I recently learned that a friend of mine was convicted of rape. The newspaper articles describing his crimes conjure images of an attacker in the bushes—a nonfiction boogeyman.
Unbeknownst to me, he had recently been released from prison when I met him, and I was in regular contact with him during the year leading up to his second prison sentence. He was my correspondence chess opponent. Oh that makes perfect sense, you might be thinking. A weirdo who plays on-line chess. It fits easily into the secretly violent criminal stereotype, doesn’t it? Also, there’s the fact that I never really met him in real life. You might think that further simplifies it.
But you know what? It doesn’t for me.
Let’s give him a name. Stephen.
Stephen and I played correspondence chess together for more than a year. I got the moves on my iPhone usually several times a day. If you don’t have an appreciation of chess, trust me: it’s super fun. And playing vs. a human is much more unpredictable and amusing than playing vs. a computer. Stephen and I played at the same level. We challenged each other. We were both novices with an equal interest in improving and practicing. We played chess on birthdays and Christmas and Easter.
Eventually we texted about things other than chess: what was on tap at our respective dive bars, our love of writing, the deep grief I was suffering, the deep grief he said he had made peace with.
Often, though, we exchanged moves without so much as a greeting. And I don’t say that to downplay our connection. Games and gameplay (is chess the oldest?) are attributed with contributing positively towards human evolution. Gamers have sharpened optimism and strong social bonds. It’s true.
I told him that if I ever visited his country we should have a double date. He said he would like that.
Then one day there were no chess moves. I thought he might be sick. By the second day with no moves, I got a little worried and sent a message. Nothing. On the third day I logged into the chess website and found his account disabled. It struck me as being so strange that I searched the web and found the article about his conviction.
The last woman he brutalized has moved to a different town because of the trauma.
I wondered a sick thing: were there other attacks? Ones that went unreported? And if so, what was happening in our chess game in the hours before? Was it one of the times I had captured his queen? Had he just captured mine? I felt vaguely complicit.
Learning about Stephen’s crimes added a complexity to my personal experience that I had not been forced to face up until then.
Three truths: 1. Rape is one of the most abominable acts I can imagine. 2. I care about Stephen. 3. Stephen has raped.
I don’t know what to do with that. The whole thing brings me sadness and makes me want to turn away. But everyone turning away is not going to improve the situation.
My favorite professor in college—an incredibly gifted and charismatic teacher—was a doctor who volunteered at the local prison providing psychotherapy to rapists. At times like this, I think, where is he now? What would he have to say about this? Would it be something like this interview with the supervising psychologist from Utah State Prison?
In light of the newest, detailed accusations against Woody Allen, there’s the opportunity to try to make sense of the issue. Not much is clear to me about it. I have a lot of studying to do. Our mass media is not doing the topic justice.
Three more truths: 1. I hold the films of Woody Allen to be brilliant works of art and I do not like the thought of living in a world without his voice. 2. When I glimpse stories of child rape or gang rape or child gang rape, I want to see every complicit individual punished severely. 3. I have never been raped, but indicating this publicly makes me fear for my safety and simultaneously question that fear.
I heard once about rape from two people who had survived it. We were in therapy together. Months before when my therapist proposed that I join her group setting, I said, “Oh, god, am I that crazy?” The answer was no. The stigma was quickly removed for me when I met my fellow clients (we didn’t call ourselves patients). Without divulging our confidentiality agreement, I can say the group included a sportscaster, a yoga teacher, a graphic designer, a college professor, a tech wizard launching a start-up, and a psychotherapist.
One night when no one had a crisis to dismantle, we were asked to describe our greatest fears. Two people in the group had survived mine: rape and torture. I had survived theirs: public speaking. It perplexed me then and it perplexes me now. (Incidentally, everyone else was afraid of death. Those of us afraid of rape, torture and public speaking were all quite content at the thought of death. Strange, right?)
I bring it up for two reasons:
First, because one of perpetrators I learned about out of those discussions was female. Mass media’s conversation on rape seems too gender charged. Women can harm. Men have been harmed.
Second, because it’s a part of my personal experience. If we’re going to evolve our culture’s talk about rape, we might all be best served by owning what we can own, and leaving the rest untouched.
We can own questions. Here’s one of mine: what if a person could be a brilliant contributor to the common good and also say, “I have a problem with violent urges.” “I feel the impulse to attack.” “I get aroused when I bathe my child.” “I need help.” In other words, if we lived in a culture capable of processing complexities amid abhorrence, would more people be safe?
I still wonder about Stephen. I wonder if there’s a therapist he talks to. I wonder if he he still plays chess. I miss our games.