May 4, 2014
One Hour in Paris by Karyn L. Freedman
If there is any justice, Karyn L Freedman’s memoir, One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, will be widely celebrated one of the best Canadian nonfiction titles of 2014. In the book’s first chapter, Freedman, a philosopher and professor at the University of Guelph, tells the story of her own experience with rape at knifepoint in Paris while backpacking through Europe during the summer after her first year in university in 1990. In the rest of the book, she goes on to illustrate her own trauma in the aftermath, her futile attempts to move on from the experiences she suffers from PTSD, how through work with a therapist she learns to finally process what happened to her years after the fact, and eventually applies a philosophical framework to her understanding of her rape and being a rape survivor and to sexual violence against women in a wider and global context.
Freedman is an skilled writer, her prose measured and precise, she is a composer of beautiful sentences, and her mastery of the narrative—which weaves the personal, sociological and philosophical—is impressive. Though I can sense resistance from those readers for whom the book is not directly intended (“I wrote this book for you”, Freedman writes in her prologue to fellow rape-survivors.) So why else might you want to read this book?
To this point, I return to the book that has become my own personal touchstone in terms of memoir, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. As I wrote of that book: “To be stirred then, to have our quiet disturbed. Perhaps this is why we should read this, or any book.” Like Wave, One Hour in Paris is a harrowing memoir, difficult to read but even harder to put down. The violence and rape are actually easier to read about than Freedman’s emotional fragility in the years that follow. She recounts what happened to her in a manner that is direct and factual; her intention is not that we relive her experiences—I don’t think she’d wish this on anybody. But more important to Freedman is that her readers understand what it is to live with these experiences, and also to understand the fascinating workings of our brains, how they process or fail to process traumatic events in our lives.
I started reading the book late in the evening and knew this wouldn’t be a casual reading experience. One can’t stop reading in the middle of the first chapter—there is a need to see the story through to the end, just so we know that it ends. The end of the chapter was devastating, but not entirely, mostly because Freedman’s narrative voice is so authoritative and compelling that I wanted to stick with her. And so I did, glad this dark book about the City of Light was so compact because I carried it in my purse the next day, holding it on one hand while used my other to push my baby in the swing.
And it was there in the playground where I read Freedman’s convincing arguments for speaking out about her rape. Her parents, who emerge along with Freedman herself (and her therapist) as this story’s heroes, wanted to shield her from any more pain or trauma after she came home from Paris. They made up a story about her unexpected homecoming, and were complicit in her attempts to leave the incident in her past, but Freedman comes to see that this decision was not only a misstep in her own recovery, but also how it perpetuates myths about sexual violence. The world, she tells us with two decades of perspective in addition to her own violent rape, is a dangerous place for women, as statistics demonstrate in places as close as our own neighbourhoods and as far away as the war-wracked Congo. But nobody talks about these experiences, suggesting that such incidents are rare, suggesting to those lucky enough to not know better that sexual violence is a crime of circumstance, that it’s something most of us should be able to sidestep. It’s why newspaper columnists suggest that if a young woman refrains from drinking to excess, she might not get raped, and if she is raped, she should have known better. Thereby perpetuating victim’s sense of her own complicity in the crime against her, ensuring her silence, and so the cycle continues.
What was most remarkable about One Hour in Paris was not just the good writing, or how Freedman offers access to her own experience (though this is something), but how much I learned, about sexual violence and the history of trauma and mental disorders, and the nature of these as well. Freedman comes to see her trauma as a chronic illness, the violent experience having changed the physiology of her brain, and so she much learn to manage her symptoms rather than hope to get beyond them. Even so, her own recovery would offer hope to other survivors that there is life beyond the trauma, that they certainly aren’t alone in what happened to them.
While I do think that while there may not be justice, Freedman’s book does have a chance of doing well with Canadian nonfiction prizes because of the way in which she takes her narrative beyond the personal to discuss sexual violence in general, and also internationally in the context of war crimes. And while I dislike this—the idea that a personal narrative is unworthy of note and one can’t write serious nonfiction without war being part of the mix—I appreciate that Freedman has broadened her approach not just to set up her story of one of grave importance, but because she can’t not do it. Her book avoids the inflammatory phrase “rape culture”, but is a document of its very point. She can’t help but tell her story in a broad context because sexual violence is everywhere, insidious and pervasive all around the world, and until the problem is stated plain, stared in the face as Freedman does, things are never going to be any different.