Blog / 2018 / Writers’ Group

July 19, 2018

CONTENT WARNING: sexual violence described in this essay.

He smiled at me. In response, my brain flashed a warning. Based on what? I couldn’t say. I’d never met this guy, so there was no reason to be wary of him. After a beat, I smiled back at him, berating myself for making a snap judgment.

He took the seat next to mine at the table, taking out papers and arranging them carefully, the nervous energy of a writer who was going to be reading that day. Then he turned to me, smiled at me again, and stuck out his hand. “I’m Frank.”

“Gwenn,” I said, shaking his cold old-man hand. The freezing flesh brought me back to my summer spent volunteering at a retirement home, and all the cold old-man hands that had touched me. It wasn’t poor circulation that was motivating those residents to grab my warm 16 year old thighs.

The meeting began as usual: announcements followed by rules for engagement. Writers were invited to share a 1000-word text, and the rest of the group would give feedback on the delivery only, not the content of the text—a rule that was mostly ignored as people enjoyed commenting on each other’s work in a more personal manner.

The first few texts were the routine mixture of first-person narratives, mafia movie rip-offs, and chapters of novels-in-progress. When we got to Frank, it seemed at first that it would be more of the same. He was telling of his adolescence in Jersey in the 1950s, spent mostly with mob-types at a bar. But his memoir quickly veered into the crass, with detailed descriptions of women’s anatomy piled onto confessions of sexual fantasies.

Still, the grossest part wasn’t even the words Frank was reading. It was the pleasure he obviously felt at forcing all of us to listen. In particular, it was the little smile that brightened his voice as he told the story of the tough guys who had all gotten together in the kitchen to jerk off into the alfredo sauce and then serve the pasta to their unsuspecting girlfriends.

His text had departed so thoroughly from the group’s typical fare that I was certain the table would erupt in disgust as soon as the comment period began. Instead, I listened as, one after the other, participants gave Frank variations on the “it’s well written” theme.

The only participant who spoke up was my friend Hope: “I wouldn’t want to be one of those guys’ girlfriends.”

Gwenn Seemel portrait
Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches

When it was my turn, I explained to Frank that he’d described sexual violence, making sure that he understood that the forced ingestion of body fluid is violence. And, I continued that, while there may be an audience for this work, I definitely wasn’t it, and I doubted that many of the people here were either.

I said he should warn people before reading something sexually violent. I went on at some length. I was in shock, though I couldn’t tell you what shocked me more: Frank’s reading or the embarrassed passivity of the other participants.

The whole experience soured me on the group, and I gave up going for the most part, but Frank didn’t disappear from my life. Far from it. He’s friends with my in-laws and he goes to their church, so I run into him more than I’d like.

At every encounter, I think of the first time he smiled at me and of my reaction to it. I think of how society has trained me to put aside my intuition. I think of how that puts me in danger.

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