In the thought-provoking The Red Word, Sarah Henstra explores rape culture on college campuses, particularly in fraternity houses. Narrator Karen Huls arrives at an unnamed Ivy League college in 1995, where she becomes torn between two worlds: the feminists she lives with and the fraternity house where her boyfriend lives. The feminists hate the fraternity, which they call Gang Bang Central, and for good reason. There’s a basement in the house where they are rumored to gang-rape women. A good friend of theirs was impregnated and abandoned by one of the head fraternity guys. And the usual: women are given way too much to drink, treated like objects, and rape is permitted if not openly encouraged.
At the same time, Karen loves being a girl in the frat house. She likes being seen as “one of the guys” and she also likes the sense of being desired but, because she’s a girlfriend, being off-limits. I think in a way she also likes the danger. Boyfriend Mike tells her never to leave his room at night, as if she might be assaulted the minute she’s apart from him. She challenges him on this, yet also doesn’t take it very seriously.
The Red Word is a book that looks at even the way we use the term rape.
“Rape” was a red word, a greedy word. It was a double-sided axe brandished in a circle over the head. It drew all kinds of attention to itself.
“You were going to say get raped, right? You were going to say I let her get raped. Like get wet, like I left her out in the rain or something. … They want us to treat rape like a naturally occurring phenomenon, like weather.”
All of which reminds me of my own college experience, where you could choose to be a part of Greek life or stay the hell away, and I chose the latter. I can’t say I have any direct experience with fraternity parties because I wouldn’t have gone to one without an army at my side, and why subject yourself to that experience? As a college student, I read books about rape on college campuses, very much like Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, so you can see it’s been 25 years and nothing has changed. I even interned in a sex crimes division of the district attorney. That was my college experience: I had my guard up.
What infuriates me now is how accepted it all was. I had friends who dropped out of school because of rape, and everyone just nodded and said, yup, that’s how it is. Women on campus were told where we could walk, and when, and with whom, all in the name of protecting ourselves. Because as Karen says in this book, women are rapeable. It’s not about who’s doing the raping, it’s about putting all these rules and limits on our lives and when the worst happens, we’re at best sympathized with, and at worst torn to shreds for what we did.
Okay, I’m ranting. Back to the book.
I should tell you first off that this book reminded me eerily of The Secret History, and that’s a good thing because it’s one of my favorites. It’s set on a college campus, about a group of students studying Greek, and it’s told through the eyes of a narrator who is something of an outsider, torn between belonging to two different groups, and who views everything through a somewhat distant, though at the same time intimate, lens. The story pivots around an act of violence that our narrator is left out of and discovers gradually. Even the character of Charla reminded me of Camilla – a vision, a free spirit, but a character who never quite feels real.
And like The Secret History, it will help if you find Greek language/literature mildly interesting. Because of the similarities in writing style, I think both of these authors must have been influenced by the subject. Both books present Greek as not just a language or literature or mythology, but as something that’s the core of our identity.
If you mind that, and if you mind Henstra’s parallels with Greek epic literature and language, this book may annoy you. I didn’t mind it, but I don’t know that I completely understood it either, and sometimes it felt distracting. Still, I appreciated Henstra’s writing style, which is both poetic and direct at the same time.
My frustration with this book was with the narrator herself. She’s presented in this book as a neutral observer, someone without a strong personality who takes on the character of the group she’s with. As such, she presents an interesting and at times scathing view of both the feminists and the fraternity guys. But practically speaking, she’s annoyingly dense and overwhelmingly passive. She’s “dating” this guy she doesn’t even really like (though he’s clingy and controlling so I wasn’t sympathetic for him either). She cares about her friends but never really becomes part of their circle. And she’s bothered by the signs of sexual assault she sees in the house, but when confronted with it, does nothing.
I also found the modern day part of the story difficult to connect to, and the back and forth detracted from the real story. There was too much time spent describing Karen’s speech at a conference, and when she finds out that a friend died we learn almost nothing about what happened. Also, Karen is supposed to be this amazing photographer, yet in the story her photography is something she mentions once in a while, not something she seems passionate about.
All together though, this book was hard to put down and raised really important and complex issues about feminism, moral culpability, and how we see rape, sexuality, and women’s bodies. My niece started college last year and when I asked her about safety at parties she said she knows not to drink anything given to her in a cup. How awful is that?
In this year when suddenly women’s issues are front and center, this book couldn’t be more timely. Only at the same time, how sad is it that we’ve lived with this for so long, and done so little.
Note: I received an Advanced Review Copy from NetGalley and publisher Grove Atlantic. The book published March 13, 2018.