Published: Apr 21, 2011
I was sufficiently disturbed by So Much Pretty to call the author before I wrote about it. Days after I published my review/interview, I still felt incomplete. Then it came to me --- I wanted to read a woman’s reaction to this story of an abused woman and the males who destroy her. And I knew exactly the woman to ask: Gretl Claggett, who is a writer, speaker and activist with a mission to help others create more authentic lives. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. Her poetry collection, “Monsoon Solo,” will be published by WordTech Editions in 2012. She’s working on a nonfiction book.
It started innocently enough. The man asked for a dance.
I was sitting with a few friends in a blues bar in Charleston, South Carolina --- a town known for its chivalry and charm. I’d flown in that day from New York City to perform a poem at the annual gala of Darkness to Light, an organization that trains adults to recognize, stop and prevent the sexual abuse of children.
It was late. The band was loud. So when the man approached our table, I thought he was talking to my friend and didn’t respond.
He asked again, “Would you like to dance?”
“Oh. No, thanks,” I replied with a cordial smile.
Then things got ugly.
The man persisted. He was relentless, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Soon one of my girlfriends drunkenly joined in: “Go ahead, dance!”
“But I don’t want to dance,” I said, glaring at her.
“You mean to tell me,” the man’s voice escalated with each exchange, “that you’re turnin’ down a good-lookin’ guy like myself?”
“Listen. She doesn’t wanna dance!” Dan --- half the size of the intruder and the only man at our table --- finally cut in. “Just drop it, okay?”
With that, the man, who was in his mid-40s and looked like a well-dressed lumberjack, lumbered back to the bar.
On our way out, we had no choice but to pass by him. I felt uneasy, told Dan, “Cover me.” The moment I got close, the man grabbed my arm and snarled, “I still can’t believe you wouldn’t dance ... ”
“Maybe next time, buddy,” Dan wrapped his arm around me, and we rushed out onto the empty street.
The next morning, I searched for clues to why he’d singled me out, but found none. I was dressed like everyone else, hadn’t made eye contact with him --- hell, hadn’t done anything to call attention to myself … You're in your 40s, a random thought attacked, you should be thrilled you can still turn heads … This brand of male desire, though, wasn’t what I sought.
My girlfriend apologized for making a bad situation worse, then shrugged and said, “We have targets on our foreheads.”
While I no longer feel that way --- at least not consciously --- I understand what she meant. Like millions of other women, she and I share a history of early abuse, as well as close calls through the years with violent men, known and unknown. But hey, we’re the lucky ones, the ones who got away --- unlike “Wendy White,” the missing girl found dead in the woods at the start of Cara Hoffman’s riveting crime novel, “So Much Pretty.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
If you haven’t read it yet, here’s why you should:
In our 24/7 media-driven culture, we’re barraged with graphic sound bites and images of violence --- especially sexualized violence. We’ve seen a woman’s scantily clad corpse dumped somewhere so many times it’s become, as Hoffman says, “a cliché.”
Drowning in statistics like 1 in 3 American women is physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, it’s easy to numb ourselves, to grow further paralyzed. I don’t know about you, but I frequently feel like Hoffman’s character, Claire, a doctor who treats battered women --- that no matter what I do, it will “never be enough.” Statistics serve a purpose, sure, but they don’t compel us to feel or think differently about our lives the way that great storytelling can.
Even though “So Much Pretty” doesn’t offer solutions, it poses the right questions. And most importantly, it shows the denial and complicity we all participate in, whether or not we’re aware of it. That’s the tricky thing with denial and complicity: they’re usually unconscious. “So Much Pretty” is a one-of-a-kind experience that will shake you up and prompt new insights about our very wounded world.
Claire, the doctor, says it’s what’s done “to prevent these things” that really matters.
So what can we do --- as women and men, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers --- to end this insidious war, which claims and ruins more lives than any other war we’re fighting?
We can start by supporting organizations on the front line. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence promotes policies that protect women and children, works to eliminate social conditions that perpetuate this epidemic, and advises agencies nationwide, providing grassroots programs; RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1.800.656.HOPE) and leads efforts to stop sexual violence, improve victim services and ensure that rapists are brought to justice; Darkness to Light empowers adults through educational initiatives to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to childhood sexual abuse; and the international Bell Bajao campaign teaches boys and men to take a stand to halt violence and abuse in their communities.
Next, in our daily lives, we can heed Orwell’s Pay attention to the obvious --- a phrase repeated by one of Hoffman’s characters; a phrase that brought to my mind another warning, written by poet Muriel Rukeyser: Pay attention to what they tell you to forget.
After reading “So Much Pretty” and contemplating my own experiences, plus the fact that I’ve been told I’m “lucky” because I survived, I’ve begun to wonder …
By focusing exclusively on the gruesome --- girls locked in basements, women tortured and used as sex toys --- is the media, and are we as a culture at large, sending a message to all women? “Listen, babe, it could be worse, so stop whining, count your blessings and suffer those subtler daily violences in silence, ’cause this mutilated body could be you!”
If that is the case, why are we women being so … nice about it?