Roxane Gay was transformed in the worst possible way by a gang rape when she was twelve. Her story interested me because people I know have been similarly transformed by callous manipulation of their bodies when they were children. The protective mechanisms — obsessive physical and emotional privacy, a sharp reaction when touched, flashbacks — are not always obvious, and Gay has made us more sensitive to them. Millions of people know how this works because violation of children is so common. Adults may deal with the death of a parent, neglect, foster care, illness or disability, war, forced emigration, poverty, beatings, but perhaps molestation is uniquely harmful.
Gay’s case protective reaction has been to eat herself into an impermeable, outsize fortress, and once you do that, it is hard to go back to the way you were before. I personally know at least one person who has created such a outsize fortress, and then there’s Oprah, who was also molested as a child.
Each episodic chapter, written in unremarkable sentences without attention to a narrative arc, outlines a separate area of suffering. Gay cannot fit into hospital gowns, clothes found in most stores, feminine clothes; she cannot stand for long, climb stairs, or walk long distances. She sometimes has trouble getting through doors. People make comments or say insensitive things about her weight. She folds in on herself to become invisible. Diets don’t work because she panics when the fortress thins out. She admits that she is essentially disabled in certain ways, though she functions at an unusually high level in many areas where others struggle.
She tamps down her rage when a fellow airplane passenger questions whether she will be able to handle the duties required of people sitting in the exit row. She writes, “I was fat, but I was, and still am, tall and strong. It was absurd to imagine I could not handle the exit-row responsibilities.” As Gay has taken pains to inform the reader, she has difficulty maneuvering, and it would take some doing to send her hurtling down an inflatable exit ramp; if she stayed to assist others, her bulk would hinder the easy passage of other passengers to the ramp. The man’s question is reasonable, not personal.
She complains bitterly that event organizers do not pre-plan to be sure that she can get up stairs and doesn’t have to stand too long. They often fail to provide a chair that will not collapse under her weight or squeeze her painfully. She is “morbidly obese,” and even if an event manager were forewarned of that, how many would assume the requirements of her particular case? Instead of having a little advance conversation about her needs during a doctor’s appointment, she doesn’t go to doctors at all. She is too self-conscious to ask for a chair without arms in a restaurant, though many would have such a chair somewhere. Her world is replete with insults and indignities which she could handle more adroitly, to say the least.
In her fury, she makes false statements such as “black women are never allowed their femininity.” I have envied the flair of many a feminine black colleague or friend, and also remember the dynamic femininity of black women from Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge to Michelle Obama and Lupita Nyong’o. Gay also writes that “no one wants to hear fat girl stories,” yet viewers and readers have been avidly following Oprah’s fat girl story for decades and hit television programs are based around fat people’s stories. She didn’t know how many books she would sell when she wrote that statement, but it has also been a hit. Ringers like these, manufactured from her rage, sour her case.
Talk about sour — she goes to a gym and sees thin white girls working out. “They know that they work hard and look good and they want everyone else to know it too.” Yes, they do, and so what? That is why they are at the gym, and why she is at the gym, too. To look good and to feel good.
The reader is supposed to swing with it when Gay reveals that she cannot bring herself to demand “justice” for the perpetrator of the original rape, as wished for by her father and this reader. She Googles the heck out of him decades after his crime, and stalks him, calling his office, hearing his voice, then hanging up after listening to him breathe for a while. I advise her to blast his name in capital letters in Times Square. Just blast it. “JOHN DOE. From Roxane.” The many readers who have read your book will understand, and he won’t be able to sue you because you will not have accused him of anything. It will feel good, I promise.
She has an unconditionally loving family, friends, lovers, a PhD and has established herself as a successful writer, speaker, and teacher. What is she now waiting for?
I put down the book discouraged and unimpressed, though a little better informed about people I know who have been tragically transformed by a childhood violation. Unfortunately for all of us, there is little of the unusual in Gay’s story.
The kicker is that Roxane Gay has just been given an advice column in the New York Times. I would that people “Do as she says not as she does.”