Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the #MeToo Movement

by
Shelly Oria
8.14.19

You know the beginning: In October 2017, a major newspaper broke a story about a famous producer—a serial predator, a man who wears his ugly on his skin—and our communal ether filled with women’s voices sharing private horrors, amplifying and echoing one another’s words, all stamped with a hashtag. I’d recently finished writing a short story about a woman who murders men, a tale about the potential consequences of sexual harassment, and I e-mailed Kristina Kearns, then executive director of McSweeney’s, asking if she’d like to publish it. I used the words quick and soon. I used the word timeliness. I thought, “How many news cycles do we have left?” I assumed that in a week the hashtag would stop trending and the world would resume its collective lack of interest in everything it revealed. I spent those early days of #MeToo feeling devastated in advance.

Contributors to Indelible in the Hippocampus include (clockwise from upper left) Elissa Schappell, Karissa Chen, Lynn Melnick, and Kaitlyn Greenidge. (Credit: Schappell: Kevin Larimer; Chen: Judy Natal; Melnick: Timothy Donnelly; Greenidge: Syreeta McFadden)

Sometimes I laugh at my 2017 self for her fear. Here we are two years later and that news cycle still hasn’t ended; it birthed a global movement. But most of the time I’m still scared—that we’ll stop trying to change the reality we exposed or that we’ll keep trying and ultimately fail. That our country will keep electing presidents and confirming Supreme Court judges who have abused women.

My e-mail to Kristina initiated a long exchange between us about the role art and literature should play in a crucial cultural moment. What is the point of being a publisher or editor, Kristina asked me, if one isn’t responding to—and deepening—the conversation? We need a book, she said. When she asked me to be the editor, I could not have been more thrilled.

Books invite concentrated focus and offer an immersive experience. Kristina and I both believed that giving physical form to a revolution that lived predominantly on the Internet would be a meaningful act.

At that time, the end of 2017, the stories of beautiful actresses, most of whom were white and straight, dominated the forming narrative (even though a Black woman, Tarana Burke, founded the #MeToo movement in 2006). It felt essential to me—as a queer woman, as a writer who immigrated to this country at age twenty-five, and also as a person aware of her own privilege—to start the work of compiling this book by reaching out to writers of various backgrounds. I wanted to hear from Black writers, Latinx writers, Asian writers. I wanted to hear from writers who identify as queer and writers who identify as trans. I also wanted to hear from writers who were adults before I was born, who could offer a broader perspective.

Which is to say that I wanted these sentences from contributor Honor Moore: “I remember the beginning of Women’s Liberation. I don’t remember particular conversations, but I remember the feeling I got when a woman declared she didn’t need any movement.” And this one, from contributor Gabrielle Bellot: “I had read too many stories of trans women who went to the police after men harassed them and were told by the cops that it was their own fault; what do you expect, the officers asked, when you dress like a woman?” And this one, from contributor Syreeta McFadden: “I know to expect the requisite bullshit that comes with being a Black woman in the world. I know wrong is not my name.”

I wanted all these words before they were written, before they landed on the pages of this anthology. So I e-mailed writers and artists, people whose work had made me gasp in the past. I asked how they were doing, and I asked if they’d be willing to write about how they were doing, or if perhaps they already had. And in my e-mail I said: Give me essays, stories, poems, anything. It felt imperative to not limit the scope of this book to one genre. When collective pain and trauma yield art, our job as a society is to receive that art in all the forms it takes, in all its different garbs.

In September 2018, as I assembled these artistic testimonies, Christine Blasey Ford took the stand and shared the details of her trauma with the world. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said of the men who victimized her. That one of those men was subsequently confirmed as a judge on the highest court in our land is proof like no other that, to borrow Quito Ziegler’s words from these pages, “we’re at the early stages of a reckoning.” Our fight has only just begun.

Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement will be released by McSweeney’s Publishing in September. As the anthology’s publication date was approaching, I invited four of the book’s contributors—Karissa Chen, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Lynn Melnick, and Elissa Schappell—to discuss some of their thoughts on the current state of the #MeToo movement and their experience writing on this topic.

Oria: Had you written “#MeToo pieces” before—whether framed that way or otherwise—or was this your first time writing about this topic?

Greenidge: I think this is the first time I’m publishing a piece on this topic, but I’ve certainly written about it before and thought about it often. Writing about the aftermath of sexual violence and sexual abuse was always something that interested me, from a pretty young age. I came to the subject from the intense public discussions around familial sexual abuse and workplace sexual harassment in the 1990s. For me, #MeToo is less a revolutionary moment and more a continuation of that discussion that happened very publicly and very intensely for much of the ’90s. I distinctly remember the cultural shift, when gatekeepers kind of decided “that’s enough of that,” and the horror and destruction of sexual violence was ignored again. It was so jarring, and I think many people forget that when they talk about the trajectory of #MeToo. 

Chen: I had written a short piece for the Rumpus a couple of months before McSweeney’s approached me, and at first I hoped to just republish that story. Although that piece was, in part, about someone close to me who’d been assaulted, it was a piece that I managed to keep a bit more distant from myself, less personal and more grounded in my views on the topic. When approached by McSweeney’s, I had a sense of “I don’t think I have anything else to say about this,” which in retrospect was more, “I don’t know if I can handle saying anything else about this.” But when you and the other editors asked me to consider writing a new piece, I decided to try to push myself to write about a personal experience I’d avoided discussing because I wasn’t sure it “counted.” It turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever written—so hard that the act of writing became the anchor. I’m so glad I did it.

Schappell: I think in some way I’m always pushing back against the subjugation of women in my work, whether it be in fiction or nonfiction. I’m angry. Writing allows me to let my anger off the leash.

Melnick: From the time I began writing as a teenager, most of what I’ve written about has been rape culture, in all of its many terrifying forms. From the time I was a kid, my life and experience was so steeped in toxic masculinity and violence that there was sort of no way to write literally any experience outside of that lens. I mean, that’s our world.

Oria: If you’d written about this topic prior to October 2017—pre-Harvey—did the experience feel different in any way? Did your prepublication thoughts or concerns differ, regarding the reception of the work, back then compared with now?

Melnick: Oddly enough, my second book, Landscape With Sex and Violence, about rape culture as I lived it inside 1980s Los Angeles, came out ten days after the New York Times ran its Harvey Weinstein piece and literally the day that Alyssa Milano tried to claim the #MeToo hashtag, and then the slogan was everywhere. As I mentioned, I’ve been battling this topic on the page my entire writing life, and I can tell you for certain that my work and these subjects weren’t terribly popular for most of that time. One editor of a major poetry press called my book “crass.” And then suddenly I was a “#MeToo poet” and Landscape was a “#MeToo book,” and it felt very strange. It also helped sales, which I refuse to complain about or downplay because I’m proud of my work and want people to read it. But I was also horribly trolled. People accused me of exploiting my own trauma, and Amazon even recategorized my book into the “adult” section, which made it unfindable in most searches for a while. I mean, there’s definitely a lot of sex in the book, because it turns out that women who have been victims of violence can also enjoy sex. That’s a tough one for a lot of people to understand. But all of this is what happens when a woman tries to reclaim her body for herself, I suppose. In any case, I think a lot about what Tarana Burke said to the Los Angeles Times the day after the #MeToo hashtag had blown up in 2017: “Somebody asked me, does this [campaign] amplify your work? And it does in a certain way, but also when this hashtag dies down, and people stop thinking about it, I’ll still be doing the work.” That is pretty much how I felt, and feel. 

Oria: I’ve been thinking a lot about the role books like Indelible can play, both in readers’ and writers’ lives, in shaping the conversation we’re having at crucial cultural moments. Were you already working on the piece you contributed to Indelible when I reached out to you, or did the solicitation from McSweeney’s inspire the work?

Schappell: I had been trying for months to write a short story that would capture the tension that exists between women who have chosen different ways to deal with having been raped. Not all women experience trauma the same way. That was important to me. But I couldn’t do it. The characters weren’t talking to each other; the form was wrong. So I chose to write an essay, but the essay was terrible. And after watching Dr. Ford’s testimony, it felt cheap and dishonest. In fact, I think now, maybe I wanted it to be rejected, but it wasnt, which made everything worse. I really wanted to write the story I’d started. It’s one of the most challenging stories I’ve ever written. It kept evolving, changing, and surprising me, and that’s the piece that appears in Indelible. I could never have done it without support from you and the other editors. 

Chen: It was only because McSweeney’s really preferred a new piece to something I’d already written that I tried to take this on. And it was hard. I spent weeks tossing out first lines and first paragraphs. As an essayist, I wanted to state more than just the facts. I wanted to give more than an account of a thing that happened, a thing I was also terrified of being judged for. To me, I think every personal essay I write is a way to reckon with something that’s happened; I think of each as a letter to another version of myself, the self that doesn’t yet have the benefit of space or time. The essay I ended up with became a way to be honest about all the things I had been running away from while acknowledging that I didn’t have any answers on what to do with those things now that I’d turned my gaze toward them. I always hope that if I can be vulnerable and honest—if I can allow space for the uncertainty that says, “I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what I do have”—then an audience will see a way in that space to reckon with their own questions, traumas, fears, hopes, and courage.

Oria: I believe that it’s our responsibility as a society in times of crisis to encourage and receive art in all the forms it takes, and yet often our immediate literary response focuses almost solely on creative nonfiction. That’s why Indelible features short stories and poems in addition to essays; for me this is a form of inclusivity as well as a way to expand the conversation beyond what creative nonfiction invites and allows. And yet this isn’t something I hear discussed often, so I wonder if anyone else has thoughts on this issue.

Schappell: Fiction is a deep dive into dark waters, and that’s what I wanted to do here. That’s where I wanted to go. I couldn’t tell the truth of my experience without lying about it. I always find other peoples’ lives much more interesting than my own. 

Melnick: As a poet I really appreciate that this anthology includes poetry because there are places poetry can reach that other genres can’t, and yet it’s often excluded from projects like this. I’ve occasionally written a memory or experience in poetry and then in prose, and each genre just gets to a different kind of truth, comes at it from a different angle and place, and perhaps reaches different readers—or the same reader differently—because of it. We need it all, is what I’m trying to say. And we definitely need poetry; it’s not shocking that, during these dire Trump years, the readership for poetry is way up.

Oria: Speaking of inclusivity. Indelible features a significant array of voices and backgrounds; at the time I started assembling the artistic testimonies that would become this book, this felt not just crucial, as it always does, but urgent, since we were hearing predominantly from white, straight, beautiful actresses. How do you feel about the inclusivity of the #MeToo conversation in 2019? And would you say we’ve successfully shifted the cultural perception that appearance affects whether or not a woman gets harassed or abused?

Greenidge: I mean, #MeToo was started by a Black woman activist and rose from her work with mostly Black women who had experienced this. As with all political movements, it mutated and changed as it reached different communities. I think the documentary about R. Kelly has more recently shifted the conversation back to including Black women and girls. I think what is both exhilarating and frustrating about #MeToo is that we are all entering this conversation from different points in our processing of assault. Some of us are at the “fuck my abuser, lock him up for life, burn it all down” point—the stage of “my pain is unique and unlike anyone else’s on earth.” This is a necessary part of healing. Some of us will grapple there forever. Some of us get to a point when we are ready to ask “how does what happened to me fit into larger societal patterns, and how can we punish the perpetrators?” And still others are at the point of wondering “what would restitution and healing and actual societal change look like? What if we centered survivors’ healing instead of just focusing on punishment?” 

Certain voices and certain phases, as performed by certain types of women who are deemed more sympathetic or their pain more beautiful, dominated the debate at first. But I hope, through the works of writers like Mariame Kaba and also the movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, that we can collectively move to the question of healing for survivors, first and foremost. 

Chen: I love Kaitlyn’s thoughts on the different points of processing. I feel like this is also a form of diversity—acknowledging how messy and imperfect reckoning with misogyny and patriarchy is, on both a personal and systemic level, and part of that is hearing the multitude of voices. I don’t know if we’re getting better, per se, about inclusivity. For instance I think trans issues are often talked about separately from the #MeToo movement, but I think it’s impossible to talk about #MeToo and not think about the deadly consequences trans folk face due to patriarchy and misogyny. Race and class, of course, also affect everything. Last year I moderated a roundtable with several Asian American writers, and one of the things that came up was how painful it was when assault happened within the community. People often felt conflicted, in part wanting to protect their powerful, influential men; the fight for visibility in a white-dominated world is a difficult one, and taking down someone with a foothold in that world can feel like hurting your community. These nuances complicate the conversation; acknowledging the different intersections is essential to making the environment safe for discussion. I do hope we are moving in that direction. 

Melnick: I also really appreciate Kaitlyn’s thoughts on processing, because it’s crucial to remember we are all going to do so differently, and I worry that gets forgotten. With my own work, I’m mostly writing about experiences that happened to me two decades ago and which took me a very long to write about because I needed all that time to process. I am often asked at Q&As about my own survival, and I think it’s important for me in situations like that to continually point out the amount of privilege I have as a white, middle-class, straight-presenting ciswoman in regards to going through various systems as a victim of violence. I get frustrated by certain white women acting as spokespeople for survivors. Alyssa Milano? Come on! But also in the literary community, if we give victims any attention at all, we seem to favor our victims—listen to them, champion them—when they are young, cis, able-bodied, white, and “conventionally” attractive. We need to keep thinking about who we believe and why. As Karissa suggests, these conversations around rape culture are complicated and nuanced, and we don’t even know all the questions let alone the answers. This shit is hard but, like Karissa, I have hope we are headed in the right direction. 

Shelly Oria, editor of  Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement. (Photo by T Kira Madden)


Oria: While most of the pieces in the anthology were assembled prior to the Kavanaugh hearings, we chose a title that nods to that time, and to Dr. Ford’s bravery. What was the significance for you of witnessing the Kavanaugh hearings and their outcome? Has your view of the #MeToo movement changed as a result?

Schappell: Like the majority of the writers, I’d turned in my piece before the Kavanaugh hearings. Shortly after the #MeToo movement started gaining traction I’d started working on a short story in the form of a conversation, in Track Changes, between an editor and a writer who is trying to write “her rape story.” I’d tried to write my way into the story, but the formatting was too taxing, so I’d abandoned it. Then the Kavanaugh hearings happened and suddenly everything was different. I wanted to pull my piece and ask if you and the other editors would consider the short story I’d been working on.

I didn’t want to watch the hearings. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to watch this, but I don’t want her to be alone.” 

That was the thing, I wanted to bear witness. I wanted, as the Quakers say, to hold her in the light. So, I sat perched on the arm of our sofa watching Dr. Ford determined to tell her story. I just kept thinking, “Someone please help her: Fix her hair, clean her glasses, get her a glass of water.” 

It’s not that what Dr. Ford was describing was shocking; it was familiar. It felt, well, ordinary—and that was the problem. I started to weep, then sob, but that wasn’t me rocking back and forth; that girl there on my sofa was someone else. Of course I wanted to push Dr. Ford’s hair back from her face, and clean her glasses, and get her a glass of water. Dr. Ford was not alone; there were two of us. 

If there was any question in your mind about whether or not Dr. Ford had been assaulted, the transformation she underwent when asked to relive that fateful afternoon should have dispelled it. She was back in that room with Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge, alone and terrified.

I remember the Anita Hill hearings. I remember watching those white men interrogating Hill, forcing her to describe the pornography Clarence Thomas liked, the “pubic hair” on the Coke can incident—and I knew the moment Thomas angrily proclaimed, “This is a high-tech lynching,” that it was over. That he was daring these white men to refuse him, despite the fact that, until Brett Kavanaugh, he was the most under-qualified judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court. And similarly, when Brett Kavanaugh angrily proclaimed, “I like beer!” and none of the Republicans laughed, I knew it was over.

Even if those men did believe Anita Hill, what was she to them? Even if they believed Dr. Ford, what was she to them?

When Senator Dianne Feinstein asked how it was possible for Dr. Ford to remember some details but forget others, Dr. Ford, a psychology professor, explained it was a simple memory function. When a person experiences a traumatic event, their neurotransmitters code the memory on the hippocampus; they bank it. The inconsequential details, like the name of a street in your neighborhood, cease to exist, but that traumatic experience is fixed in memory. That made sense to me. It echoed my own experience.  

In the middle of the hearing I received a message from a woman who had been one of my best friends as a girl, and throughout high school. I hadn’t heard from her in years. She wrote, “Do you ever wonder if those guys think about what they did to us?” 

A few years ago I’d have said no. Now, in the era of #MeToo, I think, yes. I think some of them wonder if maybe what they did crossed the line. 

Oria: I think so too, although I’ve also come across very different reactions from some cis men. A writer friend recently shared with me that her husband, who’s otherwise wonderful, often doesn’t really “get it” when she or her friends refer to their #MeToo experiences—especially the more “minor” everyday ones. She expressed her hope that he might read Indelible, since as a writer he might be intrigued. Have you struggled with the cis men in your life—partners, family members, close friends—in this context? Do you believe pieces like the one you contributed and books like Indelible can make a difference in terms of cis men’s experience of the conversation? Do you care? 

Greenidge: I am not close with many cis, straight men. This isn’t an accident. My experience with abuse led me, at first, to seek out companionship with and interaction primarily with women and queer people.

In my twenties I consciously decided to befriend cis straight men but, probably because of my own unprocessed understanding of the abuse around me as a child, I tended to befriend misogynists. The price of such friendship was high—it was a continual denial of the emotional truths and logic that I knew dictated my world. These were all very smart, very sensitive, well-read, extremely talented, brilliant boys. It was very seductive to think myself one of them. It was also very lonely, and seeing the depths of their misogyny was frightening. 

I think sometimes when men say “I don’t get it,” what they mean is “I don’t want to get it and I’m not going to do the labor to understand.” In that case, no art can reach them. And we probably shouldn’t try. We reach each other, talk to each other, and in that way, do the work to save ourselves. 

Men have their own reckoning to do—both in their complicity in sexual violence and in the number of men who have also experienced sexual assault and are denied, because of patriarchy, the language and framing to even put their experiences into a cogent narrative. It isn’t an accident that some of the misogynists I befriended and loved and dated in my twenties later confided in me stories of the sexual abuse they experienced. 

Chen: I feel like the cis, straight men in my life—or elsewhere—who might read this and be changed by it are the ones who already care enough to try to listen, empathize, and understand. They’re the ones who are already willing to do the work; I hope that a book like Indelible can push them further toward the understanding they’re pursuing. But the ones who might benefit from listening the most are probably the ones who don’t care to do the work and would never pick up a book like this anyway. Call me cynical, but I don’t have a lot of hope, nor do I have enough patience for men like that. Some of them are in my life because they’re family or longtime friends turned acquaintances, and to be honest, the idea of them reading my piece makes me a little ill. I’m certain they would find some way to judge and blame me. I don’t know if any work we do can make a difference—I often feel that for men like that, the only people they’ll listen to are other cis, straight men—and that even then, what first needs to be addressed are the ways in which patriarchy negatively impacts them, how it isolates them, puts pressure on them to be physical and sexual achievers, how it doesn’t allow room for vulnerability, emotions, and closeness. Not to mention what Kaitlyn said—the space to confide about their own sexual assaults. Perhaps those are the necessary first steps for cis, straight men, so they can let their walls down and finally be ready to hear about what others are experiencing. 

Melnick: I’m married to a cis, straight man who is deeply aware of the horrors of rape culture and its many terrifying forms, and yet certain lived experiences are still a thing he just can’t know. Like, I’m going to walk to the subway in a bit, and it’s a beautiful day in New York City, and I’m quite possibly going to be called after and otherwise street-harassed and it’s going to make me anxious and fearful and unable to enjoy the beautiful day—and as much as my husband can understand of how terrible this is, he doesn’t know the particular bodily experience of it. So a leap has to be taken sometimes, and a book like Indelible can go a long way toward helping cis men to take that leap. Or, in some cases, even to know that these situations exist! I’ve been on panels and given talks about rape culture and toxic masculinity, and many men are truly shocked that any of it exists, even as they are often complicit—or even active—in it. Rape culture is designed to keep cis men from having to interrogate their own actions and to make the rest of us do complicated acrobatics trying to convince anyone that our experience is real.

The introduction to this conversation was adapted from the foreword to Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2019). 
 

Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) and the collaborative digital novella CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and elsewhere. She is the editor of Indelible in the Hippocampus (McSweeney’s, 2019), an anthology of #MeToo fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her website is www.shellyoria.com.