Brit Barnhouse's previous work can be found in Fugue, Saltfront, Writers Resist, The Hopper, Collateral, and more. When not writing about the ever-blurred lines between animals and humans, she can be found hoping for close encounters with whales in the Puget Sound, giving her dogs belly rubs, or tossing treats out to the neighborhood crows.
Growing up in a liberal, college town, I frequented the art house theater where I stood in the ticket line alongside college students with labret piercings and grey-haired white couples and what I assumed to be serious environmentalists in thin-rimmed glasses and fleece outerwear. After coating my popcorn in a spongy layer of nutritional yeast, I watched films like The Sheltering Sky, Mind Walk, My Own Private Idaho, and Boxing Helena. “Gnarly” was my typical review, by which I meant heavy, strange, or fucking disturbing, man! The world felt infinite then and in the screen unfolded refraction after refraction.
Then, in my late-twenties, after I’d moved from the West Coast to a Midwestern city, I started watching American Idol, The O.C., and any number of procedural crime dramas. I paid to watch Dodgeball in the theater. Same with Love Actually. I may have even gone to a Nicolas Sparks movie, but then maybe I just watched it at home on TBS. I had TBS on all the time. Sweet Home Alabama. How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Miss Congeniality. I’d begun working fulltime at a rape crisis center, and after talking sexual assault for eight hours, shallow TV and some Two-Buck Chuck helped mute my day and ease me to sleep.
The center’s prevention educator, I stood in front of teens, college students, juvenile detainees, and community groups with GOT CONSENT? sprawled in white letters across my black t-shirt (it’s true, even rape crisis centers riffed on that milk ad). I presented on the spectrum of sexual assault, dating violence, and violence in the media, teaching how to recognize a perpetrator’s premeditation, grooming, and even their thinking, and illustrating how they displayed this behavior in the open in an attempt to groom their environment, not just their targets. I fielded comments like, “Why did she go to his hotel room if she didn’t want it?” and “She wasn’t even, like, crying so there’s no way that was rape,” and “If a guy rapes a guy, that’s gay.” On the regular I presented for seven classroom periods a day, three days a week, and though my throat burns even now as I think of it, I enjoyed outing perpetrators and spotlighting their culpability. I could eat well and sleep well and carry on with my personal life while doing so, at least at first. It was what happened around rape to perpetuate it—rape culture, as it’s often called—that took its toll.
One time in the ER, I held a woman’s hand as a nurse asked her hostile questions while swabbing evidence from her genitals. The nurse believed the woman was a sex worker, and implied as much, saying, “You sure you didn’t get any money from him?” Horrified, I did my best to deflect and comfort the woman as she lay there, legs spread open to the additional violation that is criminal justice. Another time, I visited a teen victim who was accompanied by her mother and stepfather. The parents declined my support and the girl deferred, and as I stepped back out to the other side of the hospital curtain, I heard the stepdad tell the girl, “Now don’t abuse me with this. I don’t want you thinking you can abuse me now.”
In helping people identify and name rape culture, I came to see it everywhere and keenly. I saw it when guys laughed only at other guys’ jokes, when they didn’t engage with me because they’d relegated me to one of my boyfriend’s belongings, when they re-centered a conversation on what they felt was their own more deserving point, when they hung beer posters of women in bikinis in their frat houses or indie rock practice spaces, when their girlfriends and wives defended them. Rape culture was essentially the patriarchy, and it undermined male, female, and non-binary survivors alike (and everyone else, too, for that matter).
Mundane interactions became increasingly difficult. When someone asked, I would say what I did for a living and then watch them shift foot-to-foot in awkward silence. I sometimes brought up sexual assault in casual settings to the discomfort of others; I never knew if I’d been inappropriate or hit up against the conspiracy of silence that perpetuated the crime. I drank too much, became hair-triggered, and nearly started several bar fights. (I was 5’2” and weighed 107 pounds.) My frustration and sadness grew unbearable under the daily, even hourly, reminders that the world was set up to assist men in taking what they wanted without consequence. Many times, driving down the freeway, I stifled the urge to ram the cement divider, pull a hard left, and let my car flip and flip.
Compounding my desperation was the reality that teaching about sexual assault did not, personally, free me from it. I provided backup on our crisis helpline and not infrequently a male caller would pose as a victim for a few minutes before the soft slapping of his masturbation would become audible. I lived in the campus area of the city where serial rapists were common, and at one point while two stranger rapists were active, a man sat on the stoop of an empty apartment across from my house for several days, watching me come and go. I slept always with a flathead screwdriver next to my bed. I mentally rehearsed self-defense moves whenever I walked alone.
Then, a couple of years into my mounting anger, the issue detonated at home, at the place I felt safest from the fight. My boyfriend and I had started getting lazy about using condoms, so one afternoon while we were both fully clothed, I sat him down at the kitchen table and said in very concrete terms that it was not okay for him to put his penis in me if he wasn’t wearing a condom. I told him I had to trust him to put one on first—that that was my expectation moving forward. He agreed, and though we fought often, the conversation had gone well—I believed. About a month later, in what I thought was foreplay, he went ahead and shoved inside of me without any protection. He didn’t hold me down when I pushed him off, but he had penetrated me without my consent—the definition of rape. It didn’t look much like what I talked about all day at work, but I felt its betrayal; within our contentious relationship, it was a sucker punch, one that told me the boundaries I set didn’t and wouldn’t matter. I broke up with him, and he moved across the country, and I felt bereft in his wake.
On weekends I’d get up late, often with a hangover, and watch TV until the afternoon. Trading Spaces—so much Trading Spaces—and one of those TBS movies. Between shows, I’d pet my cat, I’d scramble eggs, I’d loosen my shoulders beneath the blast of a shower head until evening came, and I’d meet up with friends again at one bar or another. On Monday, I’d drive to a new neighborhood or suburb and talk to teenagers for six or seven hours in a way I hoped made them question, even for a second, what they were entitled to and what they deserved.
It was after failing a group of medical support staff that I realized I had to quit. I’d been asked to present on sexual harassment, but as it turned out the only staff who attended the presentation were the ones being harassed. The surgeons—the harassers—had a different boss who had not required them to show up. One of the evaluations said something like, “We’re drowning here and you’re describing the water.” Can you imagine?
When I told friends about giving my notice, I said, “Ignorance is bliss and I need more of that.” It came off as a joke, but it was the truth: I needed to know less about the sexual assault that happens constantly to us and around us. I needed to forget a little, to set down the magnifying glass and let my eyes readjust before I was consumed by the anger I felt, and the alienation. I wanted to go back to thinking about rape from time to time—when I felt particularly vulnerable or when it was in the news.
Talking in jest about leaving helped me sidestep my guilt about it; I was walking away from a war that ruined, and even took, lives daily, but I didn’t know how to continue to function while seeing so clearly how even average people enabled rape. As conflicted as I was, I wanted to survive, which is also what ignorance is—a survival skill.
I moved back to Northern California where I still live, where people tend to slap their values on the bumpers of their cars. Along with Ignorance Is Bliss, its cousin sometimes motors past: If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention. I shake my head because I’ve been to that edge and dangled my toes over; I know outrage has its limits. It may mean you’re paying attention, but it also may mean you’re a danger to yourself. It may mean you’re less useful. Likely every person could be doing more to make the world better, and we who care have to live with that tension, with finding the balance of doing enough but not too much, of knowing and acting without drowning. Maybe that means heading home from a political rally to watch some really bad, and even problematic, TV. Maybe that means forgiving ourselves and each other for the moments when we’re out of integrity. Maybe that means allowing ourselves to take up post somewhere other than the frontline.
After going back to school I began working again in a helping, and even related, profession—but at a much more sustainable distance. Out to drinks with a colleague one night, we talked about something seemingly unrelated, making long-term relationships work, and he offered the best advice he’d heard: “It helps if you can try to be a little bit deaf and a little bit blind.” It made me think not of my new boyfriend but of leaving the rape crisis center, and though I could feel the vestiges of young me wanting to argue with him, I did not.
Kara Vernor’s fiction and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Smokelong Quarterly, All of Me: Love, Anger and the Female Body, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation scholarship, and her fiction chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press.
Photo by Kara Vernor
A private college in Boston was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Along with being criticized for its lack of racial diversity, one of its black faculty had filed a discrimination lawsuit, and another had complained to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. A third had quit. It was rumored that the president, under whose watch these troubles festered, was being forced to resign. And so when I saw their ad for a professor of creative writing, with a specific appeal for applicants of color, I could not believe my good fortune. The college, it seemed to me, like a flowering boll of cotton beneath the hot Georgia sun, was ripe for the picking.
A flowering boll of cotton would have been too much to ask for, but I could have used some hot Georgia sun. My complexion was its usual mid-New-England-winter pale, and I feared that competitors for the job with darker skin, even if only by a shade or two, would have a psychological edge with the search committee. I had first seen this sort of thing as a child; on basketball courts, as players were being divvied up teams, the darker your skin, the greater assumption that you were a baller. I was routinely chosen near the end, or left on the sidelines entirely, being that I am closer in hue to a banana than a plum. As I grew older I noticed that this assumption extended to other areas of life, such as the ability to dance, to fight, and to copulate with great skill and endurance; surely it had reached a private college in dire need of some Negroes.
Morally speaking, I am not a perfect person—who is?—so I considered getting a tan. There was a salon next door to the Starbucks I frequented and sometimes, before getting out of my car to grab a cappuccino, I would see ghostly Caucasians enter its doors and their dazzlingly bronzed counterparts exit. I imagined going inside and how the clerk, after initially being confused by my presence in the lobby, would open the cash register and dump its contents on the counter, right after pressing the silent alarm. But that could work in my favor; there are few things more balling than a black man’s false arrest. “Traffic into Boston was slow going,” I could tell the hiring committee, “but I’d rather be sitting on I-95 than in a jail cell, as I was last week.” If only life were that simple. Any gains to my balling quotient would be lost once I combined in a sentence the words “lobby” and “Tanorama.” The sad state of my complexion would have to remain.
My attire, however, was definitely in play, like O.J. Simpson’s had been during his trial for murder. I remembered how he would come to court wearing kente-cloth ties and earth-toned suits, which for O.J., who had long ago rejected all things related to black culture, were the equivalent of dashikis and boubous. I think he even occasionally wore a pin of Africa on his lapel. Just as I had begun to wonder if he would don a fez, it was rendered unnecessary by the testimony of Mark Furman. As it turned out, the college where I currently worked had its fair share of Mark Furmans; that, however, was not why I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave because private colleges pay considerably more than state colleges. If winning the job meant putting one or two of my Mark Furmans on the stand, I would not hesitate to do so.
The ad called for the standard fare: evidence of good teaching, experience working on committees, and a strong record of publication, including a book. Of these, the book was most important, and mine was forthcoming. It was a memoir about my experiences as a college student, husband, father, and academic, but it included many anecdotes from my teenage years in a ghetto, which meant I was golden. I simply had to play up the ghetto parts, as had the publisher, who adorned the cover with prostitutes, hoodlums, and a driverless Cadillac—its owner, presumably, bound and gagged in the trunk. Now I was grateful that my objections to these images were not heeded. I was grateful, too, that there had been no enthusiasm for my working title, The Mechanics of Being. “It’s a nod to my mentor James Alan McPherson,” I explained, “who urged black writers to move beyond complaining about racism to addressing the universality of the human condition.” “Too Zen,” the publisher replied. Zen, she noted, was the very opposite of African American. She changed the title to Street Shadows and planned to release the book in February to coincide with Black History Month, which, as fate would have it, coincided with the deadline for the job applications. All stars were aligning in my favor.
But first things first: I needed a strong cover letter. Academic positions can be won or lost in their opening paragraph, nay, with their very salutation, which is why I deleted “As-Salaam-Alaikum” as soon as I typed it, as it could be seen as pandering. “Dear Search Committee,” I wrote instead. “As an African American with experience teaching African American literature—including slave narratives, Native Son, and Toni Morrison—and whose memoir, Street Shadows, chronicles my experiences as a black teen in a Chicago ghetto, I believe I am particularly well-suited to meet your college’s needs.” I read it to my wife Brenda.
“Are you trying not to get the job?” she asked.
“Quite the contrary.”
“Then I suggest you stop pandering.”
I snorted. “This isn’t pandering. Pandering would be greeting the committee with, say, As-Salaam-Alaikum.”
“No one’s dumb enough to do that,” she said. “But you are pandering.”
“Actually,” I explained, “I’m balling.”
I told her about being picked last at hoops.
“Maybe you just weren’t any good.”
It was true that my crossover needed work, as well as my defensive skills and rebounding. I had a decent mid-range jump shot, though, given the right opponent, like Little Tommy Jones, or his baby sister. But I did not argue the point. The key to balling was improvisation, after all, having the agility to perform whatever act a specific moment required; for now the shrewder move might be merely to identify rather than emphasize my race. What I emphasized were my awards for teaching and service, my two terminal degrees, a comprehensive list of the intellectual and creative strengths I felt I could bring to the institution, and my publications and forthcoming book. I doubted the wisdom of this approach for the month it took the search committee to call. My interview was scheduled for March.
That gave me two months—more than enough time to buy the books of the creative writing faculty, though not enough time to read them. So I merely skimmed their contents and memorized the author bios. I memorized the author’s faces too, one of which came easily, a black female writer-in-residence. At first she struck fear into my heart, as it dawned on me that the search was a farce designed to promote her to the tenure track, but ultimately I decided she was one of the plaintiffs; there was just something about her coy smile that signaled she had the institution, if not the world, by the balls. It was, I’d bet, a practiced expression.
I practiced my expressions too, avoiding the coy one, so as not to tip my hand. And I shied away from ones that made me look overly friendly, like the Sambos in antebellum movies, or Bill Cosby before he had to switch to sad and confused. Which brought to mind another possibility; maybe I should not smile at all. I could scowl, in the manner of Kanye West, to show I meant business. There was a risk in that, though, since in the eyes of many the business of a scowling black man was assault or murder. The image I wanted to project was of a black man who was proud but not angry, kind but not buffoonish, streetwise yet cosmopolitan, someone who could gracefully diversify cocktail parties as the host’s only black friend. By the time the interview arrived, I had watched every YouTube interview of Will Smith I could find.
The interview was a daylong affair. First I met with the search committee, which consisted of two white males and thickly accented woman I identified as Latina, though I later learned she was Greek. There was a Latina in the department, however, as well as a Latino, both of whom attended my presentation, along with a dozen other faculty. Two more faculty interviewed me over lunch; another interviewed me during a campus tour. And then some students, the staff, the chair, and the dean interviewed me in quick succession. None of these interviewers was black, which I found both astonishing and fortuitous. They definitely had a race problem, and I believed I was making a strong case to help solve it. My answers to their questions were rock solid. I was witty and charming. I spoke compellingly about my work. And I responded with genuine enthusiasm whenever someone boasted of the college’s attributes, which were plentiful. It truly is a fine institution, so it must have been humiliating to have its reputation marred by the public airing of its racial discord, while most colleges and universities manage to keep theirs under wraps. No one I had spoken with broached this subject; however, nor had I.
But was that the best strategy? I had wondered about it constantly in the weeks leading up to the interview. Inquiring about their race problems could show I was candid and mature enough to discuss such a sensitive topic. On the other hand, it could come across as crass and tactless, maybe even accusatory. By the time I was led to the office of the Vice President for the final interview, I still was not sure what to do.
The first fifteen minutes were formal as she peppered me with questions, occasionally interjecting positive references to my résumé, or describing hypothetical courses I would be asked to develop. And then conversation turned informal, touching on current events, sports, and even fashion, as she noted her admiration of my kente-cloth tie. But as the interview wound to an end, her demeanor suddenly tensed. “We’ve had some problems with diversity,” she said, as she leaned back in her chair. “Perhaps you’ve heard?”
“Yes,” I replied. “As a matter of fact, I have.”
“I hope that hasn’t dampened your opinion of us. We’re not a bad institution,” she stressed. “We’re just experiencing some growing pains. Maybe your college is as well?”
She was seeking to establish a kinship, I knew, one based on the difficulties of navigating matters of race; that was my cue to call my Mark Fuhrmans to the stand. “These kinds of growing pains,” I said instead, “are hallmarks of the universality of the human condition, and all institutions, like all individuals, must undergo them as we improve as a society.” Her face softened into a smile, and I knew the job was won. How could it not be? I had just hit her with a sweet crossover, after all, one so deft that she never saw it coming.
Jerald Walker is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult and Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction. He has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The Harvard Review, The MIssouri Review, River Teeth, Mother Jones, The Iowa Review, and The Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including four times in The Best American Essays. His next book, Once More to the Ghetto and Other Essays, will be published in 2019. He teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.
Balling has recently published in The Normal School's most recent print edition, Volume 11, Issue 2).