When Your Favorite Writer Lets You Down
"If Vonnegut could see through myths about war, why couldn't he transcend myths about sexual violence?"
If I were to draw my (aspirational) literary family tree, I'd claim Kurt Vonnegut for my grandfather. A lot of this has to do with Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's masterpiece about the firebombing of Dresden. Vonnegut witnessed the atrocity firsthand: During WWII, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners of war were holed up in a bunker while every living being in Dresden was ruined by fire. As Vonnegut writes in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, "There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." Vonnegut worked on the book for 20 years. The finished product features space aliens who refute the concept of free will and a protagonist who comes unstuck in time.
Vonnegut broke all the rules.
In his essay, "Mr. Vonnegut in Sumantra," George Saunders recounts reading Slaughterhouse-Five while working as an engineer on an oil rig. Before Vonnegut, Saunders thought good writing had to be dense and inscrutable. Vonnegut's use of humor and vernacular was a shock — a sign. Saunders writes, "This guy who had been in the belly of the beast wrote as if he were still, like me, a regular person from the Midwest." Vonnegut also taught Saunders — then an Ayn Rand acolyte — that it's cool to be kind:
Vonnegut seemed to feel that unkindness—a simple, idiotic failure of belief in the human, by men and their systems—had been the cause of [the war], and that what he had learned from this experience was not the importance of being tough and hard and untouchable, but the importance of preserving kindness in ourselves at all costs.
What Vonnegut did for Saunders, Saunders did for me. I wasn't an engineer on an oil rig when I read Saunders' "The 400-Pound CEO." I was a sophomore in a fiction writing workshop. I made up for my mundane milieu by having an existential crisis every 15 minutes. My collapsing inner life was not buoyed by the short fiction I read, which universally depicted numb, passive, characters making ugly moral choices. In this dreary landscape, Saunders' "The 400-Pound CEO" was a hilarious beacon of hope. While the story was dark — the obese protagonist ends up the prison wife of an abusive thug who forces him to wear a lady's fruit brimmed hat — it was suffused with longing: longing to be a good person. Longing for a more compassionate world.
The story had a soul.
Seven years later (after a failed stint as a social worker on the South Texas border), I was in George Saunders' workshop on my way to an MFA at Syracuse. For those of you who wonder if George Saunders in person lives up to the kindness, humanity, and humor in his writing: Yes. George Saunders, the person, is equivalent in awesomeness to George Saunders, the writer. When he won the MacArthur Genius grant, Saunders responded by making fun of himself for dropping his toothbrush in the toilet. Grad students one-upped each other with stories of Saunders's human decency: the time Saunders brought us cupcakes on his birthday. The time Saunders wrote a recommendation letter to help a Somali refugee score a job at UPS. The time Saunders ran outside a restaurant to do the Heimlich maneuver on a choking homeless man.
When George Saunders read the mangled manuscript that eventually became my book, he gently observed that I demonstrated less generosity of spirit in my novel than I did as a person. From our chats in his office, he'd gotten the sense that I believed in nonviolent social change and the Sermon on the Mount. He wondered why my fiction didn't reflect that.
Don't be afraid to show your heart, Saunders said. Be kind. Be yourself.
Granted, I could have gotten this advice from Mr. Rogers and saved myself three years battling seasonal affective disorder in Syracuse. But because the words came from my revered mentor, I absorbed them. I put my heart into my book. Taking a cue from Vonnegut, I used unicorns, a giant squid, and a time machine to write about suicide, poverty, and failure. I wrote about Jesus, post-partum psychosis, and unrequited love. I made a museum of wax figures of Bible characters come to life, hungry for human flesh.
When Mystical Creatures Attack! came out in October, and its publication fulfilled my dream of writing a book. This I know for sure: My book exists because Vonnegut and Saunders existed first.
Imagining Vonnegut as my sad, wise, literary grandfather, I worked my way through his oeuvre. I liked novels like Galapagos and Cat's Cradle. But I loved Vonnegut's wry, devastating social critique in nonfiction collections like A Man Without a Country:
Killing industrial quantities of defenseless human families, whether by old-fashioned apparatus or by newfangled contraptions from universities, in the expectation of gaining military or diplomatic advantage thereby, may not be such a hot idea after all.
I loved how Vonnegut exalted the humble and humbled the exalted:
Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
As I read more of Vonnegut's nonfiction, I began to think of him as a sort of saint. I know, I know: Saints don't chain smoke Pall Malls. Saints don't write science fiction. And saints don't say things like this:
If Jesus were alive today, we would kill him with lethal injection. I call that progress. We would have to kill him for the same reason he was killed the first time. His ideas are just too liberal.
But if Vonnegut's edginess knocks him off the list of canonization candidates, it seems more than reasonable to call him a prophet. Saunders agrees. At the end of "Mr. Vonnegut in Sumantra," Saunders likens Slaughterhouse-Five's anti-war message to the voice of an Old Testament seer:
What good the prophet in the wilderness may do is incremental and personal. It's good for us to hear someone speak the irrational truth. It's good for us when, in spite of all the sober, pragmatic, and even correct arguments that war is sometimes necessary, someone says: war is large-scale murder, us at our worst, the stupidest guy doing the cruelest thing to the weakest being.
In sum: If I had a Kurt Vonnegut saint candle, I would light it every time I opened a Word Document. That was until I had an experience akin to opening a box in my literary grandfather's attic and finding something utterly derailing.
I read Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House."
"Welcome to the Monkey House," is the title story in a collection first published in 1968. Vonnegut sets the story in an overpopulated dystopia where the government mandates the consumption of "Ethical Birth Control Pills." The pills numb people from the waist down: "Most men said their bottom halves felt like cold iron or balsa-wood. Most women said their bottom halves felt like wet cotton or stale ginger ale." The government runs "Ethical Suicide Parlors" staffed by "plump and rosy" Suicide Hostesses who deliver volunteers to their deaths via lethal injection. Of the Suicide Hostesses, Vonnegut writes, "Their uniforms were white lipstick, heavy eye makeup, purple body stockings with nothing underneath, and black leather boots." Hostesses are 6 feet tall. They possess advanced degrees in nursing and psychology. They are virgins.
Did I mention that this story was originally published in Playboy?
Disrupting the dystopian status quo is a rebel known as Billy the Poet. Billy fights sexual repression by "deflowering" Suicide Hostesses. The story follows a Suicide Hostess named Nancy as she is kidnapped by Billy. He directs her through a maze of sewers at gunpoint, taking an occasional break to say things like, "What the hell is a girl with hips like yours doing selling death?" and "Don't try anything funny ... or I'll blow your great big fucking head off." At Billy's lair, former Suicide Hostesses (who have now joined Billy's rebellion) bathe Nancy. They dress her in a white nightgown and bring her to Billy, who is reading on board a candle-filled yacht:
Billy took off his glasses, gave [Nancy] a shy, embarrassed smile, and said 'Welcome.''This is as far as I come.'He accepted that. 'You're very beautiful there.''And what am I supposed to say? That you're stunningly handsome? That I feel an overwhelming desire to throw myself into your manly arms?''If you wanted to make me happy, that would certainly be the way to do it.' He said that humbly.'And what about my happiness?'The question seemed to puzzle him. "Nancy—that's what this is all about."
The descriptions of Billy's shyness and humility hint that Vonnegut sees Billy as a good guy — the hero of our story. Nancy's headstrong self-assurance indicates that Vonnegut is setting her up for a fall: It is Nancy who will be humbled, emerge changed. First however, she makes her final stand of defiance:
'I'm not going to budge from here unless someone makes me,' said Nancy. 'So I think your idea of happiness is going to be eight people holding me down on that table while you bravely hold a cocked pistol to my head—and do what you want. That's the way it's going to have to be, so call your friends and get it over with!'Which he did.
To summarize: Billy the Poet has eight accomplices hold Nancy down on a table while he presses a gun to her head and rapes her. However, the word "rape" never appears in the story. Instead, Vonnegut uses the word "deflower":
He didn't hurt her. He deflowered her with a technical skill she found ghastly. When it was over, he didn't seem cocky or proud. On the contrary, he was terribly depressed, and he said to Nancy, 'Believe me, if there'd been any other way—'
Billy the Poet doesn't rape women because he enjoys it. He rapes women because it is the only way to liberate them from frigidity. That's the way it is, folks. Sometimes the only solution to a problem is a good old-fashioned rape! When Nancy asks Billy why other Suicide Hostesses he's raped collaborate in his rape campaign, he offers this explanation:
'Because they understand.' And then he added mildly, 'They're grateful.'Nancy . . . said to him tautly, 'I'm not grateful.''You will be.''And what could possibly bring apart that miracle?''Time,' said Billy. Billy closed his book, stood up. Nancy was confused by his magnetism. Somehow he was very much in charge again.
The story suggests that while Nancy might claim that she doesn't want to be raped and protest her rape, eventually she will be grateful that her rapist took the time and effort to rape her. Billy tells Nancy that the rape she just experienced "is a typical wedding night for a straight-laced girl of a hundred years ago... the spirit of the occasion is much the same." Billy reveals that the nightgown he forced Nancy to wear once belonged to his grandmother. (One gets the sense Vonnegut intends grandma's nightgown as a wholesome touch, rather than a deeply creepy detail.) Eventually, Billy the Poet launches into his final speech:
"The people who enforce the laws... have been absolutely disgusted and terrified by the natural sexuality of common men and women... so you see, Nancy," said Billy. "I have spent this night and many others like it, attempting to restore a certain amount of innocent pleasure to the world, which is poorer in pleasure than it needs to be."Nancy sat down quietly and bowed her head.
Proud Nancy has been humbled by Billy's winning combination of rape and rhetoric. Billy reads her a poem and leaves a bottle of pills on her bedside. The pills will prevent pregnancy without numbing sexual pleasure. Thus, Billy the Poet liberates Nancy's "natural sexuality" through a corrective rape.
Now seems as appropriate a time as any to say: WHAT THE FUCK, KURT VONNEGUT? WHAT THE FUCK?
An author's choice to depict reprehensible behavior in a story does not indicate that a writer sanctions said behavior.
There is no evidence that Vonnegut sees Billy's behavior as reprehensible. Instead, "Welcome to the Monkey House" appears to celebrate a rainbow of rape myths: the myth that a woman who dresses provocatively shouldn't be surprised if a man forces her to have sex. The myth that women unconsciously desire to be raped. The myth that proud, stuck-up women must be humbled through rape. The myth that rape is corrective, a cure.
"Welcome to the Monkey House" was published in the same year as Humanae Vitae, the Vatican II encyclical condemning the use of birth control. I imagine the wheels of science fiction and social protest turning in Vonnegut's mind: If church leaders think pills that prevent pregnancy are unethical, what's the solution for overpopulation? How about pills that kills sex drive?! Vonnegut intended to create a dystopia depicting the peril of sexual repression and government overreach. Instead, he created a dystopia where the myths that sustain rape culture are true.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of "Welcome to the Monkey House" is that it depicts rape as a corrective measure that restores women's "natural sexuality." Corrective rape is not just an invention of science fiction — it is an ongoing human tragedy. A Human Rights Watch report titled "'We'll Show You You're a Woman': Violence and Discrimination Against Black Lesbians and Transgender Men in South Africa" explains how corrective rape is used as a tool of social control to police "deviant" sexuality. The report details the story of a lesbian named Vicki who was raped by her best male friend. Vicki states, "During the rape he said, 'This is what you should be feeling. Hopefully now you'll be with a man.' I had a bust lip. He hit me over the head. I had known him for years." Another young lesbian shares how her community responded when she began dressing in men's clothes: "Men say, 'All you need is a good dick and you'll be okay.' One man warned her, 'If I bump into you at night, I'll rape you so you can be straight again.'"
Not yet reeling with despair? Check out Jeff Sharlet's Harper's piece, "Straight Man's Burden: The American Roots of Uganda's Anti-Gay Persecutions." The article recounts a non-gender-conforming Ugandan woman's church-sanctioned corrective rape:
A pastor determined that [Mukasa] was possessed by a "male spirit" and asked his flock to help him heal her . . . they locked her in a room and raped her. For a week. This is considered a corrective; a medical procedure, really; a cure. When it was all over, the pastor declared that the church had freed Mukasa.
I have no doubt that Kurt Vonnegut would condemn what happened to Mukasa and Vicki. Surely, as a humanist and a lover of the Sermon on the Mount, he would wish to stand on the anti-rape side of history. So what was he thinking when he wrote "Welcome to the Monkey House"?
A key clue: When it comes to rape, semantics are very, very, important.
In the early '80s, UCLA psychologist Neil Malamuth surveyed men's attitudes toward sexual violence. He asked a group of male college students if they would force sex on a woman if they could get away with it. Roughly 50% said yes.
Let's just pause here a moment to say: Ugh.
When asked if they would rape a woman, 15% of the same group of men said yes.
Those who altered their response did not recognize that forced sex is rape.
I first encountered the Malamuth study in, of all places, a community college composition textbook. I was standing in front of my class, reading ahead in the chapter while I waited for students to complete an exercise. In the composition textbook, the study was cited — with casual aplomb — as testament to the importance of word choice.
As I stood before my class, the world suddenly seemed like an ugly place. I looked at my students. I knew them to be good and intelligent people. Would 50% of the men in my class rape a woman if they thought they could get away with it?
I felt unsafe in my skirt.
I had the same jaded, stomach-turning feeling the first time I read "Welcome to the Monkey House."
I love Vonnegut because he subverted the dominant culture's myths about war: He refused to depict slaughter as redemptive. He refused to depict soldiers as strong-jawed heroes. He refused to depict violence as holy.
If Vonnegut could see through myths about war, why couldn't he transcend myths about sexual violence? How could a writer with such exquisite moral vision have such a horrifying blind spot?
Tellingly, Kurt Vonnegut never used the word "rape" in his story. I suspect he didn't think of Billy as a rapist. I think rape culture is just so pervasive that Kurt Vonnegut didn't recognize the myths he perpetuated. Fish ask, "What's water?" Men — even moral geniuses — struggle to recognize rape culture.
It makes me wonder: What is it that I don't see?
How are my moral blind spots revealed in my writing?
Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007. If I had the chance to go back in time and smoke a Pall Mall with him, I wonder what I'd say.
Option A: "Just so you know, Mr. Vonnegut? Like, for the record? No woman, under any circumstances, is grateful to her rapist. Like, ever."
Option B: "Mr. Vonnegut, I love you. Will you be my literary grandfather?"
Both would be awkward conversation starters.
Maybe Mr. Vonnegut and I would just smoke in silence.
Or maybe I'd update Vonnegut on the American war machine. Maybe I'd tell him about our drone strikes that incinerate the innocent along with the guilty.
"I come from America's future," I'd say, "Where flying robots rain death on midwives and wedding parties, where we teach children to fear blue skies."
I'd hand Vonnegut a pen. I'd say: "Mr. Vonnegut, shock the scales from our eyes. Make us see ourselves for who we are."
That's what prophets are for.
Kathleen Founds is the author of When Mystical Creatures Attack!, a New York Times Notable Book. Her writing has been published in The Sun, Good Housekeeping, Salon, and The New Yorker online. She teaches social justice-themed English classes at Cabrillo College in Watsonville, California, and writes while her toddler is napping. Her comics, children's books, and beer label designs can be found at www.kathleenfounds.com.
To learn more about When Mystical Creatures Attack!, click here.