Book review by Daniel Gawthrop posted on The British Columbia Review on June 26, 2022
Victim: A feminist manifesto from a fierce survivor
by Karen Moe (Vigilance Press, 2022)
$24.99 / 9781647044701
For any new author seeking a large audience for a polemical work, the self-declared “manifesto” is a risky undertaking. Driven by the urgency of singular purpose, a manifesto in the wrong hands can result in the most artless of writing: self-righteous, tone-deaf in its didacticism, utterly lacking in irony, or all three. In a book title, the word “manifesto” combined with “feminist” and “victim” calls up all sorts of red flags that will turn off certain readers: one might well assume that what’s between the covers will be drearily predictable and all too depressing.
Fortunately, this “manifesto” is nothing of the kind. To the contrary, the reader is in good hands with Karen Moe: her first book, a memoir about rape and recovery, turns out to be creative non-fiction of the most readable, if gut-wrenching, sort. Much of this has to do with the author’s self-deprecating humility, which shines through in every chapter. In turning the narrative lens toward herself, Moe—an art critic, visual/performance artist, and feminist activist—employs a high degree of self-awareness in deconstructing not only a traumatic event in her own life but also the misogynistic ideas and behaviours that produce rape culture, constantly examining her own assumptions while doing so. She has clearly done her homework, too, coming to this project armed with all the feminist theory she needs to build her case. And yet, as she reclaims her own life from the dark forces that threatened to consume it, she never allows those quasi-academic interventions to overwhelm her compelling story. (If you want more feminism, she provides lots of Brownmiller, Dworkin, Roxane Gay, and many others in the footnotes and bibliography.)
Naturally, this is a book written to empower women, but it’s also aimed at straight men. Not the rapists, of course—they’re beyond redemption—but the men who identify as feminist allies while hypocritically remaining silent in the face of injustice. Men who, as bystanders, casually enable the subtleties of triumphalist patriarchy (telling or laughing at sexist jokes, shrugging off Hollywood depiction of women as whores and sex objects) that have been drummed into them since birth. Especially men who, on their best behaviour with women from the First World North, can’t wait to get to the fleshpots of Asia and Latin America for their annual sex tourist fix. Most of all, she’s after the angry, defensive reactionaries like Jordan Peterson who, alarmed by the apparent crisis of the Demasculinized Male, think that #MeToo and “woke culture” have gone too far. (She would argue that North American political culture has swung too far in the opposite direction—a position only reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court decision removing women’s constitutional right to abortion.)
Moe’s way of reaching her male readers is to beckon them into the milieu where so many sexual assaults germinate: the friendly neighbourhood pub. It’s an enticing narrative approach that alternates between the distant past of 1994 (Moe’s horrific experience of abduction and rape while visiting Nevada and Arizona), her upbringing on Vancouver Island, and her present life in B.C. and Mexico. She begins many of her tales from the watering holes where so many young adults begin their social lives. Like a lounge raconteur displaying the right combination of sarcastic wit and common sense wisdom, Moe makes us feel like we’re right there, sitting across the table from her in the Lantzville Pub, where many passages for Victim were composed. We feel a bit like voyeurs, in a sense, going along for the ride out of prurient interest until she hits us with a hard dose of reality.
Since the rape in Arizona is the set piece for this memoir, we expect Moe to tell us all about her tormentor. She does—gradually, over the course of the book as she switches back and forth between past and present. The profile that emerges of John Linnihan, a serial rapist of the most dangerous kind, is that of a sad-sack loser for whom the only way to enjoy female company is to possess women, literally, by kidnapping them: luring them to his truck, which has no inside door handles, and knocking them out before driving off to some remote location to have his way with them. Moe is judicious in the details she shares about the actual sexual assaults, but there’s enough for the reader to see how utterly frightening, degrading, and dehumanizing the whole experience must have been. After we learn of her captor’s sadistic ways—tying up and gagging women before raping them, plus other indignities that proved fatal for a subsequent, elderly victim—the most telling detail Moe shares is how he followed her after her escape. Even after it was clear she had eluded him, he dutifully brought the Burger King Whopper and carton of milk she’d ordered to the Greyhound bus depot, leaving the bag for her at the ticket booth. He had no idea that his victim had just captured his license plate number, that he was about to go down.
For all the ugliness and violence of his psychological makeup, there’s an almost childlike earnestness about the rapist’s vulnerability. “He seemed to like to talk to me when we were parked in one of our three locations,” Moe says early on about Linnihan:
So he would take the duct tape off when it was safe to, when my yells for help would never be heard. I don’t recall him being rough when he pulled off the tape. He was actually a bit tender…He said to me once, ‘Sorry, I have to do this. We just can’t have anyone hearing you when there are people around. I am sure you understand.’ Yes, I understood my abductor’s logic, and now, in retrospect, I am struck by the fact that there is always a human in every monster, and there is always potential for a monster in every man.
Whatever self-righteousness may be detected here is more than offset by a self-critical perspective that never lets up. It’s not just that Moe second-guesses her own actions or admits it’s hard to avoid self-blame in accounting for events that can lead a woman into victimhood, ignoring all the systemic realities that make such victimhood possible. She is also fully aware of her own privilege, of how being a middle-class white woman from Vancouver Island was an important factor in her own resilience, in her ability to triumph over her rapist (a quick-thinking Moe not only manages to get Linnihan arrested but provides valuable evidence to help lock him up forever) and ultimately recover from her ordeal. This is the sort of privilege not enjoyed by millions of women and girls who, the author reminds us, are sex trafficked worldwide. Nor by Lisa, a woman she knows who descends into chronic drug addiction after a lifetime of being told she’s nothing but a vessel for men’s gratification.
Where Moe departs from her own personal narrative to expound on global realities, she makes a clear and convincing argument that humanity will never advance as long as women are exploited by men. Of all her targets for scorn as the products of global patriarchy—sex tourism, sex trafficking, pornography, and prostitution—the most controversial are “sex positive” porn and the notion of enterprise as proof of women’s agency in sex work. Moe dismisses 1990s-era, pro-sex Third Wave feminists (“Despite her revolutionary intent, Annie Sprinkle candy-coats the sex industry and erases the exploitation of other women and children. In the end, Sprinkle’s subversion serves the status quo.”), and argues that no woman in the sex trade can enjoy complete agency while bad johns continue to roam with impunity.
For expressing such views Moe says she’s been written off as a prude or accused of aligning with the Christian Right. But Victim makes clear that her stance is based on a critique of capitalist exploitation, not on morality. This writer likes sex; she just wishes more of it could occur on equal terms. Similarly, you won’t find any evidence of trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, sensibility in Victim. On the contrary, Moe acknowledges the large number of trans women who experience rape by pointing out that such crimes are typically committed by a cis-gender man. (“In all cases,” she notes, “we are talking about the feminine, the feminized, the smaller, the physically weaker who are assaulted and exploited to maintain his dominance in the patriarchal hierarchy, and patriarchy itself.”) She also finds solidarity with French gay author Édouard Louis, in whose harrowing memoir about his own rape, History of Violence, she finds parallels with her own experience.
With plenty of blame to go around, there’s also room for forgiveness—starting with the author. Moe, speaking to her younger self at various points in the story, wishes she could reach back in time to pull young Karen away from the situations that would only hurt her. But she also knows she cannot blame her younger self for believing in a more trusting world. Well into the book, Moe reveals that the Arizona rape was not her first. That milestone occurred years earlier in Montreal, when two Persian men who were friends of a friend lured her to a restaurant with the promise of a belly dancing show, then brought her a drink laced with the date rape drug GHB. She woke up in a strange apartment where she had been raped and impregnated by the two men:
When I came to, one of the men was gone. The other one was still there. The apartment was a sickly cream colour scuffed with the long-ago need to be repainted. There were no pictures on the walls. No one ever lived there long. The soiled curtains matched the neglect of lives coming and going and the mangled lines of broken blinds looked like hacked-up innards. Flagrant morning sun blasted through the cracks as knives of light. I lay on a bed in the middle of an operating theatre where surgery had been performed on my young body, on my innocence…He ceremoniously handed me my underwear. Like a gift…
Moe’s reaction to this nauseating gesture—and her rapist’s equally sickening request for her phone number—will resonate for any rape victim whose horrible experience in a city they have romanticized can utterly ruin that place forever in their minds. After the double rape, which leads to an abortion, Montreal for Moe is reduced from the “exotic of Canada” with its “feels-like-you’re-in-Europe” vibe of exciting night life, great food, and sophisticated culture to “blocks of drudgery. Cold. Loneliness. The wide indifferent streets that I wandered after my life changed so drastically.”
In one of Victim’s more moving passages, Moe forgives her late father for his alcoholism and emotional distance while she was growing up, treasuring their final years together and his apology to her, just before his death, for making her life “more difficult than it should have been.” As the book nears its conclusion, you begin to wonder if she’s going to forgive Linnihan, too. That’s a tall order, but perhaps the time has come to confront her rapist by visiting him in prison, thus providing closure for that chapter in her life. No spoiler alert here.
Now fifty-five, Moe says she was emotionally incapable of writing this memoir until now. And that’s a good thing, for Victim is a much better and wiser book than it would have been had she published it within a short time of her terrifying abduction. As a memoir charting the author’s decades-long recovery, Victim is a rich and soulful testament to the power of human resilience that redefines the meaning of victimhood itself. It confirms the power of art as a source of healing while offering rape victims a time-tested roadmap for recovery, self-empowerment, and—in response to reactionary political events like the overturning of Roe vs. Wade—resistance.