Not a week goes past without some sort of injustice hitting social media. It might not make the news, but in certain circles, it does the rounds. Whispered words were once the way women protected themselves from dangerous situations. Everyone knew about Harvey Weinstein before everyone knew about him because gossip was a weapon of defence. But now the world is more connected, and in some ways less beholden to laws which prevent journalists potentially printing something defamatory. The allegations towards R. Kelly and Bryan Singer began with similar whispers and are now unavoidable, the news free to report on what other people are saying online.
The Anatomy of Silence is about sexual violence, but it’s also about ‘all the s**t that gets in the way of talking about sexual violence’. These twenty six stories go on an arc from the personal to the political (if the two can be separated), the horror changing as we go from within to without.
What could make for an almost impossible read is therefore empowering. By the very nature of these words being read, they are serving their purpose of breaking a long-observed silence.
That silence crops up everywhere in discourse surrounding sexual violence, from how it is dealt with in court to anonymous accounts on the internet asking why someone never reported their assault. The book is not a series of diary entries, but rather the dilemmas each person faced when confronted with the reality of something they likely thought they would have handled far differently. Cyra Perry Dougherty writes of how her partner ‘violated’ a girl whose mother calls her, furious, confused, desperate. After realising Dougherty understood his violence too, the mother changes, calms, and a terrifying peace settles. She asks Dougherty if she is okay, and like that, a solidarity among those who have experience with gendered abuse is formed. Not only has breaking the silence caused a grim understanding here, but their joint story is passed on to the reader who can only carry it with them as these two women have.
That kind of sharing is present throughout the book, but for different reasons. Monique Harris’s Things Fall Apart tells a story that fell on deaf ears when she needed someone to listen. It is not so much that she wasn’t believed or that she didn’t speak, but that nothing came of her words. The horror is not singular; first the abuse happens, and then there is no acknowledgement from those who are meant to be unconditionally supportive. Maybe writing that entry was therapeutic, but in this scenario, in what way can there be anything other than a sense of duty to listen when others let her down?
Elsewhere, there is writing on systems of care which are ill-equipped for what they purport to do, institutional failures in the process of justice, and how communities aren’t prepared to look inward at their own transgressions.
Frederick Marx’s entry on men and their inability to feel their own feelings stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of the book. Where the silence is often seen among those who have been directly involved in the violence, here is the silence among perpetrators generally. It reports problems with hyper-masculine language, brought into public discourse recently with the new Gillette advert, and how places like the military only perpetuate the cycle of hurt.
Herein lies The Anatomy of Silence’s biggest hurdle. These stories are loaded with empathy, whispers turned to roars, ready to be told. Marx’s essay shows how difficult it is to make those who need to hear them the most listen. These are brave words, with no one free from being made to reflect on their own part in what is keeping silence in place. These twenty six writings encapsulate all forms of abuse from all different places, everyone has a part to play.
There is a ripple effect to something that is said. Certainly, it cannot be unsaid. This book, which is a look at silence, is ironically and defiantly loud. There is nothing here that ties The Anatomy of Silence to a trend, no use of slogans and marketing to turn liberation into something chic. Straight-faced, it looks people in the eye and asks them to keep talking. More, it asks how each individual is involved in either helping or hindering that talking. This purposeful collection of writing is exposing what is letting us down.
The Anatomy of Silence is out on 8th March 2019, published by Red Press Ltd.