1. What is the background of this project?
When I first conceived of this project, more than two years ago, I was extremely hesitant about doing work in the field of perpetrator studies. As a scholar whose research had, up until that moment, always focused on the stories of those who had experienced violence—rather than those of people who had committed violence—I felt more than a slight uncertainty at moving into a line of questioning that was far more ethically precarious and theoretically perplexing than anything I had looked at thus far. In truth, however, this project was borne out of questions that I kept coming across in my doctoral research.
In my dissertation, I looked at how contemporary Canadian and Indigenous writers and playwrights used silence in order to subvert our expectations of how sexual violence should or can be represented or discussed. While I have always been convinced that there is merit to speaking out about sexualized and gendered violence, I am also aware that to speak is also to engage with certain risks; the risks of not being believed, the risks of being expected to tell a story in a particular way, and the looming threat of voyeurism into moments of profound individual or collective trauma. By choosing not to provide the explicit details of a rape, for instance, or by opting to discuss these details in a non-linear or unexpected way, I argued that authors are not only making aesthetic choices about how to represent violence, but also deeply political ones.
2. What are the primary research questions for this project?
In one of my chapters, I chose to look at how silence operated in Colleen Wagner’s The Monument (1996), a play whose entire premise is built upon giving voice to a character who has committed rape and murder in the context of genocide. The play is uncomfortable to read, let alone watch (as I have heard from those who have seen it staged). While the story also features the viewpoint of a woman (the mother of a girl who is raped and killed in the war) who attempts to get more information out of the perpetrator and hold him to account for his crimes, the decision to highlight his voice nevertheless prompted a series of questions, ones that I am wrangling with in my current research:
If people who commit harm speak about what they’ve done, what will they say? Where do they say it?
Do we listen? If so, when? How? For what purpose?
If they describe what they’ve done, or explain why did they what they did, or even apologize for the harm they’ve caused, what do we do with that information?
Are these stories potentially dangerous? For whom? How might they be dangerous?
Can we trust or believe the stories told by people who harm others?
How can art help us interrogate or grapple with these questions?
These are admittedly broad questions, and they are certainly not new ones. Perpetrator narratives have been and continue to be the subject of research for numerous scholarly disciplines. Historians and trauma theorists have examined perpetrator narratives in the contexts of events such as the Nuremberg trials and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in both South Africa and Rwanda; cognitive, social, and forensic psychologists have offered analyses of perpetrators’ accounts of their crimes; and literary critics and political theorists have considered the mythologies that surround our constructions of criminality, evil, and moral responsibility. However, few works have considered how perpetrator narratives circulate publicly, especially in circumstances other than war or political conflict. Fewer still have focused exclusively on the specific context of gendered and sexualized violence, or on these narratives’ circulation within and relationship to the development of digital archives and social media.
Simply put, I want to understand how we, as readers, viewers, citizens, and people who may have ourselves experienced and/or committed harm, deal with this material, particularly at a moment in history where our technological advances and our public conversations have given rise to a spectacular increase in the production and distribution of stories by and about perpetrators. Through digital archives, literature, drama, film, visual art, performance art, and other media, I hope to look at how we talk about people who do harm to others, and who we imagine these people to be.
3. What kind of materials will I be looking at?
I want to think through why a number of recent documentaries about sexual assault, including Lesley Udwin’s India’s Daughter (2015), Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s The Hunting Ground (2015), Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s Audrie & Daisy (2016), and Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman’s A Better Man (2017) have all opted to feature interviews—of varying depth and length—with men who have committed sexual and/or domestic violence. I’m fascinated by the popularity of Grace Brown’s Project Unbreakable (2011-2015), a viral photography project in which survivors of sexual assault were photographed holding placards upon which they wrote the words spoken to them by their abusers and/or assailants. I’m curious about the reception of a recent TED talk given jointly by Icelandic activist Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger, the man who raped her when they were teenagers. I want to talk about Zoe Whittall’s Giller Prize-nominated novel The Best Kind of People, which asks readers to consider “what if someone you trusted was accused of the unthinkable?” and Chloe Allred’s triptych Golden Boy, a series of paintings which depict former Stanford student Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a campus party in 2015. I’d like to write about Disney’s animated film Moana, and how it provides not only a powerful example of women helping each other to heal, but also an interesting example of harm, apology, and restitution.
And now, at the beginning of 2018 and in the aftermath of revelations about Harvey Weinstein and dozens of other powerful men across a wide range of industries, not only are we contending with the deluge of #MeToo stories from those who have been victimized, but we’re also grappling with numerous public excuses, admissions, apologies, or denials from those who have caused harm to others. I intend to think through those as well. More than ever, and whether I like it or not, these stories are ones that need to be thought through and dealt with, and I intend to spend the duration of my postdoctoral fellowship engaging in this work.
4. What will this research blog include?
I suspect that I will emerge from this work with more questions than answers, and this research blog is intended to be a public-facing platform on which I can think through questions, present problems, and share insights. To that end, I will be featuring posts about various scholarly articles or books that I am reading, as well as commentary on current events that deal with perpetrator narratives. As an artist, I will also post creative works that are part of an arts-based research practice.
This blog is also designed to serve as a repository for information that I find. The pages filed under Links & Resources are living documents where I will gather and organize information and material for those who are interested in reading novels, watching films, listening to podcasts, or reading other public commentary about perpetrator narratives. Additionally, I will post reviews of various media and literature that will then be cross-linked to the resources page.
This work is and will be challenging. I bring to the work my own biases as a survivor of violence, and as a citizen in a society where our opinions and beliefs about people who do harm are still extremely polarized. What I hope to do, however, is open up a space where questions can be considered, and, potentially, we can re-imagine how we contend with those who do harm.
I’m grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their funding of this project, and to the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, and my supervisor, Dr. Amber Dean, for the institutional support and mentorship of this work.
As a note: I will do my best to provide content warnings if there are specific contexts that are more explicit than others, but given the nature of this research blog, all material should generally be understood to be exploring very difficult subject matter. I trust readers to approach all the material on this site with as much care as is needed for their individual circumstances.