BARRY GRAHAM ESSAYS

It was the summer of 2004. I was living in East Tennessee, in a house on the edge of woods, at the halfway point on a mile between a mental hospital and a sewage plant.

Someone knocked on my door, and I knew it had to be trouble. I wasn’t expecting anyone, it was after midnight, and not many people knew where I lived.

The knocking on the front door was insistent, though not loud. A burst of urgent knocking, then a pause, then another burst. I went to the door, in the shorts and T-shirt I slept in, and looked through the glass. The security light was on, but at first I didn’t see anyone.

Then I saw the woman who was standing about halfway down the porch steps, crying, her body trembling.

I opened the door.

“Will you help me?” she said.

“Yeah, of course. What’s wrong?”

She cried harder as she said, “A man was giving me a ride, but he raped me.”

“Come in,” I said, and she did. “Sit down. You’re safe here.” She sat on a chair, and I went to the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and brought it to her. She was barefoot, and had a missing front tooth. I realized that she was probably still in her thirties, but she looked much older.

I went and woke Anni, whom I lived with. We asked the woman, who said her name was Wendy, what she wanted us to do.

She said she didn’t want to call the cops. She wanted to call her sister. Anni handed her a phone, but her hands were shaking so badly she couldn’t dial the number on the first attempt, and then when she did get through she was too upset to talk. She gave the phone to Anni, who explained what had happened, but the sister said she didn’t have a car and couldn’t come and help.

Wendy told us she’d asked a guy she didn’t know to give her a ride to her sister’s house in Georgia, but that he’d brought her to this dark corner of nowhere instead, raped her in the woods, taken her shoes, and told her that if he saw her on the road he would run her over. She said she had walked out of the woods and found our house.

I offered to drive her to a hospital, and she said she wanted to go to Rossville Boulevard, Chattanooga, where she’d left her car, where a friend was waiting for her in the car. She didn’t explain why she’d taken a ride from a stranger and left her friend in her car, and I didn’t ask because I wouldn’t have believed the answer.

I didn’t know what had happened to her, how much of her story was true. All that was certain was that something had happened to her, and that she was miles from anywhere, in the middle of the night, terrified, in bare feet.

She said she didn’t want to go to the hospital right away, because the friend who was waiting in the car would be worried. “I can go after I see her,” she said. Anni asked if the friend had a cell phone. “No.”

Rossville Boulevard is a miserable drag where people sell sex, sell their blood plasma, for enough money to buy cheap drugs and cheap booze.

It was where she wanted to go, and so we took her there, in my pickup truck, with me driving, Anni sitting in the middle, and Wendy squeezed against the passenger side door, wearing a pair of flip-flops Anni had given her. (How she had walked barefoot in these seething, insect-ridden woods is more than I want to imagine.) As I drove, nobody spoke, except to ask for directions and if the air-conditioning wasn’t too cold.

As I exited the freeway onto Rossville, she told me to make a right and pull into a gas station. I did, and she pointed to a red car parked at the side of the building. “Over there. That’s my car.”

There was nobody in the car.

“Do you want us to wait here with you until your friend shows up?” Anni said.

“No, that’s okay.” Wendy got out of the truck. With nothing else to be done or said, we told her to take care. As we pulled out of the gas station, I looked back and saw that she’d walked right past the car that was supposedly hers, and was approaching another car parked nearby.

#memoir #nonfiction #poverty #rape #addiction

What some warmly call “community,” others may experience as a mob. In 2019, a friend of mine who’s a crime fiction author told me they were glad that the Mystery Writers of America had withdrawn its Grand Master award from Linda Fairstein, who, before becoming a novelist, was the prosecutor of the Central Park Five.

“I don’t think there’s a place for Fairstein in the community,” my friend said.

This told me I didn’t want to be part of “the community,” though, in Gary Snyder’s terms, my friend is probably mistaking network for community, as community includes people who don’t like or agree with one another. In an interview in the 1970s, Snyder pointed out there are networks of poets and networks of dentists. He said he had “followers” in the poetry network and the Zen Buddhist network, but not in the community in Northern California where he made his home.

No one could dislike Linda Fairstein, prosecutor, more than I do. I have no opinion, positive or negative, about Linda Fairstein, author, because I haven’t read her books. But I do know her books haven’t prosecuted anyone, innocent or guilty. And the books that made the MWA decide to give her the award have not changed since the decision to withdraw it. In giving in to pressure from those who dislike Fairstein the person, or their idea of her, in making a judgment ad personam rather than literary, the MWA showed itself to be not a literary community but a personal network.

Community is inclusive, not about who is “in” and who is “out.” In community, no one has the authority to exclude, to say who belongs and who doesn’t. In community, by definition, we’re all in it together. A network may be about cool kids and outcasts, Brahmins and Untouchables, but community can’t be.

My friend fell out with another crime writer on social media. The other writer had posted a quote from Mike Tyson, about boxing, and my friend responded by reminding them Tyson is a rapist. The other writer blocked my friend, who didn’t explain how a quote about boxing was invalidated by the criminal history of the former world boxing champion who said it. It seems no matter how authoritative a person might be in their field, if they don’t meet a certain moral standard in their personal conduct, then not only they, but their work and their expertise, are to be shunned. Whether or not they are proven guilty, whether or not they are imprisoned for a period of time, their livelihood, and their personhood, are to be denied indefinitely.

We should hope whoever finds a cure for cancer isn’t a rapist.

#cancelculture #virtuesignalling #socialmedia