Author Shares Her Intimate Memoir, Investigation, and Manifesto in Is Rape a Crime?

Award-winning writer and public health executive Michelle Bowdler released her book, Is Rape A Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation and a Manifesto, in 2020. Her book interrogates the justice system in its response to sexual violence as she leads the reader on her intimate journey through healing, love, and motherhood. Bowdler calls out rape as a torturous crime that is underinvestigated while demanding a call to action toward the neglect of these cases in the criminal justice system. RAINNews recently sat down with Bowdler to learn more about her path to creating the book and how she hopes her story may inspire others.

When did you realize that you first wanted to write a memoir?

I had planned a career in writing and the assault impacted my ability to work and concentrate for a few years. Once I recalibrated, I went into a different direction, choosing to study public health. In my 40s, I had a surgery that re-initiated a significant bout of post-traumatic stress and I couldn’t shake it. I did not understand what was happening and why so many years later I felt some of the same body memories I experienced during an assault that took place 15 years prior. I got involved in activism work looking at untested rape evidence languishing in crime labs around the country and worked hard to feel better. I slowly found writing again. I started writing short stories at first, specifically about my family of origin, as a way to understand how hope and resilience are fostered and then juxtaposed these stories with ones about the impact of rape. I had this idea that we all learn lessons in our youth, even when our families are complicated and themselves impacted by loss and trauma. Within a couple of years, I had a full draft of the manuscript.

I began to send it around although it was not ready and needed revision. At some point, someone told me about this wonderful writing collective in Boston called Grub Street. I applied for this competitive, yearlong course called “The Memoir Incubator;” where we incubated our books over an intensive year of study. It became a transformational experience where I could talk about the assault in a different way. It became something now more outside of me and on the page. I started working on how to make the story stronger as opposed to focusing mostly on my personal trauma.

The book finally found its way to an agent which then led me to my editor and a book deal. My editor suggested I consider adding research since so much of what I talked about in the book had universal themes for other sexual assault victims. In its final version, the book addresses how so many survivors experience job loss, educational delays, and any number of challenges as they heal from their experiences. It also talks about the history of rape crisis centers, SANE nurses and development of trauma informed care.

How has the MeToo movement provided survivors a space to speak up against sexual violence? How has it not?

Tarana Burke is a hero and the movement she created has had such an impact in allowing voices to come out of the silence and no longer feel alone.

In so many ways I don’t think I can even fully articulate, I am beyond grateful for the MeToo movement and what it meant for victims of sexual assault, but I also feel a lot of fatigue and frustration at times at the work we have left to do. I feel sad that it took somewhere near 50 women coming forward before Bill Cosby’s case made it to court. I feel frustrated that everybody knew about these powerful Hollywood men, celebrity chefs, TV personalities, CEOs, professors, or famous authors who were so powerful in their careers that victims felt powerless. They knew the risks of coming forward -- that they could very well experience backlash and wouldn’t even necessarily be believed if they did speak out.

It’s so important that victims of sexual violence, who too often suffer in silence, now have more voices saying that they are not the only ones, they are not alone, it is not their fault, and they shouldn’t feel shame or self-blame. But I still feel a great sadness at the cost it took for so many. For many social justice issues, how many people have to speak up, take a great personal risk or be harmed before we see sustained change? How many dreams have to be crushed before one case goes in someone's favor? And when someone is held accountable, we celebrate this one “victory” and believe it will lead to sustained change. But will it? Has it? We have to stay vigilant and hold society accountable for all the ways in which we have failed survivors and demand change. Real and sustained change.

You write a lot about the impact on relationships. For those experiencing a new love in their life, what would you tell them as they seek to also take in love when it's extended?

I think rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse can take so much from people. It can steal your sense of self, your sense that you are okay and good enough. It can shake your very sense of feeling steady in the world. And then, when you want to take a risk to be vulnerable, it can feel very scary. My relationship with Mary, my wife, is such an anchor for me. It holds me steady, and I feel very fortunate. When we first met, I felt like Mary was the whole package—warm, kind, adorable, loving. But I wasn’t sure what I had to offer to her. I couldn’t see my own kindness, my warmth, my intelligence, because I still felt so damaged. It wasn’t true, but it was how I felt when we met—just a few years after the rapes.

I had to do some work to understand how the impact of trauma made it hard for me to be vulnerable. Survivors can do this work in a number of ways, whether through trauma informed therapy, trauma-informed movement work, group support, reading books, and taking time to heal in any number of ways. Early in my relationship, I was so sensitive. I would find the littlest thing to confirm my own feeling that maybe I’d be better off alone. Over time, I developed trust. And 30 years later, we are still together and very happy.

Give yourself space to trust over time. I ask us to consider whether we can have some self-compassion rather than self-judgment when we are feeling the impact of our various traumas. Imagine what it would be like if we could extend the same kindness and compassion we give to others to ourselves.

For trauma survivors that are stepping into parenthood for the first time, what is one piece of advice that you would offer them?

Like I said earlier, for some trauma survivors, vulnerability can be a challenge. When I was thinking about parenthood, I had to ask myself if I could put myself out there again. Could I risk it? Was I ready?

Sexual assault and sexual abuse survivors have concrete experience of violence, pain and loss. We are people who understand some of the ways in which people get hurt and the aftermath. We don’t have the gift of denial. When you are someone who knows this, it can be really challenging to think about raising these innocent beings that you know you will love beyond life.

We actually can’t protect our children from everything and knowing that can help. That said, as parents it is helpful to be honest with ourselves when we are having a trauma response. We have to own it, recognize it when it’s happening and get some help if it is impacting our relationships or our ability to parent in the ways we hope. Also, I do believe kids have a sense of what is happening in their homes whether we tell them or not. Children are intuitive, and I do believe that honesty about our lives is helpful if it’s done with intention and is age appropriate. Children appreciate the truth, which is different than asking for them to take care of us. For some, this is complicated, I know, and may not feel possible. I have no judgment here about anyone else. It was, for me, important since I was doing public advocacy on issue related to sexual violence and untested rape kits and didn’t want my children to learn my history from anyone other than me.

When I disclosed my sexual assault history, my children were in middle school. I told them what happened and that it was hard at the time. I emphasized to them that I got a lot of help and that now it’s something that mostly feels in the past. I also said that I can be a present parent to them regardless of my past history and that I loved them. I left out details and they didn’t ask for them.

You talk about living but not really living for a long time. On page 223, you talk about when that started to change. You mention the prickly fragrance of an orange, the state of being alive, and the tiny moments that required attention and held the possibility of joy. What other moments held joy for you? What is your advice to others for whom those moments may seem out of reach?

Be patient with yourself and over time you might notice small pleasures, small moments that make you feel like you are coming back to some parts of yourself that are not lost. If you asked me what gave me joy, I would say my own kids and children, in general. There is something about their ability to be in the moment that really has always resonated with me. When they want one book over another book, it’s like nothing else matters to them in that moment than getting that book. They aren’t thinking about the world’s ills or its pain. They are very much in the moment. There is something about that, for me personally, that I find magical, and sometimes enviable. There are still occasional moments in my life where I feel like my head is spinning and can’t see what’s in front of me. If I stop and try to be intentional, to notice the sun shining and to notice things large and small, it helps. Yes, maybe this is a hard day where trauma memories have insinuated themselves, but I ask myself if I can notice anything about the day that is beautiful. Maybe I can notice flowers in bloom outside of my window, my dog wagging his tail, the incredible smell of morning coffee. I try to notice things that sustain and ground me in the world. It can be as simple or profound as that.

And if it’s a day where a survivor finds it hard to reach for a joyful moment, I hope they can be gentle with themselves. We get a chance to try again the next day or the day after that.

What do you hope readers take away after reading your book?

I hope readers feel seen and that their own experience of trauma, while unique to them, is also something many other people have experienced. They are not alone. And while there is no specific roadmap to moving forward, self-blame and shame absolutely do not soften that path toward healing. I also hope that learning more about the systems that are supposed to support victims of sexual violence and the ways they have failed can validate many survivors’ experiences. We all deserve basic dignity and to live in a society where sexual assault is treated with the seriousness it deserves and that we work to understand what terms like justice and healing mean from a survivor-centered perspective. Lastly, I want readers to see the hope, love and connection that is described throughout the book.

Michelle Bowdler’s book, Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation and a Manifesto, was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award. To read more or to obtain a copy, visit her website.

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