When I was very young, a teenage girl was raped in my neighborhood, and my mother told me if that ever happened to me, my father would find the man and kill him.
I think she was trying to make a point about how much he loved me, but the notion of my gentle-giant father turning into a vengeful murderer sent a much more powerful message:
If something like that ever happened to me, I had best make sure he did not find out.
So when I first read the Liam Neeson interview, in which he confessed to having years ago sought revenge for the rape of a friend by prowling an unnamed city looking for a black man to cosh or kill because his friend had said her rapist was black, after the shell-shock of the obvious racism, I thought, “and that’s one reason rape remains such an under-reported crime.”
There are, of course, many other reasons: Law enforcement has not always been sympathetic or well-trained; rape victims often know their assailant and fear retribution; and, of course, women are often simply not believed when they recount instances of sexual assault.
Add to that, the fear of how their loved ones will react.
On top of dealing with having been raped and all the historical stigmas associated with reporting it, women don’t want the men in their lives behaving like vengeful, and potentially racist, berserkers.
How many images do we have, in film, TV, literature, of women who have been harmed holding back their fathers/husbands/brothers in an attempt to keep them from making a bad situation worse?
And maybe that is the conversation we would be having now if Neeson’s friend had said the man who attacked her was white with red hair— Neeson says he would have taken to the streets no matter what the descriptor — and “ginger bastard” is not going to grab headlines.
Instead, he told a story that caused a media conflagration, and righteously so. This country has a horrifying history of considering all black men rapists, and torturing and killing many of them for crimes they did not commit.
The story cycled into the next day as Neeson went on the morning shows to say that he isn’t a racist; that, as a Catholic raised in Northern Ireland, he understood the dangers of bigotry and violence and that the whole point of the story was how much he regretted his behavior. Former Liverpool soccer star John Barnes defended him, and second-day commentary veered toward the importance of openly discussing racism and the condemnation of cancellation coverage.
All of which is perfectly in keeping with how our society now discusses even very important issues, but here’s the thing.
In this whole story, only one crime was actually committed. A woman was raped, just as one in five American women will be raped during their lifetimes, and having survived that, she then had to worry about what exactly her big, angry friend was doing when he was going for all those long walks.
Yet somehow, the conversation was not about that at all.
Somehow, a story that began with a rape became all about … men.
Rape and racism have an undeniable, terrible and terrifying relationship in this country, which is exactly why one should not be overlooked while discussing the other.
Neeson confessed an urge that is rooted first in sexism — men need to take vengeance on crimes committed against “their” women because it it is a matter of honor. Some other man has dared touch what is “theirs,” and that simply cannot stand.
Racists and the society supporting them have used this toxic rage to persecute black men, doubling the crime.
And, too often, pushing the rape out of sight.
In Barry Jenkins’ new film “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the work by James Baldwin, a young man is wrongfully accused of rape, the victim of a vengeful white police officer.
It’s a beautiful, haunting film, about a very important narrative, and, of course, not every film should be about every thing. But a part of me couldn’t help thinking about the woman who had been raped, who, in the end, refuses to help undo the injustice. We are left with the notion that she too is a victim, but really she’s a plot mechanism. This is not her story.
Just as it was not the woman’s story in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the book by Harper Lee, everyone agreed that Mayella Ewell had been beaten and most likely raped, though by her father rather than Tom Robinson, the black man her father forced her to falsely accuse.
Even the great Atticus Finch could think of no help to offer Mayella, hostage to a physically and sexually abusive father, other than pity; having been used as a weapon against Tom, she disappears from the narrative.
This is not about creating a contest of suffering; in a society built to protect white male authority, rape offers a two-birds-with-one stone approach to oppression.