Date of Degree

9-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Jessica Yood

Committee Members

Linda Martin Alcoff

Carrie Hintz

Subject Categories

Literature in English, North America | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Women's Studies

Keywords

memoir, trauma studies, structural violence, American literature, rape studies, feminism

Abstract

This dissertation engages with literary trauma theory and rape studies by investigating how scholars through the 1990s theorized the relationship among trauma, narration, and silence, and how the #MeToo movement causes us to rethink these views. Attending to the specific silence generated in the wake of sexual violation reveals how power structures influence the act of telling, challenging the idea that trauma is untellable. I argue that literary trauma theory needs to push beyond its foundation in biomedical models of trauma—in which the (in)ability to recall or articulate traumatic events is rooted in neurology—to examine the ways traumatic narratives are also silenced by external social, cultural, and political forces. By analyzing autobiographical writings about sexual violation in relation to their historical contexts and the social location of their authors, I show how cultural conditions have shaped the ways survivors make meaning of their experiences and created dangerous environments for telling. While at times the psychological impact of trauma might make silence unavoidable, silence can also be a conscious choice, whether because that silence is seen as a mode of self-protection from disbelief and forms of second rape, or whether survivors choose silence in order to reclaim a sense of agency and narrative control.

Traumatic narratives are a product of the dynamic relationship between writers and readers. Writers write with an awareness of how their works will be received, and that reception is often determined by contemporary cultural attitudes and beliefs. I survey forty years of American rape memoirs from 1979 to 2019 with an eye towards identifying the evolving characteristics of the genre as they emerge in response to the waxing and waning of the feminist anti-rape movement. By reading these works alongside the history of the movement, I show how the rises and declines in its visibility and support that occurred throughout the 80s, 90s, and into the early 21st century motivated how rape was culturally understood, how survivors made meaning of their experiences, and ultimately how they wrote those experiences into memoirs. While high levels of rape myth acceptance during some of these decades severely limited the types of stories able to be told, the burgeoning understanding of the structural nature of sexual violence brought about by the #MeToo movement has allowed for a much-needed evolution of the genre. I point to how works written alongside and after the #MeToo movement mark an expansion of narrative possibility. Power shifts have taken place where writers have come to have more agency regarding how they tell their stories, with more recent works using metanarratives to influence reading practices or overtly critique the conditions in which telling takes place. I use the works of Roxane Gay as a case study for my understandings of both trauma theory and of the relationships between writers and readers of trauma narratives. In articulating the structural roots of traumatic silence, they support my thesis that trauma theory must be reimagined in light of sexual violation, while also opening up further avenues of inquiry into the material realities of rape.

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