focusing instead on the factors that create rape culture, though she doesn’t call it that. Here, the solidarity she managed to weave into her story is lost as she makes some odd sorts of digs at second-wave feminism and uses fat people as objects of humour through some stilted metaphors. Her discussion of the impact of pornography also fails to distinguish between the misogynistic mainstream pornography industry and (for instance) works of feminist pornography; indeed, she seems not to believe that it is possible to create any such thing.

cross-posted at The Pixel Project

Overall, Words Can Describe demonstrates the truth of its title: words can describe the pain of assault and the path back to life. It’s just a shame that, when broader social critique becomes the focus, Abi Grant seems to lose her way.

One Comment
  1. July 2, 2010 7:24 am

    Too bad… While I wasn’t a fan of the cover and the fact that it was for some reason with romance (romance? what? how?) instead of gender studies, non-fiction, sociology, something like that, it sounded like a good and necessary book… until you get to the second part. I dislike books that blame it on things like porn and feminism rather than on what it is – men acting in a society of impunity. Porn doesn’t spawn rape. That would imply that men can’t make their own decisions. Does watching murders on movies spawn murder? A society that doesn’t punish rape spawns rape. It sounds like an important book but I wish the social critique was handled better.

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