Junot Díaz, one of our greatest living authors, has written a deeply personal piece for the New Yorker about being raped, more than once, at the age of eight. More than that, and with the deeply cutting, economical weight that characterizes all his work, he has detailed the lifelong trauma that rape has inflicted upon his life, a searing portrait of the way sexual assault tends to loom over every other thing one does, consciously or not.
Díaz begins by describing a book signing in which a reader asked him about his characters, and whether what had happened in his stories had ever happened to him. He says he denied it—“I responded with some evasive bullshit.”—and that “I ran the way I’ve always run.” But after setting some scene, he apologizes to that reader for not saying so at the time, and it all seems to come out in a flood: “That violación. Not enough pages in the world to describe what it did to me.” He continues:
It fucked up my childhood. It fucked up my adolescence. It fucked up my whole life. More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more energy running from it than I did living. I was confused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erection while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid. “Real” Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a “real” Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.
The devastation of his life is all there, chronicled in prose so painful its beauty-as-writing makes it even harder to read, and you must read all of it. But this simple point he makes above gets at the crux of why “toxic masculinity” is more than just a phrase so common it’s become cliché—that dominant cultural values towards “manliness,” entrenched and codified thanks to patriarchy, harm every single person they touch. Díaz describes being alternately unable to conduct a healthy sex life as a result of his sexual assault, and then drowning his trauma in infidelities. He writes how he ruined a relationship with a fiancée because of cheating, while he was writing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, one of the most important books in contemporary American literature and one that apparently, if this New Yorker essay is indication, is a little bit autobiographical, too. His trauma ultimately motivating his desire (or need) to conform to traditional heteronormative notions of masculinity after having it stripped away speaks to the depth and coursing repercussions of sexual assault.
The essay concludes with a point of healing:
I’m even in a relationship, and she knows everything about my past. I told her about what happened to me.
I’ve told her, and I’ve told my friends. Even the toughest of my boys. I told them all, fuck the consequences.
Something I never thought possible.
That Díaz came forward like this took great courage, an outreached hand for survivors—and that he was able to write it in such a way that accurately encapsulated the emotional devastation of a rape, is a gift and possibly a salve. Read the piece in its entirety here.