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26 September 2011 @ 10:19 pm
Telepathy And Sexual Assault -- The Rowan  
One of the many topics I have planned for covering in this journal is the ways in which psi, usually telepathy or thought transference by another name, is often presented or described in spec fic as a form of sexual assault.

There are several different ways in which this connection is made, each of them insidious in their own ways.

I'm going to start this topic with a discussion of The Rowan by Anne McCaffrey, a book I read when I was 11. (I read several Anne McCaffrey books between the ages of 11 and 14.)

At age 11, I was quite aware that thought transference was part of my normal experience, but I didn't have any context for my experiences. The consistent message from family, school, and my culture in general was that what I was experiencing didn't exist, and so I was not REALLY experiencing it. Only one book we had ever read in school had had telepathic protagonists, and even though that book's highly fictionalized presentation was obviously very different from real life, I didn't care -- I was SO EXCITED to have a book to read in school with characters like me!!! (I made a mobile of the book for a school art project. I still have it in my room. Almost twenty years later.)

That was fifth grade. So in sixth grade, when I found The Rowan while browsing through the shelves of the bookstore, I was really excited. COOL COVER ART! TELEPATHIC CHARACTERS! LOTS OF THEM! And these characters were grown-ups, not kids like in the other book, growing up in a family where the parents are not telepathic.

And so, even though the highly fictionalized presentations in The Rowan were also very much unlike real life, I clung to them, because when it came to role models for what it meant to be a telepathic grown-up, these fictional examples were all I had.

The book, however, is not without its problems.

One problem with this book which became clearer to me as I got older was its use of telepathic "not really rape rape," a trope which apparently comes from romance novels in the 1980s. (See also the TV Tropes.com page here for a discussion of the "rape is love" trope.) However, when these tropes get applied in the context of telepathy, they sometimes come out a little differently.

In The Rowan, the "rape is love" trope is applied pretty much straight up with few changes, as we shall see. Anne McCaffrey has been called out before for the role of rape in her books, but I cannot find any review that has been written that discusses the role of rape in this book specifically, nor any blog which looks at the role of rape in stories involving psi.

So this may be new ground I'm breaking. Which is cool, that's what this blog is about.

Please keep in mind that what you are about to read was a) only the second book I had ever read with characters who are telepathic (that I remember, anyway), and b) the very first book I had ever read with romantic or sexual involvement between two telepathic characters. And Anne McCaffrey's books contained THE ONLY examples of romantic or sexual relationships between telepathic characters that I read/saw/watched until I was out of high school, with the possible exception of one Star Trek TNG episode which was a total disaster.

To quote from the link above (Katje van Loon's review of a different Anne McCaffrey book): "NOT A HEALTHY MESSAGE FOR A TEN YEAR OLD. ... Let me tell you something. I know how fucking important stories are. They shape our very reality. And stories like this one hold up rape culture tropes (which, hello, McCaffrey is a HUGE FAN OF). Anything that reinforces tropes already present in society at large is guilty of perpetuating exactly the sort of society that lots of people don't want to live in."

So, with this in mind:

1. In real life, and in fiction that the author expects us to find remotely believable, if someone has been repeatedly traumatized -- and has boundary and intimacy issues because of this -- then intentionally violating all of their personal boundaries does not heal them, it re-traumatizes them.

2. Number 1 applies to everyone, including people who experience thought transference. Telepaths are not magically cured by rape.

In this book, we readers are expected to believe that the protagonist (Rowan), who has been repeatedly traumatized from early childhood into her teenage years, and who has great difficulty forming healthy relationships with others as a result, is magically healed in the middle of the book by a lover who intentionally and deliberately violates all her personal boundaries in a "not really rape rape" moment. Once he does this, poof, she's all better, and she never has another problem with intimacy through the next six, seven, eight books -- basically the rest of her life (at least as far as I read). Everything we just learned about this character and her emotional history is all over. She's now a totally healthy happy person who becomes a wife and mother, and now she can become the matriarch of her own little clan.

Wait.

WTF?

I think more people would have seen that this is a big flaw in the writing had said violation not involved telepathy. If he had physically held her down and raped her and she had become a healthy, happy, functional person, then it might have been reviewed and called out sooner, like other Anne McCaffrey books (or books by other authors). But once the author posits that the violation is telepathic, oh, that's all made up and so anything can happen, and she can now posit that this violation "healed" her protagonist. The master-narrative that thought transference is just a made up fantasy anyway, and that no one could possibly actually have this experience as part of their real life, makes it easier to dismiss the rape. As long as it's telepathic, as long as it's clearly "make believe," it's OK to write the story such that Rowan found her Mr. Perfect, he "broke into her," and now all her problems are solved.

I had a problem with this at 11, though I didn't have a deep understanding as to why. I just knew it was creepy and hard to believe.

In The Rowan, our protagonist survives a mining accident as a toddler, in which her parents are both killed. She alone is rescued of the entire colony. She is a super special orphan (and white haired pretty girl) -- telepathically screaming so loud that the entire planet hears her (at least everyone who is at all telepathic), which is what leads to her rescue.

Once she is rescued, she has emotional problems. They give her a special therapeutic toy to help her, that she telepathically bonds with. An obnoxious kid destroys it. She bonds with her nanny, the closest adult she has in her life. Her nanny gets tragically killed.

She tries to make friends, but her peers reject her because she's much stronger than they are psi-wise, and this therefore gives them "nothing in common." (We are talking about a world in which your psi rating determines your social position, so her being much stronger than they are means she's never going to socially or professionally interact with them once she grows up, because That Just Doesn't Happen.) They are "below her," and no one in the book questions the validity of this social structure.

Our protagonist has one teacher who is not "below her," whom she apprentices for, but that woman is mean and nasty all the time, to everyone. Everyone hates her, and our protagonist is glad when she eventually dies. I don't even recall a reason this woman is so nasty -- the story is just a Rapunzel-"our protagonist is trapped in a tower"-type story.

Literally. The highest rated psi people are up to this point stuck in towers (where they work, moving freight around the cosmos), and they can't travel off-world due to some Huge Stupid Misunderstanding that Jeff Raven, our protagonist's Mr. Perfect, clears up when he arrives, thus rescuing his bride-to-be. (I'm actually not exaggerating. No one noticed that this was a misunderstanding until he showed up from off-world and told them so.)

So her life has been lonely and sucky, and we see that in great detail. Everything sucks until she telepathically meets said Mr. Perfect, who lives far away in a colony on another planet. (Telepathy as a super radio.) But, he's on another planet! Boo hoo! How can they ever be together?

Eventually they do meet in person. And they're already in love! And now that they're together, you know they're gonna get married and have happy psi babies.

After this cold and sucky life, Rowan (as she is called, because they just called her "The Rowan child" after they rescued her from the Rowan mining colony and no one bothered to give her a name) has now met the Tall Dark Spicy and Handsome Perfect Man of Her Dreams. (At least the book sort of got it right that there are mental flavors? /sweatdrop/) But she has all this emotional baggage getting in the way of being able to bond with him! No problem, Mr. Perfect can fix that. First she has to save his life when he almost dies, but that's quickly done. Next, there's her emotional baggage to be dealt with so they can get on with the happily ever after and making lots of happy psi babies.

A quick mental rape's gonna solve all that, on page 231.

So she's at work, doing her thing, and he shows up by surprise, and they fight about the planetary economies or some such. She starts talking about his planet, which orbits Deneb.

"Deneb isn't your planet, isn't your problem..."

"Don't be so damn proprietarial! It's my problem if I make it mine. I have great respect for this planet's people, I admire your family tremendously..."

"Family's the keyword, isn't it?" Jeff's tone had abruptly altered and his eyes narrowed. He caught her by the shoulders then and before she had guessed his intention, he had pierced through every layer of privacy in her mind. She cried out at the force of his mental penetration as he also broke through the block that had remained intact against every other invasion.

Trembling violently, she clung to him as his intrusion restored the memory of that horrendous time. Then slowly, with infinite tenderness, he withdrew, soothing away forever the fears of a three-year-old girl, battered about in the dark of a rolling, plunging vehicle.
(Emphasis mine)

They stood a long while locked in each other's arms, until the glorious sunset colored the sky and they realized just how long this passage of restoration had taken. Rowan's tears were dry on her cheeks and she was no longer wracked by shudders.

"I was named Angharad Gwyn. My father was a shaft supervisor and my mother was a teacher. I had a brother named Ian..." She looked up in amazement.

"We have something else in common then."

They go on to have a happy tender, intimate moment talking about various things, and she asks to be of assistance to the people of Deneb. This moment is never mentioned again.

From then on her emotional problems are all over. She now proudly declares her "new" name for folks, to their shock (though she still prefers to be called Rowan). Now we can get onto the sex and the telepathic babies, and the book goes on until page 328.

Key words in the not really "rape rape": "pierced," "cried out," "force," "penetration," "broke," "invasion," "violently," "intrusion," "horrendous."

Lovely.

A random rape out of nowhere "healed" her. It's described as a "passage of restoration."

Again, WTF?

Oh that's right, telepathy makes it not really "rape rape." It's magical healing rape. He raped her, but he's a good guy because "he withdrew with infinite tenderness."

Please also notice how her mental block (from trauma) is now metaphorically a hymen. She's had another lover, long ago, but that didn't "really" count because he didn't "break into her" (and cause her great pain, I might add). This guy did, and that's just what she needed to be a healthy, complete person again. No more work needed.

Seriously, that is the end of all of her emotional problems, even the boundary issues she's having with her boss. She now has totally secure, stable, wonderfully healthy boundaries with everyone, for the rest of the book.

Again, all of this is troubling. Not just for the "rape is love" aspect, which is often (on its own) recognized as problematic by more thoughtful and astute readers, but also for how easily the same problematic tropes can be overlooked when the rape involves telepathy. TV Tropes.com cites Anne McCaffrey for several examples of "rape is love," but The Rowan isn't on the list. Somehow this got skipped (or removed).

Again, there are blogs and reviews calling out Anne McCaffrey for rape tropes, but none (that I can find) mentions this incident.

The intersection of telepathy and sexual assault apparently makes the rape invisible, even when this moment is the single biggest emotional turning point for the protagonist of the book, with the possible exception of the beginning, when her family is killed (which is less of a turning point and more of an initial condition). If one pays attention to how the characters in the book change and develop, this moment is obvious. Except it's not.

Lovely, eh?
 
 
Current Mood: accomplished
 
 
 
Katje: bibliophilemaitressekatje on September 27th, 2011 11:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the quote and link love (again). :)

You're totally right about The Rowan having that issue, and honestly I can't believe I didn't notice it until now.

But like the rest of McCaffery's books, I read them when young, and those tropes didn't flash at me like neon signs. They just reinforced the cultural beliefs already held in my brain.

I think the hardest thing for me, as an author, is making sure I don't replicate said tropes in my own writing. I do my best, but, well, I have my own privileges and it's easy to fall back into them.

And now, reading your LJ here, I see there's an entirely new area -- the marginalization of psi people -- that I've overlooked, which I shouldn't have, as I'm a pretty strong empath and personally do not ascribe to the cultural myth of those powers being "made up", but there you go. I'm going to have to go through my book and make sure I don't have any tremendous blunders with regards to my psi characters.

-Katje
Dash: Agendaspacehawk on September 28th, 2011 04:57 am (UTC)
Thank you for the quote and link love (again). :)

You're very welcome!

But like the rest of McCaffery's books, I read them when young, and those tropes didn't flash at me like neon signs. They just reinforced the cultural beliefs already held in my brain.

I know the feeling! Anne McCaffrey's books (especially the two prequels) were really like this for me.

I think the hardest thing for me, as an author, is making sure I don't replicate said tropes in my own writing. I do my best, but, well, I have my own privileges and it's easy to fall back into them.

It's something we all struggle with, because we all have our privileges and therefore the things we do not see and recognize. One of my goals in making this blog is to help authors, and would-be authors, recognize and appreciate these tropes so that they can learn to avoid them and subvert them in their writing. But there are SO MANY TROPES.

And now, reading your LJ here, I see there's an entirely new area -- the marginalization of psi people -- that I've overlooked, which I shouldn't have, as I'm a pretty strong empath and personally do not ascribe to the cultural myth of those powers being "made up", but there you go.

This does not surprise me, because if you and I were raised in a similar culture, the same messages are taught to everyone. So even if we have our own experiences to examine, and we know that there is a lot more to this than "it's all made up," that doesn't mean we've taken the time and effort (or have the tools) to sit down and examine the messages that we've internalized. Examining those assumptions is not easy -- I've been working at it for years, now, and there's still a long way to go.

Also, internalized oppression, It's A Thing. And though many negative messages about psi characters have come from the minds of non-psi authors, this is sadly not always the case. I'm still unsure if the topic is appropriate for this blog, because I'm still figuring this blog out, but if you would like to be added to one of my filters on spacehawk, I will do that.

I'm going to have to go through my book and make sure I don't have any tremendous blunders with regards to my psi characters.

If you'd like any feedback on that, I'm happy to assist. I'm working on a set of psi fail "bingo cards," wherein I try to list every common or influential problematic psi trope (from fiction as well as real life). So far I have compiled over 500 individual squares. I embarked on the project so that I could endure reading certain works (to review) without giving up in pain and frustration -- this way, after every couple of sentences, I can just check off a box, and laugh as I try to see how many boxes I can check off for that story!

Edited at 2011-09-28 04:59 am (UTC)
Katjemaitressekatje on September 30th, 2011 05:20 pm (UTC)
Also, internalized oppression, It's A Thing. And though many negative messages about psi characters have come from the minds of non-psi authors, this is sadly not always the case. I'm still unsure if the topic is appropriate for this blog, because I'm still figuring this blog out, but if you would like to be added to one of my filters on [info]spacehawk, I will do that.

If you would feel comfortable adding me to your other journal, I'd love that. Thank you. :)

I've been working with my own internalized oppression regarding gender when writing this story, and it's a nightmare. I'm trying to write a society that's run by women and is sex-positive-ish (more sex-positive than our current culture, at any rate) -- not as simple as it sounds. I have to change the language from being male-dominated, which is awkward to do when you're used to using male-dominated language. And there have been some massive character issues, as well.


If you'd like any feedback on that, I'm happy to assist. I'm working on a set of psi fail "bingo cards," wherein I try to list every common or influential problematic psi trope (from fiction as well as real life). So far I have compiled over 500 individual squares. I embarked on the project so that I could endure reading certain works (to review) without giving up in pain and frustration -- this way, after every couple of sentences, I can just check off a box, and laugh as I try to see how many boxes I can check off for that story!

I would love feedback!

I think my main concern is that the psi characters I have are not fully human -- there are psi humans in my story, but I don't go as fully into their characters/psi-ness as I do the part-Magi psi characters. Mainly because I haven't fully worked out the differences between Magi psi and magic and human psi and magic (as they are in this world). Also because the Magi are central to this story and the success of the protagonists' goals.

I also go by the belief (IRL and in fiction) that all humans have latent psi capabilities, but most go without tapping them. I'm not sure if that's a negative trope or not. =/

Anyway, if you're comfortable sharing some of the cards with me so I can check myself, that would be awesome. If not, I can send you a few chapters and you can tell me how bad it is. ;)
Dash: Agendaspacehawk on October 1st, 2011 12:01 am (UTC)
I think my main concern is that the psi characters I have are not fully human -- there are psi humans in my story, but I don't go as fully into their characters/psi-ness as I do the part-Magi psi characters. Mainly because I haven't fully worked out the differences between Magi psi and magic and human psi and magic (as they are in this world).

It seems like you're already starting to get a good idea of where the issues are with the way your story is currently told. For clarity, I do not have a problem with aliens + psi per se -- the issues are how this connection is made, and even more importantly, that many, MANY of these stories are written while almost NO authentic, realistic, respectful stories about psi humans are ever written.

And if psi humans exist in the fictional world, they are rarely centered -- take for example the recent post on ST:TNG. One episode established that there were two human psi men on the Enterprise -- but they're dead within the first several minutes, and one is presented as a psychopath. The psi humans are erased from the narrative in their world as much as we are erased in this one.

(Total side note but once I went to play an online Star Trek role-playing game. The rules were that you had to play a race or type of character that exists in Star Trek canon. I wanted to play a psi human -- and psi humans exist in both TOS and TNG. The GMs nonetheless would not let me -- and they pulled out the "it's not fair" argument; somehow it would be OK and "fair" if my character were half-Betazoid, but it would give my character some "unfair advantage" if the exact same character was made fully human. Which is another rant I suppose, but they made me play a half-Betazoid.)

The issues I have found so far when it comes to linking aliens and psi are:

1) The only psi people in the story, or the only ones who matter in the story, are fully alien;
2) The only psi people in the story, or the only ones who matter in the story, are part alien, and their psi abilities come from having an alien parent, not a human one (Spock, Troi, etc.);
3) Psi people are presented as "other" through being alien, half-alien, possibly alien, or modified by aliens;
4) Psi comes about in "ordinary people" as a result of alien modification (genetic tampering, being taken up to their ship, cross-breeding, being zapped by an alien energy ray from space, etc.), AND/OR folks who are psi in previously moderate ways are made into "super psi" people via alien interference;
5) The story has both human psi people and (non-psi) aliens in it, and the (non-psi) aliens are shown as more "human" and sympathetic, less scary/other, and more centered in the narrative than the human psi people;
6) In the story, a telepathic mind meld is shown to work with any species, any time the plot requires it -- even with alien species the protagonists have just encountered;
7) Psi people are the ones who make contact with new alien species, because they are psi, and so of course they would be plot convenient in that way.

I also go by the belief (IRL and in fiction) that all humans have latent psi capabilities, but most go without tapping them. I'm not sure if that's a negative trope or not. =/

Per se I would say this is not a negative trope -- it may even be true for all I know -- but I have seen this used both in fiction and in real life to justify some Really Busted Crap.