This year in sexual assault; Emma

There are basically two topics right now that I can’t stop thinking about: 1) how brutally, relentlessly triggering this year has been for myself and other survivors of abuse and assault; and 2) the 2009 miniseries of Jane Austen’s Emma, which I discovered four days ago and have watched three times so far. I realize these are pretty disparate topics, so for your convenience, dear readers, I’m going to write my thoughts on each of these in different colors, so you can skip over the parts that don’t interest you.

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Maybe every year is like this and I just didn’t notice till now. For me it started with James Deen, with his former partner Stoya’s brief and brutal tweet describing what he did to her and that she couldn’t keep quiet any more. That story hit me hard: maybe because I had seen him perform and liked him, maybe because his slightly-smug image all over my news feeds reminded me of my own assailant, maybe because I could empathize so vividly with Stoya’s predicament, with staying quiet for so long for so many reasons and then finally saying a thing because you couldn’t take it any more. And dealing with the vengeful backlash from your assailant and his fans.

Then a few months later it was Brock Turner and now many, many of my survivor friends were saying, “Just seeing this dude’s face is triggering for me.” My social media is pretty well curated so I didn’t have to see people defending him or saying horrible things, much, but it was still exhausting to scroll through and see everywhere headlines about how often rape happens and how rarely it is prosecuted, how hard our culture works to excuse and defend rapists while leaving their victims isolated and unsupported, how little punishment even an egregious and thoroughly documented offense received. And all I can think, reading through these, is “I know. I know. BELIEVE me, I fucking know. I’m glad y’all are catching on, but it would be nice to get to spend a day not thinking about it.”

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Emma has been my favorite Jane Austen book since the first time I read it and realized I didn’t have to be perfect to be a heroine. Emma has all the faults I try so hard to avoid: being oblivious but thinking she’s particularly wise and insightful, eagerly trying to do good in a way that harms others, needing to be adored and falling into pettiness because of it. She is good-hearted and smart, and she is valuable and lovable, but she does make some pretty awful and foolish mistakes, and that is the hero I needed as a young girl, and still need now.

I’ve seen both the Gwyneth Paltrow and the Kate Beckinsale versions of Emma, and I liked aspects of both but neither fully satisfied me. One of them gave short shrift to the Harriet storyline, the other one to the Frank Churchill storyline, and both of those are important. Overall I preferred the Beckinsale version, but it still wasn’t as good — relative to the book — as my other favorite Austen interpretations.

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Ultimately it was a social incident that sent me into a lowkey extended PTSD episode, but nothing about the news this year has helped. I knew Trump had raped people before I ever learned of specific accusations: he was powerful enough to get away with it and he didn’t even pretend to have the kind of sexual ethics that would stop him.

It sometimes feels like I’ve gone through the looking glass and I’m seeing the world in a completely different way. Past Ginny would have been shocked to hear that a powerful man, even one as sleazy and unethical as Trump, had committed sexual assault. For Past Ginny, and for my friends still on that side of the looking glass, rape is an extraordinary act, only done by people beyond the pale of a decent society.

Now I know better. Rape is, in fact, quite ordinary. It is a commonplace on college campuses, in the entertainment world, in business. There are just so many people who care more about getting what they want than about respecting someone else’s autonomy. So many narratives that let people tell themselves they’re not doing anything wrong. So many systems that support perpetrators and punish victims. Normal people, cool people, people that really helped you out that one time, can be rapists, and more than a few of them are.

So to think that a powerful, sleazy, textbook narcissist like Donald Trump is a rapist? Duh. Obviously. It’d be surprising if he weren’t.

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Romola Garai’s Emma is a delight. She’s full of smiles and warmth and passionate opinions that are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. She matures and deepens just enough, over the course of the four-episode miniseries. She is still the same person, but she has learned to think and speak a little more carefully, to treat love with a little more seriousness. Her smile is still an explosion of sunshine, and I could watch it all day.

Jonny Lee Miller’s Mr. Knightley is everything I didn’t know I needed. I used to like Mark Strong’s Knightley a lot — but that was back when I was enamored of angry men who are always telling you what’s up. Jeremy Northam’s was better, and was indeed one of the best advantages to the Paltrow version over the Beckinsale.

Mr. Knightley is a tough needle to thread. He is significantly older than Emma and he scolds her a lot, which makes him an ideal husband in the value system I grew up with, but less appealing now. Jonny Lee Miller’s Knightley is kind and he is good-humored, two essential traits to balance out the scolding. You see him enjoying his friends and family, sharing amusement with Emma, feeling genuine concern for the people in his circle. He loves Emma before he falls in love with her, and continues to love and care about her as a person in her own right afterward. His little concerned, pained, resigned expressions as he watches her with Frank Churchill twist my heart in the most exquisite way.

This production, better than any of the others, shows the warm, easy partnership that make Emma and Mr. Knightley work. You’re not left to fill in the gaps between fights with “I guess they must like each other for some reason” — it is obvious that they are pretty much each other’s favorite person, right from the start.

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Another through-the-looking-glass moment is in the wave of accusations of assault that came after The Tapes. Past Ginny would have been at least somewhat swayed by the idea that some of these women are jumping on a bandwagon for attention — otherwise why now, when they were silent before?

Present Ginny knows. It’s because now these women, who have kept silent for years out of shame and intimidation, think, “Maybe I’ll actually be believed.” Now that he is on record as saying “this is a thing I like to do” maybe those women have a chance at being taken seriously when they say, “he did this thing.” It is disgusting but very real that that’s what it takes.

What people who haven’t been through it don’t know is that there is no acceptable way to say that a well-liked person assaulted you. If you say it calmly you’re making it up because clearly it didn’t affect you. If you say it sobbing, you’re hysterical. If you say it when nobody else has accused that person, you’re tarnishing someone’s good name with a highly improbable story. If you say it when others have, you’re jumping on a bandwagon because you want the attention. If you pursue some kind of legal or social repercussions, then you’re trying to hurt them and probably doing it out of unrelated vengeance. If you don’t, it must not have been that big a deal and/or you’re letting your community down by letting a perpetrator go on unbothered.

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Beyond Emma and Mr. Knightley, the whole world of Highbury, in the 2009 version, is a world of friendship and support even for the rather silly and unlovely members. Mr. Woodhouse with his illness and anxiety — Miss Bates with her poverty and prattle — are cared for with gentleness and sincere love by their community. Emma’s failure to do this, and subsequent realization and repentance, are the real turning point of the novel. This is a world where people look after each other, even when the others’ needs feel silly or tiresome.

Wise or foolish, attractive or plain, it is having a good heart that matters in Highbury. The Eltons are vain and self-serving, and they are the only truly unloved characters of the piece. Everybody else, from grouchy John Knightley to flighty Harriet to fretful Mr. Woodhouse, is treated as worthwhile even with their flaws. And it is that good-hearted community, along with the completely enchanting smiles of Garai and Miller, that has kept me coming back to this production over and over this week.

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This world is not kind to survivors. We are ignored. We are demonized. Every indiscretion and weakness in our lives is turned out as if they have some bearing on what was done to us. We see our assailants praised and celebrated, and we agonize over whether to say something. We hear people make jokes about what was done to us. We are, often, targeted for vicious abuse and revenge for daring to speak out. We see other survivors so targeted and wonder if we’ll be next.

And it’s every day. And it’s exhausting.

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I am lucky enough, now, to have a community not unlike the fictional Highbury. I have a small strong knot of people around me who care unconditionally, who are concerned with meeting each others’ needs even if we can’t relate to them, who extend love despite mistakes and foolishness. They are my family and they heal me every day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to queue up for a fourth go-through of Emma.