Art You Engaged. / Are you engaged? is an emergency issue of The James Franco Review. Writers, editors, and artists around the country explored what it means for them to be politically or consciously engaged in their work and to also examine literature’s relationship to safety.
A Letter to the Editor About Dudes Grabbing Crotches in Greenville, North Carolina
The James Franco Review
When I was nineteen, I told my creative writing professor what I wanted to write about in my next short story: the Halloween party where my friends and I were groped by anonymous hands in a very large crowd.
It happened in Greenville, North Carolina, a college town in the hot, flat, flood-prone part of the state, a part that always felt like it should be at the ocean but the ocean was still 90 miles away. It was the year 2001, and you could still smoke cigarettes inside the mall in Greenville. Not in the stores, but in the food court.
My friend Haley went to school there and I would visit her and party because Greenville was famous for its parties and especially its Halloween. What had I heard about it? Probably vague superlatives, like,
“Girl, Greenville is crazy.”
“Oh my god. Halloween? It is so crazy.”
So I was with Haley and some friends, getting drunk and getting ready in the traditional way—turning non-clothing items into clothing, sexualizing occupations and characters from children’s media. It was great fun, a time to up your market value and wield the porn aesthetic as power without the usual governor of shame.
I showed up in Greenville with no costume. In part, I was beginning a complicated relationship with my own commodification, plus, I was a poor planner. I relied on Haley to lend me a pair of full-length seafoam green pajamas and named my costume, “I’m asleep.”
The sexlessness of “I’m asleep” felt a bit like sitting out a pool party due to an ear infection, but it was comfortable. The shoes that go with pajamas are sneakers, so I was able to walk normally, and I felt powerful and smart for having opted out. It probably gave me some kind of grandma’s approval/adhering to the recommendations of D.A.R.E. kind of buzz, which of course I would also feel like I partly didn’t deserve.
I was young enough to believe that sexual attention from men was something that happened only if you were looking hot, so when the first hand jammed itself into my crotch, I felt shocked and misunderstood. It was rough and ignorant, jabbing with no knowledge of the terrain: a boy’s hand.
I whipped around to cuss at the boy, but there was only the crowd, thick as fuck, a mass of youngfolk, children of the late 70s and early 80s, taking a break from illegally downloading music in dorm rooms that smelled of old semen and powdered cheese, horny, economically illiterate with pockets full of loan money, some forming lifelong drinking habits, some trying to be good, some acting out the old ugly politics, everyone drunk in the street, partying in a way that was a lot like standing still. It was loud. My friends and I could hardly hear when we shouted into each other’s ears.
More hands, some more knowing. Some tried to go in. One had a measure of success, first knuckle, maybe. I spun around, still looking for justice, and behind me, a big fella stood smoking a blunt. His size, his shoulders, how solid he was on his feet, the way he exhaled smoke over my head in a declaration of innocence that was also a threat, all that silenced me. It changed my mind. I turned back around.
But I needed to express it. I thought of writing as a way to pluck an experience out of time and hold it still, look at it. I also thought of it as a wild west where you could do anything you wanted: what a miracle, what a thrill. Soon enough I was fired up about writing about Greenville. I felt it would bring me justice.
But when I told my professor that this was what I wanted to write about, he advised me against it. It was an issue, and issues had no place in fiction. Better to do something else with it, he advised, like write a letter to the editor.
A letter to the what? This to me was not interesting. It was not even a thing. Maybe it was a thing gray haired men wrote for gray haired men to read. But how could I approach whatever systems administered the backpages of newspapers in Southeastern North Carolina to talk about something that had happened to my pussy? No, really—what word would I use? The idea felt akin to a trip to the doctor’s office. Not your sensitive primary care provider with the good communication skills; your family values gynecologist who shames you.
Dudes in my creative writing classes wrote stories cataloging the fuck-ups of crime-ridden or emotionally enfeebled males. These protagonists woke to alarm clocks and acid tripped through romantic rejections, got put in jail, then fantasized about sexually assaulting girls on campus who looked like me. Or else they went fishing with their dad and saw a bald eagle. That’s fine. But I’m sad that these things took up space in the classroom, and my thing, an issue, was ushered out.
And surely the letter to the editor suggestion was not meant to silence me. But it had the effect of changing my mind—of correcting me, and I was quick to be corrected. Quick to defer a boss who couldn’t really see me and might not deserve his authority yet minding him was a rule of the game.
Which is probably a common tic for those who grow up in a system that sells itself as merit-based, yet god is a white male, and so are the full professors with tenure. And building up your own sense of authority is a kind of domestic chore, something that gets done and undone and never ends; it’s women’s work; it’s work for people of color, people in the queer community, and anyone outside the usual accumulations of power, privilege, and wealth.
If I could rewrite this part of my personal history I would: 1. Endow myself with a martial art and 2. Give myself a radical advisor who would enable me to use my fiery ideas and maybe steer me toward nonfiction. Because school was a rare time to experiment without the limitations of time and money and market value. And because the places you go on the page can only be as wild as your gatekeeper.
And it turns out the letter to the editor is not such a bad idea. I just needed the right editor, a rare one to whom I could write about my actual experience in my actual voice.
Erin Sroka was raised in Durham, North Carolina.
Image © osseous via Flickr Creative Commons.