When he wanted to send a secret message, the ancient Greek tyrant Histiaeus shaved the head of a slave, tattooed the message on his scalp and, once the hair had grown back, sent him on his way. In this story, Ellis Gunn finds a key metaphor for how patriarchal society imprints and then hides its stories of violence and abuse on the bodies of women: “All the messages tattooed on our scalps. All the hair we’ve grown over them.”
When Gunn was working as a waitress in her early 20s in Scotland, her boss forced himself on her. She pleaded with him to stop, struggled and said he was hurting her, but he overpowered her. “What are you crying for?” he asked afterwards. “You liked it.” Only recently did Gunn realise what he had done was not somehow her fault, it had a name: rape. This disconnect may seem incomprehensible to many men, but I’ll venture that most women readers will understand. They will also get how Gunn couldn’t bring herself to say “no” to the man on the train who, despite the empty seats around, insisted on sitting next to her, “spreading his muscular thighs wide, as if about to give birth to a large truck”. Nor could she bring herself to say anything when he started telling her about the size of his cock. “Every single one of us has at least one story to tell.”
Rattled centres on Gunn’s experience of being stalked by a stranger. She draws on many sources – from cognitive behavioural therapy to the writings of Maria Tumarkin, academic analyses and studies by the United Nations – to understand the broader lessons. Each chapter comes with a coda, between prose poem and incantation, that begins with the word “because”: “…because we’ve been taught that an angry woman is a crazy woman…” “…because Harvey Weinstein, because Jeffrey Epstein, because Tony Abbott, because ‘ditch the witch’…”
None of the codas have an upper-case letter at the beginning or a full stop at the end: this is an ongoing story. More than one woman in three globally has experienced sexual or physical abuse including genital mutilation, rape and domestic violence. In terms of wages, access to power, physical and emotional safety, women – especially women of colour and trans women – are still far from parity with men. Patriarchy, Gunn explains, maintains men’s grip on power and discourse. Misogyny is its “police force”, sexism its theory.
Destroy the joint.
Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Rattled, Ellis Gunn".
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