Rape culture: a cultural response by Alvy Carragher and Louise O’Neill

The authors of Asking for It and Numb explore each other’s work, whose common themes are men who don’t know what no means and a society unable to define rape

Louise O’Neill, left: Alvy wrote those words but I felt as if she had ripped them from my own heart; Alvy Carragher: Asking For It put me straight back in the Rape Crisis Centre

Louise O’Neill, left: Alvy wrote those words but I felt as if she had ripped them from my own heart; Alvy Carragher: Asking For It put me straight back in the Rape Crisis Centre

 

Alvy Carragher on Asking for It by Louise O’Neill

Asking For It put me straight back in the Rape Crisis Centre. It gave me the same tight feeling I got sitting in front of a counsellor trying to say the word rape out loud. The powerlessness I felt as a kind-eyed woman explained the complexity of the legal system, the unlikelihood of conviction, the stigma against victims and how impossible it was to prove anything.

I read numbly as the main story unfolded. The hook is the big rape, the obvious one, that we can all nod our heads at and say – that’s wrong, small-town Ireland is a disgrace, sure I’d never blame someone in that situation. It invites us to feel sick about an event that we know is rape. What’s more interesting for me is a smaller dynamic that occurs in the book. The painful exchanges between the group of girls, the conversation between Emma and Jamie about what girls shouldn’t say, the nights out, the things they are better off not remembering. This is where the book is at its most harrowing. Louise draws you in with the rape we can all agree is horrifying and then builds a world around it that reflects our own lives, that cuts straight into rape culture.

Maybe I’m projecting on the book, but the blurred lines of consent are where things are really troubling, because that is where you find women blaming themselves for being raped. That’s where the truth very rarely gets told. I read over those passages, seeing myself, my friends and the things we’ve blamed ourselves for. Louise’s book is part of an uncomfortable conversation that we need to continue having as a country. It’s a book that makes you look at yourself more closely. It takes admitting that the fumble you kind of maybe didn’t want to have was rape. It’s admitting that your friends, boyfriends and husbands may well have overstepped the boundary of consent.

Fiction should heighten these subjects and demand that we look closer. Louise paints rape culture in all its brutality. She doesn’t pander to her audience, she doesn’t provide a neat ending. The book is messy, and sad. It kept me up till 3am and gave me nightmares. It reminded me of friends who said things like “But I don’t think it was rape, not really,” of how our legal system is stacked against the victims of rape, and of what it feels like to have that word in your mouth and not be sure you should say it.

Numb

By Alvy Carragher

a mouldy old house party, crushed into the dustbin,
as he kissed me, the smell of a dead fish
and I was thinking, this is not ideal, not ideal,
kept glancing over his kisses at a girl in the corner
passed out from space cakes and a dog with cross-eyes
I could have sworn was trying to save me

in the cold room, just upstairs, my hands shivering
in the new moon of a fresh year,
thinking this is not what I resolved,
the burn of whiskey between us
trying to mean something,
and I was thinking, this is not romantic, not romantic,
his hands snatching at me in darkness,
the black of spiders crawling behind my eyelids,
the scrawl of his body pushing me backwards,
and I was thinking, not here, not here

Numb by Alvy Carragher

but he didn’t know what no means,
didn’t know that it was a barrier I was setting up between us,
that it was a wish not to wake four times from my dreams
to his hands and all their nightmares

no meant that it hurt to be drowned in desire,
no was the white of my mind as I shut down
and off until it was all just silence,
‘til it was all just movements,
no was my eyes fixed on a ceiling crack
as he moved above me,
hoping it would splinter outwards
and let the stars through

no is a word I’ve had misunderstood before
by a long-term boyfriend
after we first split,
he whispered to me in the
back room of my mother’s house
the same thing,
the step too far,
the kind of guy that doesn’t know
what no means
afterwards, saying we’ll get married,
my heart screaming no, no, no
my heart saying, baby,
you don’t know what you’ve done

I thought it was my fault,
blamed my short skirt,
or my big eyes,
how they were asking for it
under all that mascara

I’ve heard this same story too many times
most days it’s not even mine,
these skeletons of men
that don’t know what no means,
we tell each other stories about one night stands
that don’t sound like one night stands, laugh-hollow
at things we don’t understand, not realising that
the way you said no, it meant something,
even if he never heard you
this is not our fault
no short skirt, or lingerie, or red lipstick
can speak for you

because no means no
and what about the wedge of another word,
beneath your tongue
not sure you should say it,
because it belongs with strangers’ faces,
dark alleys and spiked drinks,
rape is a whisper from another girl
a kind of helpless stranger

I kissed both those men goodbye
because I wanted it to be more
than a headache of memory,
more than a dead thing sitting on my chest,
more than the thought of them
criss-crossed and dead-eyed above me,
how it happens again and again and again
more than a girl who’s been fucked-over and under,
until she can’t remember if she said no,
can’t remember if she meant it

Alvy Carragher’s first poetry collection is forthcoming with Salmon Poetry (2016). She writes the award-winning blog With All the Finesse of a Badger alvycarragher.BlogSpot.ie
This poem was first published in The Bohemyth 

Louise O’Neill on Numb by Alvy Carragher

I first say Alvy perform at a Literary Death Match here in Dublin. Her first poem was funny and amusing, perfectly skewering the actions of a leering older man trying to seduce her.

The second poem she performed was very different.

She stood very still on the stage, her voice trembling a little. The poem was brutal, visceral, harrowing, and – like all the best art – absolutely true. To use that old cliche, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck watching her. When she finished, there was an uneasy silence. We had come for an enjoyable night out. We were not ready to be confronted with this, this raw vulnerability, this woman insisting on telling her story. This woman who was refusing to be silenced.

I went up to Alvy afterwards to try and express my gratitude to her for sharing her work so bravely and she laughed it off, embarrassed. She wrote those words but I felt as if she had ripped them from my own heart. It could have been my story, or the stories of thousands of other girls just like me. Because there are thousands of other girls, just like us. Girls who are afraid to tell their stories for fear of being judged and blamed. And that’s why we need to speak out – so that people will realise that sexual violence towards women is not an anomaly, that it is almost an epidemic. It is only through raising our voices that we will change the world.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill is published by Quercus Children’s Books

If you have a question for the author, email bookclub@irishtimes.com

Over the next four weeks, we will be publishing a series of interviews and features exploring the book, culminating in a public interview with Louise O’Neill in association with the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, October 8th, at 7.30 pm, which will be recorded for a podcast on irishtimes.com the following week. Tickets €5/€3, and €7 on the door.

Competition

We have 10 copies of Asking For It and 10 tickets to the Irish Writers Centre event to give away. To enter, email your answer to the following question to bookclub@irishtimes.com by Friday, September 25th. The first 10 correct entries win. What is the name of Louise O’Neill’s award-winning debut novel?

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