Confessions of a Rhetorical Rapist

Before I ever published anything, I wrote mostly for myself. As an outlet for new discoveries about God or myself or the world. Or a place to struggle through matters of faith or relationships or parenting and work through past traumas. Sometimes, I wrote to vent.

I wrote in short, lots of things I was unlikely to say openly. Not secrets, exactly, but still things that might upset people if they knew. My mother’s brain tumor back when I was a teenager and my parents’ subsequent divorce and the lingering dysfunctions it caused in my family, for example. Or my early marriage struggles with my mother-in-law.

Writing was a way to move troubling matters out of the part of my brain that wakes in the night and worries into a more neutral medium where I could store them, reconsider them, ponder them in my heart.

In any case, when I assembled my first batch of writings for publication, I found I had a job before me: to somehow unsay things that might upset the people I wrote about.

From my publisher’s perspective, it was a legal matter. Although libel—misrepresenting the truth with malicious intent—is hard to prove, invasion of privacy is not. And I was amazed to discover how often I invaded others’ privacy in the stories that make up my memoirs. A friend’s cancer journey mentioned in one of my essays, for example, and a funny conversation about faith I had with a blind man I met on a bus became privacy right minefields.

My editor said I had three choices: cut the offending material, get releases from the people I was writing about, or alter names and details to make them unrecognizable. For that first book I used mostly the first two strategies—reluctantly, I must admit, and complaining all the way. This is ridiculous! How can this be necessary?…

If you can figure out a way to cut out the problematic part and still get your point across, that’s probably the best solution. Also the most painful. But cutting generally improves writing. (This blog post started out 1000 words longer, and, trust me, it’s better this way.) As my husband likes to point out, no one ever leaves church saying, “Boy, that was a great sermon—just wish it had lasted half an hour longer!”

The second solution—getting releases—was the most repugnant to me. Lots of work composing release letters, getting them signed, going to the post office! (I generally avoid all work that involves a post office.) Worse: The person might, after all that work, say no. Worst of all: They’d know I had invaded their privacy. Kind of like rhetorical rape, when you think about it. And I’d know they knew. And we’d all feel bad about it.

Surprisingly enough, everyone I asked said yes, although one person wanted to remain nameless. The guy on the bus, though—whose business card I found in my bag later, which enabled me to contact him—stipulated that I had to use both his names to be sure people recognized him. People are frequently flattered to make it into someone’s book.

Nowadays, I use mostly the third solution: changing names and details. I avoid a lot of topics from the get-go that I think may upset people. But then, if I absolutely need to tell some story that has potentially sensitive material in it, I give those involved new names and professions and hometowns and often a sex change operation.

Bottom line it’s illegal—not to mention a potential violation of the Golden Rule—to play fast and loose with others’ laundry. (Was that a mixed metaphor?) But avoiding it is no big deal.

How have you had to revise your writing in order to respect others’ privacy?

17 Replies to “Confessions of a Rhetorical Rapist”

  1. The title is quite startling and I am not sure how the violent exertion of power through forced sex equates to the interesting post of using real life in our writing. As writers we of course know that words have power and “rapist” seems like one we don’t want to use flippantly.

    I too have had to think through releases and changing details in my writing and appreciated your content– if not your title.

    1. I’m sorry my title offended you. As a victim of rape myself, I guess I felt entitled to the word. I wanted to convey the real potential for pain involved in uninvited invasions of others’ privacy, and I thought the phrase “rhetorical rape” did that well. My purpose was to cause readers to think about what they were doing when they exposed others’ secrets. The person I was when my editor confronted me about my own violations of others’ privacy would have sniffed at the genuine pain potentially suffered by the people I wrote about. An acquaintance of mine once devoted an entire book to outrage about a friendship gone bad, and his publisher apparently never objected. I had a hard job convincing him to take steps to protect his victim. He just couldn’t believe it was a real problem. He ended up making some minor changes just for legal reasons. I think we need to give more credence to the matter of invasion of privacy than that.

      1. Did you maybe spell that out a little bit more in the earlier draft of this post that had 1000 more words? I don’t object in principle to using strong metaphors to make a point, but it doesn’t really seem like it IS the point of the essay as it currently stands. This essay focuses more on the nuts and bolts of avoiding privacy violations than the moral and emotional reasons to want to avoid such violations. I was expecting to read more about why you chose to identify as a rhetorical rapist, and all I got was the line, “Kind of like rhetorical rape, when you think about it.” I wanted to know what YOU thought about it and why you thought such strong terminology was appropriate. So this response was helpful to me; thanks for elaborating more on what you meant.

  2. Great post, and very well written! Anyone writing memoir will be helped and encouraged.

  3. Patty, I rarely comment on this blog, but frankly I found the title of your post so insensitive, I felt I had to say something. When I saw the blog title pop up in my e-mail I was stunned. It seemed like “rapist” was being thrown around for shock value. I’m sure that’s not what you intended, but this word choice is just so out of place and unnecessary. And it really was shocking to see.

    1. Hi Word Wrestler. Again, I’m sorry my title upset you. I think I explained in my response to Charise what my thinking was. I do tend to favor words that shock us out of our normal habits of thinking, though. It keeps the mind from glazing over with agreement (or disagreement) and thus not really thinking about whatever it is. But that’s clearly not to everyone’s taste. Even Caravaggio’s Judith seems to be scowling at it.

  4. I’d like to respectfully encourage you to change the title of this post. I think it comes across as insensitive and inappropriate, especially to those who have lived through the horror of rape. If the goal of your content is to edify and inform, then please find a title (and matching metaphor) that suits your goal. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Joanna. I explained my use of this title to Carise and Word Wrestler, and the more defenses I make of it, the guiltier I feel–as though I have somehow raped the privacy of the word rapist in using it without permission. You’re probably right that I should change it. (Probably, by the time I figure out how to do it, the post will have been replaced.) My goal, though, was not to edify or inform so much as to engage discussion and perhaps convict fellow privacy plunderers. So, please, forgive my insensitivity. The good news is it’ll be gone tomorrow.

      1. Patty, thanks for your reply and for sharing your thought processes behind the title. I pray the Lord will continue to guide you in your writing ministry. I know it’s not always easy. I appreciate your interaction with your readers, and I wish you the best.

  5. I was deeply hurt by the mixed metaphor at the end of the essay; however, I took little umbrage to the metaphor in your title.

    1. I’m just going to give up on trying to be funny from now on, I think. Please forgive my metaphorical ineptitude, Derek. I meant no harm.

  6. Thanks for the good information and presenting a memorable post. I often struggle with things pertaining to writing that place me in a vulnerable position. When we turn ourselves inside out for all the world to see, the exposure can be painful. Thanks for sharing and for the ministry of your writing.

  7. YES I have definitely had to alter people…and yes, I have also invoked the sex change option as well. lol. Thankfully nobody has ever figured themselves out, so I’m apparently doing it right! 😉

    1. The other day I went to a Steve Yarbrough reading of a short story he wrote in which the protagonist, a guy from a small MIssissippi town who becomes a novelist, uses the locals (changed but nevertheless recognizable) as the templates for all of his characters–with surprising and, for him, distressing results. For that to happen, though, I think you have to come from a small town in Mississippi, where, presumably, people still read.

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