Any Man by Amber Tamblyn | Review
Publication: New York : Harper Perennial, 
Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook
When this book was suggested for my Ladies Forward Book Group this summer, it came with the caution that Tamblyn’s novel includes some extremely explicit rape scenes. The group was warned that these may prove difficult to discuss even in all-female company.
First things first, why is rape, and sexual assault in general, difficult to talk about? Well, there’s what might be categorize as the most immediately obvious: If you’ve experienced rape or other forms of sexual assault or trauma, these very serious experiences can be tough to bring up in a public forum. One reason for this aversion to openly discussing such a personal experience like rape is because the visceral aspect of trauma continues to live deep in the brain long after the traumatic events have physically ended. The fight-or-flight reaction can very difficult to escape after such experiences.
On the other end of the spectrum, trauma can often stay hidden in the subconscious for years on end until just the right trigger pops the memory screaming and crying out of its self-preservation shell. Scarier still, studies have shown that the best-preserved memories are those most rarely recalled. The less a memory is replayed in the mind, the more shocking it is when it at last rears itself fully in the forefront of consciousness. Christine Blasey Ford was being anything but cutely poetic when she proclaimed, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.”
On top of all this neuroscience is the social stigma that survivors of trauma “should just get on with their lives already.” We are often taught that the reliving of a traumatic event isn’t the forward motion our progress-driven culture wants to even think, much less talk, about.
Okay, so there’s all THAT! And then secondly, what does “extremely explicit” mean, anyways? As I reached the last pages of Tamblyn’s Any Man, I suddenly realized how under-explicit the book’s descriptions of the multiple rape scenes had been. They were, from my perspective, all veiled in implications, a full-on “show, don’t tell” escapade, focusing more on showing the societal aftermaths instead of on telling any realistic details of the events themselves. Which was fine in some ways, because the reader gets the picture.
Okay, so there’s also that.
All in all, I found that the heart of this book was all about the reactions of the society-members surrounding those who had survived the sexual assault scenes the author alludes to within the novel. This is where the power of the novel is trying to reside, I’m going to argue. The book is less about actual explicit descriptions of rape and sexual assault, and spends more time showcasing the disgusting behavior of the exploitation that our society often adopts when faced with the stories of those who have experienced traumatic events like rape and sexual assault. (If you want to understand the true violence of sexual assault and rape while also exploring real-life examples of societal reactions, I recommend reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.)
Perhaps the most difficult part of Tamblyn’s book (to the horror of many critics, I found) is found in its efforts to give the experience of having been raped over to men (Tamblyn’s serial rapist in the novel is a woman, by the way—-a plot point at which I’m not sure she wants the audience to cheer or to be appalled even further). Tamblyn has gotten some backlash because of this flipped power-dynamic, but I wonder if there may be something to be said for the empathy aspect Tamblyn says she is trying to inject into her male readers through the stories she presents within this novel. With her male rape-survivors’ stories in Any Man, Tamblyn seems to be trying to mirror what women go through after having been raped. Sure, men can certainly be raped, too. It’s not a trauma that only women experience, but it is a violence that women more publicly bear the brunt of in the realm of societal judgement. And herein lies the importance of the empathy-aspect that I think Tamblyn is going for. And if, as I’ve been mentioning again and again in these book review posts, feminism is about equality between the multiplicities of gender, then empathy is a very important part of our dark societal forest that we need to visit and perhaps ultimately embrace.
I fear (like the above-mentioned critics), however, that the empathy she is encouraging might diminish the repeated horrors that women have had to endure in the face of sexual assault and society’s inability to cope with the truth-telling of specifically female survivors. I fear this book might instead just shift the limelight of the realities of rape and sexual assault again in a more male-dominated direction. But, it cannot and should not be denied that any survivor of rape or sexual assault, no matter their gender, needs all the room we can give them be heard purely and not from the perspective of the story society wants to make of them.
This brings us full circle. Topics like rape are difficult to talk about not only because survivors may be forced to relive their experiences by their very brave decision to simply share those experiences out loud, but also because popular culture has, up until very recently (with many failings still, as the vote for that infamous supreme court justice last year evidences), only taught us to point and stare at, turn uncomfortably away from, or accuse those who have survived experiences as severely traumatizing as rape and sexual assault.
This is our failing, friends. Society should be quicker to empathize, to recognize, and to ultimately act against true pain and injustice. When we’ve finally learned to put away the Twitter feed of titillation and see the individuals behind the news stories, perhaps we’ll stop being “uncomfortable” at another person’s trauma so we can be the shoulder they probably just need to fucking lean on already. It’s a hard ask, for sure, but there’s no shame in practicing until we get this right.